Catholics and Women’s Ordination 1

Macy.jpgBooks that even breathe the air of conspiracy theories rarely attract my interest, but I have been gathering for some time a variety of facts about women in ministry that are both unknown to the average Christian and, in my judgment, have been covered up. So, when I saw the title of Gary Macy‘s The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, I was both wary and interested. The book proves something very important and I want to wander through this book in a few posts.

One way to begin is to set up the problem, and it’s clear.  The Catholic tradition and official teaching aren’t up to individual decisions. Matters as serious as who distributes the Eucharist aren’t up to individuals — this is a matter that the pope and the official teachers of the RCC decide. And they’ve decided: males duly ordained.

What would happen if Roman Catholic scholars (or non-Catholic) discovered that in the first few centuries women were ordained?  Protestants could shift, though it would take some serious work for some groups to change on ordaining women. (I make some proposals about this in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
.) The Catholic tradition though, in the 12th and 13th Centuries, made some serious judgments that led to ordaining only men for the eucharistic ministry.

So, when Gary Macy argues, as he will, that prior to those Centuries Roman Catholics did “ordain” women, he opens up more than a can of worms. He both opens up a fissure in the tradition and puts himself in a position of some serious criticism — and he’s gotten it. From no less a figure than the recently-deceased Cardinal Avery Dulles. But he makes his point: “This is a history that has been deliberately forgotten, intentionally marginalized, and, not infrequently, creatively explained away” (4).

Today I want to mention one more point: he contrasts the historical method with the theological method. Theology has made its decision: “According to this way of thinking, if women were (and are) incapable of being ordained, then they cannot have been ordained in the past” (5). But historians ask not if women in the past were ordained to the eucharistic ministry but what did the word “ordain” mean when it was used — often enough — of women in the RCC? Furthermore, they do their best to avoid approaching the ancient texts through the lens of current RC debates about women in the priesthood.

This is an academic book but written well enough that any serious student can both take it all in and enjoy the prose. To make the prose lighter, Macy took all technical discussions out and put them in the endnotes — so that half the book is prose and the other half notes, bibliography and appendices. Everyone interested in this question and every library need this book.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • James Petticrew

    If you are hunting down little know facts about women in ministry here are two from Scotland.
    As far as we are aware the Church of the Nazarene (which was indigenous to Scotland) was the first denomination to ordain a woman in Scotland.
    Secondly I remember reading a book of essays by FF Bruce about various subjects in which he included the story of a very bold woman in the North East of Scotland who refused to be silenced in the meetings of the so called “closed brethren” in that region and whose contribution was eventually accepted.
    Its very sad the way the contribution of women in ministry has been sidelined and forgotten. I remember reading a history of missions text book which managed to tell the whole story of the missionary movement without mentioning the contribution of one woman! We need more of these kinds of works to redress the balance.
    I also wonder how “firm” some of these RC doctrinal positions are, here in the UK they seem to be able to accommodate married former Anglican priests in their ranks while insisting celibacy is the position of the church.

  • Jeremiah Daniels

    Conspiracy theories interest me, but not the actual idea of the theory but the psychology and thought process behind the believers and promoters of the theories.
    In this case, it would be nice to ask the question if woman did play a greater role why was it “creatively explained away”? The answer to that question would give us a better measure of paranoia versus human reason why it happened.
    I’m looking forward to this _historical_ discussion! Especially after recently finishing Blue Parakeet, I am interested in solidifying the case for female leadership.

  • garver

    Actually I think you’ll find that Roman Catholic women can and are authorized in various circumstances to “distribute” the already consecrated eucharist (though are not ordained for that role), but they cannot consecrate the eucharistic species as priests.
    I would think that the thornier question — both theologically and historically — would concern women and the diaconate.

  • D C Cramer

    This book looks interesting. I’m adding it to my wish list. If you’re familiar, how would the information and perspective compare to Karen Torjesen’s, When Women Were Priests?

  • Scot McKnight

    D C,
    I’ve not read Torjesen’s stuff. Macy’s a medievalist and is carrying on in very readable prose an investigation of the shift in how “ordain” was understood and how it was shifted to consecrating the bread and wine. In some ways, it is more “objective” than it is directly concerned with what to do today.

  • joanne

    I attended an Art History presentation at a local Catholic Church. They presented an interesting slide show revealing a variety of Art work that dipicted women priests who served the Eucharist, taught the scripture and performed a variety of priestly duties.
    Some of the Art work had been tampered to cloak the feminine characteristics of the women. i purchased a Artbook the presenters had put together by the Women’s Ordination Conference;
    Hearing the presentation produced a great deal of turmoil inside of my own heart.

  • ChrisB

    if women were (and are) incapable of being ordained, then they cannot have been ordained in the past
    Can’t it be “they shouldn’t have been ordained in the past? Or does that raise problems with infallible tradition?

