In this post, I want to examine some passages from a couple of traditional Catholic theology textbooks on the ordination of women.
The following themes come across:
- Women are incapable of being ordained as priests by virtue of divine law.
It is not asserted that ordaining women as priests is merely illicit or a very bad idea - it is affirmed that it is incompatible with the law of God.
- St Paul is called as a star witness
The well-known passages from the authentic and pseudonymous Pauline epistles on the role of women are prayed in aid.
- Appeal is also made to nature and the natural law
There is some recognition that women can and do successfully fill leadership positions, but the view is nonetheless put forward that the female sex is inherently unsuited to the priesthood.
- It is argued that history offers no precedent for female Catholic priests
The only precedents, it is argued, are among heretics and pagans. Tournély also expends some effort (in passages which I have not quoted) in refuting the legend of Pope Joan. The Catholic evidence for women's ordination - the female diaconate and references to "priestesses" and so forth - is rejected or explained away.
1. Honoré Tournély, Praelectiones Theologicae de Sacramento Ordinis (1729)
Whether women are capable of being ordained
It is revealed by works of literature that among the pagans some women were raised to the honour of priesthood. Tacitus informs us in De Moribus Germanorum that this was a very common custom among the Gauls and the Germans. Numerous Greek and Latin authors report that women sacrificed to Ceres at Eleusis in Greece and to the Bona Dea among the Romans. Ecclesiastical writers bear witness to the fact that this error also persisted among several ancient heretical sects....
The Novatores of our time seem to have revived this old error. They teach that all Christians of every rank and sex are sanctified by God as priests, and they recognise no sacrifice other than that of thanksgiving, prayer and praise, which can and should be offered by everyone.....
And so our CONCLUSION is that women are entirely incapable of taking holy orders.
This is proved (1) by the authority of Scripture.
1 Cor. 14.34. "Women", says St Paul, "should be silent in churches; for it is not permitted for them to speak. Rather, they should be submissive, as the law of Moses also says. But if they want to find out anything, they should ask their husbands at home; for it is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church."
1 Tim. 2.11. "Let women learn in silence with all submission. I do not allow a woman to teach, nor to hold power over a man. I require her to remain silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve, and Adam was not seduced, but the woman was seduced by duplicity."
Finally, Eph. 5.22. "Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord. For the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the Church. He himself is the Saviour of his body, but, just as the Church is subject to Christ, so women are subject to their husbands in all things."
With these words, the Apostle does not only teach Catholic doctrine: he also sets out the reasons and causes as to why men rather than women are called to ecclesiastical duties. He says that the man is the head of the woman, just as Christ is the head of the Church, that the woman ought not to rule the man but the man the woman, that the woman was created for the man and not the man for the woman, that the woman was created from the man rather than the reverse, and that the woman was seduced by the serpent and not the man. Therefore, he says, it is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church. Why is it shameful? Because it is both against the law laid down by Christ and against the condition and nature of the female sex itself. Women, indeed, are distanced from the duty of teaching by their natural modesty, for that duty has a certain element of rulership which is not compatible and consistent with womanly modesty and submission....
Proof (2) comes from the constant tradition and practice of the Church. That is to say... from the time that the world was created, no woman ever functioned as a priest among the followers of the true religion, not even Eve or any of her daughters. Men alone were called to this office: in the time of the natural law, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and in the time of the written law only Aaron and his sons and other men descended from the lineage of the Levites. In the New Testament too, St Epiphanius says... "If the priesthood was ordained for women or it was permissible to lay down canonical rules to that effect in the Church, the office of priesthood should have been conferred on Mary, who was more suited to it than anyone else and to whom so much honour is given.... However, God thought quite differently, and women do not even have the power to administer baptism...." ....Since, then, these priestly duties have been forbidden to women in every age in former history, both under the old law and under the new law, and were not permitted even to the Virgin Mother of God herself, it is very clearly apparent that no woman can ever be permitted to exercise the office of a priest....
From this it may be inferred that women are prevented from taking holy orders by divinely constituted law and not only by ecclesiastical law. This law, however, although it is very closely consistent with the nature of the female sex, should not simply be called a law of nature, because, in the absence of a specific requirement from God, the natural condition of woman does not in itself render them completely incapable of being ordained, because Scripture records that Deborah, a woman, led armies, governed the Jewish people and profitably ruled over them; because we read that women served as prophetesses in the Old and New Testaments and that Miriam the sister of Moses, the aforementioned Deborah, Holda, Anna, who announced the coming of Christ in the Temple, and the four virgin daughters of the evangelist Phillip served as prophets; and because it is the law in many countries that even women can succeed to the throne of the realm by hereditary right. All this shows that the natural law is not completely repugnant to women having rule over men. However, it is highly congruent with natural law that they should not do so. For, apart from the natural submission which women ought to show, the female sex is impeded by modesty, standards of honour and a sense of shame from properly discharging the public duties of priesthood. Women are hampered by the innate levity, inconstancy and impotence of their sex....
2. Séraphin Many, Praelectiones de Sacra Ordinatione (1905)
Women, by divine law, are entirely incapable of being ordained to the priesthood
By priesthood we understand here essentially the power of offering sacrifice, as instituted by Christ.
