Women in the Priesthood
Women have always held an active role within the Church, coming to the forefront in a society that gave them little in the way of rights. Christian women could be seen to publicly pray and prophesy within church (1 Cor. 11:1–16). However, they held no teaching authority within the church (1 Tim. 2:11–14) and were expected to be obedient to the teaching of the clergy (1 Cor. 14:34–38). This was due to the fact that teaching authority had been given specifically to the clergy by Christ through the Apostles. This did not diminish the role women played in the Church as can be seen in the age of the Church Fathers, where women maintained orders of virgins, widows, and deaconesses and would later found schools hospitals, convents, and much more. Women were never ordained as priests, however, because Christ himself never ordained women apostles. While on the surface this may appear to be a case of sexism, it was not due to Christian culture that women were denied ordination, but because it was incompatible with Christian faith.
In 178 AD, the Greek philosopher Celsus recognized that the majority of Christian converts were women and accused Christians of attempting to secretly evangelize women by “telling them to pay no attention to their father and to their (male) teachers.” This was due to the intrinsic value Christianity claimed for women in a society that gave no natural rights or protections to women and placed them beneath their fathers, husbands, and even their sons. Christianity, on the other hand, claimed an equality of the sexes. Not in the sense that would have the same roles or that the sexes were interchangeable, but in the sense that they held equal intrinsic value as children of God. As St. Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In the Roman pagan world, a daughter was viewed as an expense and a liability while a son was valued as a potential earner and future provider for his parents that could even improve their status by his accomplishments. Girls were often aborted if considered “unaffordable” or would otherwise be married off as earth as the age of 12 in return for a dowry. Marriage was thus more of a transaction than a loving relationship. If a daughter was unable to bring a marriage offer, she was viewed as accursed. Once married, consummation often took place at an early age and with the expectation that the girl would one day produce a male heir. Adultery and divorce were common with little protection for the woman.
In Christianity, on the other hand, women were treated as co-workers, traveling, praying, speaking, and even giving instruction in public. Widows were given honored positions (1 Timothy 5:1-3) and unmarried women were celebrated (1 Corinthians 7:34) leading many women in the time of the Church Father to dedicate themselves to be consecrated virgins. Christianity abhorred abortion and infanticide and insisted marriage was indissoluble, requiring a man to not only provide and care for his wife, but to love her for the entirety of her life; “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Women were even viewed as heroes for the first time. Many of the early martyrs of the Church were women and girls, such as the saints Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia. In the stories of their martyrdoms, Christians sang praises of their strength and courage and encouraged others to model their faith. The Church honored them and preserved their names and have included them in the Mass even until today.
So why not ordain women to the priesthood? It is not a question of one’s capabilities. It is not a matter of how well one can preach, or how educated one is, or how organized, or how managerial, or even how holy. After all, the Church has declared Mary as the greatest of all the saints and the Bible is clear that the apostles made many mistakes. It is not one’s capabilities or skills, but rather the natural roles given to the Church and it’s magisterium. The Church is the Bride of Christ while the magisterium’s role is to stand in as the person of Christ. As Pope John Paul II declared that the Church does not have the power to ordain women. He stated, “Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Luke 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis 4).
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
Church Father Quotes:
Irenaeus of Lyons
“Pretending to consecrate cups mixed with wine, and protracting to great length the word of invocation, [Marcus the Gnostic heretic] contrives to give them a purple and reddish color. . . . [H]anding mixed cups to the women, he bids them consecrate these in his presence. When this has been done, he himself produces another cup of much larger size than that which the deluded woman has consecrated, and pouring from the smaller one consecrated by the woman into that which has been brought forward by himself, he at the same time pronounces these words: ‘May that Charis who is before all things and who transcends all knowledge and speech fill your inner man and multiply in you her own knowledge, by sowing the grain of mustard seed in you as in good soil.’ Repeating certain other similar words, and thus goading on the wretched woman [to madness], he then appears a worker of wonders when the large cup is seen to have been filled out of the small one, so as even to overflow by what has been obtained from it. By accomplishing several other similar things, he has completely deceived many and drawn them away after him” –Against Heresies 1:13:2
Tertullian of Carthage
“It is of no concern how diverse be their [the heretics’] views, so long as they conspire to erase the one truth. They are puffed up; all offer knowledge. Before they have finished as catechumens, how thoroughly learned they are! And the heretical women themselves, how shameless are they! They make bold to teach, to debate, to work exorcisms, to undertake cures . . . ” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 41:4–5 [A.D. 200]).
“It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church [1 Cor 14:34–35], but neither [is it permitted her] . . . to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say sacerdotal office” (The Veiling of Virgins 9 [A.D. 206]).
Hippolytus of Rome
“When a widow is to be appointed, she is not to be ordained, but is designated by being named [a widow]. . . . A widow is appointed by words alone, and is then associated with the other widows. Hands are not imposed on her, because she does not offer the oblation and she does not conduct the liturgy. Ordination is for the clergy because of the liturgy; but a widow is appointed for prayer, and prayer is the duty of all” (The Apostolic Tradition 11 [A.D. 215]).
