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The twelve apostles were men

“The twelve apostles were men - -”

by Ida Raming (bibliography)

From Orientierung 56 (1992) pp. 143-146; translated for www.womenpriests.org by Mary Dittrich and re-published on the website with permission of the author and the editor of Orientierung (Scheideggstrasse 45, Postfach, CH-8059 Zürich, Switserland. Tel. 01- 2010760; fax 01-2014983).

Stereotypical objections to the ordination of women, and their deeper causes.

Now that the question of “women in the Church” is getting widespread attention, and more and more women are able to learn from a range of publication about their position in the Church, the question of ordination of women to priestly office comes up with increasing frequency in talks with churchmen or in discussion groups. Nothing odd in that, for the credibility of the Church leadership in its relations with women depends in particular on its answer; one can deem this a test case. In spite of all the scientific enlightenment achieved in years past, specific objection to the ordination of women are still being raised by holders of higher ecclesiastical office.

What follows deals with these stereotypically repeated objection, and attempts to shed light on what may be their deeper psychological background.

Most frequently, in discussions but also in popular scientific articles, the “twelve male apostles” are wheeled in as apparently having been choses by Jesus so as ot make clear “for all time” that he wanted to exclude women from the Group of Twelve, the apostles, and the offices subseqently emanating - the priesthood and the episcopate. this argument has already been refuted in numerous relevant articles and books (1), so that we can limit ourselves to a résumé of the counter arguments before revealing the true background of this pseudo-argument.

Contrary to traditionalist argumentation, it has long been made clear that Jesus, of necessity in accordance with the social structure of ancient Israel which was purely patriachal, chose twelve men to represent the twelve tribes of Israel; these were also represented by tribal fathers (the sons of Jacob); this was to tally with the belief prevalent in antiquity that only men ranked as progenitive (cf Gen 35,23; Gen 49, 1-28).

In choosing the Twelve Jesus wanted to show symbolically that all Israel was being addressed by his message and called to conversion. The appointment of Twelve may eb understood as an eschatological sign: “Jesus’ procedure is directed at the assembly of the new eschatological People of God in the nearby Kingdom of God.” (2) so he used the number twelve, a symbol understood by all Israelites. However if the implication is that Jesus in doing this intended specifically to exclude women from the Group of Twelve, that is no less than a projection into into Jesus of the patriarchal attitude of today’s ecclesiastical office-holders, and a preversion of his message of salvation to all Israel. For in the Gospels not one word of Jesus can be found that would justify such an intention in the very least. So it is inadmissible to deduce norms for the future from historical facts (choice of the Twelve, insofar as it rests upon the historical Jesus) which can be entirely plausibly explained by the socio-cultural milieu of those times.

Furthermore, it has repeatedly and rightly been pointed out that the appointment of the twelve “eschatological witnesses” (Lohfink, 1983), which is to be understood as a symbolic act, is not on the same level as Jesus’ behaviour towards individual women whom he encounters or who are among his disciples. When Jesus proffered these women esteem and recognition of their personal dignity, he was infringing the taboos of that world (cf Jn 4, 27 *New Jerusalem Bible* “his disciples - - were surprised to find him speaking to a woman”). It is far more difficult and radical and thus beyond the capabilities of an individual, to break down and conquer contemporary patriarchal structures (eg the exclusion of women from public instruction in synagogues, or from bearing witness in court). And so Jesus is not reported as doing this. Such revolutions usually mean a process lasting centuries. But according to the Gospels, Jesus did not see himself as a social reformer; he merely laid the foundations for future structural reforms in church and society.

