Texts on Ordination of Women

Author: Fr. William Most



Gal. 3:28:

"There is not among you Jew or Greek, there is not among you slave or free, there is not among you male or female: for we all are in Christ Jesus."

COMMENTS: For centuries, the besetting fault in Scripture study was to take a text out of context: if the words could carry the desired meaning, the interpreter would say they did mean that. This habit was common among the Rabbis before the time of St. Paul. St. Paul himself often does quote OT out of context, though the meaning he gives is something true in itself. But today all competent scholars recognize we must pay attention to the context - an obvious requirement. Now in the context of Galatians, Paul is speaking of trying for justification by faith. So this text means that men and women are equal in trying for that. To extrapolate and say they are equal in everything, is to go far beyond St. Paul. Yet, a special report for the Catholic Biblical Association, published in CBQ of October 1979, goes back to the old error, says this supports ordination of women. They clearly have caved in to feminists.

1 Cor.14:34:

"The women must be silent in the churches. For it not permitted to them to speak, but to be subject, as the law says."

COMMENTS: There is much division of thought among exegetes on this passage:

1) Many say it clashes with 1 Cor 11 which says that a woman praying or prophesying without a veil disgraces her head. That could imply that with a veil it is permitted. Yet 14:34 flatly forbids women speaking.--There is an answer, if one recognizes that St. Paul, especially in regard to the Law, but also on some other things, has two ways of looking, (a) focused view, in which, it is as if one were looking through a tube and saw only what is inside the circle made by the tube, and so he says that the law makes heavy demands, gives no strength, so one must fall. Of course, to be under heavy demands without strength does mean a fall; (b) the factual view, in which the circle of the tube is removed, so we see the whole horizon. Then: the law still makes heavy demands and gives no strength. But off to the side, in no relation to the law, is grace, offered even in anticipation of Christ. With it the result is no fall, but spiritual gain.--Similarly in our present texts, Paul could be focusing in 11:5 on the fact that for her to prophesy without a veil is wrong - he dos not mean to say that with a veil it is permitted. Further, he seems to have in mind doing so as part of the church service. He probably would not object to her prophesying outside of official context. (cf. Doctrinal Congregation, "Inter insigniores" of Oct. 25, 1976).

2) Those who say there is a clash resort to varied things, such as saying that 14:34 is an interpolation - but that would have to have happened in the autograph. No indication of that. Others say Paul only objected to women joining in discussion after a prophecy was given. A most radical view would say that 14:34-35 are really a quote by Paul of what his opponents in Corinth say. So in the next lines he angrily rejects their view. (We must admit, there was no punctuation in Paul's day. Hence we must supply quote marks etc. according to sense).

The net result: We cannot use 14:34 to prove Paul prohibits women's ordination. But we add, that at the last part of 14:34 Paul appeals to the Law. That would probably be Genesis 3:16, which speaks of subjection of women to husbands. So it seems not to be mere social custom he has in mind.

1 Timothy 2:11-12:

"A woman must learn in silence, in all submission. I do not permit a women to teach or to dominate over a man, but to be in silence."

COMMENT:This seems to support the strong interpretation of 1 Cor 14:34.


Tertullian, "On the Prescription of Heretics" 41:(c.200 AD):

"The women of these heretics, how wanton they are! They dare to teach, to dispute, to carry out exorcisms, to undertake cures,it may be even to baptize. Their ordinations are carelessly done, capricious changeable. At one time they put novices in office, at another time, men who are bound to some secular work; at another, persons who have apostatized from us, to bind them by vain glory.... Nowhere is promotion easier than in the camp of the rebels, where the mere fact of being there is a great service. And so it happens that today one man is their bishop;tomorrow another; today he is a deacon who tomorrow is a lector; today he is a presbyter who tomorrow will be a layman."

COMMENT: It is not fully clear that the women are ordained since he says "may be even to baptize." And then continues to speak of men.

"On Baptism" 17, c. 200 AD:

"The boldness of that woman who took on herself the right to teach is evidently not going to give her the right to baptize as well...."