“For it is not to teach that you women . . . are appointed. . . . For he, God the Lord, Jesus Christ our Teacher, sent us, the twelve [apostles], out to teach the [chosen] people and the pagans. But there were female disciples among us: Mary of Magdala, Mary the daughter of Jacob, and the other Mary; he did not, however, send them out with us to teach the people. For, if it had been necessary that women should teach, then our Teacher would have directed them to instruct along with us” (Didascalia 3:6:1–2 [A.D. 225]).
“[T]here suddenly arose among us a certain woman, who in a state of ecstasy announced herself as a prophetess and acted as if filled with the Holy Ghost. . . . Through the deceptions and illusions of the demon, this woman had previously set about deluding believers in a variety of ways. Among the means by which she had deluded many was daring to pretend that, through proper invocation, she consecrated bread and performed the Eucharist” (collected in Cyprian’s Letters 74:10 [A.D. 253]).
The Council of Nicaea (325 AD)
“Similarly, in regard to the deaconesses, as with all who are enrolled in the register, the same procedure is to be observed. We have made mention of the deaconesses, who have been enrolled in this position, although, not having been in any way ordained, they are certainly to be numbered among the laity” (Canon 19)
The Council of Laodicea
“[T]he so-called ‘presbyteresses’ or ‘presidentesses’ are not to be ordained in the Church” (Canon 11 [A.D. 360]).
Epiphanius of Salamis
“Certain women there in Arabia [the Collyridians] . . . In an unlawful and basphemous ceremony . . . ordain women, through whom they offer up the sacrifice in the name of Mary. This means that the entire proceeding is godless and sacrilegious, a perversion of the message of the Holy Spirit; in fact, the whole thing is diabolical and a teaching of the impure spirit” (Against Heresies 78:13 [A.D. 377]).
“It is true that in the Church there is an order of deaconesses, but not for being a priestess, nor for any kind of work of administration, but for the sake of the dignity of the female sex, either at the time of baptism or of examining the sick or suffering, so that the naked body of a female may not be seen by men administering sacred rites, but by the deaconess” (ibid.).
“From this bishop [James the Just] and the just-named apostles, the succession of bishops and presbyters [priests] in the house of God have been established. Never was a woman called to these. . . . According to the evidence of Scripture, there were, to be sure, the four daughters of the evangelist Philip, who engaged in prophecy, but they were not priestesses” (ibid.).
“If women were to be charged by God with entering the priesthood or with assuming ecclesiastical office, then in the New Covenant it would have devolved upon no one more than Mary to fulfill a priestly function. She was invested with so great an honor as to be allowed to provide a dwelling in her womb for the heavenly God and King of all things, the Son of God. . . . But he did not find this [the conferring of priesthood on her] good” (ibid., 79:3).
“[W]hen one is required to preside over the Church and to be entrusted with the care of so many souls, the whole female sex must retire before the magnitude of the task, and the majority of men also, and we must bring forward those who to a large extent surpass all others and soar as much above them in excellence of spirit as Saul overtopped the whole Hebrew nation in bodily stature” (The Priesthood 2:2 [A.D. 387]).
The Apostolic Constitutions
“A virgin is not ordained, for we have no such command from the Lord, for this is a state of voluntary trial, not for the reproach of marriage, but on account of leisure for piety” (Apostolic Constitutions 8:24 [A.D. 400]).
“Appoint, [O Bishop], a deaconess, faithful and holy, for the ministering of women. For sometimes it is not possible to send a deacon into certain houses of women, because of unbelievers. Send a deaconess, because of the thoughts of the petty. A deaconess is of use to us also in many other situations. First of all, in the baptizing of women, a deacon will touch only their forehead with the holy oil, and afterwards the female deacon herself anoints them” (ibid., 3:16).
“[T]he ‘man is the head of the woman’ [1 Cor. 11:3], and he is originally ordained for the priesthood; it is not just to abrogate the order of the creation and leave the first to come to the last part of the body. For the woman is the body of the man, taken from his side and subject to him, from whom she was separated for the procreation of children. For he says, ‘He shall rule over you’ [Gen. 3:16]. . . . But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them [women] to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of the priest? For this is one of the ignorant practices of Gentile atheism, to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of Christ” (ibid., 3:9).
“A deaconess does not bless, but neither does she perform anything else that is done by presbyters [priests] and deacons, but she guards the doors and greatly assists the presbyters, for the sake of decorum, when they are baptizing women” (ibid., 8:28).
Augustine of Hippo
“[The Quintillians are heretics who] give women predominance so that these, too, can be honored with the priesthood among them. They say, namely, that Christ revealed himself . . . to Quintilla and Priscilla [two Montanist prophetesses] in the form of a woman” (Heresies 1:17 [A.D. 428]).