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Letter to Women

Chapter 12.

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

Deliberately left out by Jesus Christ?

In all its recent statements the Congregation for Doctrine has made clear that it considers Jesus Christ himself as the origin of the tradition of not ordaining women in the Catholic Church.. By not making a woman a member of the apostolic team, it claims, Jesus set a permanent norm, which the Church will never be able to change.


     “Jesus Christ did not call any woman to become part of the Twelve. If he acted in this way, it was not in order to conform to the customs of his time, for his attitude towards women was quite different from that of his milieu, and he deliberately and courageously broke with it …It must be recognised that we have here a number of convergent indications that make all the more remarkable the fact that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women”.[202]

“The Church holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with Gods’ plan for his Church. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles attest that this calling (of men only) was made in accordance with Gods eternal plan. Christ chose those whom he willed (cf. Mk 3,13-14; Jn 6,17), and he did so in union with the Father, ‘through the Holy Spirit’, after having spent the night in prayer (cf. Lk 6,12). Therefore, in granting admission to the ministerial priesthood to men alone, the Church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord’s way of acting in choosing twelve men whom he made the foundation of His Church (cf. Rev 21,14).”[203]


The teaching authorities in Rome therefore declare that the omission of women from the apostolic team was a deliberate act on the part of Jesus, something he had decided upon in prayer after consulting the Father in the Holy Spirit. By not choosing women, he had, in fact, laid down a permanent norm, a rule the Church would never be able to change. They also say that this is the reason why, in tradition, women were not admitted to ordination.

          What do we find in Tradition itself?

            It is not true that early tradition consciously based the exclusion of women on a decision taken by Jesus.  The exclusion of women from ordination was simply a bare fact, hardly reflected upon. The real reasons, as we saw in the previous chapters, were the presumed inferior status of women and their womanly ‘infirmity’, referring to menstruation.


Early tradition has a few references to Jesus’ omitting women from the apostolic twelve, but these bear clearly the hallmark of being rationalizations, i.e. external reasons adduced to cover up one’s real reasons and motives. Let us examine them a little more in detail.


The earliest reference is found in the so-called “Didascalia”, a fourth-century document from Syria containing admonitions for various groups in the Church, admonitions which were presented as spoken by the apostles. The instruction is particularly concerned about the influence of pastoral workers known as the ‘widows’. Let me give some information about this first.


From the earliest apostolic times we see older women playing a pastoral role in the community: “The aged women must conduct themselves as befits a holy calling; they must not be given to slander or drunken habits; they must teach what is good and train the young women to love their husbands and children.”[204]  Here the widowed state seems to imply a demand for perfection and some kind of a mission directed to the young women of the community. “Honour widows who are widows indeed  .  .  . A widow indeed is one who has put her trust in God and perseveres day and night in the intercessions and the prayers. Before she can be inscribed on the role, a widow must be sixty years old at least, once married, one who has practiced hospitality, washed the feet of the saints and been given to all good works.”[205]  The interesting point is the enrolment on a register and the conditions it requires, for this makes it plain that we are concerned here not with all the widows, but with some of their number who constitute a special category in the community. This is the first indication we have of an order of  widows, parallel to the clerical orders in the Church.[206]


During the 2nd and 3rd centuries the order of ‘widows’ had acquired a clear position on the pastoral scene. The author of the Didascalia addressed a long chapter to widows. He was worried in particular about their presuming to instruct non-Christians without adequate knowledge. Here is the excerpt that refers to Christ’s example:


“For 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.”[207]


If we read this by itself -- as it is quoted in Roman documents -- we get the wrong impression. The reference to Jesus’ example is only secondary. The real reason for worry is the danger of widows turning away prospective converts by an inapt presentation of Christian doctrine. Here is the text that immediately precedes the above quote, put by me within its structural framework:


 [The central concern]

“When a widow is asked a question by anyone, let her not straightaway give an answer, except only in general concerning salvation and faith in God; but let her send those that desire to be instructed to the leaders of the Church. And if people ask them questions, let the widows restrict themselves only to the refutation of idols and to the unity of God. But concerning punishment and reward, and the kingdom of the name of Christ, and his mysteries, neither a widow nor a layman ought to speak.”

