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Letter to Women

Chapter 16.

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

Genuine Tradition

As Catholics we believe that Jesus Christ entrusted the ‘deposit of faith’ to his apostles. They in turn passed this on to the young churches they founded and these have, through one century after the next, handed it on to us. This is the Tradition. Now the Tradition was not, and is not, a collection of clearly defined truths. It is a complex, dynamic persuasion, a living practice whose contents are only gradually fully discovered and more clearly defined. Jesus words apply here about the householder who brings out of his storeroom ‘things new and old’.[289]


It has always been recognised in the history of the Church that the real Gospel was not a written text. Paul said: “You are a letter from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts”.[290] In terms of the tradition of faith, this came to mean that Christ had entrusted to his community of believers an internal awareness of his revelation that exceeded everything written in either the New Testament, or in later Church documents. It was the reality in the consciousness of the believing community, the ‘Gospel in the heart’. Clement of Alexandria expressed it in this way: “By the Saviour’s teaching, given to the apostles, the unwritten tradition of written tradition has been handed down to us, written by the power of God in new hearts, which correspond to the newness in the book of Isaiah.”[291]  Nicephorus of Constantinople stated: “Everything done in the Church is Tradition, including the Gospel, since Jesus Christ wrote nothing but put his word into the souls of people.”[292]


St. Thomas Aquinas says, with St Augustine, that all Scripture, including the New Testament, when considered as written and therefore external to the heart of people, is a mere letter that kills. External means of communication continue to be used under the New Dispensation but these are only secondary realities. Their role is merely to support the interior fruit, the primary reality. They are are only a help. The central reality is the grace of the Holy Spirit  i.e., the grace in which the new law properly consists, the law of the Spirit written not in ink, but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.[293]


The concept of the ‘Gospel in the heart’ was taken up strongly by Catholic theologians in their defence of traditional doctrine against the Reformers who narrowed revelation to only those truths explicitly stated in Sacred Scripture.[294] Joseph Ratzinger, the present Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine, has shown that the ‘Gospel in the heart’ was very much discussed at the Council of Trent (1601 - 1612 AD). Cardinal Cervini proposed to the Council three principles and foundations of our faith:

1.      The sacred books which were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

2.      The gospel which our Lord did not write, but taught by word of mouth and implanted in people’s hearts, and part of which the evangelists later wrote down, while much was simply entrusted to the hearts of the faithful.

3.      Guidance of the Spirit since the Son of God was not going to physically abide with us for ever, he sent the Holy Spirit, who was to reveal the mysteries of God in the hearts of the faithful and teach the Church all truth until the end of time.[295]


When it comes to specific questions, such as “Can women too be ordained priests?”, we have to be extremely careful. For such truths may be contained in the internal core Tradition without the carriers of that Tradition even being aware of it. Cardinal Newman has written extensively on such pregnant, latent Tradition.

“Naturally as the inward idea of divine truth, such as has been described, passes into explicit form by the activity of our reflective powers, still such an actual delineation is not essential to its genuineness and perfection. A peasant may have such a true impression, yet be unable to give any intelligible account of it, as will easily be understood. But what is remarkable at first sight is this, that there is good reason for saying that the impression made upon the mind need not even be recognized by the parties possessing it. It is no proof that persons are not possessed, because they are not conscious, of an idea. Nothing is of more frequent occurrence, whether in things sensible or intellectual, than the existence of such unperceived impressions  .  .  .  Consider, when persons would trace the history of their own opinions in past years, how baffled they are in the attempt to fix the date of this or that conviction, their system of thought having been all the while in continual, gradual, tranquil expansion; so that it were as easy to follow the growth of the fruit of the earth, ‘first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear’, as to chronicle changes, which involved no abrupt revolution, or reaction, or fickleness of mind, but have been the birth of an idea, the development, in explicit form, of what was already latent within it  .  .  . Now, it is important to insist on this circumstance, because it suggests the reality and permanence of inward knowledge, as distinct from explicit confession. The absence, or partial absence, or incompleteness of dogmatic statements is no proof of the absence of impressions or implicit judgments, in the mind of the Church. Even centuries might pass without the formal expression of a truth, which had been all along the secret life of millions of faithful souls.[296]

Unpacking the True Tradition


We can now tackle the question: “Is the priestly ordination of women contained in the Church’s Tradition?” Twenty centuries of  experience as Jesus’ community has taught us to distinguish different areas within Tradition: root convictions, explicit testimonies and implied beliefs. Some examples may clarify what I mean.  


