Were there women priests in the early Church? Professor Giorgio Otranto in
his "Note sul sacerdozio femminile nell'antichita in margine a una
testimonianze di Gelasio I: in "Vetera Christianorum" 19 (1982), 342-60
concludes, "The data gathered on the priesthood of women in antiquity are
few and meager".
The article was translated by Mary Ann Rossi, as: "Priesthood, Precedent,
and Prejudice. On Recovering the Women Priests of Early Christianity" in
"Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion," Spring, 1991, 7. #1, pp. 73-93.
Otranto's sober and scholarly conclusion has been magnified by feminists.
The translator in an introduction to her translation, says: "Those in favor
of the ordination of women point to the disparagement and hatred of women
throughout the history of the church" [italics added]. She adds "The
persistence or sexist bias among church officials from the first through
the fourth centuries C.E. has been treated by feminist scholars." The
footnote cites only one "feminist scholar", Rosemary Reuther, hardly a
neutral observer. "National Catholic Reporter" on May 29, 1968, p. 4 quoted
her as saying: "...Catholic bishops have no monopoly on Christ, and the
body of Christ may appear just as validly, if not more so in the Eucharist
celebrated by a Negro woman around a kitchen table as in the one celebrated
by the Pope in St. Peter's." The same writer contributed a paper to a
symposium, "Consensus in Theology?" edited by L. Swidler (Westminster,
1980). On p. 65 she said: "A new consensus could only come about if this
traditional power [the Magisterium] could be deposed, and the church
restructured on conciliar, democratic lines accountable to the people....
This is what Küng is really calling for: that the academy replace the
hierarchy as the teaching magisterium of the church.... It entails the
equivalent of the French Revolution in the Church...."
OTRANTO'S CHIEF EVIDENCE; POPE GELASIUS' EPISTLE
The chief document brought forth by Otranto is an Epistle 14: 26 of Pope
Gelasius, dated March 11, 494. The essential part as translated by Rossi
(p. 81) is this: "Nevertheless we have heard to our annoyance that divine
affairs have come to such a low state that women are encouraged to
officiate at the sacred altars, and to take part in all matters imputed to
the offices of the male sex, to which they do not belong." Otranto thinks
this means some bishops had ordained women as priests.
In spite of the modest scholarly conclusion cited above that the favorable
data are "few and meager", Otranto earlier speaks much more strongly than
the evidence warrants. He notes that the Epistle was addressed" to all
episcopates established in Lucania, Bruttium, and Sicilia." Now when the
Vatican addresses a directive to a specified area, it has no force outside
that area. Yet Otranto tries to make it refer widely (p. 83): "Gelasius
probably intended to address problems that were not exclusive to the
regions mentioned." That is a strange assumption. The evils mentioned are
so serious that a Pope really ought to send a directive to all areas
affected, not just to a relatively small region. Otranto tries to extend it
by saying that earlier, Bishop John of Ravenna in the north had sent him to
restore order in churches in various parts of Italy where there was an
upheaval "caused by famine and by the war between Odoacre and Teodericus".
But such evils as of a quite different kind from those of attempting to
ordain women as priests. So Otranto seems to show bias here. He adds (p.
84) that "southern Italy was culturally connected with Greek and Byzantine
areas where, from the third century, women exercised the diaconate...."
Even if that be true, a diaconate - the nature of which is far from clear,
as we shall see later - is quite different from an attempted ordination of
women as priests.
Otranto adds (p. 85) that we have evidence from St. Irenaeus of heretical
Gnostic women priests and also of some in other erroneous sects, as shown
by Firmilian of Caesarea and St. Epiphanius of Salamis. But they are called
heretical sects by Irenaeus and Firmilian.
PRIVATE JUDGMENT OR MAGISTERIUM?
Much more seriously, on p. 82, Otranto says that Pope Gelasius "does all
this without ever entering into the merit of the question." This sentence
is very revealing indeed. It seems to imply: If he had looked at the
merits, he would have decided differently. But there are two ways to decide
a theological question:
1) use private judgment. Then "the merits" are decisive.
2) Use the sources of revelation,as interpreted by the Church,
which is the Catholic way.
