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Letter to Women

Chapter 1.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

The discovery

On a lazy afternoon of November 1975 I walked down the long corridors of St. John’s Seminary in Hyderabad, India. The weather was hot and humid. I was casually dressed in a white khurta shirt over cotton trousers, slippers on my feet. As I entered the library I found it empty. It was the time for students to play football or to water the thumma trees in our garden. Nothing in the listless, easygoing, prosaic and sober setting prepared me for the life-changing discovery I was going to make.


In preparation for a nation-wide research seminar on ministries in the Church scheduled  for June 1976 in Bangalore, I had been asked to study the ministries of women. The question intrigued me. In 1971, during the Bishops’ Synod in Rome, Cardinal Flahiff, Archbishop of Winipeg, had tabled the following intervention:


“In spite of an old tradition of many centuries against women’s participation in the ministry, we believe that the signs of the times force us to carefully examine the present situation and the possibilities for the future. The clearest of these signs is that women are already successfully fulfilling pastoral tasks  .  .  . This is the only recommendation which the Canadian Bishops submit to the Synod.”[1]


Scripture being my area of expertise, I had made up my mind to focus on the scriptural objections against the ordination of women. The book I came across that afternoon was a seventeenth-century Latin commentary on 1 Timothy by my compatriot Cor van der Steen, professionally known by his Latin name as Cornelius a Lapide. The edition in our library, from Paris in 1868, almost fell to pieces. Its pages were browned with age and punctured by bookworms. But I could still read the Latin.


1 Timothy 2,12-14 says: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men. She is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and sinned.”  Cornelius weighs in with relish. Women may not teach in Church. And if they are not allowed to teach, how could they function as priests? And the prohibition is absolute and universal, he says, for many reasons:


¨      It follows from a woman’s nature.

¨      God subjected woman to man after the fall (Gen 3,16).

¨      Silence in the presence of men agrees better with a woman’s inferior status.

¨      A man’s intelligence, judgement and discretion surpass that of a  woman.

¨      By speaking in Church a woman might lure men to sin.

¨      Women should remain ignorant of things they need not know.

¨      By asking stupid questions in Church, a woman would give scandal to other women.[2]


As I translated the text, it was as if all the mindless and brutal medieval bias against women rolled out of the book and lay before me. So this is how theologians had interpreted Scripture! Prejudice had clouded their sense of judgement. I suddenly grasped that the implications were enormous.


From modern scholarship we know that the later Pauline letters, such as 1 Timothy, were written within the context of a Gnostic threat to which women were considered especially vulnerable. The Greek text itself and this context make clear that the injunction should be translated as: “I am presently not  allowing women to speak in the assembly”;[3]  “I have decided that for the moment women are not to teach or have authority over men”.[4]  The references to Adam and Eve are rationalisations, not inspired pronouncements, like the statement in Titus 1,12 that “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”. The prohibition for women to speak in the assembly was, therefore, clearly local and temporary, not a law for all time. This is also clear from the fact that in other church communities women did speak.[5]


To come back to Cornelius a Lapide: his commentary was for centuries a standard work and the obvious bias in his argumentation suddenly brought the central issue in focus. What we were dealing with, I realised, is not inspired Scripture, but a cultural interpretation imposed on Scripture. Was there really any valid scriptural basis for excluding women from the ordained ministries? It spurred me on to a period of intense research. I made the ten-hour train journey to Pune so that I could consult the library of the Papal Athenaeum. I ordered books and articles from Europe, some on microfilm. My studies led me to the conclusion that in total nine arguments from Scripture had been used to exclude women from ordination. None stood up to scrutiny.[6] In all cases it was cultural discrimination, not scriptural inspiration that shored up the so-called tradition of not ordaining women.


It dawned on me that this was a serious matter. Cultural prejudice rather than God’s will was responsible for relegating women to a purely passive role in the Church. Through this theological error, enormous damage had been inflicted on the faithful in previous centuries and the harm was still being done today. Cultural bigotry had invaded Christian beliefs and had succeeded in enthroning a pagan prejudice as if it were a genuine Christian practice. In other words, the opposition to women priests is a classical example of what I call a ‘cuckoo’s egg tradition’ -- of which there have been more in the Church!


Cuckoos not only lay their eggs surreptitiously in the nests of other birds; the eggs they lay cunningly imitate the eggs of the hosts. In Britain, for instance, cuckoos can variously lay eggs that resemble in spots and colours the eggs of dunnocks, redstarts, sparrows and warblers. The host bird remains unaware of the fact that a foreign egg has been added to the clutch. In a similar way we see how in the Early Church, bias against women was presented in typically scriptural and Christian guises. But wait for what is to come!


The cuckoo chick has evolved a fiendish form of behaviour known as ‘nest-mate eviction’, to ensure that it does not have to compete with members of the foster brood for food. Within a few hours of hatching, the blind, naked, young cuckoo displays a strong urge to evict any objects, such as eggs or other nestlings, from the nest. It does this by working itself under the offending object and, aided by the presence of a depression between the shoulder blades, it heaves the object over the rim of the nest. Within about 24 hours of hatching, the young cuckoo has the nest and the attention of its foster parents to itself. Remarkable as it may seem, the spurious anti-woman tradition in the Christian Church acted in the same way. For many centuries women had served in a number of ministries, including the sacramental diaconate. It all went overboard. The priestly vocations of women were suppressed. Ancient practices that ran counter to the established prejudice, such as a devotion to Mary as priest, were suffocated. A cuckoo’s egg tradition is a killer tradition. But the villainy does not stop even here.


