Question: Historically, were there women priests?

Marcy asks “Were there ever women priests?  Is there an alcove in the Vatican depicting women priests?”

This question is linked to the earlier post concerning Pope Joan and women popes.   Let’s start this question off by answering the unasked question which must be dangling in the back of many of your minds: no, women can’t be priests.  Similarly, men can’t be mothers.  It’s not who we are.  It’s not in the nature of males to be mothers; it’s not in the nature of women to be priests.  We might go into the details of why women can’t be priests in a later post, but for now, let’s look at the historical question of women priests, because if women were priests in the past, then they could obviously be priests today.

The historical evidence for women priests, or at least women receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders (through which a man is ordained first a deacon, then a priest, then a bishop, if he is so chosen) is compelling: mosaics in Roman churches with women dressed in what looks like clerical garbs and referred to as episcopa, which for all the world looks like Latin for “female bishop”; stories of certain sects in various parts of the early Church where women were ordained priests; frequent references to women known as “deaconesses” in several writings.  There may even be Scriptural evidence in the New Testament letters.  Such evidence, the argument goes, was suppressed by the misogynistic pope and bishops.  Once again, we are faced with troubling evidence that appears to undermine an essential teaching of the Church.

Never fear.  Reality is here.

We’ll look at the Scripture passages first.  The major passages are Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Timothy 3:11.  Romans 16:1-2 reads as follows (Revised Standard Version translation):

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen’chre-ae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.

The word translated as “deaconess” is diakonon, which normally means “deacon,” as the word is a masculine word.  This does not prove, however, that Phoebe, described as a diakonon, is an ordained minister.  Deacons in the early Church had many jobs.  A woman who did similar jobs was probably called the same word, since there wasn’t a feminine equivalent in Greek.

First Timothy 3:11 (RSV translation) reads as follows: “The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.”  The preceding and succeeding verses deal with deacons, specifically how they are to live and be model Christians to the community.  The women mentioned in 3:11 could be deacons, but they could also be the deacons’ wives (verse 12 discusses how deacons are to act as husbands if they are married, saying “Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well”).  The fact that verse 12 refers to the deacons as “husbands” implies that they are all males, and that the women referenced in verse 11 are the deacons’ wives.  As the wives of deacons, these women would have had a special place in the community, and like their husband should be models of virtue.  They could be such models without receiving Holy Orders.

Besides, Paul earlier in 1 Timothy made that rather awkward statement about how women should “receive instruction silently and under complete control” (1 Tim 2:11; NAB translation).  He likewise noted that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.  She must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12 ).  Not really a ringing endorsement of women’s ordination.

Further evidence for women clergy in the Church stems from artistic artifacts left in churches.  Marcy refers to an “alcove in the Vatican depicting women priests.”  In the Basilica of St. Prassede (or St. Praxedes) in Rome (not technically in the Vatican but rather down the street from the Basilica of St. Mary Major), there is a controversial work of art in a beautiful side chapel.  On the wall of the chapel are four figures, saintly men and women to whom or for whom the chapel is dedicated.  One of the figures is a woman with a nimbus (TRIVIA ALERT: A nimbus is a square halo surrounding the head of a figure in ecclesial art which indicates that the figure depicted was alive when the artist completed his work).  Next to her image are two words which have sparked great controversy in the Church: “Theodora” (the woman’s name) and “Episcopa” (which appears at first glance to be a female version of the word episcopus, which is the Latin word for “bishop”).

A picture of four figures. The one on the far left is Theodora. Note the “Episcopa” above her head.

Bishop Theodora, eh?  Sounds like women clergy to me.  To make matters worse, the reigning pope at the time, Pope Paschal I (reigned 817 – 824), built the church of St. Prassede and, according to the records of that time, had the chapel with Theodora in it built to honor his mother Theodora.  One historian, in writing of this mosaic, claims “We have papal authority for a woman bishop and an acknowledgement by the pope that he himself was the son of a woman bishop!” (Thomas F. Torrance, “The Ministry of Women: An Argument for the Ordination of Women“, Touchstone [Fall 1992]).

Close up of the word “Episcopa” if you can see it.

