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Letter to Women

Chapter 15.

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

Verdict on the presumed ‘tradition’

The Second Vatican Council defined that Scripture and Tradition are not two separate sources of revelation. They belong together.

“Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal. Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit  .  .  . Sacred Tradition and sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church.”[275]

The implication is that, in order to be valid, tradition must be scriptural. And a tradition does not become scriptural just because Fathers of the Church, theologians or the magisterium of the Church quote some scriptural texts. In order to be validly scriptural, the use made of Scripture must be legitimate. This means that only those written sources are valid sources of tradition which employ Scripture according to the intended meaning of the inspired authors. In this respect the presumed ‘tradition’ banning women from ordination has been proved to be a fake, for its scriptural basis was inadequate.

When we go to a museum and we see an ancient human skull, we accept the information presented by the museum on its antiquity, origin and significance. We rely on the museum having a scientific basis for such claims. But what if the scientific basis is flawed? For 41 long years, from 1912 to 1953, the British Museum in London exhibited the cranium and jawbone of the socalled ‘Piltdown Man’, a supposedly ancient human from the Pleistocene period. The presumed scientific basis turned out to be a mixture of deliberate fraud and archeological incompetence - the jawbone belonged to an orang utang! The same applies to ‘traditions’ in the Church. Their value does not depend on how long they have been exhibited, but on their basis.

But has the Church had its own ‘Piltdown Man’ embarassments?

Unscriptural traditions

In chapter 2, I have already outlined the presumed ‘tradition’ that defended slavery. It was based on misunderstood texts in the Old Testament, in the Gospels and in St. Paul’s Letters. Remember, as late as 1866 the Congregation for Doctrine taught that it was “not against Divine Law [= Scripture!] for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”. The fact that slavery was upheld for nineteen centuries by Fathers of the Church, medieval theologians and Popes did not give the tradition any greater validity. For it rested on a flawed scriptural basis.


Another infamous example has been the socalled ‘tradition’ that excluded non-Catholics from salvation. Until at least 1854, the official teaching emanating from Rome was that there was no salvation outside the Church. Here are some statements by the magisterium:


¨      In a profession of faith prescribed by Pope Innocentius III in 1208 we read: “We believe that outside the one, holy, Roman, Catholic Church no one will be saved”.

¨      In the IVth Lateran Council of 1215: “There is one universal Church of the faithful outside which no one at all is saved”.

¨      Boniface VIII solemnly defined in his Bull Unam Sanctam of 1302: “We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff”.

¨      The Council of Florence in 1442, under Pope Eugene IV: “[The Holy Roman Church]   firmly believes, professes and preaches that no-one remaining outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews, heretics or schismatics, can become partakers of eternal life; but they will go to the ‘eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’ (Mt. 25:41), unless before the end of their life they are received into it. For union with the body of the Church is of so great importance that the sacraments of the Church are helpful only for those remaining in it; and fasts, almsgiving, and other works of piety, and exercises of a militant Christian life bear eternal rewards for them alone. And no one can be saved, even if he sheds his blood for the name of Christ, unless he remains in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church”.[276]


We find the ‘tradition’ already with the Fathers: Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine and Fulgentius.  The ‘tradition’ was mainly based on two Scripture texts: “I give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  And: “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved. Who does not believe will be condemned”.[277] Through the centuries it was argued that these texts are exclusive in what they state. They attribute universal power to the hierarchy and make baptism the only means of salvation. However, Jesus’ absolute way of speaking is a specific literary form, the hyperbole, a characteristic Jewish idiom to make a point.[278]  Jesus stressed the importance of baptism without entering into the wider question of how virtuous people are saved in and through their own religions. The exclusive interpretation went beyond his intention.


In the 19th century the Roman authorities began to modify their teaching, stating that one could belong to the Church also ‘in desire’ and that this sufficed for salvation. Vatican II completed this process by clearly stating that there is salvation for those outside the Church.

“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”[279]

This recognition has the following implications: The presumed ‘tradition’ that was thought to limit salvation to Catholics and on which the magisterum based its doctrinal justification was, in fact, not part of the real Tradition handed down from Christ. The socalled ‘tradition’, which was claimed to be scriptural has been proved to be not scriptural. The biblical texts were quoted illegitimately. Their interpretation went beyond the inspired and intended sense. The real Tradition that came down from Christ and the apostles was contained in other Scripture texts, such as Christ’s respect for the religious sincerity of Romans, Samaritans and Syro-Phenicians; and Paul’s teaching that God judges everyone, Jews or non-Jews according to the dictates of their own conscience.[280] Only this Tradition was valid because its basis was biblical.

The biblical basis for not ordaining women

In the presumed ‘tradition’ for not admitting women to ordination four scriptural reasons were given. None of these holds up to scrutiny as we saw in the preceeding chapters.


Women were believed not to have been created in God’s image, at least not to the full extent men were. We could find no satisfactory scriptural basis for this assertion.  The first creation story in Genesis was misunderstood, in dependence on rabbinical interpretations. Similar rabbinical remarks in Paul’s Letters can be shown to be typical Pauline rationalizations, not doctrinal statements. The real source was cultural prejudice: “How can anyone maintain that woman is in the image of God when she is demonstrably subject to the dominion of man and has no authority?”[281] (chapter 9)


It was said that no woman was ever allowed to teach in Church. The prohibition was derived from 1 Timothy 2,12 and 1 Corinthians 14,34-35. These texts do not, however, imply a permanent exclusion of women from teaching in Church. They reflect a specific measure taken by local church leaders which are not applicable to later times. The justification for accepting the ban on women’s teaching had a cultural origin. “This is so because teaching in public is not proper for a woman because of the weakness of her intellect and the instability of her emotions, of which defects women suffer more than men by a notable common law. But a teacher needs to have a vivid intellect to recognise the truth and be emotionally stable  .  .  .”[282] (chapter 10).


