N.T. Wright On The New Testament On Women In Ministry


As frequent readers will know I have a great admiration for the Biblical scholar N.T. Wright. Wright, who is an Anglican, supports women’s ordination to the priesthood. I, as a Catholic, accept the Church’s infallible pronouncement that it has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women, and also agree with Pope Francis that the Church needs a better theological think-through on women.

The highly helpful N.T. Wright Page has an excellent speech where Wright exegetes the well-known New Testament texts considering this contentious issue, and I have to say that I can heartily endorse (at least) 99% of it. You can agree to an all-male priesthood and still cringe when reading 1 Timothy 2.

In fact, reading Protestant debates on this issue is I think very enriching for Catholics, because they happen on a different plane. The Catholic theology of the priesthood ultimately has to do with the meaning of the Eucharist and the meaning of the Mass, and in particular with Catholic elements that the Protestants reject. As I said to a Protestant friend, if the question is whether women are equally qualified as men to teach and support a community, the answer is self-evidently yes. Protestant arguments about “women in ministry” do not find purchase in Catholic-world not because we differ about “women” but because we differ about “ministry“. What Protestants who talk about “priesthood” refer to as “priesthood” is an entirely different animal, and therefore we can profitably read, nowhere endangering the teaching on male priesthood, from Protestant arguments for “women in ministry” as arguments on vocations for women.

So we can put aside childish things, lay down the apologetical weapons, and actually look at the picture of the New Testament Church (which, after all, is the Catholic Church) that Wright paints and learn from it.

I think Wright is quite right (even though we disagree about the implications, but not because of our view of men and women, but our view of the priesthood) to point out that the New Testament Church put an equal stress on equality and complementarity, and that on this latter point, we should emphatically get past (historically quite conditioned) notions of “complementarity” as a shibboleth-word that would necessarily imply certain gender roles or prohibitions. I think Wright is quite right to point to the (in my view incontrovertible) historical fact of prominent women’s leadership in the early Church, a fact which we ought to let challenge us without fear that it questions the male priesthood, rather than one we should write off or ignore or explain away. I think Wright is quite right, in particular, to point to the fact of the women at the tomb, of Mary Magdalene as “apostle to the apostles” as a deep mystery we must always ponder.

To this demand and mystery–which cannot be reduced to legal statements or easy formulae–of equality-in-complementarity, I would add for my part as a signpost for reflection, a mention of the Threefold Office of all baptized Christians: King, Priest and Prophet. This draws interesting lines, and I will only sketch them out briefly and speculatively here.

For equality-in-complementarity, for example, I’ve written elsewhere that in my dream world, women would lead the singing in the liturgy. Young boys would serve the altar, and young girls would be the choir–both excellent mystagogies into the liturgy.

With regard to the priestly office, in my view, the question of women’s diaconate must be posed. If women cannot stand in persona Christi at the Eucharistic altar, this does not mean that they may not be deacons. This isn’t something I have read up on deeply, but the historical evidence for a women’s diaconate in the first centuries on the Church seems very strong to me. The argument against women deacons, as I understand it (and, again, my expertise is limited), seems to be, roughly speaking, that everything connected to altar service in a sense participates of the priestly order (just like the priestly order participates of the episcopal order) and so the same prohibitions apply (in the Traditionalist thinking, down to the altar servers). I actually find that this argument has great power and beauty, but if we regard Christ’s selection of the apostles as normative, should we not also thus regard the example of the early centuries of the Church?

With regard to the prophetic office, I have already made what I persist in thinking is an important proposal. With regard to the kingly office, I have elsewhere proposed reviving something like the institution of the Papal Legate, role which it seems to me there is no impediment to women occupying.

In any case, Wright’s speech makes profitable reading.

Olimpiada diakonissa” by Original uploader was Testus at ru.wikipedia – Transferred from ru.wikipedia. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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  • The problem with women to me is far more basic. All of the women’s ordination supporters I know, are obsessed with clericalism to the point of not understanding how a leader is supposed to lead- through service and example, not by dictatorial pronouncement.

    I do not know what it is about women in leadership roles, but I do not see them providing an example of sacrifice and service.

    And the funny thing is, I KNOW women are capable of that form of leadership- I had a mother, and you did too. Yet when it comes to the church, they want change for the sake of change, without regard to tradition, without regard to Christ. The LCWR is a fine example of what happens: Heresy.

    The way forward isn’t women priests, it’s recapturing and celebrating motherhood, and all those who love with the heart of a mother, not those who crave power without formation.

  • captcrisis

    “The Catholic theology of the priesthood ultimately has to do with the meaning of the Eucharist and the meaning of the Mass, and in particular with Catholic elements that the Protestants reject.”