When the cuckoo chick grows up, it usually exceeds its foster parents in size. However, the parent birds have now bonded to it and keep feeding it, in spite of the incongruity. They are firmly convinced this is their own chick. One can therefore see a tiny warbler offering  newly caught insects to a cuckoo fledgling ten times its size! The same happens in the Church with cuckoo’s egg traditions. Those with teaching power are often blinded by the long standing and seemingly ancient origins of the tradition, and will seek to defend its authenticity, even though the incongruity is obvious to impartial observers.


Hold on, you may say. These are just your opinions. How do we know that what you say is true? Rome holds the trump card. Women have not been ordained for two thousand years. You cannot dismiss such a long tradition out of hand! -- You are right. I may not presume your agreement. Consider what I have said so far as the hypothesis that I will defend to you in the rest of this book. I maintain that opposition to the ordination of women does not come from Christ. It is not God who decreed the exclusion of women, but pagan sexist bigotry which squashed the true Christian tradition of women’s call to ministry.


I presented my conclusions to the Seminar in Bangalore (2 - 7 June 1976), urging the Indian bishops to explore the possibilities of ordaining women to the diaconate and the priesthood. I pleaded for openness.

“What seems unacceptable at first may prove to be the will of Christ. What may seem unusual and strange may well be the demand of the Gospel in our own times. The pharisees rejected the carpenter from Nazareth. They refused to recognise him as their priest when they stood under his cross on Calvary. The idea that a woman could express the priesthood of Christ may seem equally upsetting  --  and our prejudice in this matter may be equally mistaken as that of Jesus’ pious contemporaries. Only honest appraisal in the light of Christ’s Spirit should decide the question of women’s ministry; not convention or personal fancy. After all, it is Christ’s priesthood, not ours, we are speaking about.”[7]


Towards the end of June I was in London attending the General Chapter of the Mill Hill Missionaries to whom I belonged. To my dismay I was elected Vicar General of the Society, which implied a brutal uprooting from my various involvements in India. It was not to be the only shock for that year.


A few months later, in October 1976, the Roman Congregation for Doctrine, ignoring the advice of the Pontifical Biblical Commission,  published its letter Inter Insigniores. While rejecting some of the old arguments against women priests, it reaffirmed the principal ones. Jesus Christ himself had excluded women, it maintained, and the Church had honoured this tradition. Women could not really represent Christ who was a man. They could never be validly admitted to Holy Orders. I responded by writing Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?[8] It was clear that the parent birds in Rome were still bolstering the cuckoo tradition, and the defence has become more clamarous ever since.


But surely such a thing cannot happen in the Church? you may argue. Surely the magisterium would not make such a colossal mistake?! If this is what you believe, it will be instructive to study how the magisterium failed in discerning the true Christian teaching regarding slavery. It is the topic of the next chapter.

Readings on the Women Priests’ web site


Complementary information on the topics discussed in this book are available on www.womenpriests.org.


For background data on my life and work


On why I resigned from the active priestly ministry in protest against the refusal to ordain women


A bibliography of my books


The top priority in my life:

‘Meeting God in every-day loving’















[1] The full text was published in Archief van de Kerken, 6 August 1972.

[2] Cornelius a Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram (Antwerp 1616), Paris 1868, vol. 18, p. 396, see also p. 353.

[3] A. D. B. Spencer, ‘Eve at Ephesus (Should women be ordained as pastors according to the First Letter to Timothy 2:11-15?)’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17 (1974) 215-222; G. P. Hugenberger, ‘Women in Church Office: Hermeneutics or Exegesis? A Survey of Approaches to I Timothy 2 :8-15’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (1992) 341-360.

[4] G. N. Redekop, ‘Let the Women Learn: I Timothy 2 :8-15 Reconsidered’, Studies in Religion 19 (1990) 235-245.

[5] 1 Corinthians 11,5; cf. 14,3. 1 Corinthians 14,34-35 is a later gloss.

[6] It is interesting to note that, unknown to me, in 1975 the Pontifical Biblical Commission was studying the same question and came to the same conclusion I had arrived at, namely that the exclusion of women from the priesthood could not validly be derived from Scripture; Origins 6 (July 1, 1976) pp. 92-96. See also J. R. Donahue, ‘A Tale of Two Documents’, in Leonard and Arlene Swidler (eds.), Women Priests. A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration, New York 1977, pp. 25-35.

[7] John Wijngaards, ‘The ministry of women and social myth’, in New Ministries in India, ed. D.S.Amalorpavadass, Bangalore 1976, pp. 50-82.

[8] Did Christ Rule Out Women Priests?, McCrimmons, Great Wakering 1977 (2nd edition in 1986), 104 pgs; Indian edition, ATC, Bangalore 1978; Dutch edition, KBS, Brugge 1979.

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