Otranto seems not to trust the divine protection given the Church. This
attitude on his part fits well with what Rosemary Reuther said as cited by
the translator of this article: the academy should replace the Magisterium.
We need the equivalent of a French Revolution in the Vatican. To say that,
entails lack of belief in the promises of Christ to protect the teaching of
the Church. The authorities should look at merits, yes. But when that has
been done, or even if it has not been done, the essential thing is the
divine protection promised to the Church. It is on this that we should
rely, not on unaided human reason. In our day many are making precisely
such claims that the Pope ought to change doctrinal decisions because
allegedly he did not sufficiently examine the merits of a case. We doubt if
the Pope really failed to examine. But even if he did, the divine
protection of his teaching promised by Christ is the essential thing, it
guarantees the correctness of the Pope's decision. Assent is required even
when he is not defining if he deliberately publishes a decision on a matter
then being debated among theologians, as we see in Vatican II ("On the
Church," P25 and in the "Humani generis" of Pius XII (DS 3885).
Many others today also want to shift to the basis of arguments instead of
following the teaching authority of the church. E.g., in speaking of the
ancient heresy of Gnosticism, many are saying, after the finds of the Nag-
haamadi documents in 1946-47, that there really were several kinds of
orthodoxy in the early Church: the Bishops, being better politicians, won
out. This is to show a sad lack of faith in the fact that Christ promised
teaching authority to the Church, protected by His Holy Spirit. Vatican II
strongly reaffirmed this, in the "Constitution on Divine revelation" P10:
"The task of authoritatively interpreting the word of God, whether written
or handed on [Scripture or Tradition] has been entrusted "exclusively" to
the living Magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the
name of Jesus Christ" [italics added].
So, Otranto and the feminists have really shown their hand: at least in
this instance, they do not believe something simply because the Church so
teaches. They want to argue with the Church. Really, the evidences they
offer for the existence of women priests are "few and meager" as even
Otranto admitted. But no matter how many instances they could allege -
actually, "few and meager" - they could not overthrown the consistent
teaching of the Church on this matter, which we shall document. There is no
official document whatever from the Holy See or even a local council or
from even one of the Fathers of the Church, that approves of the ordination
of women as priests. Rather, that notion is constantly rejected. To say as
Rossi does that it is just a matter of "disparagement and hatred of women"
is beside the point. The reason for exclusion of women as priests is not at
all hatred - it is doctrine, not hatred. This is why Pope Gelasius spoke so
strongly, as Otranto put it (p. 82) "The harsh, insistent wording of the
decree" which called the actions of bishops who seem to have attempted to
ordain women "such disrespect for divine affairs (p. 82)". As Otranto
continues, summarizing the Epistle, the Pope said this evil "seems to
threaten not only their [the bishops'] own downfall, but also the tragic
downfall of the whole church, if they do not come to their senses."
Further, the Pope referred to previous canons of Councils, as Otranto
reports on p. 83: "The canons to which Gelasius was probably referring were
[canon] 19 of the Council of Nicea, 11 and 44 of the Council of Laodicea
(second half of the fourth century), 2 of the Council of Nimes (394 or
396), 25 of the First Council of Orange (441), which prohibit women from
participation in the liturgical service in any way or from being a member
of the clergy." So it is clearly a matter of doctrine, not just
discipline,and a matter of continuous repeated teaching. Whatever cases may
be found of violations are just that, violations, never approved by the
authority of the Church as such. As we said, in saying that Pope Gelasius
had not examined the merits of the case, Otranto and the feminists reveal
their thinking: It is not divine protection that is decisive, it is just
human reasonings, supported by disobedience.
