Mary – Prophet and Priest
A forgotten, suppressed truth
Could she open the door to women’s ordination?
by Ida Raming
Mary: Up to now contradictorily interpreted
Throughout the history of church and theology many theologians have paid particular attention to the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus. For some decades, women theologians have also focused their reflections on Mary, their sister in faith. There is a wide range of opinions, from the very positive to the theologically questionable including much negative and dismissive comment.
How did these contradictory views and interpretations arise?
What is sure is that writing on the interpretation and meaning of the figure of Mary is still far from being finished. The following exposition should contribute to a greater clarity whereby I want to invalidate any possible reservation right at the beginning:
It is not intended to comprehend and show Mary as a “Sacrificial Priestess” (in terms of sacerdos) – as a way of reinforcing sacrificial theology–as if Mary, standing under the cross, had sacrificed her son Jesus in order to reconcile an offended God or at least collaborated in this sacrifice. Instead, the following elaborations should serve the purpose of giving her the recognition she deserves as the woman who voluntarily agreed to the divine call to become the mother of Jesus Christ recognizing and following him as the promised Messiah, against all imponderables of faith, opposition and pressure of this world.
I. Mary – a victim of patriarchal view
Mary, too, the mother of Jesus, has become a victim of the millennia old hostility against women. This gender-based discrimination continues up to the present day despite all the praise and veneration extended to her.
1) Examples from Church History
Cited from the Didascalia Apostolorum, 3rd c. (An English Version, edited, introduced and annotated by Alistair Stewart-Sykes, 2009, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout Belgium) The fifteenth Chapter, Nr. 5 [3.9], p. 189:
“As to whether a woman may baptize, or whether one should be baptized by a woman, we do not counsel this, since it is a transgression of the commandment and a great danger to her who baptizes as to the one baptized. 2. For were it lawful for a woman to baptize our Lord and teacher would himself have been baptized by Mary his mother; he was, however, baptized by John just as others were. 3. Brothers and sisters, do not endanger yourselves by acting outside of the law of the Gospel.”
Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. 315-403) massively argues against women’s ordination on account of his own negative image of women: “The female gender is all too seducible, weak and without much intellect!”
He condemns seven other Montanists of Phrygia who permitted women access to the priesthood and to the episcopate.
He says that women should not be given that title (presbytidae, priestesses)… They do not have true priestly power … they do not have the right of offering sacrifice to God. This is partly because women are “unstable, prone to error, and mean-spirited”, subject to “pride and female madness”. (St. Epiphanius, Against Heresies 79. 304).
His allegation is also directed against Mary:
He wrote: “If women were ordained to be priests for God or to do anything canonical in the church, it should surely have been given to Mary… . She was not even entrusted with baptizing…(1) Although there is an order of deaconesses in the church, yet they are not appointed to function as priests, or for any administration of this kind, but so that provision may be made for the propriety of the female sex [at nude baptisms]. Whence comes the recent myth? Whence comes the pride of women or rather, the woman’s insanity?”
In 49. 2-3 St. Epiphanius tells of the Cataphrygians, a heretical sect related to the Montanists. The Cataphrygians pretended that a woman named Quintillia or Priscilla had seen Christ visiting her in a dream at Pepuza, and sharing her bed. He took the appearance of a woman and was dressed in white. Among them women are bishops and priests and they say nothing makes a difference. ‘For in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female,’ [Gal. 3:28]
The argumentation (about Mary) is repeated by numerous later authors and traditional sources, and thus, inter alia, in the Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 5th c.), furthermore, in the 13th century, by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) in his Decretal Nova Quaedam (1210) which was sent in 1210 to the bishops of Burgos and Palencia (Spain). It sharply condemns the practice of certain abbesses in these dioceses of giving ecclesiastical, and thus priestly, blessing to nuns under them, of hearing their confessions, of reading the Gospel and preaching publicly. The practices of these abbesses obviously aroused the ire and the disapproval of the Pope. His argumentation and reason: reference to Mary who in contrast to the apostles did not receive the power of the keys: “because even though the most blessed virgin Mary was more worthy and more excellent than all the apostles, yet not to her, but to them the Lord handed over the keys to the kingdom of heaven.”(2)
2. Declarations about Mary in today’s doctrinal documents
2a) Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith to the Question of Women’s Admission to Ministerial Priesthood
“Inter Insigniores” (1976)
No. 2 „…. But it must be recognised that we have here a number of convergent indications that make all the more remarkable that Jesus did not entrust the apostolic charge to women. Even his Mother, who was so closely associated with the mystery of her Son, and whose incomparable role is emphasized by the Gospels of Luke and John, was not invested with the apostolic ministry. This fact was to lead the Fathers to present her as an example of Christ’s will in this domain; as Pope Innocent III repeated later, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, “Although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the Apostles, nevertheless it was not to her but to them that the Lord entrusted the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”
No. 3 “ …When (the apostles) and Paul went beyond the confines of the Jewish world, the preaching of the Gospel and the Christian life in the Greco-Roman civilisation impelled them to break with Mosaic practices, sometimes regretfully. They could therefore have envisaged conferring ordination on women, if they had not been convinced of their duty of fidelity to the Lord on this point….”
Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter Insigniores
“From the moment that the teaching on the sacraments is systematically presented in the schools of theology and canon law writers begin to deal ex professo with the nature and value of the tradition that reserved ordination to men. The canonists base their case on the principle formulated by Pope Innocent III in a letter of 11 December 1210, to the bishops of Palencia and Burgos, a letter that was included in the collection of Decretals: ‘Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was of higher dignity and excellence than all the apostles, it was to them, not her, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven.’(30) This text became a locus communis for the glossatores.(31)“ (Bulletin of the Apostolic See No. 3, P. 29)
The historical fact that Jesus didn’t admit his mother Mary into the group of his apostles, as defined in the documents of the Church’s doctrine and up to today taught by theologians, has become the key principle for why women remain excluded from ordination (“ex institutione Christi …”), i.e. Mary being omitted as an example of an alleged will of Jesus.
2b) Pope John Paul II. “Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (1994)
“…Furthermore, the fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them. Rather, it is to be seen as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.” (No. 3)
2c) Pope John Paul II. “Letter to the Women” (1995)
(Bulletin of the Apostolic See No. 122, P. 10) “The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’ and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration. Mary called herself the “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38). Through obedience to the Word of God she accepted her lofty yet not easy vocation as wife and mother in the family of Nazareth. Putting herself at God’s service, she also put herself at the service of others: a service of love. Precisely through this service Mary was able to experience in her life a mysterious, but authentic “reign”. It is not by chance that she is invoked as “Queen of heaven and earth”. The entire community of believers thus invokes her; many nations and peoples call upon her as their “Queen”. For her, “to reign” is to serve! Her service is “to reign”! (Nr. 10)
11. In this perspective of “service”- which, when it is carried out with freedom, reciprocity and love, expresses the truly “royal” nature of humankind – one can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female. This issue also has a particular application within the Church. If Christ – by his free and sovereign choice, clearly attested to by the Gospel and by the Church’s constant Tradition – entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women, or for that matter from the role of the other members of the Church who are not ordained to the sacred ministry, since all share equally in the dignity proper to the “common priesthood” based on Baptism. These role distinctions should not be viewed in accordance with the criteria of functionality typical in human societies. Rather they must be understood according to the particular criteria of the sacramental economy, i.e. the economy of “signs” which God freely chooses in order to become present in the midst of humanity.
Furthermore, precisely in line with this economy of signs, even if apart from the sacramental sphere, there is great significance to that “womanhood” which was lived in such a sublime way by Mary. In fact, there is present in the “womanhood” of a woman who believes, and especially in a woman who is “consecrated”, a kind of inherent “prophecy” (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, 29), a powerfully evocative symbolism, a highly significant “iconic character”, which finds its full realization in Mary and which also aptly expresses the very essence of the Church as a community consecrated with the integrity of a “virgin” heart to become the “bride” of Christ and “mother” of believers. When we consider the “iconic” complementarity of male and female roles, two of the Church’s essential dimensions are seen in a clearer light: the “Marian” principle and the Apostolic-Petrine principle (cf. ibid., 27).