[Main reason: prospective converts may misunderstand Christian doctrine]

“For when they [widows or lay people] speak without the knowledge of doctrine, they will bring blasphemy upon the word. For our Lord compared the word of his good news to mustard; but mustard, unless it be skilfully tempered, is bitter and sharp to those who use it. Therefore our Lord said in the Gospel, to widows and to all the laity: ‘Cast not your pearls before swine, lest they trample upon them and turn against you and attack you.’ 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, 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.

[Rationalization 1. Women are inferior.]

This will happen all the more if the instruction is spoken to them by a woman — and she shall incur a heavy judgement for sin.

[Rationalization 2. Women should not teach (from 1 Tim 2,11-15?).]

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, oh women, and especially widows, that you should teach, but that you should pray and entreat the Lord God.

[Rationalization 3. Jesus Christ did not send women to teach.]

For 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.”[208]


The example of Jesus, seen in context, is no more than a rationalization to stop widows from making mistakes in the delicate area of instructing converts. It follows on a clear expression of prejudice against women and a misunderstood scripture text.[209] It has nothing to do with the ordination of women. And, in spite of its wording, it is not the intention of the author to exclude other women from teaching. For in the next chapter the Didascalia tells women deacons to look after women converts, to “teach and instruct them (!) how the seal of baptism ought to be kept unbroken in purity and holiness. For this cause we say that the ministry of a woman deacon is especially needful and important. For our Lord and Saviour also was assisted in his ministry by women ministers, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the daughter of James and mother of Jose, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with other women beside. And there is a need of the ministry of a deaconess for many things; for a deaconess is required to go into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, etc.”[210] In other words, the quote cannot be used to demonstrate that women were not ordained priests because of the norm Jesus had set. Referring to Jesus as an example in this was an aside.


Now the Didascalia was a treatise which pretended to have been written by the apostles at the time of the Council of Jerusalem (50 AD). Putting the instructions in the mouth of the apostles was probably just a literary device, but how were later readers to know? So the text was considered official teaching, carrying the authority of the apostles.[211]


And now what I call the original sin effect occurred. The initial misguided text assumed in later centuries the stature of an established truth. Compare it to a fog in which drivers tend to focus on the tail lights of cars in front of them. If the first one makes a false turn and drives into a ditch, many others will follow his/her example. This is what happened to the Didascalia passage.


The text was quoted by Epiphanius of Cyprus (315-403) in the context of a diatribe against women who functioned as priests in the Collyrian sect. Epiphanius was a misogynist who described women as “feeble, untrustworthy and of mediocre intelligence”. He also says in the same passage: “Of course, the devil knows how to make women spew forth ridiculous teachings”, and: “the Church has to fight such feminine madness”. The Disdascalia text also found its way into the Statutua  Ecclesiae Antiqua (8th cent. France) and from there into the earliest law books of the Church (Gratian 1140 A.D).


It is instructive to read a reflection by Scotus (1266 - 1308) in his discussion on why women cannot be ordained priests. He says: “I do not believe that by the institution of the Church or by the precept of the apostles there was removed any useful degree [= ecclesiastical grade?] towards salvation from any person, and much less from a whole sex in life. Therefore if neither the Apostles nor the Church are able to remove from any one person, and much less from the whole female sex, any useful degree towards salvation, unless Christ, who is their head, intended that it be removed, then it must be that Christ, who instituted this sacrament, laid it down by precept.”[212] In other words: the Church could not by itself leave women out. It must have been done on Jesus’ explicit command! But that is precisely begging the question. There was no explicit command. So, let us go back to Jesus.

Non-decisions by Jesus


What can we prove from the non-fact of Jesus not choosing women among the twelve apostles? The answer is: nothing. There are so many significant elements in our Catholic faith and practice that Jesus did not decide, but which were later decided upon by the Church. Often it involved modifying what Jesus himself had done.


¨      Although Jesus followed a liberal interpretation of Jewish law, such as is clear from the way he looked on the Sabbath, he never abolished Mosaic Law as such.[213]  At the Council of Jerusalem in 51 AD, the leaders of the early Church declared that Mosaic Law was no longer of obligation to Christians except with regard to some practical pastoral measures.


¨      Jesus Christ formed various groups of disciples, such as the 12 apostles, the 72 disciples and the band of women disciples.[214] It was left to the Church to gradually give a more concrete expression to the sacrament of ordination. This resulted first in the establishment of deacons, then in appointing overseers (bishops) and elders (priests). It is only by the time of the Council of Trent that these three “holy orders” were clearly distinguished from the many minor ministries which had also arisen in the course of time.


