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Is There Room for Women in the Functions of the Church? by Jan Peters

Is There Room for Women in the Functions of the Church?

by Jan Peters, O.C.D. Smakt-Venray, Netherland from Concilium - theology in the age of renewal, 4th. year (1968) volume no. 34, pp. 126-138.

Webmaster’s Note. A Polish translation of this article was available to Bishop Felix Davidek in Czechoslawakia in 1970. It helped him make up his mind that women can and should be ordained. Read the story of Felix Davidek and of Ludmila Javarova, one of the women whom he ordained a priest.

The question of women’s place in ecclesiastical functions can be approached from different angles. From the angle of Canon Law one may ask whether this law, as it stands today, leaves room for a woman-priest, and the answer is, briefly and definitely, no. But the theologian cannot leave it at this. He can look for reasons why there is no room for women in the priesthood. He will then find a number of answers which he must admit are influenced by an antiquated image of man, or by a rationalization of ill-understood emotional arguments, or by the use of scriptural texts like “Women should keep silence in church” (1 Cor. 14, 34) that are clearly influenced by contemporary cultural environment. He could also examine the function in itself and find that the theological interpretation is broader today than formerly. Such a broader conception of the function includes the possibility for woman to offer her specific qualities to serve the mediation of salvation. Indeed, salvation is not only mediated through cultural actions (preaching and the administration and celebration of the sacraments) but through one’s whole humanity, just as Jesus did not redeem us through one single action (e.g., the death on the cross) but through his whole life, the specific way in which he lived his humanity.

What I hope to do here is to open up anew a question to which we thought we already had the answer and which therefore seemed no longer an open question.

The subject is topical, perhaps more so in Protestant theology (which has another conception of the ecclesiastical office) than in Catholic theology where the priestly function is one of the classic seven sacraments. To us, with our attitude toward life today, which we all share, the following question would appear quite normal: Is woman, with her own kind of humanity and her own view of religious reality, not capable of making a creative contribution to the Church’s positive mission which is to mediate salvation now, for people of today? I propose to deal with this under four headings: (1) What do the Old and New Testaments have to say about this? (2) How did woman come to be excluded from ecclesiastical office? (3) Does the emancipation of woman not demand that we reevaluate our position? and (4) How does contemporary theology try to find for woman a place of her own within the scope of sacramental function?


The Place of Woman in the Mediation of Salvation

(a) The Old Testament

1. The Negative Aspect: The Old Testament does not exclude woman from an active role in the mediation of salvation. This mediation takes place in a history of people, men and women. No doubt, within this history the image of woman shows restrictions that are similar to those found in the religions and cultures which surrounded Israel, but a close look makes it clear that theological reflection on Genesis, for instance, underlines woman’s equality with man. Man is not the complete human being; Adam asks for a helpmate at the human level, and so we read: “Let us make man in our image . . . Male and female he created them” (Gen. 1, 26-7). God sees his likeness realized in his creation of the “human being”, not in.man or woman in isolation. God entrusts his creation to both man and woman as equal partners, in view of salvation.

2. The Positive Aspect: This general view is embodied in various figures of the Old Testament. Salvation in the Old Testament is not an abstract value; it takes shape in tangible realities such as legislation, the expansion of the people, the conquest of a nation, the government of the people, religious renewal. It is interesting that Moses the legislator is accompanied by Aaron’s sister Miriam (Ex. 15, 20). The growth of the population is also seen as part of salvation and it belongs to the promise contained in the covenant (Gen. 15, 5) that the number of Abraham’s descendants will be like that of the stars in the firmament and like the grains of sand on the seashore. Israel sees therefore the maternal function of woman as a function of salvation. When Israel achieves victories - and this, too, is salvation - it is not only men who are mentioned but also women such as Deborah (Judges 4, and the splendid song of victory in Judges 5, 7: “The peasantry ceased in Israel, they ceased until you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel”), Judith (16, 7) and Esther. Side by side with the male prophets who inaugurate a religious renewal in Israel, we find also the prophetess Huldah (2 Kgs. 22, 14). Side by side with David the king stands Esther the queen.

It is clear that we cannot limit woman’s saving function to a particular office, precisely because salvation is more than cult. One may wonder why woman is never a priest in the Old Testament. But the priestly function in the Old Testament is but one of the functions that mediate salvation, namely, the one concerned with cult. Woman’s active role in the mediation of salvation is not denied when one only says that woman cannot be a priest.

Moreover, this might well be a reaction against the pagan priestesses, just as at the beginning there were no official priests in Israel as a reaction against the surrounding nations where the priest was linked with idolatry.

