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Fidelity in History by Jean M. Higgins from 'Women Priests'

Fidelity in History

by Jean M. Higgins

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 85-91.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Jean M. Higgins received her B.A. at Capetown University, South Africa, and her Ph. D. from Marquette University. She was at the time an Assistant Professor of Religion, teaching historical theology, at Smith College and had chaired the Women’s Caucus—Religious Studies of the American Academy of Religion for the previous two years.

In this portion of the text, the Declaration sums up its most important evidence from the patristic period. Beyond mere condemnations of innovations, beyond any hint of cultural prejudices, the Declaration finds an "essential reason" expressed in certain documents of central significance.

This reason is that “by calling only men to the priestly Order and ministry in its true sense, the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles.” The “canonical documents”(1) in which the Declaration finds “this essential reason” are named in footnote (8). A respectful commentary on the sentence in the text must include a close inspection of the references in that footnote.

We start with the fifth and last: “Chrysostom, De Sacerdocio, 2, 2: PG 48, 633.” Chrysostom there is praising the advantages of being appointed bishop. He writes:

You will be doing that which the Lord told Peter would make him surpass the rest of the apostles. For He said: “Peter, lovest thou me more than these?” Yet He might have said to him: “If thou lovest me, practice fasting, sleeping on the ground, and prolonged vigils, defend the wronged, be as a father to orphans, and supply the place of a husband to their mother.” But as a matter of fact, setting aside all these things, what does He say? “Tend my sheep.” For those things which I have mentioned might easily be performed by many even of those who are under authority, women as well as men: but when one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also; and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others.

The argument is that a bishop’s care for so many souls is a task of such magnitude that only outstanding persons can accomplish it. That rules out the majority of men, and all women. Women might perform many other ministries; but, as persons “under authority,” they could never preside over the Church.

The text clearly shows the status of women in fourth-century Antioch, and something of Chrysostom’s own esteem for women. But over and above such “considerations inspired by the spirit of the times,” it unfortunately says nothing about Christ’s will for an all-male priesthood or about the Church’s intent to remain faithful to that will. We must turn to the other four texts of footnote 8. The first of these is “Didascalia Apostolorum,(2) ch.15, ed. R.H. Connolly, p. 133":

It is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers, and especially concerning the name of Christ and the redemption of His passion. For you have not been appointed to this, O women, and especially widows, that you should teach, but that you should pray and entreat the Lord God. For He, the Lord God, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us the Twelve to instruct the People and the Gentiles, and there were with us women disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary the daughter of James and the other Mary; but He did not send them to instruct the people with us. For if it were required that women should teach, our Master Himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us. But let a widow know that she is the altar of God; and let her sit ever at home, and not stray or run about among the houses of the faithful to receive. For the altar of God never strays or runs about anywhere, but is fixed in one place.

This paragraph is a part of “Chapter XV: How Widows ought to deport themselves.” The immediately preceding paragraph (pp. 132-33) gives the context:

Every widow therefore ought to be meek and quiet and gentle . . . not be talkative or clamorous, or forward in tongue.... And when she is asked a question by any one, let her not straightway give an answer, except only concerning righteousness and faith in God; but let her send them that desire to be instructed to the rulers. And to those who question them let them [the widows] make answer only in refutation of idols and concerning the unity of God. But concerning punishment and reward, and the kingdom of the name of Christ, and His dispensation, neither a widow nor a layman ought to speak; for when they speak without the knowledge of doctrine, they will bring blasphemy upon the word.... For when the Gentiles who are being instructed hear the word of God not fittingly spoken, as it ought to be, unto edification of eternal life—and all the more in that it is spoken to them by a woman—how that our Lord clothed Himself in a body, and concerning the passion of Christ: they will mock and scoff, instead of applauding the word of doctrine; and she shall incur a heavy judgment of sin.

