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Church Orders and the question of Women Priests

About valid Tradition

Scriptural Tradition Latent Tradition Dynamic Tradition Informed Tradition Valid Tradition

‘Church Orders’ and the question of Women Priests

Rome claims that the ‘tradition’ of not ordaining women is confirmed by a passage in the socalled early Church Orders, the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions.

This is what Rome says: “But over and above considerations inspired by the spirit of the times, one finds expressed-especially in the canonical documents of the Antiochian and Egyptian traditions-this essential reason namely, that by calling only men to the priestly Order and ministry in its true sense, the Church intends to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the Apostles. Didascalia Apostolorum, ch. 15, ed. R. H. Connolly, pp.133 and 142; Constitutiones Apostolicae, bk. 3, ch. 6, nos. 1-2; ch. 9, nos. 23-4: ed. F. H. Funk, pp. 191, 201.The Coptic, Ethiopian and Arabic versions of the Synodos have been translated and published chiefly by G. Homer, The Statutes of the Apostles or Canones Ecclesiastici, Oxford University Press, 1915 (=1904). ” Inter Insigniores, § 7; Commentary, § 32.

Judging the facts of the case in the Didascalia

The actual text in the Didascalia reads as follows:

. . . . “ It is neither right nor necessary therefore that women should be teachers, and especially concerning the name of Christ and the redemption of His passion. For you have not been appointed to this, 0 women, and especially widows, that you should teach, but that you should pray and entreat the Lord God. For He the Lord God, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us the Twelve to instruct the People and the Gentiles; and there were with us women disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary the daughter of James and the other Mary; but He did not send them to instruct the people with us. For if it were required that women should teach, our Master Himself would have commanded these to give instruction with us. But let a widow know that she is the altar of God; and let her sit ever at home, and not stray or run about among the houses of the faithful to receive. For the altar of God never strays or runs about anywhere, but is fixed in one place. Didascalia, ch. 15.

Assessment:

  1. Although the text mentions ‘women’ in general as not having been chosen by Christ to teach, its aim is to restrict teaching by widows.
    • This is clear from the whole context of chapter 15 which deals exclusively with widows;
    • from the text itself: ‘you have not been appointed to this, O women, and especially widows’;
    • and from the whole preceding section which explains how defective instruction by widows leads to derision among pagans.
  2. The Didascalia recommends the ordination of women deacons which we know to have been sacramentally valid and part of Holy Orders. The prohibitions concerning widows do not affect deaconesses.
  3. The text in the Didascalia does not address the priesthood directly. But if it does indirectly, by reference to the Twelve, the reason for not allowing women to become priests is then that women may not teach. Surely this is not a valid reason? According to present Church Law, women too can be deputed to read Scripture during the liturgy, preach, teach or preside over liturgical services.
  4. The real reason for the mistrust in women as ‘teachers’ is not the allusion to Jesus only choosing men, but the general prejudices of the time. Remember that women could not hold public office and were considered inferior. This prejudice against women is clearly expressed in the paragraph before the one in discussion which reads: “For when the Gentiles who are being instructed hear the word of God not fittingly spoken, as it ought to be, unto edification of eternal life—and all the more in that it is spoken to them by a woman-- . . . , they will mock and scoff, instead of applauding the word of doctrine; and she shall incur a heavy judgement for sin.”

The text in the Didascalia forbids widows to teach. It orders deaconesses to teach. If the prohibition for women to teach is linked to an unwillingness to ordain women to the priesthood, its basis is the social and cultural prejudice of the time.

Judging the text as copied in the Apostolic Constitutions

It is almost literally copied in the Apostolic Constitutions:

“We do not permit our "women to teach in the Church," but only to pray and hear those that teach; for our Master and Lord, Jesus Himself, when He sent us the twelve to make disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women to preach, although He did not want such. For there were with us the mother of our Lord and His sisters; also Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus; Salome, and certain others. For, had it been necessary for women to teach, He Himself had first commanded these also to instruct the people with us. For "if the head of the wife be the man," it is not reasonable that the rest of the body should govern the head. Let the widow therefore own herself to be the "altar of God," and let her sit in her house, and not enter into the houses of the faithful, under any pretence, to receive anything; for the altar of God never runs about, but is fixed in one place. Let, therefore, the virgin and the widow be such as do not run about, or gad to the houses of those who are alien from the faith . . . ” Apostolic Constitutions, book 3, § 6.