Except it wasn’t a woman bishop.  In fact, as far as historians can tell, there never has been a woman bishop.

There is no historical record, besides this mosaic, that refers to a female bishop named Theodora.  However, there are previous uses of a feminized version of episcopus.  A local Church council in the city of Tours proclaimed in 813: “Let no entourage of women accompany a bishop who does not have a bishopess” (Patrick Henry Reardon, “Women Priests: History & Theology: A Response to Thomas F. Torrance,” Touchstone [Winter 1993], available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=06-01-022-f).  The reason for the canon from this council is clear: some bishops were surrounding themselves with women, causing scandal and more likely than not leading to severe breaks in the vow-of-chastity department.  No women except for the bishop’s wife, the council declared (in Latin, the canon states “Episcopum episcopam non habentem nulla sequatur turba mulierum”), should be traveling around with the bishop.  This means, of course, that some bishops were married (back in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul notes that a should only be married once, which probably points to a no-remarriage-after-becoming-a-widow rule for bishops).  Yes.  And there were (and are) married priests in full communion with the Holy See.  That is a discussion for another day.

So episcopa might mean the wife of a bishop, in which case, Theodora was the wife of a bishop; hence her entitlement.  Another possibility is that Theodora, following the death of her husband (Pope Pascal’s father), joined a religious order.  This was a common practice in those days (many women saints were widows who joined monastic orders).  Some historians arguing that Theodora was a bishop note that the figure in the church wears a coif or cap worn by nuns under their veil; the argument was that, because she dressed like a nun, she could not have been married, and thus could not have been Pope Paschal’s mother (see the essay by Reardon).  However, it is just as likely that Theodora entered a convent as a widow, and perhaps became an abbess.  For lack of a better word, she was referred to as an episcopa.  It would not be the only instance in Church History of an abbess living and ruling her monastery like a bishop.  St. Brigid of Ireland was reported to have accidentally been ordained a bishop, though the tale seems spurious, a hyperbole seeking to show just how powerful abbesses had become in Ireland and other parts of the Church.  But a powerful abbess is not a bishop, no more than a powerful queen is a king.

Are there reports of women acting as clerics in the medieval Church?  There are.  Were these women supported by the Church of their time?  No.  Throughout history, the Church Fathers spoke repeatedly against women clerics.  Irenaeus condemned the use of priestesses in Gnostic sects during the late 2nd century; Tertullian noted that women are not allowed “to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say sacerdotal office.”  Hippolytus, writing in 215, gives one of the more direct rejections of women priests: “When a widow is to be appointed, she is not to be ordained, but is designated by being named [a widow]. . . . A widow is appointed by words alone, and is then associated with the other widows. Hands are not imposed on her, because she does not offer the oblation and she does not conduct the liturgy. Ordination is for the clergy because of the liturgy; but a widow is appointed for prayer, and prayer is the duty of all.”  These quotes are all taken from an article posted on the Catholic Answers website; there are many more Church Fathers quoted.  Likewise, a local council in Laodicea (held in 363) stated that “Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the Church” (Canon 11).  It is because of this Tradition in the Church that John Paul II taught infallibly that women cannot be priests.

So here’s the bottom line: women have tried to be priests in the Church’s past.  They were not successful in their endeavor, and the Church (both East and West) has always rejected women’s ordination.  Historically, then, there were not real women priests.

For further reading:

Catholic Answers, “Women and the Priesthood,” available at http://www.catholic.com/tracts/women-and-the-priesthood, accessed August 23, 2012.

Patrick Henry Reardon, “Women Priests: History & Theology: A Response to Thomas F. Torrance,” Touchstone (Winter 1993), available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=06-01-022-f, accessed August 23, 2012.

William G. Most, “Women Priests?”, available at http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/OTRANTO.TXT, accessed August 23, 2012.

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9 thoughts on “Question: Historically, were there women priests?

  1. Marcy Rose says:

    “. . . men can’t be mothers. It’s not who we are. It’s not in the nature of males to be mothers; it’s not in the nature of women to be priests.”

