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The Problem of the Ordination of Women in the Early Christian Priesthood

Lecture delivered in the USA in 1991 by Professor Giorgio OTRANTO, University of Bari, Italy; translation by Dr. Mary Ann Rossi -- credits

This text has been put on this website with permission of the author and the translator. A more detailed form of the contents can be found in Professor George Otranto's article, with an introduction by Dr. Mary Ann Rossi.

In an article published in 1982 in Vetera Christianorum, a scholarly journal of the Institute of Classical and Christian Studies of the University of Bari, of which I am the editor, I attacked the thorny problem of the priesthood of women in antiquity, taking a cue from an epistle of Pope Gelasius I (492-496). My article became part of the quite lively debate produced by the declaration Inter insigniores of Pope Paul VI (27 January, 1977), which confirmed the “no” of the church to the admission of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. My paper has had a success which I would never have dared to imagine in the least: this good fortune is seen in its translation into English, supplemented by an introduction and comments, and published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (vol. 7, no. 1, spring, 1991) by my colleague, Mary Ann Rossi, whom I wish to thank publicly, not only for her competence, but also for the enthusiasm with which she has defended my work.

This article, “Notes on the Female Priesthood...”, has been noted, cited, and often received favorably, although there have been some criticisms and observations that have in no way changed my mind. I would say rather that with the passing of the years, I am all the more convinced that the problem of the admission of women to the priesthood should be taken up again from the beginning. I do not maintain, let it be clear, that women ought to be admitted straightaway and simply to sacred orders; as an historian of Christian antiquity, I intend only to emphasize that the tradition of the first five to six centuries has not been so unanimous in condemning the female priesthood as is usually held.

I consider, moreover, that the time is ripe in the present condition, because the question is going to be faced with a renewed sensibility, also in light of the scholarly progress recorded by the Christian-historical disciplines.

The boundaries of the problem are known; the bibliography are by now very vast; I mention only some names from the last 20-25 years: Van der Meer, Gryson, Galot, Schussler-Fiorenza, Behr, Sigel, Aubert, Militello. A precise status of the question is traced by Sorci (1991). Among the most recent initiatives I cannot do without mentioning the theological, interorthodox Consultation on The Role of Woman in the Church and the question of the Ordination of Women (Rhodes, 1988), and the colloquium Woman and Ministry: an Ecumenical Problem, held in Palermo in 1989, the Acts of which appeared in March, 1991, edited by Cettina Militello. The conclusions of the interorthodox Consultation of Rhodes confirmed the conviction that the priesthood has a “masculine character”, while the Palermian Colloquium made clear more diverse and practicable positions.

Both the opponents and the supporters of the admission of women to the priesthood have turned to the ancient world with various motives and with disparate results. Here too the Magisterium [i.e., the official teaching of the Church] has once more found reasons for its traditional opposition to conferring Orders on women: 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.

On the other hand, those of opposing views also point to ancient Christianity. They argue cogently that the official position of the Church is the consequence of a view of society completely founded upon ancient culture and difficult for modern scholars to accept. Such a cultural perception reflects the inferior status of women obvious in the Greek and Roman world, especially in the area where Christianity arose.

These basic views contain various arguments that need not be mentioned here.

The opponents of the female priesthood emphasize that women in the ancient Church never exercised sacerdotal ministry, and the only agreed function of women from the end of the third century in the context of the community, was the diaconate in the Orient, except in Egypt.

But very recently, in a discussion with my bollandist friend Ugo Zanetti, the editor of Coptic texts, I again proposed the problem of the existence of a female diaconate in Egypt. His conclusions, published in a brief note in Vetera Christianorum 1990, have once again opened the discussion and called into question the affirmation that the female diaconate was not present in Egypt.

An ancient Coptic prayer of commemoration for the departed reads: “...Remember the bishops, the priests, the deacons, the subdeacons, the readers, the monks, the gatekeepers, the exorcists, the continent, the women who exercise the diaconate, the eunuchs, the virgins, the widows...”

Zanetti’s translation correctly recovers the significance of the Coptic verb ‘diakonein’ referring to the women, for whom he theorizes a true and proper diaconal service.

It is also interesting to note that in the prayer, all the grades of the hierarchy are mentioned, sacramental and non- sacramental.

In conclusion, Zanetti, on the basis of other testimonies as well, concludes that the female diaconate was present also in Egypt.