"On Veiling virgins" 9.1. c. 206 AD:

"It is not allowed to a woman to speak in the church nor to teach, baptize, offer, or claim for herself any function proper to a man, and least of all the office of priest."

St. Irenaeus, 1.13.2: (c. 140-202 AD):

"There was a certain other one of those who are with them, boasting he is the one who improves the teacher. His name was Marcus, most skilled in magic deception, by which he deceived many men and not a few women, to be converted to him as the most knowing and perfect and having the greatest power from the invisible and unspeakable places...Pretending that he was giving thanks over a chalice with mixed wine, drawing out at length the word of invocation, he made it to seem purple or red.... After this he gave women mixed chalices, and told them to give thanks in his presence. Then he took another chalice much larger than that on which the deceived woman gave thanks, and pouring from the smaller ... to the much larger... the larger chalice was filled from the smaller chalice and overflowed."

Firmilian, "Epistle" 75.1-5 to Cyprian: (After 154 AD): He tells of a certain unnamed woman who went into an ecstasy and came out a prophetess. By the power of the demon she did remarkable things:

"And that women who first through marvels and deceptions of the demon did many things to deceive the faithful, among other things by which she deceived very many, also many times she dared to do this, namely, that by an impressive invocation she feigned she was sanctifying bread, and offering a sacrifice to the Lord, with the usual words for the proclamation, and she also baptized many with the regular legally correct words of interrogation, so that she seemed no different from the norm of the Church." Firmilian goes on to ask: Would Pope Stephen accept her baptisms?

COMMENT: Firmilian was Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, 230-68. He wrote to support Cyprian in Cyprian's refusal to accept the decision of the Pope that baptisms given by heretics were valid.

Origen, Fragment of commentary on 12 Cor 14:34 ("From Journal of Theological Studies" 10. 1908-09, pp. 41-42: He comments on the words: The women must be silent in the church.

"There were four daughters of Philip the Evangelist who were prophetesses. [He raises an objection]: If they prophesied, what is out of place if the others prophesy? [He replies to the argument] First, in saying that they prophesied, show the signs of prophecy in them. Secondly, if the daughters of Philip prophesied, yet they did not speak in the churches. We do not find that in the Acts of the Apostles.... For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church."

St. Epiphanius, "Against Heresies" 79 3-4: (374-77 AD):

"We come to the New Testament. If women were ordained to be priests for God, or to do anything canonical in the church, it should rather have been given to Mary in the New Testament.... But it was decided differently. She was not even entrusted with baptizing. [after mentioning successions of apostles and priests] but nowhere was a woman established among them. There were four daughters of the evangelist Philip, who were prophetesses, but not priests. ....Although there is an order of deaconesses in the Church, yet they are not appointed to function as priests or for any administration of this kind, but so that provision may be made for the propriety of the female sex...." [at baptism etc.] Whence comes the recent myth? Whence comes the pride of women, or rather, the woman's insanity?

49.2-3 Tells of the Pepuzians who belonged to a Montanist sect (from the town of Pepuza in Phrygia).

"They use both old and new Testaments, they claim Quintilla and Priscilla as their authors as the Phrygians do. ....Among them women are bishops and priests and they say nothing makes a difference, 'For in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female'".[Gal 3:28].

St. John Chrysostom, "On Priesthood" 2.2 (c.381-85 AD):

"'Peter,' he said, 'Feed my sheep.' He could have addressed him thus: 'If you love me, fast, sleep on the ground, stay awake at night, help those who are injured, be as a father to little ones and as a husband to their mother.' But now, passing by all these things, what does he say: 'Feed my sheep.' For many of the subjects could easily do the things I have mentioned, not only men, but also women. But when there is question of the headship of the Church and of the care of souls to be entrusted to him, let the entire female sex go back, in fact, the greater part of the male sex."

COMMENT: Strictly,this applies to the position of the Pope. However, since this is a general treatise on the priesthood, he seems to mean it to hold for all priests.

3.9: "Divine law has excluded women from the sanctuary, but they try to thrust themselves into it."

