Women in the Early Church:
Definition of Terms:
Throughout history, women have consistently played an active and influential role within the Church, particularly when considering the societal landscapes that frequently marginalized their rights. Despite the unfortunate prevalence of sexism throughout human history, it’s important to recognize the Church’s significant impact on the advancement of women’s rights. While undeniable instances of sexism within the Church exist, even coming from some prominent Church Fathers, it’s equally important to acknowledge that the Church has often held women in high regard and provided them with support in prestigious positions. By objectively evaluating women’s contributions within the Church against the prevailing societal norms of their times, and by acknowledging the gradual progression that has unfolded over centuries, it becomes evident that the Church has played a pivotal role in nurturing the development of women’s rights.
Life in the Roman Empire:
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. Because of the devaluation placed on daughters, it was common for baby girls to be left “to the elements” in favor of the possibility of male children. Even in large families “more than one daughter was practically never reared” (Lindsay, Jack. 1968. The Ancient World: Manners and Morals. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.). The Twelve Tables, written about 450 B.C.E., permitted a father to expose any female infant and any deformed or weak male infant (Gorman, Michael J. 1982. Abortion and the Early Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.). Due to this attitude, men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. Dio Cassius, writing in about 200, attributed the declining population of the empire to the extreme shortage of females (Dio Cassius. [Ca. 200.] 1987. The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus, London: Penguin Classics.).
The ancient world considered women to be possessions of men and their primary purpose was to bear and raise children. Girls were often aborted if considered “unaffordable”; otherwise they would be married off as early as the age of 12 in return for a dowry. For example, Octavia and Agrippina married at 11 and 12, Quintilian’s wife bore him a son when she was 13, and Tacitus wed a girl of 13 (Hopkins, Keith (M. K.). 1965a. “The Age of Roman Girls at Marriage.” Population Studies 18:309-327.). Due to the high mortality rate of children and the relative low life expectancy of adults in the ancient world, the average woman was expected to be married and start having children by the age of 14 and was expected to have at least 5 children in order to just maintain the population.
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. While women were expected to maintain chastity, men often engaged in promiscuity, with a large prevalence of female prostitutes in Greco-Roman cities. (Pomeroy, Sarah B. 1975. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Schocken Books.).
This illicit sexual activity is often mentioned as a reason for the high number of abortions of the time with men often forcing the abortion upon the woman. The emperor Domitian, having impregnated his niece Julia, ordered her to have an abortion from which she died (Gorman, Michael J. 1982. Abortion and the Early Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.). Abortion techniques were exceedingly dangerous, often ending in the mother’s death or resulting in infertility in women who survived abortions.
Widows in the pagan Greco-Roman world were pressured to remarry or face a life of prostitution. Emperor Augustus set a fine for widows who failed to remarry within two years (Fox 1987). When a pagan woman remarried, her inheritance would become the property of her new husband.
The Early Church:
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. 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).
The Church also claimed that a marriage was not valid unless the woman consented 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). Promiscuity and fornication was condemned and faced strict penances within the Church. Fathers were expected to love and provide for all of their children as abortion and infanticide were abhorred by Christianity.
The Church also upheld the dignity of widows and orphans and insisted that they should be provided for and not forced to resort to prostitution or the like. (The Growth of Christianity in the Ancient World by Rodney Stark)
In Christianity, 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 Fathers to dedicate themselves to be consecrated virgins. Christian women could be seen to publicly pray and prophesy within church (1 Cor. 11:1–16).
Women, for the first time, were seen as heroes. Marcia, the concubine of the emperor Commodus, managed to convince him to free Callistus, a future pope, from a sentence of hard labor in the mines of Sardinia (1988. The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press). Also for the first time, women were provided opportunities for education and religious leadership, with notable examples such as St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Macrina.
In spite of this, the Church was considered anti-family and anti-life by pagan society because they claimed women were not property and had the right to refuse marriage and live a life of chastity as opposed to one of bearing children. Women, the Church held, could devote their lives to Christ and live a celibate life. This was a radical break from society as the value in women and daughters were understood to be childbearing and the ability to give them away in marriage in return for wealth.
Many Christian women were persecuted, tortured, and martyred due to these beliefs. The Church honored and memorialized these women who were martyred and chose to die as opposed to marrying men they did not want to. In the stories of their martyrdoms, Christians sang praises of their strength and courage and encouraged others to model their faith. Many of the early women martyrs of the Church, such as the saints Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, and Anastasia, have had their names preserved in the Mass even until today. Although sexism and the mistreatment of women has still not been completely eradicated, the Church was the one that took the first monumental steps in changing these behaviors in society.
The Middle Ages:
During the spread of Islam in the early 7th century, the Church safeguarded women’s rights against potential forced conversion or subjugation. As the Islamic empire expanded into Spain in the 8th century, the Church acted as a mediator between Muslim conquerors and the local population. It negotiated the safety of women and children during Muslim occupation, aiming to minimize harm. Amidst displacement caused by Muslim invasions, the Church organized relief efforts, providing necessities like food, clothing, and medical aid to affected women and families.
In the ninth century, Pope Nicholas the Great (r. 858-867) stood as a strong defender of women’s rights within marriage. He notably supported Theutberga, the wife of King Lothair of Lorraine, who had been wrongly accused of incest and cast aside by Lothair in favor of his concubine. Pope Nicholas ruled in Theutberga’s favor and excommunicated the bishops who had supported Lothair’s actions. Pope Nicholas the Great upheld the sanctity of marriage against political pressures, including a siege by Emperor Louis II (Lothair’s brother), defending Theutberga’s spousal rights and dignity.