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    I also wonder how “firm” some of these RC doctrinal positions are, here in the UK they seem to be able to accommodate married former Anglican priests in their ranks while insisting celibacy is the position of the church.
    Are these former Anglican priests currently married? “Celibacy” doesn’t mean one’s never had sex. It means that they promise to abstain from it. If the priest is a widower, for example, there wouldn’t be anything inconsistent here.

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    Oh! Excuse me. Somehow I missed that important word (married) in your original post, which would make your question a viable one.
    I have no knowledge of this practice, and thus can’t really comment. My apologies.

  • daniel schultz

    I am convinced that either Catholicity is true and infallible or there is no CHristianity, which has spoken definitively on the matter of women’s ordination. If renegade Bishops tried to ordain women this is a wound in Christ’s Body but not a division, since they were not ordained in God’s eyes. Otherwise there is no divine Church because Christ is really not Lord and the Church is not really the fulness of Truth. Love and truth are one.

  • Jane

    James, Mark, and Chris B.,
    Perhaps I (a former active Roman Catholic and the daughter of a fanatical Roman Catholic) can offer a tidbit that can shed light on the issue of married former Anglican priests and the doctrine of infallibility.
    In Roman Catholicism, marriage and celibacy are not mutually exclusive. In fact, abstinence from intercourse is considered one of two ideal states for married couples (the other is attempt to conceive; whereas “recreational” intercourse is not forbidden in official RCC doctrine, it is strongly discouraged and viewed as a sign of weakness).
    Married men who choose to enter the priesthood are not forced to have their marriages annulled, particularly if they are converts from another faith (though they are permitted to do so if they like). They are, however, required to remain abstinent and thus undefiled. This is also what is required of married men who become deacons.
    This is in part an adaptation to cultures in which a woman’s being unmarried places her in danger—she is able to retain her status as married and thus the protection and provision of her husband, though he decides to enter the priesthood.
    “Can’t it be ‘they shouldn’t have been ordained in the past?’ Or does that raise problems with infallible tradition?”
    In practical terms, RCC theology trumps historical fact. If it is deemed to be correct today, then it has always been correct, and thus any evidence to the contrary simply isn’t. Because they shouldn’t be ordained, they never were. This is the same logic by which the papacy “can be” traced back to Peter. Also, this has little to do with the doctrine of infallibility, which is a specific “right” of the presiding pope that has only been invoked twice in history (to declare the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption of Mary). It is called an ex cathedra declaration, and only when this “right” is invoked is the pope infallible.

  • Tony Hunt

    I am excited to read this book, thanks for bringing it up and discussing it. As a pentecostal, only coming into the larger Christian world later in life, I always got a kick out the the justifications used to keep women out of “ministry.”

  • James Petticrew

    As far as I understand it, the former Anglicans are married and carrying on a sexual life as part of their married life and so I can understand why some Catholic priests who have been forced out after getting married are a bit miffed

  • Paul in the GNW

    I’m sorry, but you have your facts wrong – all the way around. Married clergy from Anglican and Lutheran backgrounds have been ordained as RC priests but they do NOT have to remain abstinent. Nor is it “abstinence or attempt to conceive” for RCs. You must be getting erroneous information.

  • ChrisB

    “required to remain abstinent and thus undefiled”
    If that is the official RCC position, that raises a whole lot of other questions. Where did they get the idea that married sex defiles? This is more Greek than biblical.
    Paul’s recommendation against marriage wasn’t based on the legitimacy of marriage but on the necessity of kingdom work, and it was aimed at all believers, not just clergy.

  • Travis Greene

    How do the Orthodox handle this question? If I have my history right, they split from the RCC before the 12th century. And I think EO priests can be married.

  • Dianne P

    I’m not quite sure of all the details of how the EO influenced the Eastern Rite Catholic churches (EC for short), but that was the faith in which I was raised. I believe there are a number of EC “rites” – mine is called the Byzantine Rite – for no reason apparent to me, we were also known as “Greek Catholics”. I give that info so that those who are better church historians than I might possibly shed more light.
    Anyway, in a nutshell, it seems to me that the EC, while technically very “catholic” and certainly under the pope, had many customs that looked just like the EO – fasting, face to face confession, icons, bread and wine communion mixed in one chalice, the 3-bar cross, the mass of St. John Chrysostom in the language of the people rather than Latin, no Ash Wednesday, chrismation rather than baptism + confirmation. I’ll stop there.
    But the kicker here is that their priests could marry. Yes, it is true – catholic priests, married. That’s no longer the case today and I don’t know exactly when it ended for the Byzantine Rite – sometime in the 20th century for sure. And I don’t know if it still exists as an option for other eastern rites or in other countries. But the priest who performed the marriage ceremony for my parents (1945) was the son of a married priest.