Assessment:

  1. As in the Didascalia, although the text mentions ‘women’ in general as not having been chosen by Christ to teach, its main aim is to restrict teaching by widows.
    • This is clear from the whole context of Book 3, Section 1 which deals exclusively with widows;
    • and from the whole preceding section which explains how defective instruction by widows leads to derision among pagans.
  2. The Apostolic Constitutions recommends the ordination of women deacons which we know to have been sacramentally valid and part of Holy Orders. The prohibitions concerning widows do not affect deaconesses.
  3. The reference to 1 Timothy 2,11-15 as the source for the prohibition against women teaching, is more explicit than in the Didascalia. As has been explained in my commentary on that passage, the scriptural text can only mean a temporary exclusion of women from speaking in the assembly.
  4. The Apostolic Constitutions have also added another reason: that the man is the head of the wife, a quote from 1 Corinthians 11,2-16. Here, too, the meaning of the scriptural text should be carefully analysed. Extending Paul's sayings to a fixing of the status of women goes beyond the inspired sense.
  5. Even more than in the Didascalaia, the reason for not allowing women to become priests, if this issue is raised at all, is that women may not teach. Surely this is not a valid reason? According to present Church Law, women too can be deputed to read Scripture during the liturgy, preach, teach or preside over liturgical services.
  6. The underlying reason for the distrust in women as ‘teachers’ is not the scriptural texts adduced, but the general prejudices of the time. Remember that women could not hold public office and were considered inferior.

The text in the Apostolic Constitutions forbids women to teach. Scripture texts are quoted to support this prohibition, but their interpretation goes beyond the intended meaning of those texts. It is probably true that the prohibition for women to teach was linked to an unwillingness to ordain women to the priesthood, but its ultimate basis lay in the social and cultural prejudice of the time.

Judging the text in later authors

Following the lead of the Didache, both the Didascalia (3rd cent.) and the Apostolic Constitutions (4th cent.) claimed to have been written by the Apostles themselves.

  • ‘The Catholic Didascalia, that is Teaching of the Twelve Holy Apostles and Disciples of Our Saviour’ (Title of the Didascalia).
  • ‘The Apostles and elders to all those who from among the Gentiles have believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; grace and peace from Almighty God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied unto you in the acknowledgment of Him’ (Opening of the Apostolic Constitutions).

The attribution to the Apostles was not deliberate fraud. The idea behind it was no doubt that the general contents of the document was in harmony with the teaching of the Apostles. But in later generations both the Didascalia and the Apostolic Constitutions were believed to be the actual words of the Apostles and were therefore taken as reliable sources of doctrine. They seem to have been affirmed as such by the Council of Trullo (692 AD) and the Second Council of Nicea (787 AD).

These texts were also taken as reliable guides on the way in which 1 Timothy 2,11-15 and 1 Corinthians 11,2-16 should be interpreted, namely as implying the impossibility for women to be ordained.

The Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua incorporated this text from the Apostolic Constitutions. Through the Collectio Hispana, of which it was part, it became a major source text for medieval theologians and church lawyers.

  • That is why Thomas Aquinas so confidently, but mistakenly, quotes these texts as scriptural proofs against the ordination of women.
  • That is why the same combination of ‘Scripture’ (1 Timothy 2,11-15; 1 Corinthians 11,2-16) and ‘Tradition’ becomes the justification for excluding women from ordination in Church Law, cf. the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD).
  • That is why the same combination became the ‘standard’ proof as to why women cannot be ordained priests.

The problem with ‘tradition’ is that mistakes in it escalate in the course of time. This text from the Didascalia contributed much to the unwarranted opposition to women priests in the Church.


John Wijngaards



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