The Question of Women’s Ordination, an Ancient Error Revisited
Vanity of vanities, there is nothing new under the sun…
The topic of accepting women into Holy Orders is a hotly debated topic these days. Women bishops, priests, and deacons are currently accepted within many Liberal Independent Catholic jurisdictions. This topic keeps coming up in Roman Catholic circles as well. But what are these modern revisionists utilizing to justify their positions? Are they basing their theology on sound teachings passed on through the historic deposit of faith, or simply rehashing old errors?
The topic of women’s ordination was brought up recently by a young bishop seeking to join the Catholic Church in America (CCIA). His observation was that "any decision regarding accepting women into holy orders would require convening another “Ecumenical Council.” I presented him with two responses:
1. It is an impossibility to gather such a council of the whole Church, and
2. We are not so proud as to say we speak for the entire Church of Christ
Whenever questioned as to why we formed the CCIA, I often reply that our goal was not to start something new, but to return to the Catholic roots of orthodoxy. There is a great movement of both clergy and laity that are dismayed at the direction mainstream Catholicism is heading. Our goals are not intended to be grandiose or prideful, but submissive to the will of God as recorded in the historic deposit of faith. Much of this tradition is found in the first seven Ecumenical Councils of the early Church, but Church tradition is not limited to those sources.
When it comes to our understanding of church teachings, most if not all conservative Catholic jurisdictions follow the example set forth in the Declaration of Utrecht; "For this reason we preserve in professing the faith of the primitive Church, as formulated in the ecumenical symbols and specified precisely by the unanimously accepted decisions of the Ecumenical Councils held in the undivided Church of the first thousand years.”
In fact, ever since the Great Schism in 1054, forming a trueEcumenical Council, of the entire church is virtually impossible. In many aspects, gathering together in council with the intention of forming NEW doctrine or affirming practices of faith contrary to that which has been practiced since the earliest times of the Church is antithetical to our concept of Catholicity.
With that stated though, the CCIA is indeed functioning with conciliar intent. Our bishops from around the nation, and indeed from various parts of the globe, are discussing various aspects of what it means to be authentically Catholic — This form of collegiality is what bishops should be doing. Our online discussions of brother bishops should be considered the first council meeting of our synod of bishops.
It has been astutely noted that “historically there is evidence of female ordination in the early Church, as seen in Gnostic Christian sects of the first few centuries." While there is no doubt that some early Gnostic (meaning “special knowledge”) groups favored a more active role for women. Feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruetherpoint to these groups and proclaim that they offered women greater status before “patriarchal” orthodoxy discredited the Gnostic believers.
In this discussion, two important points must be noted:
1. First, the questionable beliefs of Gnostic groups also included dangerous Christological errors (such as a “Jesus” who never had a physical body.
2. Second, while Ruether points to Gnostic texts which seem to support feminist causes, she ignores other Gnostic texts which state that “women are not worthy of life” and “must become male” in order to reach heaven (the Gospel of Thomas). Overall, the Gnostic texts are recognized as a mixed bag of speculative theological teachings and damaging heresies, the latter being rooted out by early Church Fathers and Councils.
Having been decided within Ecumenical Council, (primarily in response to early Christian Gnostics) the Church throughout most of our history has taken the position that the priesthood and episcopacy are reserved to men. This position is not based upon any disrespect for women, but from biblical authority, and an understanding of Patristics and Conciliar theology.
To be clear, my personal views on this subject are devolving a bit, which may cause some cognitive dissonance. For the past 30 years I have been inculcated into an “Old Catholic” paradigm that accepts women into the diaconate.
In Acts 6:3-6, the apostles created the office of deacons, among them Saint Stephen. It is not historically clear that Phoebe the deaconess mentioned in Romans 16:1-2 was ordained, or what roll she served within her church community. The Church Fathers did not advocate for or permit the ordination of women. Clement of Rome taught that the apostles chose only men to succeed them, which is evidenced by the Successors of Peter. The First Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council, decreed that a deaconess is not an ordained minister but a laywoman.
