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Use the Other Door;Stand at the End of the Line by Bernard P. Prusak from 'Women Priests'

Use the Other Door;Stand at the End of the Line

by Bernard P. Prusak

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp.81-84.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Bernard P. Prusak received a B.A. in Classical Languages from Seton Hall University, an S.T.L. from the Gregorian University and a J.C.D. from the Lateran University in Rome. He was at the time an associate professor in the Religious Studies Department of Villanova University and Co-Editor of Horizons, the journal of the College Theology Society.

No one denies that women were baptized in early Christianity or that they participated in the Eucharist. But the assertion that the prejudices unfavorable to women had hardly any influenee on pastoral activity seems problematic, especially in light of instructions such as the following found in The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215):

Let the women stand in the assembly (ekklësia) by themselves, both the baptized women and the women catechumens. But after the prayer (of the faithful) is finished the catechumens shall not give the kiss of peace for their kiss is not yet pure. But the baptized shall embrace one another, men with men and women with women. But let not men embrace women. Moreover let all the women have their heads veiled with a scarf but not with a veil of linen only, for that is not a (sufficient) covering.(1)

Women were definitely to keep their particular place, which was one step behind laymen. In the Didascalia Apostolorum which expanded upon The Apostolic Tradition we read that presbyters were to sit in the eastern part of the church with the bishop in their midst, and the laymen were to sit nearby with the women behind.(2) In 1947, long before the matter of ordaining women clearly emerged as an issue, Alphonsus Raes, S.J., of the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies already recognized such directives as a manifestation of the inferiority attributed to women in early Christianity.(3) He noted that among the Coptic Christians of Egypt a high wall or screen was used further to separate women from the rest of the community. Much later, in Medieval Europe, the north side of the church was the side for women. According to Remigius of Auxerre (d.c. 908) the North was the region of the devil. Joseph Jungmann pointed out the modifications made in the direction which a deacon faced when proclaiming the gospel so that the symbolism of facing north might be retained without having to tolerate a deacon reading toward the women’s side of the church.(4)

A woman could gain stature in the early Christian community by the degree to which she was removed from any sexual exercise. Such was true of deaconesses who were employed for the baptism of women and for home visitations to places where the visit of a deacon might scandalize non-believers.(5) In the Communion procession thc bishop received first, then the presbyters, deacons, subdeacons, readers, chanters, ascetics, and, among the women, the deaconesses, the virgins, the widows, then the children, and finally all the people, which would mean men and then women. When entering and leaving the assembly men used a door where a deacon stood guard and women one where a subdeacon was doorkeeper.(6) In such details it is hard to distinguish cultural and theological perspectives. However, we have elsewhere suggested that the patristic church inherited and expanded a tradition that envisioned women as secondary creations and even more crucially as seductive sirens and sources of sin through their sexual and procreative functions.(7)

The influence of such Fall motifs found in the Intertestamental Pseudepigraphal literature is unmistakable in the early Fathers of the Church. Justin Martyr cites the Watcher legend of I Enoch which amplifies Genesis 6.8 Irenaeus works with the “Adam and Eve story” of Genesis 3 but includes the embellishments found in the Apocalypse of Moses and the Life of Adam and Eve.(9) Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen likewise connect the first sin with sexuality and have concomitant prejudice toward women."(3) However, Clement seems to have admitted women into his lectures and recognized their capacity for wisdom." (We must remember that his lectures would have meant little to working class persons; they were upper-class oriented.) Tertullian’s writings are filled with preoccupations about the dress of women, especially that they be veiled at prayer. Tertullian interprets the Pauline directive of 1Corinthians (11:4-10): “It is right that a face which was a snare to angels should wear some mark of a humble guise and obscured beauty.”(12) He believed that the destruction brought about by the female sex imposed ignominy and the need for expiation on every woman alive.(13) I would suggest that such theological perspectives, which served to buttress the cultural practices of a patriarchal society, cannot be discounted in analyzing the pastoral practice and discipline of the patristic period. Why did women have to sit behind men? Why did they enter and leave by a different door? Why were their heads to be covered? To a certain degree such practices reflected the protective barriers placed around women and still encountered in certain cultures even in our time. That sons were not similarly protected by restrictions reveals a double standard which was theologically expressed in the identification of women as seductive sirens. That leads us to the issue of pastoral direction.

The unofficial Commentary on the Declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (14) suggests one can find proof that misogynist prejudice did not affect the Fathers’ spiritual direction by simply glancing through the correspondence that has come down to us. It is true that the Fathers often wrote to women and offered guidance. The letters of the Cappadocians reveal that fact. Likewise, John Chrysostom wrote seventeen letters to the widow and deaconess Olympias. Among the letters of Augustine we find those addressed to Italica, Proba, Juliana, Felicitas and her community of consecrated virgins, Sapida, and Fabiola.(15) In one letter to Proba he devotes much effort to discussing prayer.(16) But it is the upper class widow or virgin who usually attracts his praise: in his estimation womanly happiness means growing great in mind, not becoming big with child.(17) Proba and Juliana were thus especially praiseworthy for bringing their granddaughter/daughter to virginity.

