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Letter to Women

Chapter 21.

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

Unmasking the intruder

When we ask ourselves: What went wrong? How did the ban on women’s ordination manage to inveigle itself into Church practice?, we discover a multiplicity of factors. The pro-feminine attitude of Gnostic sects in early centuries worked against women. The taboo on menstruation raised practical obstacles: it put an end to women deacons in the Byzantine Church.[380]  The readoption of Aristotelean philosophy in the Middle Ages did not help, as we have seen in Thomas Aquinas.[381] Male supremacy in the macho cultures of Europe added layers of prejudice. But we must single out Roman culture and Roman law as the main culprits. When the official Church began to adopt the laws and institutions of Roman culture, the fate of women’s ministries was sealed. Anchored within a packet of useful organisational material lay the tumour of pagan, anti-feminine bias. Even good things come at a cost.

Roman Genius

Even after two thousand years we cannot help but admire the Romans. They established an empire that stretched all the way from Egypt to Britain. It is worthwhile to reflect on their achievements and to appreciate the quality of their skills, so that we can understand why the Church benefited so much from incorporating the Roman system into its Church administration. For Romans were first and foremost administrators.


Unlike the Greeks who excelled in literature, art and philosophy, the Romans were supremely practical. They knew that political power rested on the strength of the army. Consequently, they expended a lot of ingenuity and engineering skill in shaping their armies into unsurpassed military organisations. Each army was made up of legions, each of which was divided into cohorts and led by officers with precise functions. Soldiers were provided with standard weapons, such as breast armour, a helmet, a sword, a javelin, a shield, and superb sandals. These were mass-produced and of the same quality anywhere in the world. Soldiers were drilled in fighting techniques, but also in all the engineering skills they would require on their military expeditions.


Wherever a legion stopped, it would build a fortified camp, which might soon grow out into a real fortress, a castra. This again was standardised. The castra was always square, with walls and moats of precise specification, and the gate and towers in exactly the same locations. The area inside was laid out according to a predetermined plan: barracks for the soldiers, store rooms for rations, latrines, officers’ quarters, war shrines, all in their fixed locations. There were blueprints for every part of the construction project. Timber would be prefabricated somewhere else, then assembled to either make a barracks, a gatehouse or a defensive tower as required.


Arrived at the place of battle, Roman soldiers would quickly build the equipment they needed: an onega for lobbying stones or a ballista, a large cross bow on a stand.  They would construct siege towers that rolled on large wheels and that were protected by shields from enemy fire. Such war engines were not carried along. They were put together on the spot in record time according to the accepted design. When Julius Caesar’s armies arrived at the Rhine in 55 BC after exhausting marches from Gaul, his soldiers built a 500-meter-long wooden bridge over the river in just 10 days. In places the Rhine is eight metres deep! The Romans could only achieve such a feat because they knew their skills and worked according to predetermined plans.


When the Romans occupied a country, the first thing they did was build all-weather roads.  They had learnt that having paved roads allowed them to maintain fewer legions in key locations who could then, in a short time, reach any area of conflict. These roads were really well made. Surveyors laid out the straightest route between two centres. The army, with local people pressed into service, would then hack free a path over hills and through forests, lay a foundation of heavy stones, impose a layer of fine sand, then cobbles, then finally flat paving stones, thus ensuring that it would survive even heavy rains. In first century Britain, the Romans laid a road network of 10,000 miles. Many of the major roads in England today still rest on the foundations laid by the Romans.


The Romans were equally thorough in introducing many of their other engineering marvels. Wherever they governed, they build villas for their officials and for veterans of the army who were often rewarded by grants of land. These villas enjoyed warm-air heating through ducts laid under the floor. They had bathhouses with hot, tepid and cold-water baths. They often enjoyed the convenience of flowing water that was brought from miles far over ingenious aqueducts. Here again mass production and common design prevailed. Bathroom tiles were the same whether used in Gaul, North Africa, Syria or Rome itself. The amphorae that held wine or fish-sauce found in Palestine, Sicily or Britain are identical.


The Romans applied this tight-knit system of uniform design and centralised control also to political rule.  Roman officials governed within clearly circumscribed roles. Roman coins, weights, and taxes replaced local customs. In addition, although the Romans tolerated local religion and native superstitions, they saw to it that their law prevailed.

Roman law

More than in their engineering projects, the Romans showed their organising genius in their law. Roman law formulated clear distinctions, laid down authoritative rules and prescribed a chain of precedence in rights and powers. Roman law was detailed, specific, definitive. It was not born from philosophy but from the practical need of settling disputes regarding persons, objects or events. Through principles and rules it imposed a very precise hierarchical order of rights, privileges, and duties. Roman law was a real gift to judges and administrators because it provided a rather simple tool to impose order on society. [382]  Small wonder that present law in practically all European countries is based on Roman law.