More recent research on the concept of apostleship

Against the pseudo-argument with which we started, with its disregard of historical context, it has been contended that the definition “Twelve Apostles” (men) should be regarded as “a secondary narrowing of an initially far broader concept of apostolicity.” “In earliest times apostles are all who are solemnly and officially sent out, either by a community (cf 2 Co 8,23; Ph 2, 25) or by the Risen One himself (cf 1 Co 9, 1; 15, 7" (3) Evidently women (cf Rm 16,7: Junia) (4) were also included in this larger group of apostles which, apart from the Twelve, numbered missionising roaming apostles (Rm 16,3: Prisca and Aquila are named as Paul’s co-workers in the missionary field). The existence of female missionary apostles in the early church represents proof in tradition of the existence of female office holders - contrary to the traditional view that only men held ecclesiastical office. The ”Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the question of admitting women to the priesthood" (Inter insigniores, 1976) which argued along these lines and postulates that a straight line leads from the “Twelve Apostles” to the subsequent bishops and priests, is countered by the indication that “the transition from the concept of the apostle and of the Twelve to that of the priest (and bishop)” is too simply constructed “for it to comply with today’s knowledge of the emergence of the early Church and of its structure and organisation.” (5) According to these findings, Jesus “established no official priesthood”, but sent out disciples, male and female, to proclaim the rule of God and appointed twelve of them to be eschatological witnesses for Israel (Mt 19, 28; Lk 22, 29f). The formation and structuring of offices (episcopacy, presbyterate and diaconate) “was left to the developing Church”. (6) What follows from all this is that the ‘argument’ cited at the beginning that Jesus knowlingly and intentionally excluded women for all time from the grouping of Twelve (Apostles) and thus from the offices apparently deriving from it (episcopacy and presbyterate), collapses once one differentiates when considering how the Church and its offices came about.

This clinging to a pseudo argument shows only too clearly that it is not a matter of recognising historical or scientific truth. Rather, such a stance merely conceals the deeply patriarchal, anti-feminine attitude which pleads the authority of Jesus and God because (today) it would be inopportune to come out openly against the admission of women to ecclesiastical office. And this patriarchal attitude prevents the message in Ga 3, 27f that “in Christ there is neither male nor female” from being taken seriously, for it means that in religion gender differences are entirely irrelevant. If it is cynically countered that this statement applies only before God and “in heaven”, not on earth and in visible institutions, that again points to an extremely patriarchal hardening of the heart, a denial of the will of a God who seeks justice in this world (“Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”), a clinging to the false spirit of the “old Adam” (Ep 4, 22) and blindness to the new one made present by the coming of the Kingdom in and with Jesus. Against this the early Christian appeal rings out: “You must be clothed in the new self, which is created in God’s image, justified and sanctified through the truth” (Ep 4, 24) - - “When a man becomes a new creature in Christ, his old life has disappeared, everything has become new about him.”(II Co 5, 17), and “All you who have been baptised in Christ’s name have put on the person of Christ; no more - - male and female; you are all one person in Jesus Christ.” (Ga 3, 27f). So to (want to) adhere to the patriarchal “gender order”, to the dominance of men over women in the Church means being insenitive to the action of the spirit of Jesus and God in our times, delaying the dawning of the Kingdon of God, trying to stop it. This if the powers of the “old Adam”, the sin of patriarchy, are to be conquered in church and society, nothing less than a conversion of hearts to the will of God, to what is really meant by the Kingdon of God, is needed.

The weight of a two thousand years old tradition?

A tendency to stick to the handed down patriarchal gender relationship within the Church, in other words a refusal to re-think them, is evident in the often advanced argument concerning the ordination of women that “ the weight of a two-thousand-year-old tradition” precluded a change in the relevant rules. this implies that there is an unbroken chain of serious witnesses or documents in tradition, reaching from the very origins of the Church indeed from Jesus himself, to our times. Psychologically the argument is pretty effective, for who can deny the force of so lasting a tradition? In such circumstances, is it not pointless to press for the ordination of women?

To a great extent the authorities responsible use the apparently two-thousand-year-old tradition to justify postponing any change in the present status of womem in in the Church, if possible indefinitely. Rarely, or rather not at all, is it given a closed look. But on examination it turns out to be a collection of statements (eg quotations from the Church Fathers - genuine and bogus - papal decretals including some forgeries, synodal decisions, declarations by the Magisterium - in our century); they agree in withholding from women liturgical ritual and pastoral function linked with ecclesiastical office, and in subjecting women to men. As now shown in numerous relevant scientific investigations (8), this tradition is based on extreme disdain for women, which continued to spread as from the earliest post-Christ centuries, only to reach its sad peak in the “Hammer of Witches”. So it can have no claim to validity.