St. Augustine, "On heresies" 27: (c.428 AD):

"The Pepuzians or Quintillians are named from a certain place, which Epiphanius says was a deserted city. They think it is a divine thing, and call it Jerusalem. They give such principality to women that they even honor them with priesthood."

Pope Gelasius, "Epistle" 14.26, March 11, 494 AD (translated from critical text in "Epistulae Romanorum Pontificum Genuinae. Recensuit Andreas Thiel," Brunsbergae 1867:

"Yet we have heard with irritation that divine things have come to such lack of respect that women are encouraged to minister at the sacred altars and to perform all the things that do not belong to them,which are assigned only to the service of men. But the guilt and crime of all the harmful things, which we have investigated individually, belongs to those priests who either commit these things, or by not exposing them show they favor the evil excesses: if indeed they should be called priests who strive to bring low the duty of religion entrusted to them, so that those who are inclined to every perverse and profane thing, follow perverse and profane precipices without any respect to the Christian rule. And since it is written "He who spurns small things, falls bit by bit" what is to be thought of such ones who, being occupied with immense and multiplex masses of wickedness, have brought on a huge ruin in manifold impulses, which seems not only to ruin them, but to bring deadly danger to all churches, if the evils are not healed? Not only those who dared to do these things,but also those who have kept silent about the things learned thus far, lie under [danger of] loss of their own honor, if they do not hasten with all speed so that the deadly wounds may be healed with proper medication. By what custom should they have the rights of pontiffs who fail in the pontifical watchfulness enjoined on them, to such an extent that they rather do things contrary to the house of God, over which they preside? And the amount of influence they would have with God if they provided only what is proper, let them see that is the same amount [of demerit] they have, when with execrable zeal they pursue the opposite; and as if it instead were the rule by which the churches should be governed, they do whatever is opposed to the ecclesiastical rules: since if each of the pontiffs knew the canons, he should have kept them with spotless care, and if perhaps he did not know, in his ignorance he should have faithfully sought counsel. All the more there is no excuse for those who err, because neither while knowing did he proposed to observe what he knew,nor if ignorant, did he take care to know what he should do."

Pope St. Gregory I, "Dialogues" 4.11 (593-94 AD): Tells of a priest, Nursinus,

"who from the time of his ordination loved his "presbytera" as a sister, but avoiding her as if an enemy, never allowed her to come to him."

COMMENT: We see that his wife being the wife of a "presbyteros," was called "presbytera." He observed celibacy from the time of his ordination as a priest. Another menton of "presbyteras" is found in "Epistle" 1.9.7 of the same Pope St. Gregory. Cf. also the Council of Tours.

Council of Nicea, Canon 19 (Mansi II.557-58; 325 AD):

"We have mentioned the deaconesses, who are enrolled in this position, but since they have not received any imposition of hands at all, they are surely to be numbered among the laity."

Council of Laodicea (J. Harduin, "Acta Conciliorum," Paris 1715 AD, I. 783- 84. Greek text. He dates the Council at c. 372 AD):

"Those who are called presbyteresses or presidentesses, should not be established - [the word used is "kathistemi" - could also be translated as ordained] in the church." COMMENT: We translated "legomenas" as "those who are called". It could also be rendered "the so-called."

Ibid. Canon 45 (Mansi II.571.Greek text):

"It is not right for women to have access to the altar."

Council of Nimes, Canon 2 CCL 148. p. 50 lines 14-19 c. 394 or 396 AD:

"There is a report that women seem to have been, we know not in what place, admitted to the levitical ministry, contrary to apostolic discipline,and unknown until today ....an ordination of this sort must be annulled,and care taken that no one for the future be so bold."

First Council of Orange, c 441 AD, Harduin I. 1786, Canon 15:

"Deaconesses are certainly not to be ordained,and if there are some,they must bow their head under the blessing given to the people."

"Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua," before 500 AD, prob. by Gennadius of Marseilles, CCL 148, p. 172, #37:

"Let not a woman, howsoever learned and holy, presume to teach men in the community."

Council of Epaon, Canon 21, 517 AD, Harduin II.1049:

"We entirely suppress throughout our region the consecration of widows, whom they call deaconesses."

