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Letter to Women

Chapter 19.

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 Devotion to Mary as Priest

In this chapter we will study another manifestation of latent Catholic Tradition which shows that the faithful, in their hearts of hearts, knew that women too could be ordained priests.  It follows from the fact that love for Mary has included down the centuries, among popes, theologians and people, a conviction that she is a model priest. In our time we have come to be more circumspect about Marian devotions, aware as we are that misunderstandings and excesses in previous centuries offended the sensitivity of many Christians in other denominations.


I want to make my purpose crystal clear. I am not advocating a return to the devotion to Mary Priest, however excellent its pedigree. I am simply pointing out its significance as a spontaneous witness to Catholic conviction that Mary was ‘as much a priest as any ordained man’. And if Mary is a priest, then any woman can be priest, since the priesthood is denied to women on the grounds of their being women. It reminds me of that famous court case in England involving a black slave.


In 1767 Granville Sharp, a pioneer campaigner for the abolition of slavery, tried to free a slave called Jonathan Strong, arguing in court that in England no human being can be held in slavery. The owner of the slave, however, won the court case as it was decided that a black person is not a full human being (!). Slaves, therefore, remain the property of their master even in England. Sharp did not give up. In 1772 he initiated another court case in Liverpool to free the black slave James Somersett. He only won the case after producing the expert witness of scientists who examined James and declared him a human being like everyone else. The court then decided that a slave, even a black person, gains freedom the moment he/she sets foot on English territory. For what applied to one black person, applied to all. The same is true in the case of Our Lady. In spite of all her privileges, she was and remains a woman.

The belief that Mary is a priest

With our short ecclesiastical memories we have almost forgotten that in the run up to its dogmatic definition in 1854, Mary’s Immaculate Conception was often justified on the grounds of her being a priest. Tradition frequently applied Hebrews 7,26 to her: “It is fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” The Benedictine prior Jacques Biroat wrote in 1666 that “Paul’s reasoning [in Hebrews 7,26] is relevant to Christ’s mother. She shares in the priesthood of her son and is the origin of our reconciliation to God. Therefore, she had to be entirely innocent and separated from sinners. She had to be preserved from original sin.” Mary was immaculately conceived because she had to be a priest without stain.


Mary has captured the Catholic imagination more than any other person except Jesus Christ. Generation after generation has seen in her the highest reflection of saintliness and love. Catholics have been fond of Mary because she is Jesus’ own mother. They also respected her as his closest associate in redemption, as his first ‘priest’.


A pastoral worker in Holland recently drew my attention to a sixth century mosaic depicting Mary wearing a chasuble and stole. She had come across its description while researching on the theme of Mary visiting Elisabeth. During the summer she and her husband planned their holiday around it. It took them to the ancient parish church of Parenzo in Croatia and, indeed, the coloured mosaic behind the altar showed Mary in priestly garments blessing a pregnant Elisabeth. For reasons that will become clear later on in this article, she, as most Catholics today, had not been aware of the link between Mary and the priesthood. Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657), the founder of the famous seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, could have told her differently:

“The Blessed Virgin’s greeting had the effect, on St. John in Elisabeth’s womb, of the sacramental words of baptism, sanctifying him and imparting the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit . . . Thus the Blessed Virgin, as bishop in the Church, confirmed the son of the high priest Zechariah, making him holy and, through the imposition of her power, imprinting the Holy Spirit on him.”[348]


All Christian believers share in Christ’s priesthood, but the priestly role ascribed to Mary went well beyond the common priesthood of the faithful. Ferdinand Chirino de Salazar SJ (1575-1646) echoed century after century of tradition when he wrote:

“Christ, ‘the anointed’, poured out the abundance of his anointing on Mary, making her a saint, a queen and a priest forever. Mary obtained a priesthood more eminent and excelling than that possessed by anyone else. For in unison with priests who are performing the sacred mysteries and together with Christ and in the same mystical way as he does, she always offers the Eucharistic sacrifice, just as, at one with him, she offered the sacrifice on Calvary.”[349]

Tradition focussed on Mary also as a sacrificial priest, a belief that had started in the early Church and that I want to emphasize, since this is the aspect of the priesthood of which Rome declares all women incapable.

Mary’s exclusion from ministry?