There are also more down-to-earth factors: in actual fact, the priestly function in Israel was a man’s work. Quantities of cattle had to be slaughtered for the official sacrifices. During the early period the patriarchal system prevailed where men are the heads of the tribe and fathers the priests of the tribe: a priesthood on a family basis. Nor should one forget that the Levitical priesthood was inherited and in this way reserved to the descendants of Aaron.

In general, the Old Testament gives sufficient evidence that woman had indeed an active part to play in the mediation of salvation.

(b) The New Testament

Before passing on to an assessment of the data of the New Testament, I would like to point out that the concrete and tangible reality that shaped the form of salvation in the Old Testament became obscure in the days of Jesus. The monarchy had disappeared; there was no peace; there was no victory; the law provided no more inspiration and was “dead”. Yet, there was a Messianism, but the content of this expectation of salvation was so indefinite and subject to such varied interpretations that Jesus refused to identify himself with any of the traditional concrete expressions of salvation in the Old Testament: monarchy, law, prophecy. Moreover, Jesus is in fact the new and fuller concrete expression of salvation. He is the way, the truth, the life, the manna, the law, the king and the prophet. In short, he is the full embodiment of salvation. Salvation is no longer a concrete situation but a concrete person: this Jesus. In this way salvation is personified, deepened and spiritualized.

The question of woman’s active role in the mediation of salvation now becomes the concrete question about the active role of woman in relation to this historical Jesus and further, in relation to the Christ of faith.

Insofar as woman’s active role in relation to this Jesus is concerned we now find suddenly a rich source of information in Luke the evangelist. The religious interpretation of woman as mother in the Old Testament finds its fulfillment in the unexpected perspective of Jesus’ childhood narrative. Here God “has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Lk. I, 48). “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (God saves). Then follow the concrete expressions of salvation: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1, 31-4) . Women are actively involved in Jesus’ public life and are witnesses of his resurrection. For Jesus himself the sexual distinction between man and woman is particularly unimportant, a fact which astonishes even his disciples (cf. Jn. 4, 27) . There is no need to develop here the first part of the question any further. There remains, however, the far more difficult question: What is woman’s active role in relation to the Christ of faith? Everyone will agree with the general observation that salvation will henceforth consist in perpetuating this Christ in whom all divisions cease: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3, 28) . When we listen without prejudice to the writings of the New Testament, we shall realize that this process of continuation is no longer concerned with men or women, but with men and women, “people” or “human persons”. The biological contrasts have been overcome in principle.

In the writings of the New Testament we meet with the names of women who, alone or with their husbands and families, give themselves to the service of the “saints”. Recently converted women occupy a central position in the community. Women risk their lives, are persecuted. Why? Because they know to whom they bear witness.

In Acts 1, 14 we see women persevering in prayer together with Mary the mother of Jesus. Without any sexual discrimination women are mentioned here with the apostles and the brothers of Jesus. Women share in the approval of the choice of Matthias who must take Judas’ place in the apostolic college.

In Acts 2, 16-8, where Peter uses Joel’s prophecy in order to explain what really happened at the first Pentecost, woman, on whom the Spirit has also been poured out, is far from being the inferior and inarticulate creature that must be veiled and kept silent in the community: “Yea, and on my manservants and my maidservants in those days I shall pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” Where the Spirit of God is clearly poured out without measure it would be arrogant to limit his action to one sex. When we do that, we shall probably “quench the Spirit”, at least partially (1 Thess. 5, 19) .

Acts 21, 9 shows indeed that the four daughters of Philip the evangelist did in fact possess this gift of prophecy. The care of the poor (Acts 9, 36f.) is a service not restricted to men only but is exercised to the full by Tabitha, a disciple in the town of Joppa. As teacher it is Priscilla who takes part in explaining God’s way to the eloquent Apollos of Alexandria (Acts 18, 26). It is therefore more than a polite formula when Paul calls her and her husband his collaborators. I am well aware of the fact that the “office”, in the loaded meaning we give today to that word, is but vaguely described in the writings of the New Testament. We may nevertheless conclude that the active mediation and continuation of the Christ of faith, our salvation, is not limited to man and that woman plays a full part in this process.

How, then, did later theology come to have such a limited conception of the office that woman was positively excluded from it?


The Historical Restriction of the Priestly Office and the Exclusion of Woman from this Specific Function

During the first three centuries of the young Christian movement we constantly see women exercise functions which today we would call priestly functions. We see them administer baptism, give the eucharist to the sick and the children; she is ordained, has a place in the hierarchy and belongs to the clergy. This situation begins to change when Christianity turns from being a movement to being an institution. In 313 Christianity became an established religion under Constantine. The functional apparatus of the Roman State begins to be taken over by the Church. There is also a considerable difference between Eastern and Western Christianity.