OBJECTION: THE POPE DID NOT DEFINE
Should someone object that the Epistle of Pope Gelasius is not a solemn
definition?. It is not, but it is an accepted theological principle that if
something is taught repeatedly on the ordinary magisterium level, that too
is infallible. The reason is that the repetition shows the intention to
make the doctrine definitive. Then as is clear from Vatican II, "On
Church," P25 even internal assent is required. Now the teaching of Pope
Gelasius is not isolated at all - it is in continuity with the teachings of
four councils, including the first General Council, Nicea, which, as cited
by Otranto, "prohibit women from participation in the liturgical service in
any way, or from being a member of the clergy." These texts are in
continuity with present statements of the Magisterium. The Doctrinal
Congregation, on Oct.15, 1976, said: "The Church's tradition in the matter
has thus been so firm in the course of centuries that the Magisterium has
not felt the need to intervene [with a definition] to formulate a principle
which was not attacked." Pope Paul VI, on November 30, 1975, in a letter to
Archbishop Coggan of Canterbury said: "Your Grace is of course well aware
of the Catholic Church's position on this question. She holds that it is
not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental
reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred
Scriptures of Christ choosing His Apostles only from among men; the
constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only
men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the
exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for
His Church." As the Doctrinal Congregation said, over the centuries there
was no attack - the disobedience of a few Bishops, reproved by the Pope,
does not constitute an attack by way of teaching, only by way of
Besides, as we indicated above, Pius XII, in "Humani generis" (DS 3885),
said that if a Pope deliberately publishes in his Acta a decision on
something currently debated, it is removed from debate, and falls under the
promise of Christ: "He who hears you, hears me." A promise of Christ cannot
OTRANTO'S ADDED DATA: SOME TOMBS
Normally, as even Otranto implies, the word "presbytera" was used for the
wife of a presbyter, as "episcopa" was used for the wife of a bishop, and
"deaconissa" for the wife of a deacon. Hence, Gregory the Great,
"Dialogues" 4.11, told of a priest, Nursinus," who from the time of his
ordination, loved his "presbytera" as a sister, but avoided her as if any
enemy, never allowed her to come to him." The Council of Laodicea in Canon
19 said: "those who are called presbyteresses or presidentesses should not
be established [the word used is "kathistemi"--cold also be translated as
ordained] in the church." The Council of Tours in 567 wrote:"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." And Canon 13 of
Tours said; "If an "Episcopus" does not have an "episcopa," let no throng
of women follow him."
To go against all this, Otranto offers a few bits, none of which are
conclusive even in proving abuses. As he said "The data... are few and
meager". He found a tomb inscription in Tropea (South Italy - the place
where Pope Gelasius complained of violations), of probably mid-fifth
century, which said: "Sacred to her memory. Leta the "presbytera" lived 40
years, 8 months, 9 days, for whom her husband set up this tomb. She
preceded him in peace on the day before the Ides of May." Otranto argues
(pp. 86-87) that the husband may not have been a presbyter himself, for he
does not call himself that, so the term "presbytera" here might not mean -
as it often does even according to Otranto - merely the wife of a
presbyter. Otranto adds that when a presbyter prepares a tomb for a wife
the word for her is usually "coniux" (wife).
So he has found one isolated gravestone calling a woman a "presbytera," who
may not have been merely the wife of a presbyter, thought that point is not
certain. The stone was found in the very territory in which Pope Gelasius
complained of abuses. So this really does not add anything to the evidence
from the Epistle of Pope Gelasius.
Otranto adds another sarcophagus from Salona in Dalmatia, dated from 425,
which reports that one Theodosius bought a cemetery plot from a
"presbytera" Flavia Vitalia. But such a function as selling grave lots does
not imply an attempt at priestly ordination even if the word used is
presbytera. Hence this evidence is worth nothing.
Otranto also says, on p.88, that there is a fragment of the cover of a
sarcophagus from Salona in Dalmatia which has the letters "dotae" - he
wishes to fill in the first part of the word so as to make it "sacerdotae,"
priestess. This at most might be a case of the abuses reproved by Pope
Farther on, on pp. 90-92, Otranto quotes a text from Atto, bishop of
Vercelli, between the 9th and 10th centuries, who speaks of the term
"presbytera" as capable of meaning woman priest. What does this show? At
most, that there may have been some further abuses later, in spite of the
Epistle of Pope Gelasius. Atto himself strongly rejects women priests, as
do all Fathers and Councils who speak of the matter.