This represents that patristic pastoral advice and spiritual direction in which the Declaration discovers “hardly any influence of prejudices unfavorable to women.” But our concern is only to uncover the “essential reason” which the Declaration finds here expressed. Unfortunately, again, there is not a word in the text about “ordained ministry” or “priestly Order and ministry in its true sense,” but only about who “should be teachers,” “should teach,” “instruct the people,” “give instruction.”

The text clearly says that widows should not teach and instruct pagans except on certain specific topics: “righteousness,” “faith in God,” “idolatry,” “the unity of God.” It says the same about lay men (132,19) for the same reason: namely, that if “they speak without knowledge of the doctrine, they will bring blasphemy upon the word.”

We must remember that this reflects third century Syria. Many of the ordinary people would not be able even to read. In Chapter IV, for instance the rule has to be laid down for choosing a bishop: “If it be possible, let him be instructed and apt to teach; but if he know not letters, let him be versed in the Word and advanced in years.”(3)

Obviously it was taken for granted that women would not be among the instructed; hence the expectation that the Gentiles would laugh if Christian mysteries were expounded to them by a woman. Within the community, however, a woman who was known to be capable could teach and instruct, as we read in Chapter XVI: “When she who is being baptized has come up from the water, let the deaconess receive her and teach and instruct her how the seal of baptism ought to be kept unbroken in purity and holiness.”(4)

In this context, the passage quoted does relate that Jesus sent no women out to teach. But the conclusion it draws is that “it is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers.” “For if it were required that women should teach,” Jesus would have sent them.(5)

The fact that Jesus did not send women is used as proof that widows can live in the service of the Church without taking up the ministry of teaching. The text is a warning to widows that their acceptance into this order (6) did not automatically authorize them to be speakers for the Church. They had been qualified for their order by their situation and by their personal virtues. Education was not a prerequisite. If they felt that as “approved widows” they must also be missionaries, they might do more harm than good, speaking of things they had never studied. The same caution is laid down about uninstructed lay men.

The third text cited in footnote (8): “Constitutiones Apostolicae, bk. 3, ch 6, nos. 1-2" is substantially a repetition of the one we have just considered.(7) The first two sentences have been replaced by:

We do not permit our “women to teach in the Church”, but only to pray and hear those that teach.

After referring to Jesus’ not sending the women, it adds:

For “if the head of the wife be the man,” it is not reasonable that the rest of the body should govern the head." Let the widow therefore own herself to be the altar of God . . . etc.(8)

The added material is from 1Corinthians 14:34 and 11:3. It reminds us that when St. Paul wrote those lines of 1Corinthians, he made no claim that they represented the teaching or example of Jesus; he argued from the Old Law, from the natural subordination of women, and from what was being done in the other churches.

So neither the reference to the Didascalia nor to the same passage as modifed in Constitutiones Apostolicae speak of the Church’s intention of being faithful to Christ by ordaining only men. On the contrary, the passage offers a brilliant example of how the Church has adapted its structures to cultural changes. The order of “widows” no longer exists, and in missionary churches of many lands well-trained women, religious and lay, preach on any average Sunday.(9) Meanwhile, in every nation, educated women, many with both ecclesiastical and secular academic degrees, teach and instruct at all levels, including graduate faculties of theology in Catholic universities and pontifical seminaries. In recent years, the names of two women have been added to the select list of Doctors of the Church.

The second text appealed to in footnote (8): “Didascalia Apostolorum, ch. 15, ed. R.H. Connolly, p. 142" reads:

That a woman should baptize, or that one should be baptized by a woman, we do not counsel, for it is a transgression of the commandment, and a great peril to her who baptizes and to him who is baptized. For if it were lawful to be baptized by a woman, our Lord and Teacher Himself would have been baptized by Mary His Mother, whereas He was baptized by John, like others of the people. Do not therefore imperil yourselves, brethren and sisters by acting beside the law of the Gospel.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on “priestly Order and ministry in its true sense,” this text speaks exclusively about Baptism. That a woman should baptize is “a transgression of the commandment,” is not “lawful,” is “beside the law of the Gospel,” and is “a great peril.” The same passage is copied and adapted considerably in the third text of footnote (8), “Constitutiones Apostolicae, bk. 3, ch. 9, nos. 3-4":

