Vatican City - Pope Francis's signal that he is open to the possibility of allowing women to enter the Catholic clergy as deacons will trigger fierce debate and deep division in the Church, one of his closest allies was quoted as saying Friday.
"There is going to be a fierce debate, I think. On this issue, the Church is split down the middle," German cardinal Walter Kasper said in an interview with Italy's La Repubblica.
Kasper's comments came a day after Francis said he would set up a commission to study the possibility of having women serving as deacons, ordained members of the clergy who can carry out many of the duties of priests.
Kasper, one of the most influential liberal voices in Catholicism, said Francis wanted the issues aired after years of demands for women to have a greater role in the Church hierarchy.
"I personally don't have a clear position but I am always open to and ready for innovation," Kasper said, adding it was impossible to predict the outcome of the review.
"If you look at what has happened in the past, it would lead you to say no (to female deacons). But anything is possible."
Kasper said opponents of allowing women to become deacons would inevitably argue that it would be opening the door to having female priests, which Francis has indicated is not up for discussion.
"The diaconate is a rank of holy orders... it is obvious that granting it to women may be seen as a major risk by those who do not want women priests," the cardinal said.