Council of Tours II, Canon 13, 567 AD, Mansi IX 795: Canon 13:

"If an "Episcopus" does not have an "episcopa," let no throng of women follow him." Canon 19: (Harduin III. 361): "If a presbyter be found with his "presbytera" or a deacon with his "deaconissa" or a subdeacon with his "subdeaconissa," he must be considered excommunicated for a full year and removed from every clerical office."

Sixth Council of Paris, Canon 49. Harduin IV. 1322, 829 AD:

"That women must not go to the altar is abundantly found in the Council of Laodicea, 45, and in the decrees of Pope Gelasius,26. So this so illicit a thing, entirely abhorrent to the Christian religion, is forbidden for the future."

Apostolic Constitutions 3.16.1-2: (c. 400 AD):

"Chose as a deaconess a faithful and holy woman for the ministry of women... For we need a female deaconess for many things, first, when women are baptized, the deacon only anoints their forehead with holy oil and after the deaconess spreads it on them. For it is not proper that women be seen by men." 8.28.6:

"A deaconess does not bless or do any of the things priests and deacons do. She just takes care of the doors and ministers when women are baptized,for the sake of propriety."

COMMENT: From this we gather that the names "presbytera," "diaconissa," and "subdiaconissa" commonly meant the wives of priest, deacons, or subdeacons. Cf. also texts of Pope St. Gregory I.

Council of Chalcedon (531 AD. Harduin II, 1714, cols. 607-08. Canon 15 from Greek text):

"A deaconess is not to be ordained ["cheirotoneisthai"] before the age of forty and this with diligent examination. But if she received the imposition of hands and for some period has stayed in the ministry, she gives herself to marriage, she has scorned the grace of God. Such a one is to be anathematized along with the one joined to her."

COMMENTS: The Council of Nicea, canon 19, specified Deaconesses are not ordained. Of course,we do not assume that one General Council contradicts another. Rather, the terminology is not yet fully stabilized, cf. the word "sacramentum," which was not settled until the 12th century into its present precise meaning. Here Chalcedon does use the word that can mean ordain, "cheirotoneisthai," whose basic meaning is to choose, by a show of hands, as in an election. Thus in the "Didache" 15, the people chose the Bishop. In some texts the word is "kathistanai/kathistemi," whose meaning is quite broad, as can be seen from a Greek Concordance to the NT.

Further, the theology of the deaconate took long to settle. Today we know it is the beginning of the Sacrament of Orders. Yet St. Hippolytus, in "Apostolic Tradition," from c. 2l5, said in P9 about a deacon: "He has no part in the council of the clergy, but is to attend to his own duties and is to acquaint the bishop with such matters as are needful. He does not receive that Spirit which the presbytery possesses and in which the presbyters share." (cited.From W.Jurgens, "The Faith of the Early Fathers," Liturgical Press, 1970, I.P 394c. In 394d: "If a confessor has been in chains for the name of the Lord, hands are not imposed on him for the diaconate or presbyterate; for he has the honor of the presbyterate by the fact of his confession. But if he is to be ordained a bishop, hands are to be imposed on him." We add: The words "episkopos" and "presbyteros" were interchangeable for a long time, cf. Acts 20:17 & 28, and Pope Clement I, "Epistle" 44 & 54.

There are some remarkable papal grants:

(1) Boniface IX (DS 1145) on Feb. 1, 1400 granted to an abbot, who was not a bishop,the right to ordain subdeacons, deacons and priests. It was revoked soon (DS 1146) at the request of the Bishop of London--so the reason for revocation seems not to have been invalidity.

(2) Martin V, on Nov. 16,1427 granted the right to an abbot, not a bishop, to ordain to the priesthood: DS 1290.