          Catholics have grown used to accept the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her Bodily Assumption into heaven as doctrines of faith. These truths are not found in Scripture and they were not taught by the apostles. They were contained in a deep conviction that the redemption Jesus Christ had brought us, was fully implemented in his mother. The faithful carried this conviction from the earliest times. This was the root Tradition, which remained latent for a long time. Then we find some Fathers of the Church expressing their belief in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption explicitly.  The beliefs of the faithful were also implied in what they did, such as feasts and devotions to Mary, which revealed the depth of the latent Tradition. Now these various aspects of Tradition were not separate. Together they formed part of the one living Tradition.


Or consider the doctrines of the primacy and infallibility of the Pope. Jesus gave authority to the apostles which was the root Tradition, but explicit testimonies to the role of the ‘bishop of Rome’ only emerged in later centuries. The Church’s persuasion that the Pope has special authority was implicitly, and thus latently, contained in the acceptance of papal supremacy. But St. Peter himself would not have been able to formulate the extent and limits of the Pope’s infallibility in ex cathedra pronouncements as declared by Vatican I.  And, in spite of his respect for Mary, he might well have rejected as esoteric gobbledegook the phrase that “the blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin in the first instant of her conception, in view of the merits of Christ.”[297]


That women can be ordained priests is contained in the root conviction that men and women are baptised equally in Christ, which implies openness to all the sacraments including priestly ordination. This root conviction was carried by the sensus fidelium, as explained in chapter six. Women’s openness to holy orders was given explicit recognition in the ministries entrusted to women, especially in their sacramental ordination to the diaconate. It was also implied in the devotion to Mary as priest. It manifests itself today in the fact that many Catholic women feel called to be priests. In fact, the implicit belief erupted in many forms throughout the centuries.

Women in priestly ministry?

New historical evidence confirms that in some parts of the Church women have functioned as priests. For instance, in the South of Italy tomb stones attest to the presence of women priests. In the catecomb of Tropea a fifth-century inscription reads: “Sacred to her good memory. Leta the presbytera lived 40 years, 8 months, 9 days, for whom her husband set up this tomb. She preceded him in peace on the day before the Ides of May”. A sarcophagus in Salona mentions: “I, Theodosius, bought for three golden solids a plot in the cemetery of Salona from the presbytera Flavia Vitalia.”  The term ‘presbytera’ is sometimes used in ancient sources as ‘the wife of a priest’. But in these cases the evidence points against it. In 494 Pope Gelasius wrote a letter to the southern provinces of Italy, condemning the ministry of women. “We have heard to our annoyance that divine affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong.”


An analysis of the available facts makes Professor Giorgio Otranto conclude that the ministry of women priests was a fact in the three provinces of Lucania, Bruttium and Sicily. It is confirmed by the testimony of Bishop Atto of Vercelli (9th cent.). Atto stressed that in the ancient church not only men, but also women were ordained and officiated as the leaders of communities; they were called presbyterae and they assumed the duty of preaching, directing, and teaching.[298]


In a separate study, historical inscriptions about ‘women bishops’ have been analysed, including Theodora Episcopa, the mother of Pope Paschal I (817-824). The previous interpretation of these having been the wives of bishops is rejected, after careful analysis. A basis in pastoral practice is no longer ruled out. “The women bishops mentioned in inscriptions have in research always been interpreted as having been the wives of bishops, in harmony with the Catholic paradigm that denied any plausibility to female bishops. However, on the ground of tombstone evidence it seems likely that some women in Rome itself and in the Roman provinces actually functioned as bishops.”[299]


It would also seem that some persons in the ‘Celtic Church’ were more open to women in the ministry. The Celtic Church, mainly present in Ireland and Britain, manifested divergent practices in the fifth to the ninth centuries such as the 84-year Easter cycle, the Celtic tonsure, variations in liturgy, baptismal rites and monastic rule. There were also differences regarding episcopal consecration and jurisdiction. Cogitosus tells us that Saint Brigid of Kildare (died 528 AD) was ordained bishop by Bishop Mel. Brigid had jurisdiction over the double monastery of nuns and monks. She invited her friend St. Conleth to function as the local bishop for the people, under her jurisdiction.[300] St. Hilda of Whitby in England (614 - 680) held similar jusrisdictional powers.


Another glimpse of Celtic practice can be seen in the Breton region of Gaul at the beginning of the 6th century where two Celtic priests were reported to be assisted at Mass by women. “While the priests distributed the eucharist, the women held the chalices and administered the blood of Christ to the people.”[301] Much of what really happened has been obliterated by the imposition of Roman discipline on Celtic communities in later centuries.