Again this undifferentiated appeal to a “two-thousand-year old tradition” quite blots out not only the promising beginnings of the first Christian communities in which women were official co-workers (deaconesses, heads of domestic communities, female missionising apostles), but also later threads in tradition which run counter to ecclesiastical misogyny. For instance, recent research by the Italian historian A Otranto has proved by means of textual witness and inscriptions that between the middle and the end of the 5th century there were ordained women priests (presbyterae) in the south of Italy. (9) It is known that the office of deaconess lasted rather longer in the East, till the Middle Ages, and in the Christian West only up to the 6th century or so. However, in Rome deaconesses were ordained in the 11th century, but they, too, became victims of the prevalent misogynistic tradition. But in distinction to this anti-feminist tradition, out of the centuries there developed a theological position according to which valid ordination is not restricted to the male sex. This opinion has been handed down in the ‘glossa ordinaria’ of Johannes Teutonicus (published in about 1215) on the Decretum Gratiani, (11) though he himself adhered to the prevailing anti-feminist tradition, for he maintains that “women cannot receive the (sacramental) character of the Ordo, because both their sex and Church laws preclude this.” But he follows up this view of his by remarking on other theologians and canonists who hold, contrary to the current teaching, that “after baptism, anyone, man or woman, can be ordained” (post baptismum quilibet potest ordinari).

According to that, the essential prerequisite for valid ordination is not (male) gender, but solely baptism and, of course, the corresponding suitability (charisma) for the diaconate and priesthood. This understanding alone can claim to match the Gospel message (cf Gal 3, 27f).

So it is understandable that in our century, at the latest since Vatican II, it is being expressed ever more forcibly. Several women made submissions to the Council in which they brought to mind their dignity as being made in the image of God and as baptised persons, dignity far too long forgotten and betrayed. And they demanded unrestricted access to ecclesiastical office. (12) A few understanding bishops had a feeling for the “signs of the times” as articulated in such submissions and as seen by Pope John XXIII, in his groundbreaking encyclical “Pacem in Terris”, in the movement for the emancipation of women. One should mention, for instance, the intervention in Council of Archbishop Hallinan of Atlanta who (making reference to “Pacem in Terris”) pleaded among other things for the admission of women to the diaconate and for their active presence in theology and in the decision-making bodies of the Church. (13) That set off further developments: at the 2nd ordinary Synod of Bishops (1971). A number of Church leaders, chiefly Canadian and American Bishops, called for a fundamental reform of the status women, and took up the cudgels for Canadian and American women’s associations. Cardinal Flahiff (Winnipeg) was the first to plead for the admission to ordination of women. In the name of the Canadian bishops conference he suggested setting up a mixed commission to investigate the matter thoroughly. And several national synods took up in a positive light the question of ordaining women: a majority of the male and female participants in the Dutch pastoral council (1970) wanted women to be ordained. Other European national synods passed resolutions in favour of the diaconate for women, and approved the idea of further research into the matter of ordaining them.

All these initatives and movements, plus the growth in radical feminist groups (such as the Women’s Ordination Conference in the USA) seeking a reform in the status of women in the Church, mobilised those at its head who wanted to supress a tradition running counter to traditional teachings and current church law. So the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the already-mentioned Declaration “Inter insigniores” rejecting the admission of women to priestly office.

With this document the Congregation overrode an almost unanimous vote by the Papal Biblical Commission, which had declared that a ban on women priests could not be deduced from Scripture. In the light of developments in the position of women, not surprisingly the publication of the Congregation’s opinion was greeted world-wide with vehemence. This shows “how within a few years an apparently ‘secure’ tenet of yesterday and a ‘constant transmission’ over centuries can be unsettled” (14). The content of “Inter insigniores” could then and can now no longer be conveyed in a theologically responsible manner; it was not and is not now accepted, although those at the top of the Church strain every nerve to maintain it against the growing influence of Churches which ordain women and against intra-Church dissent, including from a number of eminent theologians. In this the existing anti-feminist tradition is artifically maintained, to quite some extent by means of dirigisme by the leadership, of which there are several examples.

