Catholics and Women’s Ordination 4

Abelard.jpg
The last chap of Gary Macy’s
The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West
demonstrates that the 12th Century saw a new definition of “ordain” and a completely contrary (and historic) view of Abelard (and Heloise).

The various factors that led to the current Roman Catholic viewpoint is traced carefully by Macy, and it involved the following features:

First, ordination was increasingly and then finally completely connected to two “offices”: priest and deacon.

Second, Abelard — the one famous for his relationship to Heloise and for his exemplary theory of atonement — argued strenuously that women had been ordained as priests, bishops and deacons and so could continue to be ordained.


In my judgment, we have to be vigilant to continue to ask this: What does “ordain” mean? What does it “do”? And there’s an important corollary: What is the relationship of “ordain” to “giftedness”? Doe the former lead to the latter or does the latter lead to “ordain” meaning “recognition”? Who “ordains”? God or the Church?

Those who study the decisions of the Catholic Church are called “canonists” and they were the ones who finally changed the picture. Gratian’s famous Decretum was the major influence, even though it somehow managed to include five references to women as “priests” or “deacon/esses.”

But the canonists, like Huguccio, connected “sex” (or gender) to sacred orders and concluded that the female sex was incompatible with the priesthood and there never were deaconesses in the sense that many thought. The logical corollary was drawn: if women were incompatible with the Eucharist liturgy, then they never were ordained; therefore, “ordain” must have had a different meaning in the older days. Thus, real ordination was to the Eucharist and any other kind of ordination was really only a “blessing.”

A final feature: the “ordination” process, which was concerned with empowering someone to bless the bread and wine, bestowed something eternally and metaphysically on the soul of the male so ordained.

So, what led to these basic changes in definition? Macy’s sweeping, at times stunning, conclusion unabashedly sketches the context for these changes. They include:

* the rising power of the papacy and male priesthood,
* the continued elevation in piety for the continent and celibate,
* some drastic — and disastrous — changes in perception of women as women.

Some of this developed into overt misogyny, which came into the church through Roman law and the teachings of Aristotle. Aquinas picked some of this up and sanctified it. (A few of Macy’s quotations, extreme though they are, reveal the depths to which some went.)

About Scot McKnight

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

  • http://mysticallimpet.blogspot.com Travis Greene

    Here are my tentative and entirely subject to change answers to your questions.
    What does “ordain” mean? For a community to pray for/bless/send out someone or someones for a specific purpose/responsibility.
    What does it “do”? In terms of ontologically changing the one ordained? Nothing, I think. It’s a communal recognition of an individual’s function/responsibility. Like an honorary doctorate.
    And there’s an important corollary: What is the relationship of “ordain” to “giftedness”? I should hope that the ones ordained are gifted in the area they are serving. But we should probably ordain a lot more people to lots more ministries (But that would make it less important! Exactly).
    Does the former lead to the latter or does the latter lead to “ordain” meaning “recognition”? I think the latter (giftedness) leads to the former. I don’t think ordination somehow invests the ordained with attributes they didn’t previously possess.
    Who “ordains”? God or the Church? Hmm. I’d say, as with everything good, ultimately God. But I think this is an authority he exercies through the Church. What church? Well, I come from the free church tradition, and although I appreciate a lot about my more hierarchically inclined brothers and sisters (RC, Anglican, Methodist, whatever), I don’t care much for arch-somethings and episcopacies and whatnot. So I guess wherever 2 or 3 are gathered, there can be ordination. Which would mean I envision it as much more decentralized, informal, possibly temporary, and unimportant than others (the Roman Catholic church being the most obvious example).

  • RJS

    I am surprised that this post has gotten so little comment.
    I have three thoughts:
    (1) While I think that the male only leadership may have been further codified at this time – I think the roots were much much earlier. Jerome, Augustine, and Tertullian (to name a few) were not exactly open in their view of women and/or sexual relations even within the bounds of marriage. Were there really drastic changes in the perception of women?
    (2) The history of ordination strikes me as a fascinating topic. Very early on we have persons “ordained” in leadership positions in the church – but I don’t see it tied to the kind of thinking that developed in ca. the 12th century. Ordination was much more similar to pastor – not Eucharist.
    (3) Didn’t the early church (even ca. 200-250 AD) have a strong sense that the communion and “ordination” and authority was delegated by Christ, by God, to the church. The church ordains – and the salvation is through the church alone (Mt 18:18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. and Jn 20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.)
    I guess I would think that there is a trend here – not an abrupt change – a trend that started ca. 200 (or earlier) and intensified over the centuries.

  • Scot McKnight

    Travis, I like your (low church) observations.
    RJS,
    That may be the case for some of it. But “ordain” itself was altered when Eucharist became more connected to priesthood and then the old (your point) view of women was given such significance. There is also something going on here about the centralization of the papacy vs. a more decentralized local church arrangement, but I’m not a medievalist.

  • Scot McKnight

    Again, I’m no medievalist, but I’m hearing converging lines on the shifts and significance of the 12th Century. I’ve heard several lately say the Reformation was a reaction to the 12th Century’s changes that had become full bloom in the 15th Century; that Calvin and Luther were trying to get back behind the 12th Century (and not just back to the NT) — this sort of thing.

  • RJS

    Scot (#4) I’ve heard some of the same – I would love to learn more church history.


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