Now as to women’s baptizing, we let you know that there is no small peril to those who undertake it. Therefore we do not advise you to do it; for it is dangerous, or rather wicked and impious. For if the “man be the head of the woman,” and he be originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order of the creation, and leave the principal to come to the extreme part of the body. For the woman is the body of the man, taken from his side and subject to him, from whom she was separated for the procreation of children. For, He says, “he shall rule over thee.” For the principal part of the woman is the man, as being her head.

But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of a priest? For this is one of the ignorant practices of the Gentile atheism, to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of Christ. For if baptism were to be administered by women, certainly our Lord would have been baptized by His own mother, and not by John; or when he sent us to baptize, He would have sent along with us women also for this purpose. But now He has nowhere, either by constitution or by writing, delivered to us any such thing; as knowing the order of nature, and the decency of the action; as being the Creator of nature, and the Legislator of the constitution.

This fourth-century reworking of the Didascalia in its first paragraph adds quotes from 1Cor 11:3 and from Genesis 3:16 to provide the reasons why women may not baptize: namely, because they are subject to men by nature and by the curse of God. These are not part of the “essential reason” sought by the Declaration.

But in the second paragraph of this text we fnally come for the first time to an explicit statement about “priesthood.” The argument is a fortiori: we [the fourth-century Arian redactor pretending to be the Twelve Apostles] have not allowed women to teach; how shall we allow them to perform the offce of a priest?

Still, strange to say, the one special work of the priesthood, reserved to males by nature and by the will of Christ, turns out to be the work of administering Baptism. So even this one text which might have confirmed the doctrine of the Declaration is another example of how the Church’s fidelity to Christ has always involved adapting laws and practices to changing circumstances. For, since the eleventh century, women do baptize(10)

Some further reflections seem called for. The fourth-century translator and interpolator may not have known that the original was not really written by the Apostles. But he certainly knew that what he himself was adding was not by the Apostles. Thus, ironically, the Declaration offers as a witness to the unchangeable tradition of Christ and the Apostles someone who was deliberately modifying the records to make them better reflect his own views.

Again, we notice that even this bold interpolator does not quote any words of Jesus actually forbidding women to baptize. His appeal to Jesus (like that of the Declaration itself) is an attempt to shift the burden of proof to those who encourage women. He says: “He [Jesus] has nowhere, by constitution or in writing, delivered to us any such thing.” Thus Paul’s “All things are lawful for me” (1Cor 6:12; 10:23) becomes “All things, unless specifically allowed, are forbidden.”

He argues—in an early inversion of the classic pattern: “Potuit; decuit; non fecit; ergo." “Jesus could have sent women to baptize; he should have at least had his own mother baptize him: But he did neither: therefore no one may.” The Declaration follows him in this.

Such argumentation reminds one of those sectarians who refuse even today to have buttons on their coats, because there is no evidence that Jesus wore buttons. In a Vatican document, it represents a singular but enthusiastic conversion of Rome to the norm of scriptura sola.

If the Declaration were serious about presenting the Didascalia and the Constitutiones as normative for our understanding of Holy Orders, it would have had to impose the wearing of beards on all priests (Didascalia, ch. II, p. 10); the proving of all bishops, that they had chaste wives and obedient children (ch. IV, p. 32); the ordination of female deacons (“thou hast need of the ministry of a deaconess for many things .... Let a woman be devoted to the ministry of women and a male deacon to the ministry of men,” ch. XVI, p. 148) 11; and the re-ordering of ecclesiastical dignities so as to honor the bishop as God the Father, the male deacon as Christ, whereas the female deacon “shall be honored by you in the place of the Hloly Spirit; and the presbyters [today’s priests] shall be to you in the likeness of the Apostles” (ch. IX, p. 86).