It is sometimes claimed that a woman named Joan was a female pope, but the story of Joan is about how female ordination is null and offensive in the church's eyes. It is also sometimes claimed that Episcopa Theodora was a female bishop, but Lady Theodora received the title "Episcopa" as the mother of a pope, not due to alleged ordination. Interestingly, those for women's ordination sometimes claim that a woman named Flavia Vitalia was a female Christian priest, while those against women's ordination sometimes claim Augustine of Hippo condemned priestesses, but both groups' claims can only be traced back to the Women's Ordination Conference and modern Catholic apologists, respectively.
Modern Liberal Catholics, In an attempt to justify their positions on this debate, many among liberal Catholics are suggesting that St. Bridget of Kildare and Ireland was actually consecrated as a bishop.
Even within the Roman Catholic Church there is a vocal caucus of dissidents supporting the issue of women’s ordination. Much of the problem, as we see it is a result of individual ego attempting to supplant church teachings, and a lack of cogent exegesis and catechesis on the subject. My late uncle, Fr. William (Bill) Callahan, S.J., was actually instrumental in founding this and many other Roman Catholic dissident groups such as the Quixote Center, and Priests for Equality. In my BC days — before Catholic, I actually helped my uncle and others prepare protest signs for a Washington D.C. march in support of women’s ordination.
As a bishop in a conservative Catholic jurisdiction that limits our Episcopal orders to men, if she were actually a bishop, then we may have to re-evaluate our position on women in holy orders in general, and women in the episcopacy in particular. Last year I wrote an article where I asked the question if there had ever beenlicitly ordained women priests or bishops? Today’s article is adding a bit more background to that question.
After doing due diligence, my stance on the matter has not altered. My conclusion is that St. Bridget was a very influential Abbess in her day. No, she was not consecrated to the episcopacy as a Bishop. Rather, she was the Abbess of a monastery, possibly more. Legend and culture of that era make it difficult to pinpoint much fact from fiction. There is little doubt that St. Bridget was a real and influential spiritual leader in her day, even having a great friendship with the venerable, St. Patrick.
The mitre and crozier are historic signs of authority, which abbots and abbesses use routinely to this very day, not necessarily as signs of consecration to the episcopacy. Generally speaking, people see the mitre and crozier and automatically think that the person is a Bishop but that understanding shouldn’t be automatically assumed.
All Abbots and Abbesses are the ordinary authority in the monastery. According to the Rule of St. Benedict the Abbess or Abbot is to be obeyed as if they are Christ.
A friend of mine who is an Abbot of a Cistercian monastery, wore the mitre and crozier to Mass, even before he was consecrated a Bishop. Mother Angelica could have carried a crozier and worn a mitre if she chose to do so.
There is a stained glass window of St. Brigid of Kildare in St. Joseph’s Church in Georgia. The window shows her holding the crozier which is a symbol of authority. Many Icons show Abbesses with crozier and mitre or even a crown.
The position of the International Catholic Confederation regarding women in Holy Orders is not taken out of a sense of Patriarchy or even misogyny. No, as a jurisdiction we have a deep and abiding respect for women. Our orthodoxy is not based upon modern political correctness, but, rather, from the historic deposit of faith.
No. Orthodoxy does not see the priesthood has a “right” or a “privilege.” It does not see the clergy as a caste apart from the Populi Dei, the People of God. It does not understand ordination to the priesthood as a matter of justice, equality, political correctness, or human rights.
No one, not even males, have the “right” to ordination; even our seminary catalogues state that the awarding of a divinity degree in no way guarantees ordination, as this is within the competency of the hierarchy alone. And no one, not even males, “chooses” ordination; we believe that it is God Who does the choosing, even if His will in this instance seems completely contrary with the understanding of this world or this culture or this era. [God’s ways are not mankind’s ways.]
