No Girls Allowed? Debate for Women in the Christian Priesthood Rages On
In many countries, laws prohibit employers from discriminating based on sex. However, exemptions to this law are often made for religious orders. The Roman Catholic Church is adamant that women cannot become priests or bishops or deacons because women have never in the past been priests or bishops or deacons. With a few notable exceptions, most Christian denominations have followed the lead of the Vatican. In 2016, Pope Francis established an official Papal Commission to determine (a) if the early Church had female deacons and (b) if it is possible to restart the practice. This is not the first time such an inquiry has been made. For all its talk of embracing modernity, the Church remains stubbornly stuck in the prejudiced Greco-Roman culture of old. And the world takes notice. Despite the Pope’s talk of female equality and allowing girls to go to school, his failure to address the systemic prejudice of his own institution means his words will have little effect in promoting gender equality. Interestingly, nearly all other religious traditions allow women to lead worship ceremonies.
Roles Open to Men and Women in Christian Denominations
For Christian denominations, ‘ordination’ is the process by which a man is set apart by God from other people so that he may administer religious rites, such as reading the Gospel at Mass, hearing confessions, and, most importantly, changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (known as the Eucharist). Ordained men hold such titles as deacon, priest, and bishop.
Ordination is a different process than ‘consecration,’ which also sets people apart from the general population, but without the ability to perform rites. Consecration is and has been open to both men (who become monks) and women (who become nuns). These processes belong to the vast majority of Christian denominations.
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Three Nuns in the Portal of a Church by Armand Gautier. (Public Domain) Christian women are permitted to participate in consecration, however ordination has been forbidden to them.
Can Women be Priests?
During the tumultuous years of the Protestant Reformation, some churches allowed women to preach because they believed the Bible to be the sole authority for faith, not the Vatican. But the patriarchy soon extinguished female aspirations and has mostly adhered to the Catholic line until the modern day. In the past few years, some European churches have reversed this trend, notably the Church of England, which ordained a woman as a bishop in 2014.
Intriguingly, arguments for and against allowing women to be priests often center on the practices of the first few centuries of the Church’s existence. It is beyond the scope of this article to look into the sexism inherent in Greek, Roman, and Hebrew societies at the dawn of the Common Era; but suffice to say that women were seen as inferior to men in almost every way (for one example, a widespread belief held that a girl baby was undercooked and thus deformed either because she was born too early or because the mother did not keep her womb warm enough. Had the fetus been fully cooked, it would have been a perfectly formed baby boy.)
One of the major arguments used against female ordination is that Jesus did not choose any women to be part of his gang of 12 apostles. “Christ did not call any woman to be one of the twelve. The entire tradition of the Church has kept faith in this fact and has interpreted it as the explicit will of the Savior to confer upon man alone the sacerdotal power of governing, teaching, and sanctifying. Only man, through his natural resemblance to Christ, can express sacramentally the role of Christ himself in the Eucharist.” (Otranto, 1991) Put another way, it has been argued that the female body does not effectively channel the masculine energies of Christ.
‘The Last Supper’ Juan de Juanes. (Public Domain) One of the arguments against women in the priesthood claims that the female body does not effectively channel the masculine energies of Christ.
This line of reasoning obscures the fact that many women faithfully followed Jesus throughout his ministry, were the only ones to remain by his side during his agony on the Cross, and were the first (and had things gone differently, perhaps only) people to arrive to prepare his body for burial.
Differing Opinions on Female Involvement
The sexism of ordination is hard to justify given the wealth of knowledge we have today about the role of women in early Christian society. Female attendance and sponsorship were essential for the Church to survive and thrive. Two examples of ancient accounts highlight the significant involvement of women. The first is by a non-Christian, the second is a Christian, and both were cited in Christian History magazine:
“Celsus, a 2nd-century detractor of the faith, once taunted that the church attracted only ‘the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.’ His contemporary, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, acknowledged in his Testimonia that ‘Christian maidens were very numerous’ and that it was difficult to find Christian husbands for all of them. These comments give us a picture of a church disproportionately populated by women.” (Kroeger, 1988)
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Triptych showing the crucifixion of Saint Julia. (Public Domain)
The magazine goes on to describe some possible reasons for the high number of female adherents, including the Christian rule against infant femicide (as opposed to the Greco-Roman technically outlawed but still widespread practice of abandoning unwanted girl babies in the wild to face certain death) and the fact that upper echelon men could not join the Christian movement without risking their government positions (but their wives and daughters could).
Santa Priscilla’s Catacombs: Hard Evidence for Female Priesthood?
Arguments that women played a role in the Church from its very first days have been and continue to be dismissed by Church officials, even in the face of hard evidence. In 2015, the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla were unveiled to the public (Google Maps has created a virtual tour of the catacombs if you are interested in seeing them for yourself).
Image of ‘the veiled woman’ in the Santa Priscilla catacombs. (Public Domain)
The catacombs were used from the 2nd to the 5th century but were only rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century. “They hoped to find treasure: intricately carved monuments and vibrant frescoes of the type found in other ancient, underground cemeteries. Instead, they found devastation. The marble sarcophagi they found inside had been broken into hundreds of pieces, wrote Rodolfo Lanciani, the scholar in charge of the dig. Lavish mosaics, a rare find in Rome’s catacombs, had been pulled from the walls, the marble incrustations torn off, the altar dismantled, the bones dispersed.” (Ruggeri, 2015).