  • For instance, oddly enough the work of the commission appointed by Pope Paul VI in 1973 to analyse the situation of women in Church and society was conditional on it excluding the subject of their ordination.
  • And in 1983 the bsihops of the United States were commanded by Pope John Paul II to suppress firmly any movement aiming at ordaining women.
  • This climate of restoration and repression pervailed, too, at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985 and the Ordinary synod of Bishops in 1987 on the mission of the laity in the Church and in the world.

Both synods were held under the prior decision of the Roman Curia that the subject of women’s role in the Church, or the ordination of women, was not to be brought up, thus hampering acutely freedom of opinion and discussion. Some bishops (including Weakland and Schwenzer) persisted despite this restriction in pleading during the 1987 synod for the recognition of the equal dignity and rights of men and women in the Church, especially with regard to office and service. And Cardinal Daneels (Archbishop of Brussels) proposed that serious study be devoted to the diaconate for women. One may well assume that, without the restriction outlined, both Synods would have brought more cheer to women.

These few examples, which could easily be added to, show that the ecclesiastical leadership can perserve artificially a tradition it wants by taking measures, so that it can advance apparent continuity as a welcome argument against contrary developments. This applies most particularly to the situation of women and the crucial question of their ordination. So even if we have no data in that respect, it may well be that in former centuries there was also a similar repression of opposing pro-woman traditions.

To sum up: there can be no question of an unbroken monolithic two-thousand-year-old tradition on the exclusion of women from priesthood, accepted unanimously by the church community. That, on contary, is tendentious fiction. Keeping it up means retaining the misogyny displayed most particularly in the exclusion of women from the priesthood, and thus placing stumbling blocks in the path of the movement since Vatican II towards a renewed Church of brothers and sisters.

A threat to Church unity?

While the usual positions against the ordination of women were repeated refuted in decades past by cogent arguments, the authorities stuck to their well-known negative attitude of disclination to reform. In view of the conspicuous intellectual advances in this field, which makes repetition of the tradition positions look increasingly shaky, the authorities have resorted to a last line of defence in appealing to the unity of the Church which could, apparently, be desperately threatened by the ordination. (15) For instance, one is told that on a world-wide basis - - for by now the main focus of the Catholic Church is felt to be in the so-called Third World - - the ordination would be unacceptable. In practice, such a stance would mean that the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church would be preserved for a long time. That being so, this appeal to church unity conceals in its essence a refusal to aim at or prepare a thorough, Gospel-guided change in the relationship between the sexes.

And in any case serious reservation can be advanced with respect to this idea of church unity. Does it mean a set of rules applicable to all Catholic Christians, despite differing ways of life and culture, despite the varying levels of knowledge and education deeply ingrained in Christendom in so many countries? An interpretation of unity as a rigid grip or fetter clearly denies the varying pastoral needs of people in different countries, and stifles legitimate pluriformity within the Church. Therefore “unity in pluriformity” is the only principle applicable to the ordination of women which can claim validity. For only so can it be assumed that women with a priestly vocation and theological training, indeed all women, at last get justice in the Church, that their charisms are no longer suppressed by church law to the detriment of the whole Church, and that a stride towards a Church of brothers and sisters is taken. That Church, in helping the paths towards the life fulfilment of the Kingdom of God, would at last be the “city on the mountain” and “salt of the earth” (cf Mt 5, 13-16).