    This statement almost kept me from reading any further. This is a bad analogy. Really bad. It’s not in the nature of a man to be a mother b/c a man does not have a uterus. There is no equivalent biological impediment to women becoming priests. It’s just a decision made by men who were perhaps afraid of ceding power to women or perhaps not aware that challenging the status quo was a possibility.

    I’ll ignore other indications of bias (“Once again, we are faced with troubling evidence”, “Never fear.Reality is here.”, “Sounds like women clergy to me. To make matters worse,” ).

    Reading on, there was this referenced rebuttal of Oranto by Most (and I would mention here that the church has since discovered a new meaning to the word abuse):
    “ABUSES CANNOT CHANGE DOCTRINE

    “After this evidence, for which he [Oranto] has scraped hard, [the tomb in Tropea, the sarcophagus from Salona in Dalmatia, the fragment of the sarcophagus cover] he concludes . . . ‘The data gathered on the
    priesthood of women in antiquity are few and meager.’ And those that are found are contrary to the constant teaching of the Church, . . .”

    So, in the previous paragraph, we have an admission that evidence exists, but a “we’re gonna ignore it because it doesn’t jibe with our teachings” attitude. Makes me think of Galileo.

    Back to the blog itself: “There is no historical record, besides this mosaic, that refers to a female bishop named Theodora.” So, we’ll just ignore the one real piece of physical evidence and focus instead on the opinions of the church.

    In fact, it seems that when faced with physical evidence (instead of a defense based on dogma) the church likes to label it “abuse.”

    I find this somewhat telling (again from Most):

    “In fact, even if Otranto had found a hundred times as many texts, they would prove only that there were abuses – they would not prove at all that the Magisterium of the Church had ever approved of the abuses at all.”

    So, even if confronted with a multitude of texts, the church would deny the validity of any of it.

    What it comes down to—as in all cases of religion vs science—is the beliefs of the faithful vs physical evidence. Granted, we’ve moved a little since the heresy of saying that the earth revolved around the sun, but not that much.

    Despite having said all this, I tend to employ the law of parsimony, that the simplest explanation is the most likely. Current knowledge has it that women were not likely to have been priests. I hate that. But it is the simplest explanation.

    It saddens me to think of what the church has missed out on by not inviting women to the table as equals.

    • Gail says:

      U are right Marcy… The first paragraph has a stupid analogy about men not being able to be mothers because it is not in their nature, just as women cannot be priests because it is not in their nature!!!!! I did stop reading the rest of the page. Because that is an insane analogy, and not true. The author was drunk or insane or something!!! I will never understand how the author thought it was okay to write that. I am moving to another site to find answers I want about history etc..

      • ItinerantAlto says:

        A few thoughts for you, Gail:
        1. I am unable to take you too seriously because you seem to be unable to use punctuation correctly. Indeed, the correct spelling of the second person pronoun seems to be a little advanced for you. Still, you’re moderately amusing.
        2. Your own multiple exclamation points positively shriek ‘drunk or insane’, in my opinion.
        3. Is everyone who disagrees with you ‘drunk or insane’? The problem may not be with the world at large but with you.
        4. ‘I am moving to another site to find answers _I want_ (my emphasis added) about history etc…’. The implication would be if you find answers you don’t want you should just keep moving until you find answers that you do want. Has it occurred to you that there may be answers that defy your likes or dislikes?
        5. For not even reading the entire article I think you’ve certainly committed a foul against the author by accusing him of being drunk or insane.
        In conclusion, the next time you comment on an article I hope (but don’t really expect) that you’ll think a little harder before slamming the reply button.

        As for the article itself, I find it to be well-written and nicely footnoted. Sources are essential in scholarly work.

