Apparently no less of an historian than Jimmy Carter has been claiming that the Catholic Church has only been restricting the priesthood to males since the third century, and that for the first 200 years of the Christian era, women could be priests, as well.
Is there any historical truth to this claim? I want to thank President Carter for giving me the opportunity to repost an article I wrote and had published in Envoy magazine in 2002, entitled "When Women Were What? Women's Ordination and the Early Church."
A woman stands before you, dressed in clerical garb. Her eyes cast towards the heavens, her arms are outstretched in the orans, a posture signifying the dignity of the priesthood. Is this a scene from an Anglican liturgy, presided over by a female priest, approved since 1992? Or is this a Mass held by a dissident feminist Catholic group, flaunting Church authority and tradition? No, this priestess appears on the cover of the video documentary, The Hidden Tradition, and she represents what the makers of that film would have us believe was once commonplace in the early Church – women priests.
Many special interest groups, advocating women’s ordination, attempt to use history as an argument in their favor. To the unwary, these claims can look credible. One of the dangers of this kind of pseudo-history is that it exposes Catholics and non-Catholics alike to misinformation. It is not uncommon to find people with no real motivation regarding the women’s ordination issue who simply believe, matter of fact, that the early Church used to ordain women. In reality, it is anything but matter of fact. It is fringe history, and should be challenged wherever it is found.
Whenever the topic of women in the priesthood comes up, one should remember the words of John Paul II, who proclaimed in 1994 that “the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the magisterium . . . in order that all doubt may be removed . . . I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful" (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).
If people want to discuss the possibility of ordaining women in the Church today, they should realize before they begin that it’s already a settled issue. If people want to discuss the possibility that women were ordained in the early church, the evidence must be looked at objectively, in the context of the times, and without our modern day notions of feminism and disregard for spiritual authority.
When people claim that there were women priests in the early Church, ask for their references. Most likely they will mention books such as When Women Were Priests or videos such as Hidden Tradition. The titles alone should send up red flags that these may be biased sources.
Most (if not all) of the groups that claim the early church ordained women have an obvious agenda. The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) is a prime example. On their web site (www.womensordination.org) they use the history argument to advance their agenda of present day women’s ordination. They begin with a thesis and then search for historical evidence to back up their position. This is poor history. What we should do is examine all available evidence first, then come to a conclusion that the evidence supports.
When you have a widely accepted version of history and a new theory that refutes it, the burden of proof lies with the one challenging accepted history. Their evidence needs to be looked at critically and with skepticism.
The evidence produced to support the historic ordination of women usually falls into three categories: documents instructing a particular priest or church to stop having women assist at the altar, early references to “priestesses” and “bishopesses,” and early evidence of women in the diaconate. To begin with, we will look at various surviving documents instructing churches not to allow women to adopt priestly roles.
We will use as our first example evidence given on the WOC web site. They cite a letter of Pope Gelasius I (492-96) to bishops in three regions of southern Italy. The part they quote reads:
Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong.
Obviously this pope is not condoning women’s ordination. In fact, he is speaking harshly against it! But the opinion expressed by the WOC is that he would not be condemning it if it were not already happening.
While there is some logic in this, they are reading too much into the letter. Does it say that women were being ordained? No. It says that women are being encouraged to officiate at the altar. That’s all. It does not say that women are actively seeking out these duties, and most importantly, it says nothing about the conveyance of Holy Orders.
All that this letter proves is that in southern Italy at that time, women were being encouraged to take clerical roles, and the Pope’s reaction tells us that this most definitely was not an acceptable practice.
It helps if we put these writings into a modern context. The Catholic Church today obviously doesn't ordain women. If the priest in your home parish were to encourage a lay woman to stand with him at the altar and co-consecrate the host, he would likely get a stern letter from his bishop instructing him to cease and desist (just like the papal letter quoted above). If someone a thousand years from now were to find that letter and use it as proof that the Catholic Church in the 21st century ordained women, would that be accurate? No, of course not.
Many cite the writings of early Church Fathers that make mention of women priests. Giorgio Otranto, in his article, “Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity” (Journal of Feminist Studies 7, 1991, no 1, pp 73-94), cites Ireneaus’ Against Heresies (189 AD) as giving evidence of women’s ordination. Let’s look at what Ireneaus actually wrote.
Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, [Marcus the Gnostic heretic] contrives to give them a purple and reddish color. . . . [H]anding mixed cups to the women, he bids them consecrate these in his presence. When this has been done, he himself produces another cup of much larger size than that which the deluded woman has consecrated, and pouring from the smaller one consecrated by the woman into that which has been brought forward by himself . . . thus goading on the wretched woman [to madness], he then appears a worker of wonders when the large cup is seen to have been filled out of the small one, so as even to overflow by what has been obtained from it. By accomplishing several other similar things, he has completely deceived many and drawn them away after him.
If we go right to the source, instead of relying on what people like Otranto tell us, we get a different picture. Ireneaus tells us of a heretic who was using slight of hand to deceive women whom he was encouraging to take on priestly roles. Again, no mention is made of women being ordained. And we must remember that this describes the activities of a heretical sect, and in no way represents the teachings or practices of the universal Church. Heretical sects have at various times also denied the divinity of Christ, Original Sin, and the Trinity. Are we to look to them as examples of our faith?
All evidence of this sort proves, at most, is that certain heretical sects encouraged women to take on priestly functions. But the actions of heretics are not at issue. We are looking for authentic Church teaching, and proponents of women’s ordination inevitably want to supplant that with something else.
John Wijngaards, on his web site, www.womenpriests.org (where he claims 90% of Catholic “scholars” support women’s ordination), uses this reasoning. “After serious study and prayer other Christian Churches now ordain women as priests. Though not everything other Churches do can be accepted by the Catholic Church, this converging consensus by believing Christians confirms that ordaining women is according to the mind of Christ.”
In other words, if all (or most) Protestant churches do something, then it must be the will of Christ. The fact is, not all Protestant denominations allow women in the ministry. All of them, on the other hand, flatly reject Papal authority. Most of them also deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Are we to take this as “the mind of Christ,” as well? No, Wijngaards tells us that “not everything other Churches do can be accepted by the Catholic Church.” Apparently we should only accept their teachings when Wijngaards approves them.
Just as modern day Protestant churches cannot be models for Catholic teaching, neither can early heretical sects. Epiphanius of Salamis tells us in Against Heresies (377 AD) that “Certain women there in Arabia . . . In an unlawful and blasphemous ceremony . . . ordain women, through whom they offer up the sacrifice in the name of Mary. This means that the entire proceeding is godless and sacrilegious, a perversion of the message of the Holy Spirit; in fact, the whole thing is diabolical and a teaching of the impure spirit.”
He recounts the Apostolic succession of bishops and priests, in order to show that “never was a women called to these.” He tells us, “If women were to be charged by God with entering the priesthood or with assuming ecclesiastical office, then in the New Covenant it would have devolved upon no one more than Mary to fulfill a priestly function. She was invested with so great an honor as to be allowed to provide a dwelling in her womb for the heavenly God and King of all things, the Son of God. . . . But he did not find this good.”
Now we must consider the second of our three categories—references to “priestesses” and “bishopesses.” Here their case looks strongest. Otranto gives in his article -- and many are repeated on the WOC web site -- several instances of women using these titles. One is an inscription on a sarcophagus in Dalmatia from 425 AD. The inscription mentions a presbytera Flavia Vitalia. Presbytera is the feminine form of presbyter, and therefore is translated as “priestess.”
Another example given is from the ancient church of Santa Praxedis, where four women are depicted in a mosaic. One is identified as Theodora Episcopa, or “Bishopess” Theodora. This church was built by Pope Paschal I, which would date it to the early ninth century. There are several more such examples we could mention, similar in nature.
What are we to make of these references? Certainly actual early inscriptions of the names of priestesses and even bishopesses are hard to refute! But not if we know our Church history, and the context of the times in which these women lived.
Unlike the male priesthood, which is a doctrine of the Church and cannot be changed, clerical celibacy is a discipline. It has been encouraged since the earliest days of the Church, but not always mandated. Local councils as early as the late third century mandated it in certain areas (the first being the Spanish Council of Elvira, c. 295-302), and by the time of Pope Leo the Great it was the norm in the West. But at certain times it was observed with more or less rigor, and it was not finally mandated for all of the Western Church until the First Lateran Council in 1123.
Before that time, when a married man took Holy Orders, certain privileges were allowed to his wife. One of these was the honorary use of the feminine form of her husband’s rank, be it deacon, priest, or bishop. Use of these titles did not confer actual clerical authority and in no way implied ordination. The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that synods in the sixth and seventh centuries laid down strict rules about married clergy, but they continued to allow wives to use the titles of episcopa, presbytera, and diaconissa.
