How many woman priests?

The Vatican Insider section of La Stampa reports that there are now more women priests than men priests in the Church of England. This report in Italy’s largest circulation newspaper has been picked up by Catholic newspapers and blogs round the world. It has morphed into reports like that in CathNews New Zealand which states: “A first: Anglican women priests outnumber men in UK.”

The trouble is — the underlying claim is false.

However this surface error aside, the La Stampa article offers a very fine summary of the theological and historical issues at play — and reports that in the view of one Italian church historian, there were women priests and bishops in the early Catholic Church.

The La Stampa story entitled “Women outnumber men in the Anglican Church for the first time” begins:

There is a female majority for the first time in the Church of England, with more women priests joining than men. This certainly bodes well for a final “yes” vote in next July’s Synod that would allow women into the Episcopate. “Official figures show that 290 women were ordained in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available,” says British newspaper The Telegraph. “By contrast, just 273 men entered the priesthood.”

Yes, I would say that there is a female majority among those in the pews in the Church of England — but I expect that this has been the case for several hundred years.

And yes, La Stampa accurately quotes news from the Telegraph that in 2009, 290 women were ordained as against 273 men. But the ordination of 17 more women than men in 2009 does not mean that a majority of priests are now women. The headline of the Telegraph article from 4 February 2012 could be misconstrued by someone for whom English is not their first language: “More new women priests than men for first time.”

But in the body of the article there is the statement that should remove any ambiguity:

Overall there were still more than twice as many ordained men (8,087) as women (3,535) in 2010.

In 2009 I ran a story in The Church of England Newspaper that reported that as of 2007 the number of women clergy who were incumbents — e.g., who actually were in charge of a congregation — was 15 per cent of the total number of clergy. And, in 2007 the Associated Press ran a story that reported in 2006 the Church of England added 213 women  and 210 men to the priesthood. So, the claim of more women than men in total is untrue, as is the claim that 2010 was the first year that the number of female ordinands exceeded the number of male ordinands.

Putting to one side this confusion of language, the article does offer a look at this issue from a Catholic perspective. The official church position, as summarized by Giorgio Otranto, Professor of Ancient Christian History in the University of Bari is:

Thus the Magisterium returned to the traditional theories that lie behind their opposition to the ordination of women: Christ did not choose any women to join the group of 12 apostles and the entire Church tradition has remained faithful to this fact, interpreting it as the Saviour’s explicit wish for men only to receive the priestly powers of governance, teaching and sanctifying. Only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can embody, sacramentally, the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist.

However, Prof. Otranto noted that the historical record shows that women had been ordained in the Catholic Church.

In a letter sent in 494 to bishops of certain regions of Southern Italy … Pope Gelasius I (492-496) stated he was highly displeased to hear that the contempt towards religion was such that women were being allowed to “sacris altaribus ministrare” and that they were carrying out tasks reserved for males, which did not fall under their competence.”

In Southern Italy, women had received the Sacrament of the Order of bishops, a decision which Gelasius I had firmly condemned. … “Even outside heretical contexts, ancient Christianity seems to have sometimes elevated women to the rank of priest solely and exclusively due to certain prerogatives within the Holy Order, Otranto pointed out.

I find this fascinating. What I also find fascinating is how an unclear lede about the sexes of new Church of England priests morphed into reports about the entire Church of England priesthood. And then was used as a symbol of Church of England’s incipient collapse by some caustic commentators.

What is the moral of the story? Read past the headline? What say you?

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About geoconger
  • Anthony Sacramone

    The moral is: cast your sentences in the way you wish the narrative to go and hope unwitting readers will follow you there.

  • Jerry

    I did not know about Pope Gelasius I’s letter. It seems that Catholic womenpriests have a long albeit not canonical heritage in that church.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering that more women were ordained than men in the Anglican Church virtually shouts out for the article to look at what is in their seminary pipeline. I didn’t see that even mentioned. A number of years ago the Boston Globe Magazine ran an article that mentioned how the mainstream Protestant Churches would probably, at some point, have far more women in their clergy than men based on seminary graduation projections. (Although this information was well buried in the article on women clergy
    Also, it seems strange to use the condemnation of something (calling it “contempt for religion”) as some sort of backhanded endorsement of doing something today deemed to be deserving of contempt in the past.
    And to make a big deal out of ONE historian’s claims is patently absurd. There is no side of any issue that there isn’t some historian somewhere who can be found to back up what a reporter or media outlet wants said. Any reporter worth his salt has the phone number of all the experts he needs to decorate his story with professorial confirmation.