Women were believed to carry the punishment for Eve’s sin. The references in ‘tradition’ to Genesis incorrectly put most of the blame on Eve. Moreover, any guilt incurred by the Fall was wiped out by Christ, and men and women share equally in Christ’s redemption. Prejudice was again at the root of this incredible distortion of Scripture. “Women are unfit to receive ordination, for ordination is reserved for perfect members of the church, since it is given for the distribution of grace to other men. But women are not perfect members of the church, only men are. Moreover, woman was the effective cause of damnation since she was the origin of transgression and Adam was deceived through her, and thus she cannot be the effective cause of salvation, because holy orders causes grace in others and so salvation”[283] (chapter 11).


Jesus Christ had deliberately left women out of the apostolic team, it was said. He wanted to exclude women from the priesthood for all time to come. A study of the gospels proved this to be an insupportable conclusion. Jesus left women out of his team for practical reasons, as an ad hoc measure. So many non-decisions by Jesus were later on filled in by the Church. Jesus’ vision clearly included women as equal in every respect and this logically requires their inclusion in the full priestly ministry.[284]  Blaming Jesus for exclusing women is mentioned first in the Didascalia (4th cent.) in the context of stopping widows from instructing converts.[285]  Unfortunately this text, and the social bias it contained, snowballed into becoming some kind of surrogate scriptural argument.  “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. 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  .  .  .  If it were required that women should teach, our Master himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us”[286] (chapter 12).


The final reason against the ordination of women, which is still favoured by the Congregation for Doctrine, is not scriptural at all. Jesus Christ was a man, so he can only be represented at the Eucharist by a man. The argument contradicts everything else we know from Scripture: women’s equal share in baptism, women’s equally reflecting Christ’s image, women’s already acting in the person of Christ, the priority of love rather than gender in Christ’s priesthood. It also has an abysmal origin. It springs from a mistaken biological interpretation. St. Thomas Aquinas who is quoted by the Congregation in support of its position, held that women cannot represent Christ because they cannot signify eminence of degree. “The active power of the semen always seeks to produce a thing completely like itself, something male. So if a female is produced, this must be because the semen is weak or because the material [provided by the female parent] is unsuitable, or because of the action of some external factor such as the winds from the south which make the atmosphere humid  .  .  .  A female is a deficient and misbegotten male”[287] (chapter 13).


The imagery of the bridegroom and bride may not be legitimately interpreted as confirmation of the representational argument, as Rome does. It is just one image among many. The ‘great mystery’ alluded at in Ephesians 5,32 does not refer to masculine incarnation, but to the inclusion of the Gentiles. There is no scriptural basis for contending that Christ had to become human as a man. Insisting on Christ’s maleness as a predominant eucharistic symbol distorts the true meaning of the sacrament (chapter 14).


What more needs to be said? The presumed ‘tradition’ had no authentic scriptural basis. Perhaps, there were mitigating circumstances for the medieval theologians, such as their inadequate rules of scriptural interpretation, defective knowledge of biology, insufficient access to reliable historical data, and the overwhelming and seductive power of Roman law. Such excuses do not hold good today. The practice of not-ordaining women can clearly be seen to have sprung from social and cultural prejudice. And as St. Cyprian aptly remarks: “A practice without truth is merely an ancient error.”[288]

Readings from Women Priests web site


John E Thiel, ‘Tradition and reasoning: a nonfoundationalist perspective’


Ida Raming, ‘The twelve apostles were men - - ’


Janet Cranshaw,  ‘Pondering the Issue of Women’s Ordination in the Roman Catholic Church’


 John Wijngaards

Genuine Tradition

* agrees with Scripture

* draws on proper knowledge

* grows in time























[275]  Dei Verbum, § 9 - 10.

[276] Denz. no 423; 430; 468; 714; in H.Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Herder 1965.

[277] Matthew 16,19; see also 18,18; Mark 16,16.

[278] For other examples read: Matthew 7,4; 23,24; 5,29; 5,34-35; 24,36; 12,30 (contrast with Mark 9,40!).

[279] Lumen Gentium § 16.

[280]  Matthew 8,5-13; John 4,7-26; Luke 10,29-37; Matthew 15,21-28; Mark 7,24-30; Romans 2,6-16

[281]  Pseudo-Ambrose, On I Corinthians 14,34; Gratian, Decretum Gratiani, Causa 33, question 5, ch. 19; Huguccio, Summa, Causa 33, qu. 5, ch. 13; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, qu. 93, art 4, ad 1.


[282] Richard of Middleton, Super Quarto Sententiarum, Dist. 25, a. 4, n. 1, § 11; John Duns Scotus, Opera Omnia, Liber 4, Distinctio 25, Quaestio 2, § 19.

[283]  Guido De Baysio, Rosarium super Decreto, Causa 27, quaestio 1, chapter 23; Gratian, Decree, Causa 33, qu. 5, ch. 19.

[284]  See chapters 5 and 12 above.

[285]  See chapter 12.

[286]  Disdascalia, ch. 15.

[287]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, qu. 92, art 1, ad 1.

[288]  Letter 74a. See Letters 71,3 and 73,13.

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