The international order brought about by Roman law and Roman rule was known as the pax Romana, that is: ‘the Roman peace’.  It indicated the order and stability within the Roman Empire which made international trade a risk-free enterprise.


The pax Romana did have its dark side, of course. The international Roman culture could not be imposed on people of so many diverse racial origins without continuous violence. Not only were military uprisings suppressed, but also anything that upset international uniformity in organisation and government was squashed. The whole structure was maintained by taxes levied on the local populations and by an enormous slave force that was constantly replenished by new conquests and by inflicting it as a  punishment.

The Church becomes Roman

The Roman Empire in the West disintegrated in the fifth and sixth centuries under pressure of the new nations that invaded Europe. In the East, it continued as the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when the Turks overran Constantinople. The Church, meanwhile, went through its own traumatic experiences. On the one hand, it gained politic freedom and made new converts among the young European nations. On the other hand, it suffered greatly from the chaos and destruction in the wake of constant conflict and wars. The Church badly needed to be organised and it is here that the Roman genius found another outlet.


St.Benedict (480-547) had seen the moral degradation in Rome with his own eyes. First he lived as a hermit, but then he decided to draw others into spiritual reform. He allowed his mystic insights to be inspired by his Roman charism for management. He drew up the monastic rule that would create an explosion of religious life throughout Europe and that became the backbone for church reform in all European countries.


Benedict created small communities of like-minded people who were dedicated to both prayer and work. Monks prayed the office together, slept in the same dormitory, and ate in a common dining room at fixed hours, and worked at common tasks in teams. Though he might consult his companions, the abbot enjoyed absolute authority. He acted in God’s name. Obedience shown to him was obedience shown to God. The individual monks should learn humility. “Do not do your own will”. “Tell the abbot your secrets”. “Believe yourself inferior and less virtuous than all other men”. “Do nothing except what is recommended by the common rule”. “Do not talk if not asked”. “Do not be noticed in your appearance”.[383]


The rule of St.Benedict was copied in numerous other religious congregations of both men and women. Within a few centuries thousands upon thousands of monasteries covered the whole of Europe, creating everywhere mission centres, dispensaries, schools, new agricultural farms, in short: the nodes from which Church ministry and spiritual reform could radiate to the local populations.  The Church in Europe owes much of its infrastructure to the devotion and commitment of monks and nuns who were helped by an organisational Roman blue print.[384]


A century after St.Benedict another great Roman, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) put his stamp on Church administration. Gregory belonged to a patrician family and had served as prefect of the city of Rome for a couple of years before entering Church service. When he was elected Pope, he immediately began to centralise the entire papal administration. He laid down rules on the liturgy and pastoral ministry. He co-ordinated new missionary efforts, such as the conversion of England. He asserted papal authority in face of Byzantine claims. He left a lasting stamp on the way the official church was run by applying Roman principles and Roman systems of management. He is considered by many historians as the architect of the later medieval papacy.[385]


Meanwhile in the Latin speaking countries of the West, the young churches that adopted Roman organisation patterns also adopted Roman rules and customs. Local synods in North Africa, Gaul and Britain laid down rules that applied Roman thinking to Church practice. This came to a head in the early Middle Ages when at Universities, Roman law and church practice were amalgulated into one discipline.[386]  The monk Gratian, who taught at the university of Bologna, thus produced the first collection of Church law based on Roman law. It was this collection that was, with some additions, endorsed by one Pope after the other as the Corpus Iuris Canonici, the ‘Body of Church Law’ that remained in force until 1918.

Women were hemmed in on all sides in Roman law.[387]  The Roman principles that thus became enshrined in Church law and Church practice were:

·        “In many sections of our law, the condition of women is weaker than that of men.”

·        “Women are excluded from any civil and public responsibility and therefore can neither be judges nor exercise any authority.”

·        Women are under the tutelage of men “because of the infirmity of their sex and because of ignorance about matters pertaining to public life.”[388]


All other prohibitions in the Church’s lawbook followed from these principles. Women were not allowed to receive communion during their monthly periods. After giving birth to a child they needed to be ‘purified’ (=churched) before re-entering a church building. Women were strictly forbidden to touch ‘sacred objects’, such as the chalice, the paten or altar linen. They certainly could not distribute holy communion. In church, women needed to have their heads veiled at all times. Women were also barred from entering the sanctuary except for cleaning purposes. They were not to read Sacred Scripture from the pulpit, preach, sing in a church choir, be Mass servers, or become full members of confraternities and organizations of the laity. And -- does it still need mentioning? -- women were barred from receiving holy orders.[389]


Cuckoo’s egg tradition

In spite of clever egg mimicry in the conventional argumentation, opposition to the priesthood of women did not derive from Jesus who made women equal members of the new covenant. It cannot be ascribed to the apostles who declared that there is no longer man or women in Christ - that “we are all one”. It cannot be blamed on the Early Church communities who welcomed women as ministers and imparted sacramental ordination to women deacons. The spurious parent bird that laid the egg was none other than secular pagan prejudice, a prejudice enshrined in Roman law.