ABUSES CANNOT CHANGE DOCTRINE
After this evidence, for which he has scraped hard, he concludes (p. 89),
as we cited it earlier: "The data gathered on the priesthood of women in
antiquity are few and meager." And those that are found are contrary to the
constant teaching of the Church, including the four Councils and Pope
Gelasius, cited by Otranto, besides many texts of the Fathers strongly
rejecting women priests. So by no means do they prove at all that the
teaching authority ever even once approved of attempting to ordain women as
priests. In fact, even if Otranto had found a hundred times as many texts,
they would prove only that there were abuses - they would not prove at all
that the Magisterium of the Church had ever approved of the abuses at all.
MORE FROM COUNCILS AND FATHERS
As we saw, Otranto recognized that four Councils, Nicea, Laodicea, Nimes,
and First Orange, rejected women priests or women ministering at the altar.
Here are still more texts of the Councils plus the actual texts of the
Fathers of the Church he referred to and additional Fathers.
The Council of Epaon, c. 517 AD said: "We completely reject the
consecration of widows, whom they call deaconesses, from our region...."
The Sixth Council of Paris c. 829 AD, says it has learned "that in certain
of our provinces, contrary to divine law and canon law, women of their own
accord go to the holy altars, and boldly touch the sacred vessels, and give
the sacred vestments to priests, and what is even more improper and
unsuitable, they give to the people the body and blood of the Lord.... That
women should not go to the altar is fully found in Canon 44 of the Council
of Laodicea, and in the decrees of Pope Gelasius XXVI...." Since the
boldest thing is to distribute Holy Communion, we gather they did not
attempt to say Mass.
Absolutely every time the Fathers of the Church have occasion to speak of
such things,they strongly reject them, never approve.
Tertullian, in "The Prescription of Heretics" 41, says: "How wanton are the
women of these heretics! they dare to teach,.to dispute, to carry out
exorcisms, to undertake cures, it may be even to baptize." In his work "On
veiling virgins" 9.1:"It is not permissible for a woman to speak in church,
nor may she teach, baptize, offer, or claim for herself any function proper
to a man, and least of all the office of priest."
St. Irenaeus, "Against Haereses" 1.31.2 tells of a certain magician
Marcus who changed the color of the liquid in the chalice by an invocation
himself,and "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 later..the larger chalice was filled from the smaller chalice and
Firmilian, in "Epistle" 75.1-5 to Cyprian,tells of a woman who went into an
ecstasy and came out a prophetess. "That woman who first through marvels or
deceptions of the demons did many things to deceive the faithful,among
other things...she dared to do this, namely that by an impressive
invocation she feigned she was sanctifying bread, and offering a sacrifice
to the Lord."
Origen, in a Fragment of his commentary on 1 Cor 14:34 tells of the four
daughters of Philip; who 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" 79.304 wrote: "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....She was not even entrusted with
baptizing...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 nude baptisms]. Whence comes the recent myth? Whence comes
the pride of women or rather, the woman's insanity?" In 49. 2-3 St.
Epiphanius tells of the Cataphrygians, a heretical sect related to the
Montanists. The Cataphrygians pretended that a woman named Quintillia or
Priscilla had seen Christ visiting her in a dream at Pepuza, and sharing
her bed. He took the appearance of a woman and was dressed in white."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, in "On the Priesthood" 2.2 points out that Jesus said
"Feed my sheep" only to Peter. "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...let the entire female sex retire."
And in 3.9 St. John wrote: "Divine law has excluded women from the
sanctuary, but they try to thrust themselves into it."
St. Augustine, "On heresies" 27 also speaks of the Pepuzians mentioned by
St. Epiphanius."They give such principality to women that they even honor
them with priesthood."