The institution of the female diaconate did not go beyond the confines of the Orient [i.e., the East, comprising Syria, Palestine, frontier regions on either side of the Euphrates, Mesopotamia, Roman Armenia, and Cilicia-Isauria], and the attempts made in the fourth and fifth centuries to introduce it to the Occident had not practically succeeded. This conclusion is correct only in a very general sense, but it does not take serious account of some incidents and phenomena that throw light on the question of the admission of women to the priesthood, a problem that has remained quite a lively one from the early Christian centuries [2nd to late 5th centuries C.E.]. (Sorci, 1991).

Of particular value among this evidence is something found in an epistle of Gelasius I (492-496), which has been inadequately evaluated by scholars until now.

Gelasius in 494 sent a long and interesting epistle..."to all episcopates established in Lucania [modern Basilicata], Bruttium [modern Calabria]—ankle and toe of Italy—and Sicilia [modern Sicily]." This epistle contained twenty-seven decrees, of which four were concerned with the presence of women in the context of the Christian communities: XII concerns the consecration of virgins; XIII and XXI concern the prohibition against the veiling of widows; and XXVI is the most interesting one to us, since it explicitly confronts the problem of the priesthood of women:

Nihilominus impatienter audivimus, tantum divinarum rerum subisse despectum, ut feminae sacris altaribus ministrare firmentur, cunctaque non nisi virorum famulatui deputata sexum, cui non competunt, exhibere.

[‘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.’]

In this expression ‘cuncta’ comprises all the attributes of the male services: liturgical, juridical, and magisterial. The functions exercised by women at the altars, therefore, can refer only to the administration of the sacraments, to the liturgical service, and to the public and official announcement of the evangelical message, all of which comprise the duties of ministerial priesthood.

In my article I believe that I have demonstrated that the abuse deplored by Gelasius was practically permitted by some bishops who, trangressing the Christian rule, had conferred priestly ordination on some representatives of the female sex. The Pope, without specifying the Scriptural or theological foundations for rejecting the admission of women to the priesthood, condemns very harshly the conduct of these bishops, referring often to tradition and to the canons.

The canons to which Gelasius was probably referring were XIX of the council of Nicaea, XI and XLIV of the council of Laodicea (2nd half of the fourth century), II of the council of Nimes (394 or 396), XXV of the first council of Orange (441), which prohibit women from participating in the liturgical service in any way, or from being a member of the clergy.

By this epistle, Gelasius probably intended to address problems that were not exclusive to the regions mentioned (Lucania, Bruttium, Sicily). Such epistles were bound to circulate in all the communities and constituted for the hierarchy a kind of handbook for dealing with internal problems of disciplinary, doctrinal, or organizational matters.

In sum, we may infer from an analysis of Gelasius’ epistle that at the end of the fifth century, some women, having been ordained by bishops, were exercising a true and proper ministerial priesthood in a vast area of southern Italy.

The phenomenon deplored in the West by Gelasius was not unique in the ancient Church.

In the Orient, in Asia Minor, in Gnostic and Montanist settings in particular, records of women with the functions of presbyters or of bishops, which the Church had condemned, have been found up to the second century. (Tertullian, Ambrosiaster, Epiphanius) Irenaeus states that the Valentinian Gnostic Marcus surrounded himself with women whom he allowed in his presence to consecrate chalices containing wine. (Adv. haer. 1, 13, 2). Firmilian of Cesarea [in Asia Minor], in an epistle to Cyprian around 235, harshly condemns the activity of a woman who was attracting a large number of believers and who was baptizing and celebrating the Eucharist according to the ritual of the Church. (EP. 75, 10). Epiphanius of Salamis similarly condemns seven other Montanists of Phrygia who permitted women access to the priesthood and to the episcopate. (Pan. 49, 2, 2-6).

According to a tradition recorded by the same Epiphanius, Christ had appeared to the Montanist prophet Quintilla ‘en idea gunaikos’, that is, in the guise of a woman in order to inspire her (Pan. 49, 1, 1-3).

Even beyond the heretical context, ancient Christianity seems to have sometimes attributed the priestly rank to woman, in reference to some prerogatives that were proper and exclusive to the Holy Order. For example, the the De Verginitate, a work of the fourth century attributed to Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria,, it is stated that “...in the kingdom of heaven there is neither male nor female, but all the women who were well received by the Lord achieve the rank of men” (PG 28, 264); and further on 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 seem capable of symbolizing a eucharistic concelebration, even if one is obliged to recall that in Athanasius’ time in Alexandria the celebratiuon of the eucharist was done according to a ritual more complicated than that mentioned in the De Verginitate.

In Greek and Byzantine areas, from the third century, women exercised the diaconate; at the end of the fourth century, women were equated with male clerics, since, like the male clerics, women received ordination by the laying on of hands, according to a precise ritual, with precise obligations and juridical conditions. (Vagaggini 1974; Ferrari 1974; Martimort 1982). Morevover, it might have been just these surroundings, which southern Italy has always regarded with interest, that might favor the rise of the phenomenon of the woman-priest in the south of Italy.