  • + Alan

    Just a clarification, which has already been tried – and this isn’t really what the post is about, sorry. It does deserve it though, I think.
    I’m not a Priest or a Canon Lawyer, but I am a fairly well-educated Roman Catholic. The Catholic Church’s requirement of celibacy for men in the current Priesthood is what is called a “discipline” of the Church. It is not doctrinally based and therefore, can change. In the history of the Church, there were married clergy for a thousand years. For various reasons, the Church enacted a mandatory celibacy rule for those entering the Priesthood in the 12th century. So, today, if a Catholic man wants to become a Priest, he cannot be presently married, nor can he later get married. Once he has received Holy Orders, he has sealed his state in life.
    BUT – marriage and Holy Orders are NOT mutually exclusive. Married men from other faith traditions, as has been spoken about here, who convert to Catholicism, and are given permission to then become Catholic Priests, are given a dispensation to become Priests even though they are already married. This is the case already, as a general rule, in the Eastern Catholic Churches and Orthodox Churches – married men may become Priests, but once a single man becomes a Priest, he may not marry – doesn’t go both ways. And in the Roman Catholic Church, the Permanent Diaconate is not ONLY for married men, but most are – and once they are ordained a Deacon, if their wife dies, they may not re-marry. And no one is barred from married sexual union, even if they are a Priest or a Deacon who was and is married.
    So, there is no real inconsistency there. Just a difference in states of life and how one came to Holy Orders. Personally, and I am not remotely alone in this opinion, I believe the celibate discipline should be done away with and married men should be allowed to become Priests. There would still be a place for vowed celibacy for those who are gifted in this way, but more of an openness for those who called to both be married, fathers and Priests. The women’s thing is a whole ‘nother complicated ballgame. Have fun with that. :) Peace.

  • Your Name

    Given that Jesus Christ has invested his very Being in the Catholic Church. he really can’t afford for it to be wrong on this issue.
    There’s about as much evidence for the ordination of women in the New Testament as there is against same sex complementarity.

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    I usually leave it to others to “police” the rule on anonymity, but I’d have really appreciated a name to be attached to the previous post.

  • joanne

    how did a discussion on ordaining wome priests turn into a debate about married priests?

  • Scot McKnight

    Good comment … it started when MBW saw the exception that could be applied as well to women, and it went from the exception to how the exception was …. well, it didn’t stick to women ordained in RCC … but Thurs we’ll be back on this one.

  • Dana Ames

    Dianne P,
    Eastern Catholic priests are still allowed to marry. When our local ECath priest goes on vacation, his usual substitute is a married priest, and one of his dear friends is an archpriest, also married.
    ByzCaths started out Orthodox under the Greek Patriarchate but came under the Pope as a result of the Union of Brest in 1595.

  • Doug Allen

    Since there is ample justification in the Bible for not ordaining women (I’ve lived through the controversies that almost split Protestant sects like the ordaining of gays is doing now), the really interesting question is what were the Biblical (and other) reasons for ordaining women before the 12th century?

  • pam

    you are a good man scot mcknight

  • Jared Olar

    “Books that even breathe the air of conspiracy theories rarely attract my interest”
    Then you shouldn’t have made an exception this time. “Books that even breathe the air of conspiracy theories” can be well nigh guaranteed to be the result of shoddy scholarship and poor reasoning. No doubt Macy talks a lot about deaconesses (which was a baptismal and a catechetical ministry, not a Eucharistic one: the ministry of deaconess lapsed mainly because the Church stopped baptising people in the nude: the primary duty of a deaconess was to assist a priest or bishop when women were baptised, since it was inappropriate for a man to do such baptisms and then to anoint her naked body in numerous places with sacred chrism), and Macy probably brings up that mother of one of the Popes who was called “Episcopa” as a special sign of respect. Despite such creative reinterpretations of the historical records, scholars still have not found any trace of Catholic priestesses confecting the Eucharist or bishopesses consecrating bishops and ordaining priests in those early times. It is not true that it wasn’t until the 12th and 13th centuries that the Church restricted priestly ordination, Eucharistic ministry, and the minor orders to men only.

  • joanne

    i have learned that whatever is most sacred in terms of ministry in a faith community is denied to women. if it is serving the eucharist, then that is denied to women on the basis of her femaleness. if it is the word, or preaching the word in the congregation, then that is denied.
    The church needs to take a serious look at its attitude toward what a woman is. it still feels as if a woman is somehow less or inferior or somehow unclean or unworthy of the high call of Christ. i don’t care how it is said… with sweet words or harsh… a woman is still thought of as something inferior in the body of Christ.

  • Wellsy

    It’s amazing that people struggle with these sexist problems. Are men born with special God antennae that women do not have?