In the context of the Bridegroom and Bride argument, Rome has recently held out Mary as the model of  woman’s true vocation as mother and virgin.[350]  It presents this as a continuation of the ancient theme of Mary as mother and model of the Church. It has begun to speak of two dimensions in the Church: the marian one and the apostolic-petrine one.[351]


The apostolic-petrine dimension exists in the hierarchy. In this dimension bishops, priests and deacons represent Christ, the Bridegroom. The function can only be fulfilled by men, since Christ is male. Though Rome calls this a service, the priestly dimension holds the real power in the body of the Church: of teaching, governing and, most important to Rome, performing sacred rites such as the eucharistic sacrifice. The marian dimension consists in the response of love: presenting one’s body as a living sacrifice, giving witness to Christ and living a good Christian life. It corresponds to a woman’s double vocation of motherhood (giving life) and virginity (gift of self in celibacy). It corresponds to the church’s role as the Bride. In short it means the call to sanctity.


Whereas men can partake of both the marian and petrine dimensions, women share only in the marian one. This should not distress them, according to Rome, for the marian dimension is higher, is more sublime, than the petrine one.

“The Marian dimension of the Church is antecedent to that of the Petrine, without being in any way divided from it or being less complementary. Mary Immaculate precedes all others, including obviously Peter himself and the Apostles. This is so, not only because Peter and the Apostles, being born of the human race under the burden of sin, form part of the Church which is ‘holy from out of sinners’ [sic!], but also because their triple function [of teaching, governing and sanctifying] has no other purpose except to form the Church in line with the ideal of sanctity already programmed and prefigured in Mary. A comtemporary theologian has rightly stated that Mary is ‘Queen of the Apostles without any pretensions to apostolic powers: she has other and greater powers’ (H. U. von Balthasar, Neue Klarstellungen).”[352]


The picture is clear. The two key words are sanctity and power. Women should not have any pretensions to apostolic power, i.e. ordination, because their call to holiness is of a higher order. “A woman who desires priesthood is thus said to choose the ‘lesser part’, and to deny and betray the ‘more’ she is. In the past women were kept out of the priestly ministry on the pretext of their ‘inferior status’; now a ‘state of eminence’ is ascribed to them with non-ordination as the same result.”[353]


Much could be said at this point. Rome’s paternalistic attitude to women reminds me of an acquaintance of mine whose mother-in-law took up residence with the family for a long time. When she expressed the wish to drive the family car, he was at his wits end as to how to disssuade her. In the end he hit upon this ploy. He told her that it would be below her dignity to drive the car, since important people left the driving to their  ‘chauffeur’. I doubt whether it convinced her. Women, as little as men, are taken in by double speak.

“Mary is metaphorically relegated to hearth and home. There is not even speculation that Mary was present at the Last Supper. Her role on Calvary, at the resurrection, and at Pentecost is a private one, always secondary to the public role of the male apostles. The exaltation of this domesticated Mary as a model for women devalues actual women in practice  . . .  It promotes obedience, passivity, and subordination as key religious values for good women, the very values that were thrown out of the window by the women who announced the resurrection of Jesus to the apostles.”[354]

I do not intend to explore all aspects of the Pope’s Marian symbolism here.[355] In the context of our search for latent Tradition, I will restrict myself to pointing out that, in the age-old Mary Priest devotion, all those priestly, apostolic, petrine functions which are now being denied to women, were ascribed to Mary. In spite of her being a woman, real priestly powers were attributed to her.

Mary was a sacrificial priest

The Fathers of the Church pointed out that Mary belonged to a priestly family, as her relationship to Elizabeth shows. She was “Aaron’s staff which has budded forth as a guarantee of the eternal priesthood” (St. Methodius). According to legends Mary had spent her childhood in the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priests could enter and then once a year. “Who has ever seen or heard anything the like, that a woman was introduced into the intimacy of the Holy of Holies, a place inaccessible even to men?” (St.Germanus of Constantinople). The Fathers loved calling Mary ‘the sanctuary’, ‘the ark of the covenant’, ‘the golden thurible’ and ‘the altar of incense’, implying her priestly dignity. “Hail young woman, sacrificial priest, world-wide propitiation for mortals, by whom from the East to the West the name of God is glorified among all nations and who in every place offers a sacrifice of incense to his name, as the holy Malachi says” (Theodore the Studite).[356]


Mary’s priesthood was worked out much more in detail during the Middle Ages. Points of departure were the scriptural texts in which Mary was seen to have performed sacrificial functions. At the presentation in the Temple, for instance, Mary functioned as “an ordained virgin who offered Jesus for our reconciliation as a victim agreeable to God”, in the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Ubertino of Casale (1259-1330) added that there was no other priest. Only she could offer Jesus, and she was, after Jesus himself, the greatest of all priests. It became a common theme.

“When the sacred Virgin arrived at the altar, she knelt down, inflamed by the Holy Spirit more than the seraphim are, and holding her son in her arms, she offered him as a gift and acceptable sacrifice to God, praying in this way: ‘Accept, almighty Father, the oblation which I offer for the whole world. Accept now from the arms of your handmaid this holy morning sacrifice which will be offered to you again, later, from the arms of the cross as the evening sacrifice’.”[357]

Many theologians commented on the fact that Mary stood under the cross, in the posture of a sacrificing priest. Among them we find St. Antoninus of Florence, a Doctor of the Church (1389 - 1459).