The presence of women priests [‘presbyterae’] in Bruzio is attested by an inscription which refers to Leta the presbytera: the epitaph, dated in the middle of the fifth century (Ferrua 1955), comes from a sepulchral area of Tropea, in Calabria (Buonocore 1987). In the term ‘presbytera’ one should see, I think, a true and proper female priest, and not the wife of a male priest, as all the other scholars have held (De Rossi 1877; Crispo 1945; Ferrua 1955; Craco Ruggini 1989), on the impulse of a Catholic historiographic tradition that has never made any concession to the female priesthood.

It must be said, however, that in an inscription found on the Ostian Way in Rome, ‘presbytera’ recurs in the sense of ‘wife of a presbyter’ (ICUR 2, 5158).

Another presbytera is recorded in an inscription on a sarcophagus from Salona in Dalmatia; this stone coffin bears the consular date of 425: D(ominis) n(ostris) Thaeodosio co(n)s(ule) XI et Valentiniano/viro nobelissimo (sic) Caes(are). Ego Thaeodo(sius) emi a Fl(avia) Vitalia pr(es)b(ytera) sanc(ta) matro/na auri sol(idis) III. Sub d(ie).... The inscription records the allocation and sale of plots in the Christian communal cemeteries. Such transactions at Rome, a city we know more about, were first carried on by the diggers, and later by overseers and presbyters. The inscription reads that Theodosius had acquired for three golden solids a plot in the cemetery of Salona from the presbytera Flavia Vitalia. Here indeed, then, a presbytera has been invested with an official duty, which from a certain period on was appropriate to a presbyter. Although we are dealing here not with evidence for the sacerdotal ministry of women, nevertheless this type of documentation, to my thinking, testifies to a woman’s official role or function in the Christian community, since contracts of this kind were made directly with such an official: the fossor (‘digger’), the ‘overseer’, or the ‘presbyter’ (in this case the presbytera), and not with the uxor presbyteri (‘wife of the presbyter’).

Yet another attestation comes from Salona [“The ecclesiastical center of Dalmatia, now a ruined city north of Split, ancient Spalato, where Diocletian had a palace in the early 4th c.”—Tr.], on the fragment of a sarcophagus cover, probably from the 5th-6th c., which bears the inscription (sace)rdotae. Such an appellation may well refer to a woman invested, like her countrywoman Flavia Vitalia, with sacerdotal functions.

An inscription coming from Ippona provides further testimony for the existence of a ‘presbiterissa’ (woman priest), probably an ordained woman (L’annee epigraphique 1953).

Addirittura, a venerable woman bishop, is attested in an inscription of 491 or 526, coming from Interamna, now Terni, in central Italy (CIL XI, 4339; Binazzi 1989). A bishop named Theodora is recorded in an inscription of the ninth century in the basilica of St. Prassede in Rome (Brennan 1985). Even in these cases, however, the Catholic historiographic tradition considers ‘episcopa’ as the wife of the bishop (Grossi Gondi 1920; Lanzoni 1927), and such a reading is found also in the canons of diverse councils held in Gaul (modern France, Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands) in the sixth century (Brennan 1985).

Other than the designations for ordained women of episcopa, presbytera, presbiterissa, and sacerdota, inscriptions attest other functions of woman in the surroundings of ancient communities in the Mediterranean basin. For example, an archdeaconess, whose name is not specified, was active in Rome about the middle of the fifth century, perhaps in the basilica of St. Paul on the Via Ostia (ICUR 2, 4839). A century later Anna, deacon or deaconess fulfils a vow together with her brother Dometius, deacon and treasurer of the Roman church (ICUR 2, 4788). Likewise Daciana is a deaconess from Verona, who pronounced many prophecies (Maffei 1749); again Theodora is a deaconess buried in Pavia (northern Italy) in 539 (CIL 5, 6467), while Ausonia, she too a deacon, lived and worked in Dalmatia in the same period (CIL 3, 13845).

In Lipari, in the archipelago of the Aeolians just north of Sicily, an interesting Greek inscription mentions a Proba,gatekeeper of the holy and catholic church (Ferrua 1969). This is a matter of a woman charged with guarding the doors of the church, interpreted in the usual manner as the ‘wife of the gatekeeper’, which position was one of the minor orders. But Proba could be a true and proper ‘ostiaria’ (female gatekeeper), or a female deacon charged with supervising the gates of the church.