With typical cuckoo hatchling ruthlessness, the intruder killed off truly Christian initiatives of women’s ministries. Nine centuries of the women’s diaconate went by the board. Jurisdictions entrusted to women in the Celtic and Saxon churches were pushed aside. The age-long celebration of Mary’s share in Jesus’ priesthood was declared a mistake. And, worst of all, the genuine vocations to the priestly ministry in generation after generation of Christian women were denied, stifled, suppressed, usually mercilessly aborted before they could be born.


Church leaders have also demonstrated a typical host bird bonding to the adopted usurper. The fattening of the hatchling in the nest through many centuries and its succesful nest eviction of rival Christian hatchlings were now hailed as proof of an ‘unbroken tradition’. Excuses were found to explain the hatchling’s glaring incongruity with Christian principles, its negating the dignity of Christian women. The ritual risk of menstruation was adduced as a justification. Enduring punishment for Eve’s sin was blamed. In the Middle Ages much was made of the conviction that women are not fully human and therefore cannot represent the perfect ‘man’ Christ. In our own time an appeal is made to God’s grand design according to which Christ had to be male as the Bridegroom and the eucharist has to be presided over by little male bridegrooms. It is not easy to give up a fat hatchling one passionately wants to believe to be one’s own.


The ban on women priests has been unmasked as a pagan interloper, a cuckoo hatchling out of place in a Christian nest. Why allow it to continue its degrading devastation?


Readings from Women Priests web site


The Rights of Women According to Roman Law

Mary Ann Rossi, ‘The Passion of Perpetua, Everywoman of Late Antiquity’


Marie-Thérèse van Lunen Chénu and Louise Wentholt, ‘The Status of Women in the Code of Canon Law and in the United Nations Convention’


Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chénu ‘Human rights in the Church: a non-right for women in the Church?’ in Human Rights. The Christian contribution, July 1998.



















[380]  Blastares, orthodox theologian, 14th cent, Patres Graeci vol. 144, col. 1174.

[381]  See chapter 13.

[382] D. Daube, Forms of Roman Legislation, Oxford 1956; Roman Law: Linguistic, Social, and Philosophical Aspects, Edinburgh 1969; H.F. Jolowicz and B. Nicholas, Historical Introduction to the Study of Roman Law, Cambridge 1972; W.W. Buckland and P. Stein, A Textbook of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian, Cambridge 1975; A. Borkowski, Textbook on Roman Law, London 1997;

[383] D.Parry, Households of God, the rule of St.Benedict with explanations, London 1980, pp.42ff. ; See also: H. van Zeller, The Holy Rule, New York, 1958; A. C. Meisel and M.L. Del Mastro, The Rule of St. Benedict, New York, 1975; L. J. Lekai, The Cistercians: Ideals and Reality, Kent 1977; A. de Vogüé, Reading Saint Benedict. Reflections on the Rule, Collegeville 1980;

[384] I. C. Hannah, Christian Monasticism: A Great Force in History, New York, 1925; D.Knowles, Christian Monasticism, London 1969, pp. 35-36; C.H. Lawrence, Medieval Monasticism, New York, 1984.

[385] F. H. Dudden, Gregory the Great,  his Place in History and in Thought, London 1905; B. Colgrave, The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby, Cambridge 1985; R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and his World, Cambridge 1998.

[386] M. Conrat, Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des römischen Rechte im früheren Mittelalter, Leipzig 1891, reprint Aalen 1963; F. C. von Savigny, Geschichte des römischen Rechts im Mittelalter, Heidelberg 1850, reprint Bad Homburg 1961; P. Vinogradoff, Roman Law in Medieval Europe, Oxford 1929, reprint New York 1969. 

[387] Jane F. Gardner, Women in Roman Law and Society, London 1986; Antti Arjava, Women and the Law in Late Antiquity, Oxford: Clarendon 1996.

[388] Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955, passim.

[389]  The Code of Canon Law of 1918 lifted two prohibitions: communion during menstruation and women singing in a church choir. The others remained in force. Codex Iuris Canonici, ed. Herder, Freiburg 1918; see canons 118; 709. § 2; 742 § 1 & 2; 813, § 2; 845; 968, § 1; 1262, § 1 & 2; 1306, § 1 & 2; 1342, § 2; 2004, § 1. The present Code of Church Law (of 1983) allows women to read, serve or preach at Mass only by ‘temporary deputation’ (can. 274 § 2-3); it bars women from receiving an ordained ministry (can. 1024), and therefore also from holding any form of jurisdiction (can. 219 § 1; 274 §1).

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