  • Dave

    Gender turnover has already happened among Unitarian Universalist clergy. Based on the UU experience I second Deacon John: The report should have looked at who is in the seminary pipeline.

  • http://n/a Mary De Voe

    “In Persona Christi” the Catholic Priest ordained to Holy Orders says the words of Jesus Christ. Then and only then, is the ordained priest “IN PERSONA CHRISTI”. “Christ did not choose any women to join the group of 12 apostles and the entire Church tradition has remained faithful to this fact, interpreting it as the Saviour’s explicit wish for men only to receive the priestly powers of governance, teaching and sanctifying. Only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can embody, sacramentally, the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist.” Christ ordained the Apostles to HOLY ORDERS at the Last Supper, therefore, it is more than Christ’s wish, it is Christ’s Sacrament of Holy Orders. Women who present themselves for the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as Jesus Christ did not ordain women, are in grave error.

  • http://n/a Mary De Voe

    “Women who present themselves for the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as Jesus Christ did not ordain women, are in grave error.” and do a grave injustice to the faithful.

  • carl

    The larger issue is the push/pull between the increasing feminization of church leadership and the increasing gender imbalance in those churches. Men increasingly find themselves detached from churches. Why? What is the impact of female leadership on the character of a church, and how does it affect the attitude of men toward that church? The number of women priests is the small story that fits a ‘social justice’ agenda. How it plays out on the ground is a big story.


  • Bain Wellington

    The headline and lede:-

    Anglicani, il sorpasso “rosa”. Per la prima volta nel Regno Unito le vocazioni delle donne prete superano quelle dei “colleghi” maschi. Maggioranza rosa nella Chiesa d’Inghilterra. Per la prima volta tra gli anglicani del Regno Unito le vocazioni delle donne prete superano quelle dei loro «colleghi» uomini.

    and in the English translation:-

    Women outnumber men in the Anglican Church for the first time. For the first ever in the United Kingdom, female priests’ vocations exceed those of their male “colleagues”. There is a female majority for the first time in the Church of England, with more women priests joining than men.

    We can argue that “vocation” is an error for “ordination”, but neither the original Italian in the La Stampa article, nor the English translation, asserts that a majority of priests in the Church of England are female. The headline might have been more felicitously phrased, but the totality of headline and lede (even without the material further in the story) clearly states the true position.

    There are at least two serious errors of translation, tho, which you did not pick up.

    [A] Objections to the ordination of women as Anglican priests came not from “English Catholics”, but from “Anglo-Catholics”, and

    [B] It is not the case that

    In Southern Italy, women had received the Sacrament of the Order of bishops

    . The Italian here says avevano ricevuto il sacramento dell’Ordine da vescovi (had received the Sacrament of Order from bishops).

  • Karen

    Jesus never ordained men or women. And Leonardo’s charming painting notwithstanding, a Passover seder requires women to perform specific duties so most likely women were present.

    Of course this begs the question of why an article on the increase in women priests in the Episcopal church is relying on Roman Catholic history.

  • Hector

    Re: Of course this begs the question of why an article on the increase in women priests in the Episcopal church is relying on Roman Catholic history.

    Because one of the stronger arguments that conservative Episcopalian/Anglicans make against the ordination of women, is that ‘Rome (and Constantinople) won’t have any respect for our priesthood’. And because, you know, the English church was part of the Roman Catholic church up until the 16th century, and never broke away to quite the same extent as Lutherans or Calvinists.

    I mean, yes, the RC and Orthodox churches don’t recognize Anglican orders now, but they *might* in future, if the Anglican priesthood remained all male. The ordination of women has pretty much put an end to that hope for the foreseeable future.

    (For disclosure, I’m an Episcopalian, and agnostic on the matter of women’s ordination).

    And yeah, actually, Jesus did ordain the apostles, who were the first priests.