At the beginning of the sixth century, not long after the Gelasian epistle, we hear again of women who were actively participating in the liturgy. The case is mentioned in 511 by three bishops of Gaul who sent an epistle to the Breton priests Lovocatus and Catihernus to criticize them for allowing women during eucharistic services to take the chalice in their hands and to distribute the blood of Christ to the people. Severely condemning the actions of these priests, the bishops order them to remember tradition; they further threaten them with banishment from the ecclesiastical community if they continue to be assisted by those women [conhospitae], with whom they were living as well.

From this epistle we infer that these conhospitae were participating in a liturgical service proper not to a presbyter, but rather to a deacon, to whom it was permitted to administer communion.

From Poitiers, also in Gaul, there is a graffito of unknown date, which attests to the participation of a woman in liturgical service: Martia presbyteria/ferit obblata Olebri/o par(iter) et Nepote (CIL 13, 1183). The fact that there had been a desire to record an action performed by Martia during a liturgical celebration would seem to signify not the usual service of the faithful at the moment of the offertory, but rather an act habitually performed by a deacon or by another member of the clergy. It might actually signify a liturgical service analogous to that of the conhospitae who were collaborating with the presbyteri Lovocatus and Catihernus.

At least two other fundamental citations must be highlighted, to my mind, regarding the ordination of women in the sixth century. The first is established from the Novella 6, 6 of Justinian (535), which deals with the function of deaconesses in the ecclesiastical organization of the empire. The diaconate is a role reserved both for men and for women; these women receive ordination from the bishop by means of the laying on of hands. In describing them one speaks of sanctitas (‘holiness’), of sacerdotium (‘priesthood’) [ ], and of access to sacrum ministerium (‘holy ministry’). In conclusion the Justinian Novellas recognize for women deacons rank and prerogatives which belonged to women invested with a true and proper priestly ministry (De Robertis 1990).

We are dealing here with a historical document of enormous importance from the moment that its application within the confines of the Empire were certain to have been general and binding.

The other fundamental documentation emerges from epigraphy (ILCV 1650-1653) and from the Correspondence of Gregory the Great, both o which attest to the existence of diverse abbatissae (‘abbesses’), who, after having been ordained by bishops, became responsible for the governing of female monasteries. Outstanding is the example of Sirica, an Abbess of the monastery of Sts. Lussorio and Gavino at Cagliari in Sardegna, who always refused to put on a monk’s garb and preferred to wear the clothing normally worn by the Sardian presbyterae (‘women priests’) (Reg. ep. 9, 197). It is difficult to establish with certainty whether the term presbyterae in this passage should be construed as ‘ordained women’ (pani Ermini 1985), or rather, as elsewhere in Gregory the Great (Dial. 4, 12), as wives of priests.

The power of abbesses during the Middle Ages increased notably to the point that in some cases they had almost a bishop’s authority over the clergy and the faithful of their territory, determining decisions shared by the ecclesiastical authorities. Canon 75 of the Council of Aquisgrana (789) prohibits from blessing men and from laying on the veil for virgins; and Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) condemned some Spanish abbesses who were blessing their own women monks, hearing their confessions, reading the gospel, and preaching (PL 116, 356). There is a well known case of the Abbey of St. Benedict of Conversano, in Puglia (the so-called monster of Apulia), whose abbess kept almost a bishop’s power over her territory and even others until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The data gathered on the priesthood of women in antiquity are few and meager, and they should not be confused, to my thinking, with those regarding the female diaconate (Sorci 1991). Some data need further elucidation on the basis of iconographical documentation, and such research may call for a more intensive investigation of the problem, just as the epigraphical sources have done, even if this approach is rather tenuous.

For example, there is a very interesting fresco, the so-called scene of the ‘fractio panis’ (‘breaking of the bread’), in the Greek chapel of the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome (beginning of the third century). Around a table there are five men and a veiled woman; on the left a man in a tunic and cloak, with arms held out in front, breaks the eucharistic bread. On the table there is a chalice with two handles, a plate with two fishes, and another with five loaves of bread; at the sides of the table there are seven baskets containing bread, four on the left and three on the right. The scene represents the culminating moment of the eucharistic consecration. But let us return to our discourse.

Although specific attestations of women priests are few, the frequent and always polemical treatment of the question of the admission of women to the priesthood, both in Christian authors and in the Acta of the Councils, leads us to conclude that the cases of women participating in liturgical service must have been more numerous than those attested in the literary and epigraphical testimonies.