Women priests may have existed in the Saxon dioceses of Germany, the Netherlands and England. The 10th century Chronicle of Widukind mentions ‘priests of either sex’.[302]  The historian George Fabricius, who drew from the annals at Quedlinburg, mentions eleven abbesses who were ordained as sacerdos maxima, among them Ebba, abbess of the monastery at Coldingham, and Etheldreda of Ely. Three of the abbesses of Quedlinburg were ordained as sacerdos maxima. The ordination of 11th century Mechtild took place in the cathedral of Halberstadt in the presence of twelve archbishops and bishops.[303]  Croziers and other episcopal insignia have been found in the tombs of early medieval abbesses.[304]


These examples do not prove that ordaining women was a common practice. On the contrary, they may have been exceptions that were later rigorously suppressed by the dominating Latin culture. What it does show, though, is that Christian awareness, left to its own, would admit women to the priesthood. They reveal a natural openness in Christian consciousness.


During the Middle Ages, when the whole weight of Latin anti-feminine culture was brought to bear on women in the Church, we find the surprising devotion to Mary of Magdala. And Mary, it should be remembered, was seen to have done in her life what no other woman could ever dream of doing. According to ancient tradition, the apostles did not believe in the resurrection of Christ. It was Mary of Magdala who preached the Gospel to them and brought them back to accepting Christ. Peter had objected to Mary’s role because she was only a woman. Then Levi rebuked him: “I see that you are contending against women like adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.”[305] Tradition had it that Mary later traveled to France and preached the Gospel there.[306]


Preaching was the preserve of priests. Women could not be ordained priests because they were forbidden to preach.[307] But Mary of Magdala had preached. And devotion to her soared. We find her on statues, paintings, friezes, altar panels and manuscript illustrations. Usually she is presented either as receiving her commission from Christ, as reading Scripture or preaching to townsfolk. A twelfth-century Psalter of St. Albans in England shows her addressing the assembled apostles who respectfully listen to her, their heads bowed. She obviously functioned as a counter-heroine.[308] And Mary of Magdala was not alone.


The Middle Ages knew legends of many women saints who had disguised themselves men to become monks: Saints Pelagia, Marina, Apollinaria, Euphrysinia, Reparata, Theodora and Hilaria, to mention just a few.[309] In a twelfth-century Church at Vézelay in the South of France, we find, on the capital of one of the columns a depiction of St. Eugenia who wears a  tonsure and habit, but who also exposes her breasts. The scene of the capital recounts the fact that Eugenia had to reveal herself as a woman before court when she had been falsely accused of having committed adultery. This happened after she had ruled the monastry for some years as its abbot.[310] Catholics of the day obviously knew that women could do more than the passive roles ascribed to them by men.

St. Catherine of Siena (1347 - 1380), Doctor of the Church, wanted to disguise herself and so  become a Dominican priest. The plan did not work. Later she expressed her frustration to God in prayer. “My sex, as you know, is against me in many ways, both because it is not highly considered by men, and also because it is not good, for decency’s sake, for a woman to mix with men.” But God reassured her: “Am I not He who created the human race, and divided it into male and female? I spread abroad the grace of my Spirit where I will. In my eyes there is neither male nor female, rich nor poor, but all are equal, for I can do all things with equal ease.”[311]  It resonated with St. Catherine’s conviction that she could be a priest. The God of her visions did not tell her to submit to her subordinate position as a woman. Many other women stood up against their patriarchal environment, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Mechtild of Hackeborn, Catherine of Genoa and Julian of Norwich. Their significance is only now coming to light.[312]

In recent days this deeply Catholic conviction was shown again when Bishop Felix Davidek ordained women as deacons and priests in the Czech Republic during the days of communist persecution. At a diocesan synod he stated: “Today humankind needs and is literally awaiting the ordination of women. The Church should not oppose it. This is the reason why we have gathered here. This fact leads us to the need for prayer and the need for sacrament. Nothing else. Society needs the service of women. It needs the service of women as a special instrument for the sanctification of the second half of humankind.”[313]


Readings from Women Priests web site


Giorgio Otranto, ‘Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity’ &  ‘The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood’


Letter by Bishop Atto of Vercelli


Letter by Bishops Licinius, Melanius, and Eustochius on Celtic women in the ministry


 Excerpts from biography of Catherine of Siena


The veneration of Mary of Magdala


Interview with Ludmila Javorová, first Czech Catholic woman priest





























[289]  Matthew 13,52.

[290]  2 Corinthians 3,3; compare especially Jeremiah 31,31-34.

[291]  Stromata, book 6, ch.15,131, 4-5.

[292] Antirrheticus, III, 7.

[293] Augustine, De Spir. et Litt., 14, 23 and 17, 30; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, q. 106, a. 2. See ST I-II, q. 106, a. I, sed cont.; a. 2, ad 3 III, q. 42, a. 4, ad 2, q. 72, a 1l; Comm. in 2 Cor., c. 3, lect. I; In Hebr., c. 8,lect. 3 end.

[294] See Yves Congar, Tradition and Traditions, London 1965, pp. 494 - 508.

[295] J. Ratzinger, ‘On the Interpretation of the Tridentine Decree on Tradition’, in Revelation and Tradition, by K. Rahner and J. Ratzinger, London 1966, pp. 50-68.