As the Church gained influence in temporal affairs, it supported women’s authority in political realms. Many abbesses of convents held positions of power comparable to male lords. This development provided women with opportunities for leadership, and they managed business affairs and governed their communities independently.
During the Crusades, the Church took women’s opinions into account, a sharp contrast from the Greco-Roman period. Pope Bl. Urban II (r. 1088-1099) mandated that married warriors seek their wives’ permission before Crusading. Eleanor of Aquitaine, a formidable queen, actively contributed to discussions and decisions on military campaigns, providing financial and political support.
The Church would often support women rulers in the Middle Ages, such as Queen Margaret of Scotland (1070-1093), and Empress Matilda of England (1102-1167). These women were able to rule in a male-dominated world, partially due to the legitimacy lent to them by the Church’s teachings. Although women political rulers were not the norm in the Middle Ages, they were not uncommon either. Two women, Melisende (1105-1161) and Sibylla (1160-1190), each ruled as queen of Jerusalem.
During the Reconquista, a series of campaigns aimed at regaining territories from Muslim rule in Spain, Queen Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) received considerable support from the Church. The Church endorsed Isabella’s campaigns as religious missions, framing them as an opportunity to restore Christian lands and faith. The Church then provided financial and material aid to Isabella’s campaigns through donations, tithes, and resources. This support proved crucial in equipping her forces effectively. Most importantly, Isabella’s association with the Church lent her campaigns legitimacy in the eyes of her subjects and the global community.
In the sixteenth century, Pope Clement VII gave support to Catherine of Aragon by refusing to grant King Henry VIII an annulment so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. This prompted the king to lead the Church in England into schism. This event highlighted the Church’s commitment to defending the institution of marriage and despite political pressure and manipulation. Similarly, Mary Tudor’s short reign as queen of England in the mid-sixteenth century highlighted the Church’s support for women in authoritative roles.
Even women lacking monarchical power would sometimes rise to the level of international influence. St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a Benedictine abbess, was a polymath who excelled in theology, nutrition, and medicine. She composed an extensive collection of liturgical music and chants. Despite living in a time when women’s voices were often marginalized, her correspondence would extend to prominent figures of her era, including popes, emperors, and fellow religious leaders. Her exceptional contributions led to her being recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), although lacking formal education or political influence, emerged as a remarkably influential figure in the 14th century. She composed letters that she sent to political and Church authorities across Christendom. Maintaining a personal rapport with Pope Gregory XI (r. 1370-1378), she willfully convinced him to end the Avignon papacy scandal and return the papacy back to Rome.
St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431), lacking any formal education or military training, persuaded the Dauphin to permit her to lead an army for the liberation of Orleans. Her triumph led to the coronation of the Dauphin as Charles VII. Tragically, Joan was apprehended during her defense of Compiègne and subsequently handed over to the English. In an unauthorized and unlawful process, they labeled her a heretic and executed her by burning at the stake.
St. Angela Merici (1474-1540), founder of the Ursuline order, dedicated herself to the education and spiritual development of girls and young women.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a Spanish mystic, writer, and reformer, played a significant role in the Catholic Reformation through her efforts to reform the Carmelite order and her writings on spiritual life.
Women have consistently maintained a role as influential figures within the Church to this day. Some notable examples include St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), also known as the “Little Flower,” St. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) (1891-1942), a philosopher, theologian, and convert from Judaism, Dorothy Day (1897-1980), the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), renowned for her tireless work among the poorest of the poor. These women, among others, left an enduring impact on the Catholic Church through their faith, service, writings, and advocacy for social justice, compassion, and spiritual growth.
Women in the Priesthood:
It is historically undeniable that women held an elevated status in Christianity compared to its pagan counterparts. However, they still 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.
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).
1 Timothy 2:11-14:
“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
1 Corinthians 14:34-38:
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.”
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]).
Firmilian of Caesarea
“[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]).
Pope Gregory XVI (1831 to 1846):
“And women also, who were most dear to Christ and to whom, as a reward for their greater suffering, He sent as heralds of His victory over death, deserved to be rewarded by Him with the dignity of apostles.” –Commissum Divinitus
Pope Leo XIII (1878 to 1903):
“Woman, whether as wife or mother, should be neither man’s rival nor his servant, but his companion, given to him by God as a helpmate.” –Rerum Novarum
Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922):
“The Catholic Church, as a mother, desires to give the maximum help to women, who work for the benefit of their families and society.” –Sacra Propediem
Pope Pius XI (1922 to 1939):
“Since the woman was formed from man, they are one flesh. Whoever honors his wife, honors himself.” –Casti Connubii
Pope John XXIII (1958 to 1963):
“Women are entering the various branches of the labour market on an equal footing with men. They are acquiring professional skills and qualifications, and as a result the demands they make of their social status are increasing.” –Mater et Magistra
Pope Paul VI (1963 to 1978):
“Women have the right to be respected and esteemed as an indispensable, irreplaceable partner in the community of life.” –Gaudium et Spes
Pope John Paul I (August 1978, when he was still Cardinal Albino Luciani):
“Women of the whole world, are you listening to me? All human beings are equal, for all are sons and daughters of God.” –Gaudium et Spes
Pope John Paul II (1978 to 2005):
“The Church gives thanks for each and every woman… In the Spirit of Christ, in fact, women can discover the entire meaning of their femininity and thus be disposed to making a ‘sincere gift of self’ to others, thereby finding themselves.” –Mulieris Dignitatem