A good deal of the destruction had been carried out only two centuries before - on Vatican orders. “In the mid-17th century, both Pope Innocent X and Clement IX sent treasure-hunters deep into the catacombs’ depths. Others may have destroyed the catacombs for a reason other than greed. Some think that early explorers vandalized the cemeteries believing they were cursed and had to be destroyed.” (Ruggeri, 2015)
Of particular interest is a smudge on the face of a woman in a fresco who may or may not (depending on whose interpretation you believe) be officiating a Eucharistic ceremony.
“At the time of the fresco’s discovery, the assumption was that "if that figure is breaking bread, then he has to be male, because women wouldn't break bread and be leading the Eucharist,” says Nicola Denzey Lewis, professor of religious studies at Brown University… Perhaps to aid that interpretation, in the 19th Century, she says, someone rubbed off some of the face’s pigment, making it look shadowed, as if it has a beard. Yet thanks to the figures’ dress (one figure in the middle even wears a veil, as a Roman woman would) and their delicate features, few academics today, or even visitors, think the figures are male.” (Ruggeri, 2015)
Women celebrating Eucharist in Catacomb of St. Priscilla in Rome. (Bridget Mary’s Blog)
Another image shows a woman with arms outstretched in a manner often used to depict priests saying Mass. She is even wearing what appear to be liturgical garments. In another image, a woman is nursing a baby, which could very well be the oldest portrayal of the Virgin Mary and thus indicate her centrality to early Christian beliefs.
Possibly the oldest portrayal of the Virgin Mary is depicted in the Santa Priscilla catacombs- a site which also has evidence suggesting women in the priesthood of early Christianity. (Public Domain)
According to the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, these images are “evidence that there were women priests in the early Christian church - and that therefore there should be women priests today” (Zolfagharifard, 2015). However, speaking on behalf of the Vatican, the superintendent of the Vatican's sacred archaeology commission, Fabrizio Bisconti, has said that such an interpretation of the images found in the catacombs “are sensationalist fairy tales” and “pure fable, a legend” (Zolfagharifard, 2015).
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Women’s Roles in Other Religions
Perhaps Pope Francis’ commission will get to the bottom of this. Probably not. Meanwhile, many Shia and three out of the four Sunni schools of Islam allow women to be imams and lead prayer services for female congregations (but not mixed gender congregations). Women’s mosques have existed for centuries. The segregation of the sexes is not a condemnation of a woman’s ability to deliver an authentic service or a comment on her ability to interpret scripture or a suggestion of her inferiority in the eyes of God. Rather, it is a reflection of the broader segregation of the sexes seen throughout Islamic society.
Elsewhere, the Buddha himself welcomed female ordination. The first woman to become a bhikkhuni did so in the 6th century BC; the first woman to become a Japanese Zen Master did so in the 13th century. In Hinduism, both men and women can become purohits, pujaris, and gurus; both single gender and mixed gender congregations exist that one can attend in accordance with one’s preference. In 700 BC, there was a great female sage named Gargi Vachaknavi who wrote many hymns in the Rigveda.
Tales of Bhikkhuni Patacara Theri, Shwezigon, Bagan, Myanmar. (CC BY SA 3.0) Patacara was one of the female disciples of Gautama Buddha.
Since the 19th century, Jewish women can become rabbis and in all but the most Orthodox denominations, women can serve as cantors. Until very recently, the Zoroastrian tradition did not allow female mobeds. Then, in 2011, the Tehran Mobeds Anjuman declared that women in Iran would be allowed to hold official mobed certificates and perform religious duties. Pagan religions also allow men and women to be priests, as does Taoism, Shinto, and Ifá.
Thus, it appears that Christianity is the only remaining holdout of an antiquated patriarchal religious system.
Top Image: Orant, Catacomb of Priscilla. It has been argued that these catacombs provide evidence for women having a stronger role in early Christianity, perhaps even in the priesthood. Source: Steven Zucker/CC BY NC SA 2.0
Kroeger, Catherine. "The Neglected History of Women in the Early Church." Christian History Issue #17 1988: n. pag. Christian History. Christianity Today. Web. http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-17/neglected-history-of-women-in-early-church.html
Otrano, Giorgio. "The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood." Women Can Be Priests. Trans. Mary Ann Rossi. The Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, 26 Aug. 1991. Web. http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/otran_2.asp
Ruggeri, Amanda. "The Secrets of the Santa Priscilla Catacombs." BBC News. BBC, 25 Feb. 2015. Web. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150224-the-secrets-of-the-catacombs
Zolfagharifard, Ellie. "Do These Images Prove That Early Christianity Had FEMALE Priests? Vatican Unveils Frescoes Hinting That Women Held Power in the Early Church." Daily Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2510473/Vatican-unveils-frescoes-Catacombs-Priscilla-paintings-FEMALE-PRIESTS.html