CONCLUSION ON WOMEN PRIESTS
Otranto has, at most, proved there were some abuses. He himself said, as we
saw,that his data are "few and meager." But he adduced no evidence
whatsoever to prove the Magisterium ever approved of the abuses. Rather, he
recognizes four Councils spoke against them,and a few Fathers. We have
II - DEACONESSES
We have just seen that Otranto has not proved at all that the Magisterium
of the Church ever approved of attempting to ordain women as priests. What
Before looking at the texts, we need to keep very clearly in mind some very
THE CHURCH'S GRADUALLY DEEPENING PENETRATION INTO THE DEPOSIT OF FAITH
1) At the Last Supper, Our Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit "to lead
you into all truth (John 16:13 cf. 14:26). This did not mean He was to b
ring new public revelations ("Dei verbum" P4), but that He was to lead the
Church into an ever deeper penetration into the deposit of public
revelation given at the start. As a result, it is not strange - rather, it
is to be expected - that in the early centuries we should not expect to
find some points of doctrine developed nearly as clearly as they have since
become. This is true in the case of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Even today the theology of Orders is not fully clear. We know there is only
one Sacrament of Orders; we know that it imprints a character and so cannot
be repeated. But what of the fact that we know today that deacons, priests,
and bishops all have the sacrament of orders? How to explain is not fully
clear. Not strange then that there would be some lack of clarity it the
So if we would ask an official of the Church, or a layman,of the early
centuries: do deacons receive a sacrament -they might easily say yes, or
no. Thus, St. Hippolytus is quoted as saying, in "Apostolic Tradition"
(cited from Jurgens 394c) about a deacons: "He does not receive the Spirit
which the presbytery possesses and in which the presbyters share." Further,
if we speak of someone as "receiving the Holy Spirit", what do we mean? We
speak, rightly of a person as receiving the Holy Spirit at Confirmation,
for strength. Really, a Spirit as such does not take up place: we say a
spirit is present wherever he produces an effect so to say the Holy Spirit
comes of or is present means: He is producing an effect in a certain
person. What effect? In Baptism, it is making one basically capable of the
vision of God. In Confirmation, it is strength to live according to
Christ's principles "in the midst of a wicked and twisted generation (Phil
2:15). In ordination of a priest today, it means He makes the recipient
conformed to Christ the Priest to such an extent that he can act "in
persona Christi" when he says;: "This is my body, this is my blood," or
when he says "I absolve you from your sins" etc.--So it would be possible
to invoke the Holy Spirit on someone for the sake of being more holy, or of
carrying out the things usually assigned to a deacon, i.e., giving to the
people the Precious Blood etc. It might mean, referring to a woman, to make
her capable of worthily carrying out the duty of taking care of the doors
of the church, or anointing the naked bodies of women for baptism etc.
COULD A PRIEST ORDAIN A PRIEST?
Pope Boniface IX (DS 1135) on Feb. 1, 1400, granted to an abbot, who was
not a bishop, the right to ordain subdeacons, deacons, and priests. The
grant was revoked soon (DS 1146) at the request of the Bishop of London,
who did not like it - no mention of invalidity. Pope Martin V (DS 1290) on
Nov. 16, 1427 also granted to an abbot the right to ordain to the
priesthood. Then Pope Innocent VIII on April 9,1489 (DS 1435) granted to an
abbot the right to ordain deacons - which we now consider as conferring a
sacrament. 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 (DS 1777): "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." But we would say bishops are superior to priests and do not have
confirming and ordaining in common if the bishops have the ordinary power,
while priest could be given the extraordinary power. And even today, when a
priest is ordained in the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, he
automatically has the power to confirm - but a Latin priest would attempt
that invalidly without a special grant from the Holy See. Even further,the
words priest and bishop were interchangeable for some time. In Acts 20: 17
& 28 St. Paul uses both words to refer to the same men.Pope St. Clement
I,in his Epistle to Corinth in 44 & 54 does the same. St. Paul more than
once calls himself a "diakonos" ("servant"): e.g., 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6.
Rom 15:8 speaks of "Christ as a "diakonos."
Vatican II, in the "Preliminary Explanatory note" to "Lumen gentium"
explained:"In consecration [ of a Bishop] there is given an ontological
participation of the sacred offices...The word offices is used
purposely,instead of powers, because this latter word could be understood
of direct empowerment to act. To have such a power,there must also b e a
canonical or juridical determination by the hierarchical authority."
Perhaps this is the explanation of the grants to abbots to ordain priests:
priests do have the office,the basic power,but it needs determination by
the Pope to a special group of people before it can be used. The case would
be similar with the grant to power to confirm to eastern but not to western
IS THE DIACONATE A SACRAMENT?