  • Maureen

    I’m looking at Jaffe’s description (Regesta Pontificum Romanorum, Vol. 1, p. 85, #636), and he says the letter was about women not being supposed to “manage” sacred things. It sounds like it’s a sacristy thing, not a priest thing.

    But the document itself is here, so anybody with Latin can read it:

    Why didn’t the newspaper link, so people could see for themselves?

  • Maureen

    Okay… it seems like this letter is not talking to the bishops of southern Italy and Sicily about normal times, but rather it’s alerting them to take care of problems that arose during a time of war, famine, and invasion.

    They need priests to fill the parishes again, so the bishops are allowed to train literate men of good character with no legal problems, from either monks or laymen, to become priests after only nine months of filling the minor and deacon orders and having good behavior.

    Bad practices (like baptizing for money) are strictly outlawed, and disciplinary practices (like vowed widows supported by the Church wearing veils to show their status) are asked to be put back into place.

    Way, way, way down the list, you get to the bit the prof here is talking about.

  • Maureen

    Ooh, I see. Vowed widows don’t get the veiling ceremony that vowed virgins get, and vowed virgins can’t take the veil on Epiphany, Easter, or on the feastdays of the Apostles (unless they’re sick and feared to be about to die).

    I really like this. It’s very clear about the regs.

  • Maureen

    Well, there actually is something about women serving as priests, but basically it’s saying that it was the same kind of abuse as simony, or of building churches named after your dead relatives instead of saints.

    There’s nothing here that’s misogynist; it just says that service at the holy altars is assigned to the sex of men.

    It does say that mostly the women didn’t know any better, but that you’re not supposed to agree to teach people to keep the laws of the Church if you don’t know enough yourself to know how to keep them.

  • Maureen

    Hmm. Actually, it’s looking more and more like it was what I thought at first — women as acolytes, not as priests, and male priests being reprimanded for having women do acolyte-y things.

    My head’s starting to hurt, though, so I think it’s time to quit for the night.

    There are some webpages which claim to translate Gelasius exactly; but they don’t. I don’t get what they think they’re doing, other than fooling people who never took Latin.

  • http://n/a Mary De Voe

    It is the duty of women to bring their sons, husbands and brothers to the church to be ordained as priests, lectors, altar boys and deacons. The dirth of men in the church may be directly linked to women trying to compete with men. “Do whatever HE tells you” is Mary’s directions to the servants at Cana. I know of one particular woman who brought her father to the church.

  • http://n/a Mary De Voe

    Karen 1:59 “Do this in remembrance of Me” is a HOLY ORDER, Jesus intended only for his Apostles. There were always women ministering to Jesus, even standing at the Crucifixion, but it was to Christ’s Apostles whom Jesus called (a vocation) that Jesus gave implicit instructions, and HE called Peter to be “the ROCK’ Peter, as head of the church of Jesus Christ, then laid hands on other men who followed the call of Christ and so on, unto eternity. This is called the Apostolic Succession, and to this day the Popes are called the successors of Peter. Where do women fit in? Women still are called to minister to Christ in the same way as they were in the days of Christ, as you noted.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Just an addenda. One of the most active women in our parish is a former ordained Protestant pastor. She had gone to Bible college and finally decided after years of study that, based on just the Bible, let alone 2 millenia of Catholic-Orthodox Tradition, she should never have been ordained.
    Considering how many women wannabe priests and women play ordained as so-called womenpriests have been featured and interviewed in the mass media–I have yet to see anywhere in the media interviews or profiles of women going in the anti-ordination direction.
    Yet there are whole books published by some Catholic publishing houses with bios of women who were ordained in one Protestant Church or another and finally decided Rome was correct. They thereupon set aside their ordination and became Catholic. Clearly, these Catholic converts don’t fit the media promoted narrative of what the Catholic Church should be bludgeoned into doing.

  • Luis Gutierrez

    The calling of the 12 apostles is a mystery that should not be interpreted in a fundamentalist way. Would Jesus, here and now, choose 12 human males to represent the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel?

    There is no such thing as a “male priesthood” or a “female priesthood,” just as there is no such thing as a “male human nature” or a “female human nature.” There is one human nature, assumed by the Second Person of the Trinity at the incarnation. Are women fully human? Aquinas thought they are not, and this remained the “doctrine” of the church for centuries.