In assisting the apostle, woman deployed a rich activity in the East, and mainly on three lines: as Christian prophetess (principally in Montanist and Gnostic circles), in catechetical and missionary work and as deaconesses. Here woman became indispensable, even for the imposition of hands on the sick. The function of the widow as deaconess was exercised autonomously in various ways. We even see women put on the same level with the presbyters. This situation was widespread in Syria, Egypt and in Byzantium which later on detached itself from a centralizing Rome. But this expansion did not happen without struggle. Insofar as rank is concerned the East placed her between the higher and the lower clergy. She bound herself to lifelong service after the imposition of hands and the reception of the stole from the bishop. In the West, too, a ritual remained in force which was applied to women and resembled the ordination to the priesthood. Later on it passed into the consecration of an abbess or a canoness.

In the West the gradual exclusion of woman concentrated principally on functions that were typically presbyteral and liturgical. Where the function is narrowed down to the offering of the sacrifice, woman is explicitly excluded from the service of the altar.

In the Middle Ages the image of woman must be seen against a threefold background:

  1. the anti-feminism, prevailing in the Church and in theology;
  2. the erotic culture of the troubadour who limited the dignity of woman to partnership in love;
  3. the beginnings of civilian emancipation in religion and politics. During the Middle Ages woman was mainly valued as possession and as labor force. The consecration of a woman as abbess with jurisdiction persists even in the Middle Ages.

To this we must add that the 12th century saw the beginning of the definition of the sacrament as a sign that signifies and gives grace while ecclesial office was seen as the sacrament of orders and included among the seven sacraments. This encouraged the conviction that only man can be the sign of Jesus as the sole Priest. But during this same period there were still deaconesses in Constantinople and therefore in the Eastern Church.

Woman was left with being mother or virgin, while virginity became religiously overrated. Historically, then, man became the bearer of the restricted priesthood. It is this factual situation, the fruit of a cultural and historical development, which became the object of theological study and led to the assertion that only a baptized man can be the bearer of a Christian office. I shall come back to this kind of symbolic reasoning in my fourth point.

It is rather curious that the Reformation, which pretended to return to the Christian origins, brought no correction on this point. In their view of woman in the Church the reformers in general followed the prevailing opinion and accepted her position as willed by God. Reasons for this exclusion of woman were found in 1 Corinthians 14, 34f. and 1 Timothy 2, 11, and this was thought conclusive. 1 Corinthians 14, 34 reads: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says.” And 1 Timothy 2, 11: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.”

In Luther there is, no exclusion of woman from preaching in principle. In matters of office the reformers emphasized the service of the Word. Although Luther maintained at first (1516 ) that leadership in worship and preaching was reserved to man because woman was much more liable to superstition and occultism, he said in 1522: “If it happens that no man is present a woman can take charge and preach before others as far as she is able.” Woman is no longer excluded, and this on the ground of such biblical data as the universal priesthood of the faithful, but man is still thought to be more suited. Calvin wants both more and less than that. He wants more in contrast with Luther who left the care of the poor to the State: he wanted a genuine care of the poor and the sick in the Church, although this was not incorporated in his Church Order. He wanted less in that he forbade woman to baptize, speak and teach in the Church. She can have no public function apart from the diaconate.


What Place of her own can Modern Theology find for Woman within the Scope of the Sacramental Office?

What has been said so far can be summarized as follows:

  1. Exegetically there is no compelling argument for the exclusion of woman from office.
  2. The actual exclusion of woman from office can be sufficiently shown to be an historical development to deprive it of any absolute claims or any assumption that it is “obvious”.
  3. The Christian concept of office as a charismatic mediation and service instead of a juridical concept compels the Catholic theologian, too, to investigate the specific place and contribution of woman within the priestly office and to ask himself whether woman cannot have a mediating function in a broader and more scriptural view of the office.

After the inevitable declericalization of the office" broader and higher demands will be made upon the office-bearer than in the time when the sacred still formed a world apart, with definite and clear boundaries. In those days one could still “learn” how to be a priest: to say Mass, to preach, to baptize, etc. Today the situation is that man must be helped in a reality that has lost its clear contours and from within which he has to look for the meaning of his existence. The office-bearer must show him the way, help him to find it with the aid of the Gospel. He must help his fellow-Christian in giving a meaning to existence. All this demands of the office-bearer a greater competence, not only intellectually, but also in religious ability. This religious element is a special dimension in human existence, just as the ethical element and the esthetic. Some people are more religiously gifted, others less. This religious giftedness, a psychical structure, is a natural ability which is not equally possessed by all. This psychical structure is confirmed and underlined in the ordination; it is not created then, it is not a creatio ex nihilo.

The office-bearer will discover that his competence is mostly required for the sharing in, and interpretation of, the basic questions of existence in their religious dimension. This religious dimension is precisely the essential element of both Christianity and the leader. This leader does not walk ahead in isolation but has people round him. It is true that it is difficult here to say exactly what is, and what is not, sacramental. Take, for instance, confession and penitential services. Who can say here where the boundary of the function runs? There will have to be definite key points around which the functions are set out. Starting with Christ, who opened the new world to mankind, we shall have to find out what exactly our mission is.