“Mary is the ‘queen who stands at God’s right hand in golden apparel’ (Ps 45,14). She is also the righteous priestess because she did not spare her own son, but stood by the cross, not as blessed Ambrose says, to just witness the sufferings and death of her son, but to further the salvation of the human race, committed as she was to offering the Son of God for the salvation of the world.”[358]

As Fr. F. W. Faber put it in 1857: “Mary was the minister of the Incarnation. She had as little the right to come down from Calvary as a priest would have to leave the altar while the sacrifice of Mass is going on.”[359]

Was Mary’s being a woman not a problem?

As we have seen, in the Roman culture that dominated the thinking of the Latin Fathers no less than that of medieval theologians, it was inconceivable for a woman to be entrusted with the leadership roles implied in the priesthood. Women were considered inferior to men both intellectually and emotionally. As ‘incomplete human beings’ they could not hold any public office. Consequently they were deemed incapable of wielding sacred power or of representing Christ who, as a man, had been a complete human being. Because of their monthly periods women were also ‘a ritual risk’, best kept out of the sanctuary for fear of defilement. Theological rationalisations were added for good measure: Christ had not chosen a woman among the apostolic team; God kept women in submission in punishment for their share in original sin; Paul had forbidden women to teach, and so on. How did this apply to Mary?


During the first ten centuries the tradition of Mary’s priestly status grew without being explicitly confronted with the ban against women, though the tension was there. In the fourth century, Epiphanius of Salamis had pointed out that if Mary had been a priest, Jesus would have been baptised by her and not by John the Baptist. It did not stop tradition extolling Mary’s priestly dignity. But the contradiction was tackled head on only by legal-minded medieval scholars.


It was St. Albert the Great, Doctor of the Church (1200-1280), who formulated the classic solution. Mary has not received the sacramental character of Holy Orders, he tells us, but she possesses the substance of the sacrament in abundance. In any hierarchy, superiors possess all powers and dignities of their inferiors. Since Mary occupies the highest level in the Church, she possesses eminently whatever dignities and powers priests, bishops and even popes possess.


“Although the most blessed Virgin did not receive the sacrament of [Holy] Orders, she possessed in full whatever dignity and grace is conferred by them. And a sevenfold grace is conferred in Holy Orders; but she was full of grace in every way.

♦ Also, there are in the sacrament of orders: spiritual power, ministerial dignity, and executive power. But the most blessed Virgin possessed these three [powers] within herself excellently and equivalently. Ministers of the Church possess a beneficial dignity through their [sacramental] character of excellence, but the most blessed Virgin possessed the crown of the triumphant kingdom as well as of the Church militant. Whence the greatest of ministers is called the Pope, and he is the servant of the servants of God; she is the Queen and Mistress of Angels; he is the servant of the servants of God; she is the Empress of the whole world.

♦ Also, in ministers resides a spiritual and temporal power from God, either delegated or vicarious; in her resides a perpetual plenitude of celestial power from ordinary authority.

♦ Also, in ministers resides the power of binding or dissolving by the use of keys; in her there is the legitimate power of dominating by binding or dissolving through imperial rule.

And thus it is clear that the blessed Virgin does not lack to any degree whatever there is of grace and dignity in [Holy] Orders.”[360]


Did St. Albert the Great not realise that this has consequences for an exclusion of women from ordination merely based on their sex? I believe he did. It is significant that he carefully listed the standard objections against the ordination of women, but then, in deviation from his practice regarding all other questions, omits to pronounce his own judgement on them. Entrapped though he was in the cultural and theological prejudices of his time, did he grasp that in Mary the ban against women might have been decisively broken?


Other theologians followed St. Albert’s thinking in a myriad of ways:

·        In ordinary priests the sacramental character is external, in Mary it lies inherent.[361]

·        It was the Holy Spirit himself who anointed her at the moment of her conception.[362]

·        Mary shared in the priestly anointing Jesus had received, who was, after all, the ‘anointed’ par excellence.[363]

·        Just as Jesus was never formally ordained although he is the high priest for ever, so Mary is the greatest priest after him without sacramental ordination.[364]


The devotion to Mary Priest obviously struggled to make a point sometimes stated explicitly: “In Mary the obstacle of her sex has been overcome by the authority of the saints, by the example of scripture and the power of reason.”[365]  Do we not have here the voice of latent tradition: an awareness in the heart of Christian belief, strong in spite of surrounding prejudices, that the priesthood cannot be refused to women because of their sex, since, if anyone is a priest, Mary is?