Otranto and the WOC would have us believe that these priestesses and bishopesses were not merely wives of priests and bishops but ordained clergy in their own right. But in order to prove this, they need to show why generations of Catholic historians are wrong, and they are right. So far, evidence for this has been (not surprisingly) lacking.
Take Bishopess Theodora for example. According to church officials at Santa Praxedis, Theodora was Pope Paschal’s mother. She was allowed the honorary title Episcopa because her son was a bishop. The WOC site quotes Dorothy Irvin, a theology professor (they do not say at what university), as saying that Theodora could not be the mother of Paschal, because she is pictured wearing a coif, and only unmarried women wore coifs. Her conclusion? Theodora was an actual ordained bishop.
Let’s assume that she is correct in that only unmarried women wore coifs. Could there be any other explanation for this? Was Theodora a widow? Does this mosaic show her in her youth as a maiden? Is there any reason a married woman might wear a coif? Are we certain that what is pictured is a coif? Are we certain that the person pictured is correctly identified as Theodora? All of these questions would need to be answered before anything definite could be proven.
In any case, we must ask what is more likely – that one woman would disregard a custom of headdress or that an entire church would disregard a definite teaching about women’s ordination? In all likelihood, Theodora is just who the good priests at Santa Praxedis have always claimed her to be, the non-ordained mother of Pope Paschal I.
The final category (and the one with the least merit) is that of the female deacon. Evidence for this is not hard to find. The writings of Sts. Paul and Peter mention deaconesses, as do many extra-Biblical sources.
This argument assumes the following logic; if women can be ordained as deacons, they can be ordained as priests. People often view the levels of ordination as progressive steps; deacon, priest, bishop. But it doesn’t always work that way, as evidenced by the class of permanent deacon. We are discussing priestly ordination of women, and simply put, a deacon is not a priest. The argument is flawed from the beginning.
Even so, there is good reason to doubt that these early deaconesses were ordained at all. Contemporary evidence tells us plainly that they were lay women. Canon 19 of the Council of Nicea (425 AD) says, “We have made mention of the deaconesses, who have been enrolled in this position, although, not having been in any way ordained, they are certainly to be numbered among the laity.”
So if these deaconesses were not ordained, as male deacons are, what purpose did they serve? We can find the answer in other contemporary documents. Epiphanius of Salamis wrote in his Against Heresies in 377 AD, “It is true that in the Church there is an order of deaconesses, but not for being a priestess, nor for any kind of work of administration, but for the sake of the dignity of the female sex, either at the time of baptism or of examining the sick or suffering, so that the naked body of a female may not be seen by men administering sacred rites, but by the deaconess.”
Likewise the Apostolic Constitutions of 400 AD confirm, “A deaconess does not bless, but neither does she perform anything else that is done by priests and deacons, but she guards the doors and greatly assists the presbyters, for the sake of decorum, when they are baptizing women.”
In other words, the position of deaconesses was a special one created for use when it would be inappropriate for a man to be alone with a woman. One cannot resist pointing out that if there were indeed female priests in the early church, there would have been no need for this special role.
Yet the women’s ordination lobby persists, continuing blindly ahead despite their invalid historic claims and their constant condemnation by Magisterial authority. They really do think they are right, and that they have a chance.
Today, when asked to explain why the Catholic Church does not allow the ordination of women, many explain that we follow a Scriptural model. The priest, who is called to stand in persona Christi, represents Jesus, who was a man. Christ, from among His disciples (which included many women), chose only men to be His Apostles. And when these Apostles, the first bishops, were called to ordain others, they ordained only men.
To many ears this may sound like modern justification of a 2000 year old institutional bigotry. But it is anything but modern. The Didascalia, an early Christian text written about 225 AD, tells us the same thing.
For He, God the Lord, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us, the twelve [apostles], out to teach the [chosen] people and the pagans. But there were female disciples among us: Mary of Magdala, Mary the daughter of Jacob, and the other Mary; He did not, however, send them out with us to teach the people. For, if it had been necessary that women should teach, then our Teacher would have directed them to instruct along with us.
The evidence for the early Church never ordaining women is great. This has been the constant teaching of the Church for 2000 years, and the constant opinion of serious historians, secular and ecclesial.
Those who believe otherwise have a great burden of proof, a burden that so far they have yet to bear. This isn’t history. It is fringe history. The kind of revisionism being practiced by these groups, if written for a high school history paper, would earn a solid “F.” Let’s not you or I grade them any higher.