Even today some,improperly,question whether deacons receive the Sacrament
of Holy Orders. Jean Galot, ("The Theology of the Priesthood," Ignatius,
1985, p. 189) says: "On the one hand, Vatican II favored the sacramentality
of the diaconate.... it did not intend to disavow theologians who deny this
sacramentality nor to resolve the issue once for all...." Galot gives a
note referring to G. Philips, "L'Eglise et son mystère au II Concile du
Vatican" (Paris, 1967, I.379). But the doubts are out of order. Pius XII,
in "Sacramentum Ordinis" of Nov. 30, 1947 wrote (DS 3858): "It is evident
that the Sacraments of the New Law must signify the grace with they bring
and bring it about. Now the effect must be signified and so produced by the
Ordination to the Priesthood and Episcopate,that is, power and grace, are
found to be sufficiently signified in all the regions of the universal
Church by the imposition of hands and the words that determine it." The
Council of Trent defined (DS 1774)"If anyone says that through sacred
ordination the Holy Spirit is not given,and so that the Bishops say in
vain, "receive the Holy Spirit,"..let him be anathema." Such words are said
with the imposition of hands in the ordination of a Deacon (DS 3860).
Vatican II, "Ad gentes" 16, in speaking of the restoration of the order of
Deacon that the deacons "were joined more closely to the altar,so that they
may fulfill their ministry more effectively through the sacramental grace
of the diaconate." But, sacramental grace is that which comes from
receiving a sacrament.
In view of the lack of clarity in some minds even today abut the
sacramentality of the diaconate, it will hardly be surprising to find
confusion many centuries before.
GRADUAL CLARIFICATION OF THE WORD "SACRAMENT"
2) The very word sacrament is a special case of what we have just said. The
Latin "sacramentum" in pagan Latin meant the oath of allegiance a pagan
soldier took to his military commander. Christians readily adapted it to
mean allegiance to Christ. But then they enlarged the scope, so that it
could mean anything sacred and/or mysterious. Actually, it took until the
12th century to arrive at a general agreement to rather artificially limit
the meaning of the word to a sacred sign, established by Christ, to give
SLOW DEVELOPMENT OF TECHNICAL TERMS
3) In any field of knowledge, it takes a long time to develop precise
terminology except for those things for which words are coined on the spot.
For other things, it is necessary to arrive at a general agreement to
artificially limit the meaning of a word which in ordinary speech is rather
broad. We saw this above in the case of the word "sacramentum." The matter
is similar for priest and bishop as we saw. It holds for many other words
Thus "cheirotonein" is often taken to mean ordain, and often it does. But
basically, the dictionary meaning is to choose by a show of hands. In that
sense, the people, in "Didache" 15, are told to "choose bishops" for
themselves. Of course, they did not ordain bishops. So, the word
"cheirotonein" could mean imposition of hands - but not always - and even
then we would have to determine what function was conveyed by that word.
Similarly the Greek "kathistani/kathistemi," sometimes translated as
ordain, is very broad. It means basically to establish in a position.
SOME TEXTS ON DEACONESSES
Here are some of the chief texts on deaconesses;
"Apostolic Constitutions" 3.26.1-2 (c.400AD):
"Choose 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 deacons only anoints
their forehead with holy oil,and after the deaconess spreads it
[all over] on them.For it not proper that women be seen by men."
"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."
Council of Nicea,Canon 19:
"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 Chalcedon (452 AD) Canon 15 (From Greek text in Harduin II,
1714, cols 607-08):
"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 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."
CHALCEDON VS NICEA?
We notice of course,that there seems to be a clash between Nicea and
Chalcedon, both general Councils. Now of course we must not suppose there
is a real clash between two General Councils. So we recall the great
vagueness of terminology we saw above on the words meaning ordain,and also
on the very question of whether the diaconate for men is a sacrament. Today
it is clear that it is. In the early centuries it was not really clear, as
we saw especially in the text from St. Hippolytus who denied they receive
We conclude that Nicea speaks of the sacrament of Orders,while Chalcedon
SOME EASTERN RITUALS
Morin, "De Sacris Ecclesiae Ordinationibus," 1655, in reporting the
practices of some Greek churches--which seem not to have gotten into the
"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."