Why did it stop?

Discussion of Mary’s priesthood came to an abrupt end at the beginning of this century. While Leo XIII in 1903 had still accepted, with approval, a painting of Mary in priestly vestments, the Holy Office forbade in 1913 the practice of portraying Mary as a priest.[366] In 1907 St. Pius X had still attached a 300-day indulgence to the prayer: “Mary, Virgin Priest, pray for us”,[367] but in 1926 the Holy Office declared that the devotion to Mary Priest “is not approved and may not be promoted”.[368] Is it a coincidence that just at that time the campaign for women’s ordination began to stir in other Christian Churches?


Readings from Women Priests web site


Texts of St. Albert the Great

* Mary possessed the priesthood equivalently

* Mary can rightly be called an apostle, evangelist and pastor

* Mary acted as a sacrificial priest


Texts of more than 90 theologians and writers who wrote on Mary’s priesthood


Aspects of Mary Priest devotion

* Mary as sacrificial priest

* Mary as model priest

* Mary and holy orders
















Galleries of Mary Priest illustrations

* Mary wearing an episcopal pallium

* Mary in priestly vestments






[348] Jean-Jacques Olier, Recueil, manuscript in Saint Sulpice, Paris, Rue du Regard, p. 64.

[349] F. de Salazar, In Canticum, vol. 2, pp. 40.

[350]  See chapter 14.

[351]  Mulieris Dignitatem, § 27; Letter to Women, § 1l, Origins 25 (1995) p. 5.

[352]  John Paul II, ‘Address to the Cardinals and Prelates of the Roman Curia’, L’Osservatore Romano, December 23, 1987.

[353]  René van Eyden in a letter to me.

[354]  Joanna Manning, Is the Pope Catholic?, Toronto 1999, p. 72.

[355]  For further discussion, see: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Mary, the Feminine Face of the Church, Philadelphia 1977; Elizabeth Johnson, ‘The Symbolic Character of Theological Statements about Mary’, Journal of Ecumencial Studies 22 (1985) pp. 312-335; ‘Mary and the Female Face of God’, Theological Studies 50 (1989) pp. 500-526; Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex - The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, London 1990 (1985); Edward Schillebeeckx and Catherina Halkes, Mary: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, London 1993; Else Maeckelberghe, Desperately Seeking Mary: A Feminist Appropriation of a Traditional Religious Symbol, Kampen 1994; Maurice Hamington, Hail Mary? The Struggle for Ultimate Womanhood in  Catholicism, New York 1995; George H. Tavard, The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary, Colleville 1996; Tina Beattie, God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate, Bristol 1999.

[356] The Fathers’ views on Mary’s priestly dignity are documented in Hilda Graeff, Mary. A History of Doctrine and Devotion, London 1965, pp. 101 - 202; and Réné Laurentin, Maria, Ecclesia, Sacerdotium, Paris 1952, pp. 21-95.

[357]  St. Thomas of Villanova (1486-1555), ‘Concio I in Purificationem’, Opera, Manila 1883, vol. 4, p. 397.

[358]  Summa Theologica Moralis, Venice 1477, IV, Tit. 15, c. 3, § 3.

[359]  The Foot of the Cross, London 1857, p. 399.

[360]  Albertus Magnus, ‘Mariale Super Missus Est’  in  Opera Omnia, ed. A. and A. Borgnet, Paris 1890-1899, vol. 37, pp. 84 - 87 (translation my own).

[361]  I. Marracci, Sacerdotium Mysticum Marianum (ca.1647), passim; F. Maupied, Orateurs Sacrés, Paris 1866, vol. 86, p. 228.

[362]  F. C. de Salazar, Canticum, vol. 2, pp. 92, 94-95.

[363] A.Vieira, ‘Sermon on the Rosary’, In Maria Rosa Mystica, Lisboa 1688, p. 78-80a; A. Nicholas, La Vierge Marie d’après l‘Évangile, Paris 1858, p. 295.

[364] J. le Vasseur, Diva Virgo, Paris 1622,  ch. 22, pp. 171, 176; F. Bourgoing, Vérités et excellences de Jésus Christ, Paris 1636, vol. 2, Méditation 19, § 3, pp. 183-184.

[365] A. Vieira (1608-1697), ‘Sermon on the Rosary’, in Maria Rosa Mystica, Lisbon 1688, p. 81.

[366]  L. Laplace, La Mère Marie de Jésus, Paris 1906, p. 404.

[367]  Pope Pius X, Acta Sanctae Sedis, 9 May 1906.

[368]  Acta Apostolicae Sedis 8 (1916) p. 146.

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