(3) Innocent VIII on April 98,1489 (DS 1435) granted an abbot the right to ordain deacons. But,the diaconate is the beginning of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The Council of Florence, in the Decree for the Armenians in 1439 (DS 1326) said: "The ordinary minister of this sacrament [Holy Orders] is the Bishop. In saying ordinary,it could imply that a priest could be the extraordinary minister. The Council of Trent in 1563 defined in Canon 7 on Holy Orders: "If anyone says that bishops are not superior to priests, or that they do not have the power of confirming and ordaining, or that that which they have is in common to them with priests...let him be anathema." This leaves room for what Florence taught,that a priest could be the extraordinary minister, for the bishop will still be superior if he has the power by ordinary right, while the priest has it only by extraordinary grant. We add: A priest ordained even today in the Eastern rite has the ordinary power to confirm; a Latin priest needs a special grant. Even today theologians are in no agreement as to how to explain this puzzling fact.

Further, St. Cyprian of Carthage in his "Epistle" 18, from 250 AD, when he was absent in hiding during persecution, wrote to priests and deacons that if someone in danger of death, if he had received a letter [a sort of request for indulgence from the bishop] might confess to a priest, or even a deacon.The Council of Elvira, in Spain, made a similar provision. However it never was taken up by a general council or Pope, although St. Thomas Aquinas ("Summa," Supplement 8.2.ad 1 urged confession even to a layman, in danger of death, when a priest could not be had. He said it was not sacramental, but hoped the High Priest, Christ, would supply. He said such a confession was not a sacrament, but was sacramental.

From the above facts we see that there is still some unclarity even today on the sacrament of Holy Orders. Then it is not strange is some confusion ran in the early centuries. Part of the problem is this: there is only one Sacrament of Holy Orders, and it imprints a character which is indelible and cannot be repeated. Today we do teach that a deacon receives this sacrament and character: how then can the sacrament be repeated if a deacon becomes a priest, or if a priest becomes a bishop? More work and light from the Holy Spirit is surely needed.

Council of Tours (567 AD. Harduin III, Paris 1714, col 361, Latin text):

"If a presbyter be found with his presbytera or a deacon with his deaconess, or a subdeacon with his subdeaconess, he must be considered excommunicated for a full year and deposed from every clerical office, and know that he is considered among the laity." Canon 13 of Tours (Mansi 9.795):

"If an "Episcopus" does not have an "episcopa," let no throng of women follow him.

Morin, "De Sacris Ecclesiae Ordinationibus," 1655, giving the practices of some Greek churches:

"In the ordination of a Deaconess....the woman to be ordained is led to the bishop, and he in a loud voice saying the prayer 'Divine grace,' imposes hands on the Ordinand as she bows her head,and after making three signs of the cross, he prays thus: 'Holy and all powerful God, who by the birth of your only begotten Son our God from the Virgin according to the flesh sanctified the womanly sex, and granted not only to men but also to women the grace and coming of the Holy Spirit, now look, O Lord, upon this your maidservant, and call her to the work of your ministry and send upon her a rich and abundant gift of your Holy Spirit. Keep her in the true faith, in a life beyond reproach, always carrying out her ministry according to what is pleasing to you, for all glory and honor befits you.' [after a prayer by one of the deacons] While this prayer is said by the deacon, the Archbishop similarly hold his hands over the head of the Ordinanda, prays thus: 'Master, Lord, who does not reject women consecrating themselves and wanting, as is proper, to minister to your holy houses, but you accept them into the order of ministers, give the grace of your Holy Spirit also to this your handmaid who wills to consecrate herself to you, and to carry out the diaconal ministry, as you granted the grace of your ministry to Phoebe whom you called for the work of this administration. Give to her, O God, to persevere without fault in your holy temples, to take great care of her manner of life, especially moderation and temperance. Further, make your handmaid perfect so that she, standing before the tribunal of your Christ, may receive the fruit of an excellent life, by the mercy and kindness of your Only begotten Son.' After the Amen, he puts the orarium or diaconal stole on her neck."

COMMENT: A similar rite is found on p. 15 of Morin: "Give to her the Holy Spirit...so that she may worthily carry out the work imposed on her." We note there is only generic mention of her work - in the ordinations today, the functions are enumerated (cf. DS 3857-61). As to a stole - we recall that Abbesses received even a sort of miter, normally the mark of a Bishop, yet they clearly are not Bishops. Cf. also comments above on the Council of Chalcedon.