1. Certain heretics have claimed that women are suitable for the priesthood and to offer sacrifice, as follows:
a. The Pepuziani or Quintilliani, to whom Epiphanius bears witness. This was a certain sect deriving from the Montanists, named after Pepuza, a town in Phrygia. "Among these people", says Epiphanius, "women serve as bishops and priests, and are admitted to the other ranks, such that no division of sex is observed. For in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female (Gal. 3.28)". They were also called Artotyritae because they used bread baked with cheese (tyros) at Mass. Augustine also mentions these people in his short work On Heresies (ch. 27). Ambrosiaster... also mentions them under the name of Cataphrygians (because their madness was principally seen in Phrygia).
b. Marcus the magician and his followers, according to the testimony of Irenaeus. He was accustomed to entrust the duty of sacrifice and offering the sacred chalice to women, whom he had driven mad with his magic. Epiphanius mentions these people too....
c. The Collyridians, an Arabian sect in which women, according to the testimony of Epiphanius, offered Mass in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
2. The proof of the proposition
A. The teachings of St Paul. He says in 1 Cor. 14.34-35: "Women should be silent in churches; for it is not permitted for them to speak. Rather, they should be submissive, as the law of Moses also says. But if they want to find out anything, they should ask their husbands at home; for it is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in church." At 1 Tim 2.11, he says: "Let women learn in silence with all submission. I do not allow a woman to teach, nor to hold power over a man. I require her to remain silent. For Adam was created first, then Eve....". Therefore:
1. It is not permitted in any way for a woman to speak in church, not only in order to teach, but even in order to ask a question to find out something. It is therefore much more strongly forbidden for her to engage in that kind of speaking which is most solemn and most public, which is inherently part of the actual celebration and offering of the holy sacrifice, in which the priest speaks to God in the name of the whole community, in addition to addressing various exhortations and admonishments to the people.
2. It is not permitted in any way for a woman to have a place of authority in church. Rather, she should be submissive and behave with all submission. It is therefore much more strongly forbidden for her to celebrate the sacrifice itself. This role essentially entails authority, since it is discharged in the name of and for the whole community.
Therefore, by divine law, women are prohibited from being ordained to the priesthood and offering sacrifice. This is very closely consistent with natural law, according to which the woman is subordinate to the man.
B. The tradition of the Church.
a. Irenaeus, Epiphanius, Augustine and others regard as heretics the Pepuziani, the Marcosians and the Collyridians mentioned above, who taught that women were capable of being ordained to the priesthood and offering sacrifice. They count their ideas as heresies. Epiphanius quotes against them the texts of St Paul mentioned above. Ambrosiaster explicitly calls the Cataphrygians heretics. Therefore, according to these teachers, these heretics were sinning not only against good order but also against divine law.
b. Tertullian says in On Prescriptions (ch. 41): "The woman-heretics themselves, how bold they are! They dare to teach, to argue, to carry out exorcisms... and perhaps even to baptise". After he had become a Montanist, he said (On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 9): "Women are not allowed to speak in church, nor to teach, to baptise, to offer, nor to claim a share in any male office, let alone any priestly duty." He goes on to affirm that not even virgins are allowed to act in this way.
c. Never and nowhere in the Church have women been given the power to offer sacrifice, if one excepts the heretics mentioned above. A female priesthood has always been considered to be a pagan impiety, as the Apostolic Constitutions already state (3.9): "But if in the preceding provisions we have not permitted women to teach, on what basis would anyone allow them, contrary to nature, to exercise the priesthood? For ordaining priestesses for female deities is an error of pagan impiety."
St Epiphanius was already asserting this ecclesiastical tradition in his time, in these words: "This, however, must be carefully observed. The office of deaconesses alone was necessary for the order of the Church, together with widows individually given that title. None of those elderly women who were called presbytides were ever ordained as presbyters or priestesses. Not even deacons themselves are allowed to celebrate any sacrament according to the laws of the Church."
d. It is clear that, if women were allowed by divine law to serve in the priesthood and offer Mass, many holy women mentioned in the Gospel, and the blessed Virgin Mary in particular, would have been raised to that dignity. The Apostolic Constitutions, and St Epiphanius in particular, were already putting forward this argument in their own time.
3. Answers to the objection stemming from the terms bishopess, priestess, etc., which sometimes appear in early texts:
1. These terms very often designate the wife of a bishop, priest, etc. This is the case with canon 13 of the second Council of Tours (567 AD), which says: "A bishop who does not have a bishopess should not consort with groups of women". So also canon 19, which imposes the penalty of excommunication "if a priest is discovered with his priestess or a deacon with his deaconess or a subdeacon with his subdeaconess". The same thing is said in canon 21 of the Council of Auxerre (578 AD). St Gregory the Great uses the term priestess in the same sense in his Dialogues, where, speaking of a certain priest of the province of Nursia, he says: "From the time that he received his ordination, he loved his priestess like a sister but watched out for her like an enemy, etc....". He also speaks of priestesses in his Letters (9.7), but it is doubtful whether he means the wives of priests or elderly widows, on whom see below.
2. Among the Greeks, priestesses [presbyterae] means elderly widows, as is entirely clear from the words of St Epiphanius quoted above. This is the more probable sense of the term as it is used in canon 11 of the Council of Laodicea, where it is said (in Dionysius' version): "Those women who are called priestesses, or female presiders, should not be ordained in the churches."