¨      Jesus gave the power to bind and to loosen and to forgive sins.[215] However it was only gradually that the sacrament of confession fully developed. This also applies to the legal conditions of  ‘jurisdiction’ that is: who has the sacramental power to forgive sins, as is now contained in church law.


¨      Jesus did not specify anything regarding the sacraments of marriage, confirmation and anointing of the sick. Perhaps, the beginning of these sacraments can be seen in some of Jesus’ symbolical actions such as the miracle at the wedding of Cana, or his healing the sick. But Jesus did not in any way explicitly institute any of these sacraments. Does that mean, however, that they do not have a valid place in the practice of the Church, or that the Church had no right to institute them or regulate them as it does today?


¨      For Jesus, the inspired word lay in the Hebrew scriptures. He never left instructions about the writing of the four Gospels, or about the Letters which his Apostles would write later. These things happened spontaneously under the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Does Jesus’ silence about the inspiration of these New Testament texts mean that they were not inspired? Or does it mean that the Church did not have the authority and competence to determine which of the books were genuine, which not?


¨      Jesus Christ did not found religious orders and congregations. He did not establish the present structures in the Church: the Roman curia, ecumenical councils, bishops’ conferences and so on. Did he not leave all these things to his Church? Does his silence on these matters mean disapproval?


¨      Jesus Christ did not establish church law, or define its provisions. He did not envision the beatification and canonisation of saints, the consecration of churches and cathedrals, priestly training to be given in seminaries, and so. Can his silence on all these topics be construed as his having laid down a perpetual norm against them?


It is utterly ridiculous to read into a thing Jesus did not do his laying down a permanent norm that would need to be followed for all time by the future Church. This is all the more so when we understand the background of Jesus’ actions: the reason why he did certain things and why he omitted others.

Jesus’ vision

In practically all matters of faith and practice, Jesus did not determine any of the details. What he did - - and this was his crucial contribution -- he presented ideals. In what he did and said he laid down principles that were to form the foundation for the Church's future faith and life.


For instance, Jesus never established religious orders or congregations. On the other hand, by his sketching the counsels of perfection, Jesus outlined the principles on which later religious life could be based. It was up to the community of future believers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to give various colourful forms to his vision in this regard.


The same applies to Jesus involvement with women. It is clear that in his kingdom women would take the same place as men. This has been explained at greater length in chapter 5. Whereas in the old dispensation women took second place to men, since only men were full members of the covenant, in his kingdom women were baptised and became disciples on a precisely equal footing. Though Jesus himself did not express this specifically, it is clear that this principle about women –  which St. Paul expressed explicitly: “No longer male or female, but all are one in Christ” (Gal 3,28) - - implicitly requires an inclusion of women in the ministerial priesthood as it was going to be developed by the Church.


However, why then did Jesus  not include women among the apostolic twelve?



What Jesus himself could implement of his vision was clearly limited by the conditions of his time and his own specific circumstances. We should not forget that Jesus had to present his message to a society that was completely patriarchal both from a religious and socio-cultural point of view. The roles, which Jesus’ contemporaries attributed to men and women were totally different from what they are now. Though Jesus had close women disciples, he could not, without complicating his message enormously, have women in leadership roles that would be totally misunderstood at the time.


Remember that his public ministry only lasted for three years, most of which were spent in preparing his Galilean compatriots for the totally new religious vision that he preached. He had to travel from village to village on foot. There were no newspapers, radio or TV bulletins. There are only fifty-two weeks in a year and he could only address one crowd at a time. Expecting Jesus to solve and put into practice every implication of his world-changing vision is totally unrealistic.


We can see the same restriction at work regarding the abolition of slavery. Though Jesus’ vision implied a total equality for all - - and again it is Paul who saw this clearly! - -, Jesus himself did not make an explicit plea for its abolition. The question is simply: what could he do within the short time available to him? On the other hand when he was nailed on the cross he drew to himself the injustices of all time, including slavery and the oppression of women. And by rising from the tomb he won, in principle, freedom from every form of unjust domination.

Understanding symbolism


For the apostolic team Jesus chose the number twelve, to symbolise the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve sons of Jacob. It was natural for him to choose twelve men to express this symbol, but what was significant was not their manhood, but their starting a new Israel. Maleness was not the point of the symbolism.


On the other hand, Jesus’ actions were inclusive.