At the same time, Augustine does not see what help woman would offer man if the purpose of procreation were eliminated.’’ Unlike chapter five of the canonical Epistle to the Ephesians, there is no real notion of love between husband and wife as persons in Augustine’s work on The Good of Marriage although chapter three makes some allowance for mutual companionship bctween older people who marry. Augustine simply does not seem to accept a woman in her full potential, as one who can integrate femininity, even motherhood, and full personhood.

The same is true of Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome. For him only those women become holy who cease being married women by imitating virginal chastity within the very intimacy of marriage.(19) Jerome was certainly interested in giving pastoral guidance to women. He often offered it even when it was unsolicited. But again one must take into consideration the content of his spiritual direction. For example, he writes to a woman whom he has never met and vividly suggests how she may be guilty of some rather saucy conduct.(20) The sexual fantasies and flirtations which he describes are really the product of his imagination but reveal his image of a woman.

In her analysis of his epistles Rosemary Ruether suggests that Jerome really invited women to an asceticism which sought to crush their “femaleness” so as to substitute it with a “virile” dedication to a higher pursuit of wisdom.(21) But at least he recognized their ability for such. Marcella, one of Jerome’s students, assumed his role as interpreter of the Scriptures after his departure from Rome.(22) His heroine was the widow Paula who left behind her grown children in Rome to live an ascetic life in Bethlehem. She outdid Jerome in her asceticism. In her praise he noted that she never entered a bath except when dangerously ill.(23)

What is one to conclude with regard to the present debate about the ordination of women? First, it is clear that contexts differ. Augustine and Jerome simply were not able to ask the question as it is being asked today. They were still solving other questions which predetermined their more fundamental attitudes on women. Secondly, it seems that the issue of whether sexuality, marriage, family, holiness, and ministry are compatible must be faced squarely. A look at the sources reveals that married laywomen sat directly behind married laymen. Admittedly laymen fared infinitely better in practice and theory but both still came last in the communion procession and in the estimation of many Fathers. If the relational and service potential of fully embodied or incarnate persons is not confronted, the issue is narrowed to arguing for the ordination of women religious, widows, and consecrated virgins. Clergy-laity would remain as a caste distinction but the ranks of the clergy would be diversified. The positions to be overcome by the Roman Catholic lobby for the ordination of women are thus infinitely more complex than those faced by the Episcopal Church.


1. The Apostolic Tradition, xviii, 2-5. Translation from The Treatise on The Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, ed. Gregory Dix (London: S.P.C.K., 1968), p. 29.

2. Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum II, 57, 3-5, ed. by Franciscus Xaverius Funk, Vol. I (Paderborn: Libraria Ferdinandi Schoeningh, 1905—Torino: Bottega 1’ Erasmo, anastatic edition 1970), pp. 158-161.

3. Introductio in Liturgiam Orientaliem (Rome: Pont. Institutum Orientalum Studiorum, 1947), p. 31.

4. The Mass of the Roman Rite, tr. by Fancis A. Brunner, rev. by Charlcs K. Riepe (New York: Benziger, 1959), pp. 270-272.

5. Didascalia III, 12, 1-4; Const. Apost. III, 16, 1; Funk I, pp. 208

6. Const. Apost. VIII, 11, l 1; Funk I, pp. 494-495.

7. B. P. Prusak, “Woman: Seductive Siren and Source of Sin? Pseudepigraphal Myth and ‘Christian Origins,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. by Rosemary R. Ruether (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), pp. 89-116.

8. II Apology 5:3ff.

9. See Adversus Haereses 4, 40, 3; 5, 24, 4; 5, 21, 1.

10. Clement, Stromateis 3, 14- 17; Protrepticus 11, Origen, Commentary on Canticles 3.

I I. Paedogogus 1, 4; Stromateis 4, 18 & 19.

12. Against Marcion 5, 8.

13. De Cultu Feminarum 1, 1.

14. Origins, Vol. VI, No. 6 (Feb. 3, 1977), pp. 524-531; see below, pp. 325ff.

15. See Ep. 92, 99, 130, 131, 150, 210, 211, 263, 285.

16. Ep. 130.

17. Ep. 150.

18. De Genesi ad literam 9, 7.

19. Against Helvidus 21 (On the Perpetual Virginity of the B. V.M. ).

20. Ep. 117.

21. “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,” in Religion and Sexism, p. 176

22. Ep. 127, 7f.

23. Ep. 108.

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