The office must be shaped anew constantly by men themselves. In every age it must have a face that is recognizable and can be turned to. But this implies that the office must be human as far as possible, must show as many human aspects, variations, gifts and adaptations as possible.

For this reason one ought to admit that woman has a place in this office. Does the Church not damage her own image when she thinks that all her features must be male features? This is rather an impoverishment. Modern anthropology has made it only too clear that “human” means male and female. Man and woman together must fashion and exercise the office so that each can exercise it in a less one-sided manner. The human exercise of office demands an extension of the office so that it can be borne by both man and woman.

Does this give woman a place in the Church’s office (I deliberately avoid the term “priest”) ? The only argument that holds water is the sociological one. The position of woman in the Church’s office depends on her position in a given culture. The question is whether woman is accepted and whether she can fulfill a function usefully and efficiently. When we see how the office developed from the New Testament throughout history we find that the direction of this development has been for a large part determined by the Church herself. We may therefore ask whether in our own age, too, the Church is not competent to create new forms of office for women. There would be no harm in the Church as mother being productive for once. When we look at the office in the New Testament there does not seem to be much that was meant to be everlasting. On the other hand, we do see in both the Old and the New Testaments that God means specific people to be appointed to the office of mediation. Christ himself is chosen and chooses others in turn. This persisting element of a choice by God is essential to the office in the Bible.

Our approach should therefore be in the following direction. For us salvation is not a thing but a human value: the salvation of concrete persons. This salvation, which has assumed a personal form in Christ, must be mediated by the Church, and she does this through her office. This office, then, already embraces more human elements than merely the service of Word and sacraments. We should therefore start by looking at salvation in a broader perspective than that of a separate sphere of human reality or something that is added from outside to man as an existing entity. Only when we see this shall we also see that this extended office cannot be borne only by the male. This would damage the content of salvation. Nor should it be borne only by the female of the species. It is an office commissioned to human beings and sexual discrimination should be eliminated. This will become obvious when the office is more humanized. Modern anthropology has pointed out that there are no such things as exclusively male or female qualities. We have to try, on the basis of a distinct biological distinction, to be human, Christian and capable of bearing office, and thus to mediate salvation.

Are we not beginning to realize that to determine the Gospel as doctrine, as a rational and well thought-out dogma, is necessary but not everything? Should the manipulation of an instrument of power such as excommunication not be entrusted to women as well as men? The first question of an office-bearer should not be whether he is a man or whether office can also be bestowed on a woman, but how humanity can, as completely as possible, be put to the service of mediating salvation.

All the literature dealing at present with this problem still shows a vast difference in mentality. It is quite possible that if the Council had attempted to pronounce on it, the result would have been negative because the majority of the fathers had not yet reached this stage. Humanity is only complete in man and woman together, and on the basis of this argument I would suggest that the admission of women to ecclesiastical office is not only possible but desirable. It seems to me that this way of looking at the problem has overcome the kind of symbolic reasoning which has for so long dominated the discussion of “the ordination of women”. Our modern sensitivity to symbols can no longer conclude that since Scripture presents God as male and since the historical Jesus was a man, the mediator of God’s salvation in the Church of Christ must also be a man.

We must also dare to accept the theological conclusion that a truly “catholic”, i.e., universal, office is incompatible with a practice based on biological and cultural differentiation. This should clearly not lead to woman merely imitating man’s office as practiced up till now in the Western Church.’ The monopoly of a clericalized office seems to be a thing of the past, and with it the security mechanisms with which man used to defend his office against the intrusion of woman. My plea for a place for woman in office is not a plea for imitation or copying but for the full humanity of the office and the oneness in Christ, on the lines of St. Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3, 28) . This does away in principle with all discrimination of race, class or sex.


1. Cf. Ivan Illich, “Métamorphose du Clergé,” in Esprit, 364 (Oct. 1967), pp. 584-601.

2. For a good bibliographical survey see Kosmos en 0ecumene, 2 (1967). The World Union of Women’s Organizations has incorporated this topic in its congress to take place in Rome, 1968. Just as the World Council of Churches has a special department for “Woman in the Order of the Church”, the Willibrordsvereniging (Society of St. Willibrord) of Holland is planning a special secretariate for this question. One of the resolutions passed by the Third World Congress for the Lay Apostolate ran as follows: “The Third World Congress for the Lay Apostolate wishes to express its desire that women be granted by the Church full rights and responsibilities as Christians, and a serious doctrinal study be undertaken into the place of women within the sacramental order and within the Church” (The Tablet, October 28, 1967), p. 1138.

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