    There is only the one priesthood of Christ, who assumed the concrete totality of human nature for our redemption (“what is not assumed, is not redeemed”). All redeemed and baptized persons are called to share in Christ’s priesthood in a common way, and some are called to share in it in a sacramental way.

    It took 1950 years for the Roman Catholic church to define the dogma of the assumption, and 38 additional years to recognize the full humanity of women (Mulieres dignitatem, 1988). So it seems reasonable to think that Roman Catholic women will be ordained by 1988+1988=3976 AD.

    Patience … but let’s keep praying and working for the ordination of women!

    God bless,

  • Bain Wellington

    Restraining my impulse to respond to all your points, Luis Gutierrez, I must confine myself to addressing two errors. The first arises from your disparaging remarks about St. Thomas Aquinas, where you probably have in mind the often ill-cited passage (ST Ia,q.92, a1.resp. ad 1) where he quotes Aristotle to the effect that women are “misbegotten males” femina est mas occasionatus.

    Leaving aside the correct translation of “occasionatus” (? “caused accidentally”) and “deficiens” (? unfinished) as well as the Aristotelian theory of biological generation from which Thomas was hardly in any position to dissent, it is better to consider the full argument, not just a snippet from it:-

    As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten [deficiens et occasionatus]. . . On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten [occasionatus], but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation

    In the very next topic (ST Ia,q.93,a4.resp. ad 1), he addressed “image”:-

    The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman

    It is hard to deduce misogynism out of this.

    As for the astonishing idea that not until 1988 did the Church accept the “full humanity of women”, I can at least take matters back to 1945 (assuming that what is required is an explicit statement expressed in modern terms, as opposed to general statements of undifferentiated human rights such as are found in the US Constitution and in the Church’s constant teaching: cf., e.g., Gal.3:26-29).

    Ven. Pius XII, in a speech delivered on 21 October 1945 to delegates from various women’s organisations said (AAS 37 [1945] pp.284-289 at p. 285: English translation here):-

    Nella loro dignita? personale di figli di Dio l’uomo e la donna sono assolutamente uguali (in their personal dignity as children of God, man and woman are absolutely equal)

    In the same speech he asserted women’s right to equal pay for equal work, and their duty to participate in public life so far as consistent with the exercise of such responsibilities as attach to wives and mothers (ibid., pp.288, 292 etc.).

    This speech was cited by Blessed John Paul II at the very outset of his Letter Mulieris dignitatem (see footnote 4) to which you referred when erroneously claiming that he had innovated in the matter of recognising “the full humanity of women” (and, indeed, their full equality with man in respect of their human dignity).

  • lawrence

    Let the women priests remain in other churches not in the catholic church.
    It looks funny for a woman to celebrate the Holy Mass.
    Let the Catholic church lead, others follow.

  • matt

    The “rock” that Christ built his church on was the rock of Peter’s witness(NOT Peter himself), that Christ is Lord, There’s no pope and no succession of popes.

    Women are not called to be pastors. They’re still equal to men ontologically. Isn’t that enough?

  • Will

    All right, before geoconger has to spend time deleting posts…. Interesting as the theology may be to many here, including me, does one need to remind people that this site is to discuss journalistic coverage of it? The theological knock-down drag-outs will quickly get tiresome, and there are plenty of other blogs devoted to them.
    As for the Protestant pope-bashing, we have heard it all before. And again. And again.

  • northcoast

    Back to the story, sometimes the press and a lot of the rest of us just don’t get numbers.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The New Zealand Catholic headline can be read to suggest that there are more Anglican women priests (in this case in the whole communion I guess) than there are males in the UK (or at least adult males). It is an odd headline at best.

  • John Pack Lambert

    While nearly 30% of the Church of England clergy is female, only 15% of the parochial-incumbent status clergy is. Is this because the later are more senior, or are there other factors making women less likely to take the later role?

    The same question is worth posing on the seminary student counts. Even if the Church of England consistently had more women than men ordained to the Priesthood, this would not neccesarily lead to a majority of priests being women. Factors of age at ordiantion and rates of staying in the clergy could have an effect on eventual outcomes in the future.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Just because some members of the Catholic Church did something at some time somewhere does not mean it was officially accepted by the Catholic Church.