[296] John Henry Cardinal Newman, ‘A University Sermon Preached on the Purification’, § 11 & 13; University Sermons, Oxford 1843 (italics are mine).

[297]  Pius IX, dogmatic definition in Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, Denzinger no 1641.

[298] Giorgio Otranto, ‘Note sul sacerdozio femminile nell’antichita in margine a una testimonianza di Gelasio I’, Vetera Christianorum 19 (1982): 341-60; tr. by Mary Ann Rossi,  ‘Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity’, Journal of Feminist Studies 7 (1991) no 1, pp. 73 - 94. Karen Jo Torjesen provides valuable background information to women’s leadership in Christian communities: When Women Were Priests, New York 1993.

[299]  Ute Eisen, Amtsträgerinnen im frühen Christentum, Göttingen 1996, pp. 193-209; see also Dorothy Irvin, ‘The Ministry of Women in the Early Church: The Archeological Evidence’, Duke Divinity School Review 2 (1980) pp. 76-86.

[300]  ‘Vita Sanctae Brigidae’ in Th. Messingham, Florilegium Insulae Sanctorum seu Vitae et Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae, Paris 1624, ch. VI, p. 193ff.; see also J.H.Bernard and R.Atkinson (ed.), The Irish Liber Hymnorum,  vol. II, London 1898, pp. 41, 192-193; W. Stokes, The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, London 1905, p. 67; L.Hardinge, The Celtic Church in Britain, London 1972, p. 190.

[301]  L. Duchesne, “Lovocat et Catihern, prêtres bretons de temps de saint Melaine,” Revue de Bretagne et de Vendée 7 (1885) pp.5-18.

[302]   H.E. Lohman and P. Hirsch, Die Sachsengeschichte des Widukind von Korvei, Hannover 1935, p. 127. The reading is confirmed in various manuscripts, see p. 127 note d.

[303]  G. Fabricius, Originum Illustrissimae Stirpis Saxonicae, libri septem, Leipzig 1597, vol. I, p. 27; vol. II, pp. 100-105; vol. V, p. 551. The Quedlingburg Annals, preserved in the museum of Dresden, were lost at the bombardment of 1945. Much can be confirmed, however, from F. E. Kettner, Antiquitates Quedlinburgenses, Leipzig 1712.

[304]   Sr. Telchilde de Montessus, Insignata Abbatium, unpublished manuscript at Jouarre France, 1962; cited with other data in Joan Morris, Against God and Nature, London 1973, pp. 130-139. Morris’s book was published in the USA as The Lady was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops, New York 1973.

[305]  ‘The Gospel of Mary’, § 17; The Nag Hammadi Library, J. Robinson (ed.), San Francisco 1988, pp. 526-527.

[306]  Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘Mary Magdalen, Apostle to the Apostles’, UTS Journal (April 1975) pp. 22-30.

[307]  See chapter 10.

[308] J.H. Emminghaus and L. Kuppers, Maria Magdalena, Recklinghausen  1964; E. Duperray (ed.), Marie Madeleine dans la mystique, les arts et les lettres. Actes du Colloque international, Avignon, 20-22 juillet 1988, Paris 1989; Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor, New York 1995; Margret E. Arminger, Die verratene Päpstin, Freiburg 1997; W. Eggen, ‘Mary Magdalene’s Touch in a Family Church’, New Blackfriars 78 (1997) pp. 428-438; E. de Boer,  Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth, New York 1997; Mary Magdalene and the Disciple Jesus Loved, New York 2000; Theresia Saers, Een Alabaster Kruik, Tilburg 1998.

[309]  J. Ansor, ‘The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism’, Viator 5 (1974) pp. 1-34.

[310]  P. Loose-Noji, ‘Temptation and Redemption: A Monastic Life in Stone’, in Holloway et al. (ed.), Equally in God’s Image. Women in the Middle Ages,  pp. 220 - 232.

[311] Raymund of Capua (14th cent.), The Life of St Catherine of Siena, Harvill Press edition, London 1960, pp. 33-34, 108-109.

[312]  From an avalanche of publications, see Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, Hildegard of Bingen, London 1990 (excellent bibliography); Juliana of Norwich, Showings, New York 1978 (good introduction by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh; Mary Grey tells me that Juliana carried real pastoral responsibility for a wide area). See also: Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden From History: Rediscovering Women in History, New York 1976; Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koontz (eds.), Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Boston 1977; P. Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua (+ 203) to Marguerite Porete (+ 1310),  Cambridge 1984; Gerda Lerner, Women and History. Vol. II. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy, Oxford 1993.

[313] M. Eliasova, ‘Davidek Of Czechoslovakia’, NewWomen NewChurch,  22 (1999) pp. 7-8.



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