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 something like a mitre, normally the mark
of a Bishop,as did some Princes, yet they clearly are not
CONCLUSION ON DEACONESSES
We conclude that there never was an ordination in the strict sense of the
Sacrament of Holy Orders for women as deaconesses. To conclude that there
was, we would have to suppose a contradiction between two General Councils.
We cannot do that. So Chalcedon was speaking in a broader sense, which is
easily possible in view of the undeveloped and unclear theology of the day
regarding deacons.That,as we said,is not surprising, since even today some,
improperly, question whether male deacons receive the Sacrament of Orders.
SCRIPTURAL TEXTS ON ORDINATION OF WOMEN
"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.
"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,
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
COMMENT:This seems to support the strong interpretation of 1 Cor 14:34.
GENERAL CONCLUSIONS ON ORDINATIONS OF WOMEN
Otranto has proved only that probably a few cases were known of bishops who
attempted to ordain women as priests.But he has not shown any scrap of
evidence that the Magisterium ever approved. So he has proved nothing on
that score. Rather, we have seen abundant texts of Popes, Councils, and
Fathers,who strongly reject ordination of women as priests, and even broad
texts forbidding them to minister at the altar at all. Abuses have been
known in the church in all ages, including our own,and many very extensive.
But unless the Magisterium approves, an abuse can never be considered
As to deaconesses, Chalcedon does speak of ordination,and some Greek
rituals, reported by Morin, do speak of a rite that looks like
ordination.Yet there is no proof this was ever intended as the Sacrament of
Orders. The prayer of ordination does not seem to be anything more than a
call for the Holy Spirit to help her carry out her ministry, which at most
would have been in giving the Chalice to the people. And in view of the
great confusion about the diaconate which we saw, we conclude there never
was any such attempt. Further, these things happened only in the East, not
at all in the West, and were ever approved by the Magisterium.
APPENDIX; A SLIDE LECTURE BY OTRANTO
The same Mary Ann Rossi who translated the article by Otranto, provides
also what she calls an "Abstract" of a slide lecture he gave in the
Washington area during 1991.
The evidences he provides in it are almost all the same as those we saw
above. He adds just a few quite unclear things, chiefly these: There is an
inscription from about 491 or 526 in Interamna in central Italy which
speaks of an "Episcopa." There is another from the 9th century in Rome.
However Otranto does not offer any proof that these were any more than the
wives of bishops. There is also a Novella of Emperor Justinian, 535 AD,
which speaks of the function of deaconesses. But Otranto does not offer any
evidence of precisely what functions they had. He recalls also some grave
excesses by Spanish abbesses who even heard confessions - this was strongly
condemned, as Otranto says, by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216 PL 116.356). He
also cites an Epistle of Gregory the Great mentioning an abbess who refused
to wear monks' garb, instead using the clothing usually worn by
"presbyterae." However Otranto admits that this could easily mean merely
the wives of priests, of which the same Gregory the Great speaks elsewhere
Otranto gives away his bent when he cites from the "De virginitate" (PG
28.264) which some attribute to St. Athanasius, in which it is said that
according to the abstract of his lecture, "the virgins are invited to bless
the "eucharistic" bread three times with the sign of the cross, to give the
thanksgiving and to pray: these are acts that may be construed as a
eucharistic celebration." In all scholarly research there are two phases:
1) collect all possible data. Otranto and many others do well
enough in this phase;
2) exercise good judgment in interpreting it. Here Otranto fails
We underlined the word eucharistic - it is not in the original language
text at all. In context, the passage speaks merely of virgins, like nuns,
"when you are seated at table," making the sign of the cross three times
over the bread. This is just an ordinary meal, by virgins seated at table.
No mention of a chalice of wine etc. No one sits down to celebrate Mass,
unless he be crippled or ill. Really this is just a sort of grace before
meals, like our common, "Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts...." It is
simply Otranto's great zeal to promote ordination of women that makes him
strain and diligently collect scraps about abuses and about an ordinary
grace before a meal.
After all these scraps he admits, as he did in the larger article, that his
data are: "few and meager" and are also "rather sparse."
But most importantly, again he ignores the fact that it is not abuses that
determine doctrine, but the Magisterium. No amount of abuses can determine
doctrine. And the doctrinal statements, of which we saw many, are entirely
uniform in condemning ordination of women.