Jesus was as sensitive to women as to men. He responded with love to the repentant prostitute who poured ointment on his feet, the widow of Naim who walked behind the bier of her dead son, the woman who was bent double with arthritis, the widow in the Temple who put two small coins in the offering box and the women of Jerusalem who wept as they saw Jesus carrying his cross.[216]


Jesus learned from women and drew them into his ministry: the woman suffering from a flow of blood; the Syro-Phoenician mother whose faith he praised; Martha’s sister Mary whose discipleship he upheld although she upset the conventional expectations of a woman’s role; the Samaritan woman who became the apostle to her own village; and Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Suzanna who were part of the apostolic band. Do these symbolic actions of Jesus not cry out for the inclusion of women in the ministerial priesthood?[217]


 Recent research has again highlighted that community meals played an important part in  Jesus’ ministry. At all these events, as far as we can find out from the Gospels, women were present. So we can presume the same was true about the Last Supper. Moreover, the Last Supper was specifically the Passover meal at which, according to Jewish law, the women of the family were also to be present.[218] We can presume therefore with full confidence that women were there when Jesus said: “Do this in commemoration of me”. These words were also spoken to women.[219] Who is therefore to say that women were excluded by Jesus himself  from participation in the future ministry?


The claim that Jesus barred women from the ministry cannot be substantiated, neither from scripture nor from tradition.

Readings from Women Priests web site


Selections from the ‘Didascalia Apostolorum’


Selections from the ‘Apostolic Constitutions’


 Jesus Christ:

* chose twelve apostles

* did not directly fight male dominance

* was truly human

* grew in wisdom

* did not know everything

* left decisions to the later Church

* was open to women

* established a radically new baptism & priesthood


SuzanneTunc, ‘The meals of Jesus‘ community’

Marjorie Reiley Maguire, ‘Bible, liturgy concur:  women were there’



























[202] Inter Insigniores, no  9.12

[203] Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, no 2.

[204]  Titus 2,3-4.

[205]  1 Timothy 5,3-10.

[206]  Ignatius of Antioch greets ‘the virgins and the order of widows’ (Philippians § 15). See also Origen, Commentary on Romans 10,17.

[207]  Didascalia ch. 15; G. Homer, The Didascalia Apostolorum,  Oxford 1929; text adapted to modern expression by me.

[208]  Didascalia ch. 15.

[209]  See chapter 10.

[210]  Didascalia ch. 16.

[211] The General Council of Trullo (692 AD) endorsed the Didascalia in these words: “It has also seemed good to this holy Council, that the eighty-five canons, received and ratified by the holy and blessed Fathers before us, and also handed down to us in the name of the holy and glorious Apostles should from this time forth remain firm and unshaken for the cure of souls and the healing of disorders” (canon 2).

[212] Duns Scoti Opera Omnia, ed. Vives, Paris 1894, vol. 24, ‘Reportata Parisiensia’, Liber 4, Distinctio 25, Quaestio 2, & 18; pp.367-371.

[213] cf. Matthew 5,17-20.

[214]   Luke 8,1-4.

[215]  Matthew 18,18; John 20,23.

[216] Luke 7,36-50; 7,11-17, 21,1-4; 23,27-31.

[217] Mark 5,21-43; 7,24-30; Luke 10,38-42; 8,1-3; John 4,7-42; Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘Women Apostles: The Testament of Scripture’, in Women and Catholic Priesthood, Anne Marie Gardener (ed.), New York 1976, pp. 94-102; Jane Massyngberde Ford, ‘Women Leaders in the New Testament’, in Women Priests, A. & L. Swidler (eds), New York 1977, pp. 132-134; Evelyn Stagg and Frank Stagg, Women in the World of Jesus, Philadelphia 1978; Elisabeth   Moltmann-Wendel, The Women around Jesus, London 1982;  A  Land Flowing with Milk and Honey,  London  1986,   pp. 137-148; Mary Grey, Redeeeming the Dream, London 1989,  esp.  pp.   95-103; Frank Wheeler, ‘Women in the Gospel of John’, in Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, Joplin 1995; Jo Ann Davidson, ‘Women in Scripture’, in Women in Ministry, Nancy Vyhmeister (ed.), Berrien Springs 1998, pp. 157-186.

[218]  Exodus 12,1-14.

[219]   Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, London 1966, pp. 46-47; SuzanneTunc, Des femmes aussi suivaient Jésus, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1998, pp. 69-78; Marjorie Reiley Maguire, ‘Bible, litrugy concur: women were there’, National Catholic Reporter (1998) June 5.


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