    I don’t think that’s true. The idea that the main reason women can’t be priests is because “only a man can stand in the place of Christ” is a 20th century invention. For almost all the Church’s history, the reasons were because women were subordinate, weaker, morally more flawed, forbidden to exercise authority over men, the conduit through which the Devil seduces men, etc. The least misogynist reason was that women should not have careers. As late as Casti Connubii (1930) we see a condemnation of single women going out into the working world. The Church has now rejected all of that. At some point the last fig leaf of misogyny finally drop.

    • No, the reasons have always been, Jesus Christ chose only men, and the Church is not free to deviate from his actions.

      The explanations have varied over the years.

      Some have been misogynistic, but many of those are rather late ideas as well. For example, anyone prior to Queen Victoria (or outside the nobility) would have laughed at the idea that women should not be part of the “working world”. Certainly, hard-working and productive medieval nuns (to say nothing of guildswomen) would have scoffed at such an idea.

      Other explanations have been interested in exploring the mystery of male and female, and the connection to the mystery of God’s activity in creation. Most of these have, until recently, been focused on the purely reproductive complementarity of the sexes, but St. John Paul II delved into the history and spirituality of sexual complementarity in great detail.

      For the most part, however, I think the question simply didn’t come up much. The idea that women and men are utterly interchangeable is the most recent of all these ideas. Prior to the early 20th century, the sexes having distinct roles in some aspects of society was simply taken for granted, in both Christian and non-Christian cultures. Indeed, part of the scandal of Christianity from the earliest days was the insistence on treating women as fully equal – though not interchangeable – members of the Church (and therefore, it eventually developed, of society).

      So, the question of deacons really does come down to, whether the Sacrament of Holy Orders is, essentially and in its entirety, only conferrable on male persons, or whether the First Degree of Holy Orders is less restricted than the rest of the sacrament.

      The answer will not come from an argument about rights or dignity – it is already assumed that women and men are equal in their rights and dignity. The answer will come, I am convinced, from a study of history and an understanding of whether those called “deaconesses” in the early days of the Church were in fact participating in the Sacrament of Holy Orders in the same way that Deacons do today.

    • You have to distinguish between the actual teaching, and the speculative theological reasons advanced to understand it. There’s no doubt that arguments we would now regard as misogynistic were once advanced, but that was never the sum total.

      • captcrisis

        If the reasons are bogus, then the teaching should be rejected. The “teaching” is a later encrustation. Nowhere did Jesus reject the idea of women priests — in fact, “priests” did not exist then, and he made no effort to establish a group similar to priests of the Temple. In fact some of the reasons given for having an all-male priesthood could just as easily be turned around to require an all-*female* priesthood.

        The first explicit ruling on the teaching came in 1976, with “Inter Insignoriles”, hastily commissioned by Paul VI and hastily issued by the CDF. It was a knee-jerk response to a very recent and significant development, whereas time and reflection were really warranted. But if this was all the reasons that the CDF could muster for restricting priesthood to males, it’s a very weak case. Aside from very tenuous extrapolations from Jesus’s habits, the reasons given rely on Patristic era pronouncements. As has been pointed out, the footnotes to Patristic sources were scanty and misleading; a term paper with this kind of sourcing would probably get a C-. We are told that people like Irenaeus and Tertullian worked from Biblical and mystical understandings when holding that only men could be priests, but when one looks at the sources, it was just pure misogyny. See John Wright’s article on Inter Signoriles for example.

  • Kathleen Worthington

    Let’s not expand an existing Church structure like the diaconate to accomodate women. I see a lot of room for mischief in that idea. However, a new order based on Mary Magdalene’s witness would be very intriguing. The model for women’s ministry already exists in her. My ulterior motive is to promote a woman in the pulpit as a homilist.

    Week after week, homily after homily I listen to — well, to speak in cultural crudity, “mansplaining”. I don’t think the Church is well-served by hearing from only one sex about the role of the Gospel in everyday life. A Magdalene (I’m inventing terms now) would need the same theological/doctrinal/communicative training as a deacon but would not assist at the Mass. She would distribute Communion, including viaticum, and could provide leadership on the parish’s social work. She would get to wear cool robes and block traffic out of Mass by shaking hands at the door. (Kidding. Seriously, though, what about a special Magdalene veil? Ooooh.)

    Anybody grabbed by that idea?

  • Luis Gutierrez

    Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is not an infallible definition of revealed truth. In fact, St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” provides a solid foundation to resolve the most crucial issues of biblical gender equality, including the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Let us pray that all the Christian churches will be able to discern the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truths, and act accordingly.