QUESTION: Historically speaking, were there licit women bishops or priests?
n our present-day reality, there are many Liberal Catholic Jurisdictions and Protestant Denominations that actively promote the ordination of women. Within the Roman Catholic paradigm, there have been numerous groups over the years advocating for women's ordination. The Catholic Church in America (CCIA) has not jumped aboard the politically correct bandwagon, though we do ordain women to the Diaconate. In this discussion, people generally speak in terms of "validity" and "licitness." However, it takes more than a ceremony and a certificate to attain authentic holy orders and apostolic succession. True, the faculties of these ministers are indeed valid in their scope of ministry, but their holy orders are illicit on not valid from a traditional, historic Catholic perspective.
True Catholic Churches never adapt their teachings according to public pressure, just to be politically correct. As a particular Catholic jurisdiction, the CCIA is dedicated to maintaining fidelity to the historic deposit of faith. Conversely, when we present our theological positions, they MUST NOT be based upon individual opinion or pre-conceived notions and prejudices. Our reaction to the modern pressures of our day must attest to the historic theological facts while at the same time presenting a loving and cogent response.
In my personal experience, I've had people relate to me that they would not attend a church where their "daughter could not be ordained." This is similar to folk who stop going to a church that does not "affirm" homosexuality because one of their children is gay. This approach paints ecclesiology with a relativistic brush, indicating that their own particular view of "truth" needs to reign supreme. As I posted recently, the CCIA believes in absolute truth, not the relativism of modern scholastics.
A short time ago, a woman priest from another jurisdiction commented (off topic) on a particular post of mine. Her comments took the conversation off on an imprecatory tangent by defensive Roman Catholics. In her response, she stated that “women had been priests for 1,300 years.” She also insisted that women clergy had been numerous.
At first blush, my following statement may sound a bit misogynistic, but please bear with me here. No, women can’t be priests. Similarly, men can’t be mothers. It’s not who we are. It’s not in the nature of males to be mothers; it’s not in the nature of women to be priests.
Once again, please be patient with me!
Yes it is true that men are physiologically unable to give birth to children, and women do have all the necessary physical capabilities that would allow them to perform the functions of the priesthood; the main physical necessities of the priesthood are hands to bless and lips to speak the words of Consecration and Absolution. But then, monkeys have hands and parrots can talk. It takes much more than hands and a voice to make a priest. Similarly, it takes much more than a uterus to make a mother. It sounds a bit demeaning to woman, and even insulting to imply that the ONLY reason men can’t be mothers is that they lack a uterus. What does that make mothers?
There is so much more to being a mother than the physical ability to give birth. Women (generally speaking) exceed men in gentleness, patience, and pain tolerance. It is a well-known fact that men tend to be objective and project-oriented, while women are more subjective and people-oriented. These are all qualities that make motherhood a part of the nature of woman. I do not by this mean that men are superfluous or incompetent when it comes to raising children. On the contrary, fathers are essential for the healthy upbringing of children. But fathers have a different role than mothers. Similarly, women have a different role in the Church. Yes, women cannot be priests (in the CCIA). But this is not, as some claim, a rule made up by mere men. This is the way God, in the Person of Jesus Christ, ordained it to be. Priests bring Christ to earth. Women, whether mothers, religious sisters, or single, are called to imitate the Mother of God, and bring mankind to Christ. A different role, but an essential one.
In the time of Christ and His Apostles, priestesses were indeed a reality. However, these women priestesses were all part of cult religions of their time. Jesus had an abundance of female followers or disciples, and he had plenty of opportunity throughout His ministry to endorse women in this area of ministry. Likewise, the authors of the biblical texts were not unaware of the cultural acceptance in their day of women priestesses in other religious arenas.
So, let’s look at the historical question of women priests in the Church of Christ, because if women were licit priests in the past, then they should obviously be priests today.
Very early, the Church Fathers were quite explicit in condemning the practice of ordaining women among Gnostic Christian cults. The historical evidence for women priests or at least women receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders (through which a man is ordained first a deacon, then a priest, then a bishop, if he is so chosen) may be compelling: mosaics in Roman churches with women dressed in what looks like clerical garbs and referred to as episcopa, which for all the world looks like Latin for “female bishop”; stories of certain sects in various parts of the early Church where women were ordained, priests; frequent references to women known as “deaconesses” in several writings. There may even be Scriptural evidence in the New Testament letters. Such evidence, the argument goes, was suppressed by the misogynistic pope and bishops. Once again, we are faced with troubling evidence that appears to undermine an essential teaching of the Church. Or does it?
Let’s look at the Scripture passages first. The major passages are Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Timothy 3:11. Romans 16:1-2 reads as follows:
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen’chre-ae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.
The word translated as “deaconess” is diakonon, which normally means “deacon,” as the word is a masculine word. This does not prove, however, that Phoebe, described as a diakonon, is an ordained minister. Deacons in the early Church had many jobs. A woman who did similar jobs was probably called the same word since there wasn’t a feminine equivalent in Greek. Also, it was also common, back in the day, this language usage was to refer to wives of clergymen as the wife of Deacon, or the Bishop’s wife.