3. Critical analysis of the church-official statements about Mary
The main message throughout the above cited teaching documents suggests as though it were the will of Jesus to exclude Mary from apostleship and that, as a consequence, the apostles and their male successors must fulfil this will of Jesus. Such teaching statement, however, does not consider the relevant aspects of women living in a strict patriarchal society. In ancient Judaism, a woman was legally incompetent, excluded from certification before court, and forbidden to teach in public, e. g. in Synagogues. Under these circumstances, women could never have performed an apostolic role at that time. From this look back on history, it becomes quite obvious that clerical teaching without consideration of sociocultural and historical development is inevitably leading to false conclusions and erroneous doctrines. In view of today’s position of women in democratic states, their exclusion from ordained ministry and episcopate can hardly be justified. Therefore, popes and theologians have gone over to prettification and veiling – creating real euphemistics in order to make the imposed limitations somehow palatable and bearable. Confer: “Laudatory of the female genius”, a genius which is said to be particularly developed in Mary herself. A classic example of this vision can be found with H. U. v. Balthasar: “Perhaps the Catholic Church will be – on the basis of her own structures – the last bulwark of humankind appreciating the difference of genders … The Marian in the church encompasses the Petrine without claiming it for itself. Mary is the Queen of the Apostles without claiming the apostleship for herself. She has other gifts and more …”(3)
This interpretation is shared by several theologians as J. Ratzinger, G. L. Müller et al., whereas, according to other theologians, Mary is seen as the very model of a priest. Just some examples: As per M. J. Scheeben (19th c.) the specification of priestly ministry consists in the “passing on of the received grace in a sacramental way” – exactly equal to “Marian service”. In this particular respect, Mary embodies for him the exact type of the “official” Church with her powers of ordination and jurisdiction. According to Scheeben, the Church’s own motherhood of God’s grace, grounded on the spiritual motherhood of her model Mary would benefit the official church in its development and creative impact .(4)
Moreover, other theologians, W. Beinert (5) and N. Baumert (6) also see in Mary, the mother of Jesus, an outstanding model of priesthood and conclude from this that women are really qualified for priestly ministry.
This view is shared by many theologians. Therefore, the question of the “priesthood of the Blessed Mother is still open and far from being decided.” (8)
But it is a suppressed truth, not recognized by the Church, remaining a problem waiting for theological and church-official reflection and solution.
But what is the deeper reason for this oppressed truth?
Many theologians and priests, also Pope Francis, emphasize that Mary is ranking higher than any sacramentally ordained priest – even higher than a bishop – but all the same refuse or avoid acknowledging her as a priest. Intensive historical research clearly reveals the reason for their refusal:
“… because Mary was a woman” (propter femineum sexum)9
That speaks for itself: The real reason for avoiding accepting Mary as priest is in fact the discrimination against the female sex. Therefore the leadership of the RC Church refuse to open the priestly ministry in the church to women of today who are called to priesthood.
Mary can’t be worthy to be a priest (because she is a woman) and, consequently together with her, all gifted women remain excluded from priestly ministries.
II. Mary – Priest and Prophet
In the Letter to the Hebrews Jesus Christ is called a High Priest (cf. Hebrews passim): “Jesus Christ didn’t give himself his dignity of a High Priest. It was God who said to him: ‘You are my Son, this day have I begotten you. You are a Priest for ever according to the Order of Melchisedek’, …and once being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation for those who obey Him.” (5.5-6 and 9)… “Therefore He had to be made like His brothers in every way, so that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest before God …” (2.17) “We have a noble High Priest already returned home to heaven, Jesus, the Son of God…” (4.14)
Being directly called by God, Jesus had never been ordained a priest and none of his followers was ordained by him. Nevertheless, again and again, the Church is teaching and acting as if he had done so. In actual fact, Jesus sent his followers to preach in his name the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Being sent himself by God, he didn’t require any ordination – he was “anointed” and filled with the Holy Spirit – as was Mary. She had no need to pass any ritual ordination in order to become a priest or an apostle, nor did she need any authorization from Jesus. She too had been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and was filled with grace (cf. Lk 1) when giving her free YES to conceive and give birth to Jesus the Messiah, in representation of the whole humankind. On the other hand, Mary would never have been allowed anyway to carry out an official function in view of the archaic customs of patriarchy at the time of her life. All the more her dedication to the salvation of humankind is a unique event in redemptive history, since it was she who conceived the Messiah and gave birth to him, a matter of fact that cannot be regarded as a mere arbitrary affair. It rather was and is an outstanding act of salvation between God and His people – not to forget Mary’s compassion for the suffering and death of her son and her loyalty to his message.
Thus, similar to Jesus, yet not on the same level, Mary can be defined and honored as a priest. “She was, after Jesus himself, the greatest of all priests” (10) , This does not mean that Mary is or was a sacrificial priestess (in the sense of sacerdos), but that she acted in a responsible and exemplary way for the salvation of humankind what should be the basic mission of all members of the Church in the sense of common priesthood.
