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The Fathers and the question of Women Priests

About valid Tradition

Scriptural Tradition Latent Tradition Dynamic Tradition Informed Tradition Valid Tradition

The Fathers and the question of ‘Women Priests’

Oppostion to women priests in Gnostic sects?

Rome makes this claim: “A few heretical sects in the first centuries, especially Gnostic ones, entrusted the exercise of the priestly ministry to women: this innovation was immediately noted and condemned by the Fathers, who considered it as unacceptable in the Church.” Inter Insigniores, § 6.

Rome quotes five sources. “We know of them only through the severe disapproval with which they are noted by:

  1. St Irenaeus in his Adversus Haereses 1, 13, 2: PG 7, 580-581;
    Response: A scrutiny of this passage shows that Irenaeus describes the bizarre rites of the Gnostic Marcus in great detail, including a section in which women act as priests. Irenaeus obviously rejects Gnosticism, but nowhere does he explicitly reject the idea of validly ordained women in the Catholic Church.
  2. Tertullian in De Praescriptione Haereticorum, 41, 5;
    Response: Tertullian does, indeed, condemn the practice of ordaining women among heretics and also elsewhere he expresses his opposition to women priests . But this opposition is clearly based on his prejudices against women.
  3. Firmilian of Caesarea in a letter to St Cyprian, Epist., 75: CSEL 3, pp. 817-818;
    Response: Firmilian describes a woman whom he considers ‘possessed by a demon’, who offered Mass and administered baptism. His concern is whether such baptisms are valid, not the ordination of women.
  4. Origen in a commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians, Fragmentum in I Cor. 74, in Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909), pp.41-42;
    Response: I have so far not been able to find this text. However, Origen may hardly be considered a trustworthy witness of tradition in this matter. As a disciple of Plato and Aristotle he considered woman inferior by nature. Influenced as he was by semi-Gnostic writings, he looked on all matter as evil and tainted. Everything to do with sex, even the prayers of a Christian couple before intercourse, is ‘unbecoming’ (In Lev. Hom. 8, 12, 4; Fragm. in 1 Cor. 34). Origen castrated himself and held that the Holy Spirit departed from a couple during sexual intercourse (In Num. Hom. 6, 288). The results of his thinking can be seen in St. Augustine.
  5. and especially by St Ephiphanius in his Panarion 49, 2-3; 78, 23; 79, 2-4: vol. 2, GCS 31, pp.243-244; vol. 3. GCS 37, pp.473, 477-479.”
    Epiphanius rejects the ordination of women to the priesthood with the following arguments
    • In the Old Testament women never functioned as priests’.
      Response: This argument is invalid, since we are talking about a new dispensation. The second-rate status of women in the Old Testament has made way for their equality in Christ.
    • Even Mary did not exercise the priestly office
      Response: Though Mary did not function exactly as the Apostles did, she joined Christ intimately in his priesthood. Catholic devotion has always seen Mary as a true ‘priest’ with Christ..
    • Never has a woman been appointed among bishops and priests.’
      The reason for not appointing women, not mentioned by Epiphanius here, is the inferior status attributed to women. Epiphanius himself calls them ‘a feeble race, untrustworthy and of mediocre intelligence’.
    • ‘There is the Order of Deaconesses in the Church . But they are not permitted to act as priests or have anything to do with that office.’
      Response: Epiphanius is wrong here. As the Council of Trent has defined, the diaconate belongs to Holy Orders, and is the first step of the sacramental priesthood. Deaconesses at the time were validly ordained.

Conclusion: Irenaeus does not address the question of ordaining women as such. Among the Fathers quoted only Epiphanius argues the case against ‘women priests’ explicitly. His arguments do not stand up to scrutiny.

Church Hall of Mirrors

Do prejudices not matter?

Rome states: “It is true that in the writings of the Fathers one will find the undeniable influence of prejudices unfavourable to women, but nevertheless, it should be noted that these prejudices had hardly any influence on their pastoral activity, and still less on their spiritual direction.” Inter Insigniores, § 6.

Response: Rome misses the point entirely. Obviously, the Fathers of the Church did not totally exclude women from their pastoral activity and spiritual ministry. They may even, on occasion, have been kind, tolerant and gracious towards them. The point is that, in the general opinion of the Fathers, women could not be considered for ordination:

  1. because, as inferior creatures ‘by nature and by law’, they could not be entrusted with the responaibility of the priesthood;
  2. because they thought that punishment for Eve's sin kept women in permanent subjection;
  3. because through their monthly periods women were often ritually unclean.

Such prejudice cannot be shown in detail to have been held by all Fathers of the Church in its three manifestations, often by lack of documentary evidence and by a lack of occasions when the prejudices would show up. The prejudices were so much part of the accepted culture and the social structures that they did not need to be fully expressed. Yet, the prejudices were always there and acted as the major block against promoting women to the priesthood.

Ambrosiaster (4th cent. AD) spoke for all of them when he said:

“ Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them. Their heads must be covered in church in order to honor the bishop. In like manner they have no authority to speak because the bishop is the embodiment of Christ. They must thus act before the bishop as before Christ, the judge, since the bishop is the representative of the Lord. Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive. How can anyone maintain that woman is the likeness of God when she is demonstrably subject to the dominion of man and has no kind of authority? For she can neither teach nor be a witness in a court nor exercise citizenship nor be a judge-then certainly not exercise dominion.” On 1 Corinthians 14, 34.

But what about St. Chrysostom?

Rome claims that at least St. Chrysostom was not biassed. Here are their exact words: “St John Chrysostom, for his part, when commenting on chapter twenty-one of John, understood well that women’s exclusion from the pastoral office entrusted to Peter was not based on any natural incapacity, since, as he remarks, ‘even the majority of men have been excluded by Jesus from this immense task.’ De Sacerdotio 2, 2: PC 48, 663.

This is truly an amazing interpretation! For Chrysostom says just the opposite. The task of the priesthood is so demanding, he says, that no woman can match up to it. “For those things which I have already mentioned might easily be performed by many even of those who are under authority, women as well as men; but when one is required to preside over the Church, and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also.” The addition that the task is too big for the majority of men also, is no consolation. ‘The whole female sex’ falls short. Why, because they are inferior by nature! Read the whole passage in its context.

St. Chrysostom's real ideas about women are expressed as follows:

Notice, St. Chysostom's teaching here fails on many counts. It contradicts the inspired meaning of both the Genesis story and the Pauline passages 1 Corinthians 14,34-35 and 1 Timothy 2,11-15. It presumes the inferiority ascribed to women in Greek philosophy and in Roman law. To him, women were inferior by nature, by law and by God's punishment.

With such faulty cultural and religious ideas in his mind, how could Chrysostom ever have imagined that women might be ordained priests?

The so-called ‘tradition’ of not ordaining women in the early Church is not a true Tradition at all. It is a practice due to social, cultural and religious prejudices.

Read also ‘Patristic elements towards a theological anthropology of woman as a human being and as woman in her difference from man’,, by Constantinos Yokarinis, lecture in Warsaw 1996.

John Wijngaards

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