First Timothy 3:11 reads as follows: “The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.” The preceding and succeeding verses deal with deacons, specifically how they are to live and be model Christians to the community. The women mentioned in 3:11 could be deacons, but they could also be the deacons’ wives (verse 12 discusses how deacons are to act as husbands if they are married, saying “Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well”). The fact that verse 12 refers to the deacons as “husbands” implies that they are all males and that the women referenced in verse 11 are the deacons’ wives. As the wives of deacons, these women would have had a special place in the community, and like their husband should be models of virtue. They could be such models without receiving Holy Orders.
Earlier in 1 Timothy, Paul made that rather awkward statement about how women should “receive instruction silently and under complete control” (1 Tim 2:11). He likewise noted that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12 ). Not really a ringing endorsement of women’s ordination.
Further evidence for women clergy in the Church stems from artistic artifacts left in churches. References are made to an “alcove in the Vatican depicting women priests.” In the Basilica of St. Prassede (or St. Praxedes) in Rome (not technically in the Vatican but rather down the street from the Basilica of St. Mary Major), there is a controversial work of art in a beautiful side chapel. On the wall of the chapel are four figures, saintly men, and women to whom or for whom the chapel is dedicated. One of the figures is a woman with a nimbus. Next to her image are two words which have sparked great controversy in the Church: “Theodora” (the woman’s name) and “Episcopa” (which appears at first glance to be a female version of the word episcopus, which is the Latin word for “bishop”) Once again, this is probably referring to her as the Bishop’s wife.
Bishop Theodora, eh? Sounds like women clergy to me. To make matters worse, the reigning pope at the time, Pope Paschal I (reigned 817 – 824), built the church of St. Prassede and, according to the records of that time, had the chapel with Theodora in it built to honor his mother Theodora. One historian, in writing of this mosaic, claims “We have papal authority for a woman bishop and an acknowledgment by the pope that he himself was the son of a woman bishop!” (Thomas F. Torrance, “The Ministry of Women: An Argument for the Ordination of Women“, Touchstone [Fall 1992]).
Except it wasn’t a woman bishop. In fact, as far as historians can tell, there is no extant evidence that there were woman bishops in antiquity.
There is no historical record, besides this mosaic, that refers to a so-called female “bishop" named Theodora. However, there are previous uses of a feminized version of episcopus. A local Church council in the city of Tours proclaimed in 813: “Let no entourage of women accompany a bishop who does not have a bishopess” (Patrick Henry Reardon, “Women Priests: History & Theology: A Response to Thomas F. Torrance,” Touchstone [Winter 1993], available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=06-01-022-f). The reason for the canon from this council is clear: some bishops were surrounding themselves with women, causing scandal and more likely than not, leading to severe breaks in the vow-of-chastity department. No women except for the bishop’s wife, the council declared (in Latin, the canon states “Episcopum episcopam non habentem nulla sequatur turba mulierum”), should be traveling around with the bishop. This means, of course, that some bishops were married (back in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul notes that a bishop should only be married once, which probably points to a no-remarriage-after-becoming-a-widow rule for bishops).
So episcopa might mean the wife of a bishop, in which case, Theodora was the wife of a bishop; hence her entitlement. Another possibility is that Theodora, following the death of her husband (Pope Pascal’s father), joined a religious order. This was a common practice in those days (many women saints were widows who joined monastic orders). Some historians arguing that Theodora was a bishop note that the figure in the church wears a coif or cap worn by nuns under their veil; the argument was that, because she dressed like a nun, she could not have been married, and thus could not have been Pope Paschal’s mother (see the essay by Reardon). However, it is just as likely that Theodora entered a convent as a widow and perhaps became an abbess. For lack of a better word, she was referred to as an episcopa. It would not be the only instance in Church History of an abbess living and ruling her monastery like a bishop. St. Brigid of Ireland was reported to have accidentally been ordained a bishop, though the tale seems spurious, a hyperbole seeking to show just how powerful abbesses had become in Ireland and other parts of the Church. But a powerful abbess is not a bishop, no more than a powerful queen is a king.
Are there reports of women acting as clerics in the medieval Church? There are. Were these women supported by the Church of their time? No. Throughout history, the Church Fathers spoke repeatedly against women clerics. Irenaeus condemned the use of priestesses in Gnostic sects during the late 2nd century; Tertullian noted that women are not allowed “to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say sacerdotal office.” Hippolytus, writing in 215, gives one of the more direct rejections of women priests: “When a widow is to be appointed, she is not to be ordained but is designated by being named [a widow]. . . . A widow is appointed by words alone and is then associated with the other widows. Hands are not imposed on her because she does not offer the oblation and she does not conduct the liturgy. Ordination is for the clergy because of the liturgy, but a widow is appointed for prayer, and prayer is the duty of all.” These quotes are all taken from an article posted on the Catholic Answers website; there are many more Church Fathers quoted. Likewise, a local council in Laodicea (held in 363) stated that “Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the Church” (Canon 11). It is because of this Tradition in the Church that John Paul II taught infallibly that women cannot be priests.
So here’s the bottom line: women have tried to be priests in the Church’s past. They were not successful in their endeavor, and the Church (both East and West) up until recent times has always rejected women’s ordination. Historically, then, there were not authentic/licit women priests.