The clergy do not stand above the People of God; they stand in their midst, just as Christ stands in the midst of His People. Those who carry out essential ministries (including women) without being ordained also stand in the midst of God’s People, for the ministries they pursue in the name of Our Lord also share in His work.
The image of the Church is one in which the entire “Populi Dei” work and worship together “with one mind” in harmony, building up one another and striving to achieve unity, rather than planting division or focusing undue attention on differences or alleged inequalities.
Our position is that, in Jesus day, the concept of a female priesthood was not foreign. There were multiple pagan cults in that era that had priestesses. It would have been quite easy to choose pious women from among His disciples to become Apostles — yet He didn’t.
It is the witness of church history including the records of Church Councils, that the Church has never actually condoned the elevation of women to the episcopacy, let alone to the priesthood.
Like St. Bridget, however, there are indeed important roles of authority and ministry that we welcome women to serve.
It is my prayer, that as the presiding bishop for the Catholic Church in America, that our views on this matter are taken with the same spirit with which they are presented, with love, respect, and compassion.
Much of the evidence in favor for women’s ordination can be traced back to the early Christian Gnostic Heresy, there were indeed Christian sects in the first centuries, especially within Gnosticism, that allowed women to become priestesses, the Church Fathers took the question under consideration but rejected the idea as incompatible with the faith.
But, didn’t the Apostle Paul say that there is neither Jew nor Greek, servant nor free, male nor female, since we are all in Christ? So why should our gender matter to God? We should all have equal rights.
Whenever a verse is paraphrased to defend a particular position, take the time to find that passage and read it in context. When Paul wrote about there being neither male nor female in Christ (Gal. 3:28), he is discussing our justification through faith, not our roles in the Church. Even in 1 Corinthians 12, when Paul speaks about there being Jews, Greeks, slaves, and free being baptized into the one body of Christ, he mentions that within this one body, there are different parts:
• "There are varieties of service, but the same Lord
• All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
• If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.
• If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. . . Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles
• Are all apostles?" (1 Cor. 12:5–29).
So, while St. Paul acknowledges the universality of God’s plan for salvation, he’s clear that there are different roles within the body of Christ. Men and woman are equal in the eyes of God, but this equality is not synonymous with sameness. They play different roles within the Church, as there are different instruments within an orchestra. Just as the instruments are arranged for a symphony, God has "arranged the organs of the body" (1 Cor. 12:18), and we are not to reconstruct the design that he has established.
Since God is the one who has appointed the different roles within the Church, no one can claim a right to any position within the body of Christ. This is especially the case with sacraments. No one—male or female—has a "right" to be a priest. It is not like a governmental office that anyone can run for. It is a sacrament, and no one has a title to grace. It is an unmerited gift from Christ.
Though there is little consensus on her official position as deacon, my personal position is taken from Paul’s writings regarding Phoebe (Koine Greek Φοίβη) who was a first-century Christian woman mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, verses 16:1-2. A notable woman in the church of Cenchreae, she was trusted by Paul to deliver his letter to the Romans. Paul refers to her both as a deacon (Gk. diakonon) and as a helper or patron of many (Gk. prostatis). This is the only place in the New Testament where a woman is specifically referred to with these two distinctions. Paul introduces Phoebe as his emissary to the church in Rome and, because they are not acquainted with her, Paul provides them with her credentials.
Following the example from Paul above, it is the position of the CCIA and other conservative Catholic jurisdictions regarding women in the ordained ministry is to permit their ordination into the diaconate only. In this position statement we are not making a grand statement that somehow women have always and everywhere been admitted to such a position, nor are we attempting to conform to modern politically correct pressures. Rather, in this, we are giving a nod of respect to the authority of the Apostle Paul, acknowledging his respect for Phoebe, and supporting the role of Deacon for qualified women in modern liturgical ministry.