Mary is also a great prophet, and as such referred to in East Assyrian Theology (Aphrahat). When visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she was filled with the Holy Spirit while these prophetic words were put into her mouth: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed, for He who is mighty hath done great things on to me … He hath shown strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down monarchs from their thrones, and raised on high the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty… “(Lk 1,46-55 passim).
It is striking that these prophetic words are completely lacking in the teaching documents on Mary (e. g. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, chapter 8; Pope John Paul II, “Letter to the Women”, No. 10). John Paul is pointing out: „The Church sees in Mary the highest expression of the ‘feminine genius’ and she finds in her a source of constant inspiration. Mary called herself the “handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38)… being obedient to the Word of God … her power is service!”
Obviously, clergymen tolerate women only as “obedient maidservants” and are unable to bear prophetic, powerful and independent women. In order to maintain their power they have shaped the figure of Mary according to their personal taste.
At the beginning of the 20th century the veneration of Mary as a priest was suppressed and forbidden by the leadership of the Church
At the beginning of the 20th century discussions about Mary’s priesthood were stopped abruptly. While in 1903 Pope Leo XIII still approved and allowed pictures of Mary in clerical garments, the Holy Office (formerly Inquisition – today ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’) banned such representations in 1913. In 1907 Pope Pius X had still tolerated the prayer addendum “Virgin Priest Mary, pray for us!”, but in 1926 the veneration of Mary as a priest was declared as prohibited and thus forbidden by the Holy Office.
“Is it coincidence that just at that time the campaign for the ordination of women has started rumbling about in other Churches?” Not groundless is this question of John Wijngaards in his article on the “The Priesthood of Mary” (11). It is well justified because also in the Roman Catholic Church the first women, after admission to university studies, began to investigate their own position and ranking in the Catholic Church (e. g. E. Stein, H. V. Borsinger and others). However, all reasonable questioning and research were stopped by the male officials right from the beginning.
It follows from the above that church officials’ insight and thinking in doctrinal terms of teaching about the Mother of Jesus are very narrow, shortened and – admittedly – falsified. In their opinion, Mary is the “archetype” of the lay church and certainly not of the entire church composed by laypeople and sacred ministers. In this context, Otto Semmelroth emphasizes: Mary is “strictly speaking, not an archetype of the Church … but rather is the authentic original of the Church, the ‘Laós’, representing the receiving and donating laity when meeting Jesus who stands before the lay community by his (divine) ministry.” (12)
In contrast, it is to be stressed that Mary represents the archetype of the entire Church, both of the common and ministerial priesthood, and not only of the so called laity of the church. It appears as if the officials want to exclude themselves from a church called Bride of Christ or Body of Christ. Because of their mere maleness, they claim for themselves the representation of Christ as the icon of his nature and see themselves as shepherd and bridegroom of the Church. What hubris! What sexist arrogance! All this has nothing to do with the nature and spirit of Jesus.
In his patriarchal sight, John Paul II speaks about the roles of complementarity between a man and a woman, arguing that the Marian Principle and the apostolic Petrine Primacy (= the male) were the indispensable dimensions of the Church. However, that is a mere construction of patriarchal theology.
At the end of his article about the “Priesthood of Mary” (13) John Wijngaards is asking, with reason and a self-critical look upon the male-ruled Roman Catholic Church: “Have we become too macho to acknowledge a woman as our ‘model priest’?”
(The English translation was done by several women…)
1 A critical statement aagainst by Ida Raming, Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt, Köln-Wien 1973, p. 121ff; (English translation available).
2 I. Raming pp. 121-123, p. 121 footnote 8
3 Frauenpriestertum? Neue Klarstellungen, Einsiedeln 1979, 109-115.
4 I. Raming p. 124, footnote 18 (with reference to Scheeben, Die Mysterien des Christentums, sec. ed. 1951, p. 449f.)
5 Dogmatische Überlegungen zum Thema Priestertum der Frau, in: W. Groß (ed.): Frauenordination, München 1996, p. 76.
6 Frau und Mann bei Paulus, Würzburg 1992, 302f.
8 Haye v. d. Meer: Priestertum der Frau? Freiburg 1969, p. 186-190.
9 Ibid. p. 187.
1 1 Ibid. p. 4.
1 2 O. Semmelroth, Maria oder Christus? Frankfurt 1954, p. 131.
1 3 Wijngaards, p. 4.