Ida Raming


1. See inter alia the following literature:

H v d Meer, ‘Priestertum der Frau?’ (QD 42) Freiburg 1969; K Rahner, ‘Priestertum de Frau?’in: Studien der Zeit 102 (1977) 291-301: H Kung/G Lohfink, ‘Keine Ordination der Frau?’ in: Theologisches Quartalschrift 157 (1977) 144-146; E Schüssler Fiorenza, ‘The Twelve’,in: ‘Women Priests, a Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration’, ed L A Swidler, New York 1977, 114-122; A Lohfink, ‘Weibliche Diakone in Neuen Testament’ in: ‘Die Frau in Unchristentum’, ed G Dautzenberg et alia (QD 95) Freiburg 1983, 320-338; G Heinzelmann,‘Die geheiligte Diskriminierung’, Bonstetten 1986, esp 194-200; ‘Kennbeziehung der Frauen in das Apostolichen Amt. Entscheidung der Synode der Alt-Katholischen Kirche Deutschlands und ihre Begrundung’ (no year) 11 ff; R Albrecht, article ‘Apostelin/Jumgerin’ in: ‘Wörterbuch der feminishischen Theologie’, Gütersloh 1991, 24-28; I Raming, article ‘Priestertum der Frau’, ibid 328-330.

The question of whether the choice of the Twelve was made by the historical Jesus or whether the group wsa a post-Resurrection institution, back-projected by the evangelists into Jesus’ post-Resurrection life has elicited varying responses from exegetes; cf the pro and contra arguments in the survey by J Gnilka ‘Das Evangelium nach Markus’ vol 1, Zürich-Einsiedeln-Cologne (1978) 141-143. Gnilka states on these dissenting views: “The arguments on this matter which are unlikely ever to reach agreement, have long been exchanged . . . The most satisfactory assumption is still that Jesus assembled the Twelve”. (as above).

2. Gnilka (note 1) 143.

3. A Lohfink (note 1) 330.

4. On this, see Lohfink (with reference to B Brooten) 327ff.

5. Thus K Rahner (note 1) 295.

6. Lohfink 321f.

7. Thus eg Cardinal A Sterzinsky (in an interview with the “Berliner Morgen Post”) Münstersche Zeitung (MZ) dd 8 11 91; similarly Bishop R Lettmann, MZ 16/17 11 91.

8. On this, see the literature under footnote 1, also: I Raming, ‘Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt, Gottgewollte Tradition oder Diskriminierung?’, Cologne-Vienna 1973; ibid ‘Frauenbewegung und Kirche’, Weinheim 2nd ed 1991.

9. Cf his study: ‘Note sul sacerdozio femminile nell’ Antichitá in margine a una testimonianza di Gelasio I’ in: ‘Vetera Christianorum 19’ (1982) 341-360. A complete translation of Otranto’s study into American by Mary Ann Rossi was published in the article “Priesthood, Precedent and Prejudice: On recovering the women Priests of Early Christianity, Containing a translation from the Italian of ‘Notes on the Female Priesthood in antiquity’ by Giorgio Otranto”, in: ‘Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion’ vol 7 (1991) No 1. 73-94 (the verdict of the translator: “Otranto provides ample grounds for reconsidereing the role of women in the priesthood of early Christianity....” ibid p78)

10. Cf G Heinzelmann, ‘Die getrennten Schwestern’, Zürich 1967, 66; A Jensen, article ‘Diakonin’ in: ‘Wörterbuch der feministichen Theologie’ (note 1) 58-60 (further literature therein).

11. Cf on this and what follows :Raming, ‘Ausschluss’ 111.

12. Cf on this: G Heinzelmann ed., ‘Wir Schweigen nicht länger! Frauen äussern sich zum 2. Vatikanischen Konzil’, Zürich 1964.

13. G Heinzelmann; ‘Die getrennten Schwestern’,78f. On what follows cf Raming, ‘Frauenbewegung’, 37-61.

14. Thus A Ebneter ‘Keine Frauen im Priesteramt’ in: ‘Orientierung 41’ (1977) 25 .

15. Evidence of this attitude in: Raming ‘Frauenbewegung’ 72 (with note 126 and 104 (with note 49).

Book recommentation: I Raming: ‘Frauenbewegung und Kirche, Bilanz eines 25 järigen Kampfes für Gleich-berechtigung und Befreiung der Frau seit dem 2. Vatikanischen Konzil’. Deutschen Studien Verlag, Weinheim 1987, 2nd ed 1991, 180 pages DM 24 (Editor).

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