In fact, of course, there is little hope of discovering Christ’s will for ministry today by debating third and fourth century canon law. Nor are we likely to get much positive inspiration from meditating on things Christ did not do (ordain women, free the slaves, wear buttons, build schools and hospitals). Christ in the Gospels makes many positive statements about the kind of persons he wants to represent him: their humility, their poverty, their charity.(12) And he describes explicitly the kind of ecclesiastic he knew and did not approve of: men of ambition, hypocrisy, lovers of money, honor, and power.(13) The more we meditate on these statements and try to live by them, the more likely it is we shall find or create “the type of ordained ministry willed by our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is by calling to “priestly Order and ministry in its true sense” those who best meet these criteria that the Church can show itself faithful in the future.


1. The Declaration uses this phrase not of books within the canon of Sacred Scripture, but of summaries of ecclesiastical practice (canon law). Although it claims to find its material “especially in the canonical documents of the Antiochian and Egyptian traditions,” all five works cited in footnote (8) are from the region of Antioch (Syria).

2. This work pretends to be written by the twelve Apostles, but is in fact a description of the customs of the Syrian Church of the third century. Cf. R.H. Connolly, Didascalia Apostolorum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929), pp. Ixxxvii-xci.

3. Ibid., p.30.

4. Ibid., p. 146.

5. I repeat Connolly’s translation of the first sentence: “It is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers ... ” because the Declaration uses Connolly. But in fact a more accurate rendition is that of Achelis-Flemming (cf. Connolly’s praise of this “fullest and most careful study of the Didascalia,” pp. v and xxii): “Es ist also nicht nötig oder gar dringend erforderlich”: “It is therefore not necessary or even urgently called for”; Die syrische Didaskalia übersetzt und erklärt von Flans Achelis und Johannes Flemming (Texte und Undersuchungen 25, 2 [NF 10, 2], Leipzig J.C. Hinrichs, 1904), p. 77; 274-282.

6. Criteria for the enrolling of widows are discussed as early as 1Timothy 5, 9-16.

7. The first six books of the “Apostolic Constitutions” are a translation and reworking of the Didascalia in the late fourth-century The author removes references to Christ’s divinity, and so is presumed to have been an Arian. The Council in Trullo (692) rejected the book as “falsified by the heretics.” Cf. Connolly, p. xx; B. Altaner, Patrology (New York: Hcrder and Herder, 1961), p. 59.

8. Other minor changes in the text are the omission of “He, the Lord God, Jesus Christ” (offensive to Arian ears); and the insertion of a longer list of women, including “our Lord’s mother and His sisters” (which takes six columns of notes to explain in the Patrologia Graeca, 1, 769-774).

9. “Third Instruction on the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (Liturgiae Instaurationes), Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, 5 September, 1970, 6e.

10. The same prohibition against women baptizing is found in Tertullian “De Baptismo” 17. “De Virginibus Velandis” 9, and in the Fourth Council of Carthage, canon 100. A decision of Urban II (1088-1099) is the first record of an exception being allowed for emergencies: “Baptismus sit, si instante necessitate femina puerum in nomine Trinitatis baptizaverit” (Epistola 271: PL 151, 529).

11. The complete ordination ritual is given in Constitutiones Apostolicae Bk. VIII, Ch. 19-20: “Concerning a deaconess, I Bartholomew make this constitution: O bishop, thou shalt lay thy hands upon her in the presence of the presbytery, and of the deacons and deaconesses and shalt say: ‘O Eternal God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Creator of man and of woman who didst replenish with the Spirit Miriam . . . do Thou now also look down upon this Thy servant, who is to be ordained to the office of the deaconess . . .’ ” PG 1, 1115-1118, translation from The Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 7, edd. Robert and Donaldson (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 492.

12. Mt 10:7-39; Mk 10:35-45; Lk 9:57—10:7; 22:24-27, Jn 15:9-17.

13. Mt 23: 1-39; Lk 11 :37-52.

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