      • Sarah says:

        Since the author of this blog is coming under such strong attacks from women (ItinerantAlto excepted, if that is a woman), I would just like to add my own comment about this matter. The author wrote, “women can’t be priests. Similarly, men can’t be mothers. It’s not who we are. It’s not in the nature of males to be mothers; it’s not in the nature of women to be priests.” Marcy and Gail maintain that this is a bad analogy. Marcy says, “It’s not in the nature of a man to be a mother b/c a man does not have a uterus. There is no equivalent biological impediment to women becoming priests.”
        It is true that men are physiologically unable to give birth to children, while women have all the necessary physical capabilities that would allow them to perform the functions of the priesthood. After all, the main physical necessities of the priesthood are hands to bless and lips to speak the words of Consecration and Absolution. But then, monkeys have hands and parrots can talk. It takes much more than hands and a voice to make a priest. Similarly, it takes much more than a uterus to make a mother. As a woman, I find it insulting to imply that the ONLY reason men can’t be mothers is because they lack a uterus. What does that make mothers?
        There is so much more to being a mother than the physical ability to give birth. As women, we (generally speaking) exceed men in gentleness, patience, and pain tolerance. It is a well-known fact that men tend to be objective and project-oriented, while women are more subjective and people-oriented. These are all qualities that make motherhood a part of the nature of woman. I do not by this mean that men are superfluous or incompetent when it comes to raising children. On the contrary, fathers are essential for the healthy upbringing of children. But fathers have a different role than mothers. Similarly, women have a different role in the Church. Yes, we cannot be priests. But this is not, as Marcy claims, a rule made up by mere men. This is the way God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, ordained it to be. Priests bring Christ to earth. Women, whether mothers, religious sisters, or single, are called to imitate the Mother of God, and bring mankind to Christ. A different role, but an essential one.

  2. Marcy Rose says:

    **sun revolved around the earth**

  3. Marcy Rose says:

    **Never mind. I had it right the first time.**

  4. John says:

    Marcy, it was a woman that held the divine creator in her womb for 9 months. It is a woman that holds the honor of being the only creature to be body and soul in heaven. It is a woman, clothed with the sun, who is crowed queen of heaven and earth. We men have had a rather poor showing in comparison, (Adam, Judas, Peter, ect) So you are right, Christ did not invite women to the table a equals, he elevated a woman beyond our comprehension, and in so doing moved women to another category altogether. Don’t long to be one of us poor foot soldiers when you are called to be the handmaiden of the Queen of the Universe.

  5. Blythe says:

    This is a tricky article. Historically, yes, the ideology of the church has claimed that even if there was a possible female bishop or clergywomen, it was because of some not before mentioned reason that was probably an exception not a rule (unfortunately). Much like in the 1950s, women became workers while their husbands fought in wars. That was reversed quite noticeably when the men came home and sought their jobs back. It could have been a lack of men which led to a necessity for someone to step up. But we don’t have physical hard evidence minus one artifact. Despite all this, I have to say that while historically it was men, why not women? We are all equals in the eyes of God, and Catholics are less barbaric then they were in ancient times. What is the issue now? Why can’t women have a chance now? Such a limited scope for women in the Catholic church rejects totally that women can and are smarter than men. We are the only country in the western world without a woman president. That means that leadership can come in any package, little willy or not. By all accounts, woman are different now than in historical times.They are educated. They are mothers, but they are also individuals. They are just as intelligent as men. So why not give them a chance? It isn’t like other sore issues in the church, and honestly it would invite new thought and new leadership into a Church who has been losing members left and right for a long while. Just my two cents.

    • brian says:

      Blythe: My two cents.

      It has been my observation that the sections of the church that are growing fast are the sections that agree with the Church’s decision in this matter. The sections that can’t find new members and are going to die off in the next 20 or so years are the ones who are fighting for women’s ordination. It is for this reason that I expect we can not expect to see a change in this for a very long time.

      I think the priesthood is very different in my eyes than it is in the eyes of others. Perhaps the difference can be seen in your words “Why not give them a chance?” The priesthood is not something that is meant to glorify the priest. It is not something that makes the priest greater. It in fact requires and takes more from the individual than it gives to him. Philippians 2:1-8 is the sort of mind set that can be expected of one discerning the priesthood. So if we were to see someone saying that they ‘deserved’ the priesthood or that they demanded ‘equality’, we would see that their heart is not being conformed to Christ’s.

      We are weary of ‘new thought’ and ‘new leadership’ for a very good reason. Right now we are seeing things like ‘Katharine Jefferts Schori’…

      Also, comparing the priesthood to an occupation is not quite appropriate.

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