All this, despite the lamentable paucity of evidence, and notwithstanding the habitual tirades uttered by those opposed to women priests, points to the following conclusion. Clearly we cannot imagine as monolithic, clearly defined, and universally accepted the tradition assumed by the ancient Church—I mean the whole church, including all the faithful, and not merely the church authorities. On the contrary, the position as defined above was one of continuous development, as a question urgently brought to attention, disputed, and diversely resolved. The tradition became monolithic the moment they condemned all the solutions that in the past were contrary to the ones officially accepted and defended by the Catholic Church. Perhaps one possible influence on the attitude of the Church could be the fact that from the second century some groups, condemned as heretics, admitted women to the priesthood and the episcopate. But the presence of a presbytera does not necessarily connote her heterodoxy or that of the Church in which she lived and performed her ministry.

Specific attestation of the reality of women priests is further provided by Atto, Bishop of Vercelli, who lived between the ninth and tenth centuries, and who was notable for his reforming activities and for his vow against the corruption of the clergy. Among his writings are a canonical tract and a collection of conciliar dispositions pertaining to ecclesiastical organization, sacramental life, and liturgical expression.

A priest named Ambrose came to Atto to ask how the terms presbytera and diacona of the ancient canon ought to be understood. His response leaves no room for doubt. He begins by underlining that since in the ancient Church “Many were the crops and few the laborers” (Mt 9,37; Lc 10,2), women too received the Sacred Orders for the helping of men, as is attested in Rom 16,1: Commendo vobis Phaebem sororem meam, quae est in ministerio Ecclesiae, quae est Cenchris [‘I commend to you my sister Phoebe, who is in the ministry of the Church which is in Cenchrae’]. For Atto, it was the Council of Laodicea (2nd half of the 4th c.) that prohibited the presbyteral ordination of women: Quod Laodicense postmodum prohibet concilium cap.11, cum dicitur: quod non oportet eas quae dicuntur presbyterae vel praesidentes in Ecclesiis ordinari. Much has been written on Canon XI of the Council of Laodicea: ‘It is not allowed for those called presbyterae to be appointed to preside in the church’. Much has been written as well on the significance of the term presbyterae, which has been diversely explained, and it has been systematically argued that it cannot mean true and proper presbyterae. But this argument reflects a viewpoint that has strongly conditioned many scholars.

Atto, after having expanded on the status of the deaconesses, stresses that in the ancient Christian church not only men, but also women were ordained (ordinabantur) and were the leaders of communities (praeerant ecclesiis); they were called presbyterae and they assumed the duty of preaching, directing, and teaching (Hae quae presbyterae dicebantur, praedicandi, iubendi, vel edocendi...officium sumpserant); these three duties define the role of the sacrament of priesthood.

Steeped in the knowledge of the canons and of ecclesiastical institutions, Bishop Atto of Vercelli explains further that the term presbytera could also mean in the ancient world the wife of the presbyter. Of the two meanings, Atto declares that he prefers the first, or ‘priest’.

This statement of Atto is a striking and significant testimony of female priesthood in antiquity. The same testimony has often been purposely ignored, evidently because it was not in line with what seemed the unanimous tradition; such testimony might at least have provoked some doubt. It seems to me that through the centuries, by accident or out of prudence or conformity, there has been a predetermined interpretation of the paucity of testimonies regarding the exercise of sacerdotal ministry by women. In light of the testimony of Atto, we must attempt to recover other testimonies that at first sight appear only as splinters or fragments of history, so that we my be able to reconstruct the most integrated picture possible.

In the past decade there has been a notable increase on all levels of signs of interest in the ‘pianeta-donna’: even the apostolic letter of John Paul II entitled Mulieris dignitatem confirms this interest. The document, although rich in intuitions and reflections that emphasize profound truths regarding the dignity and role of woman in the church and in society, has hammered down the “no” of the hierarchy to the admission of women to the priesthood. Moreover, the apostolic Exhortation, Christafideles laici has made clear that “The necessary condition for assuring the just presence of women in the church and in society is the most penetrating and accurate assessment of the anthropological fundamentals of the male and female condition.”

To my mind, the time is ripe because, along the lines of such an Exhortation, the rationale of everyone can be adequately discussed and thoroughly examined, perhaps in an ‘ad hoc’ council that might reconsider, in an integrated composite the various aspects—biblical, theological, historical, and social—of the whole question. Only in this way will it be possible to avoid the hasty and intemperate vindications that may end by slowing down the necessary changes in the Church of God.

[Translated by Mary Ann Rossi August 26, 1991]

Professor Giorgio Otranto
Via delle Forze Armate, 7

Tel. 080-338446
Email: g.otranto@rettorato.uniba.it or g.otranto@dscc.uniba.it.

Strada San Giacomo, 7 70126 BARI, ITALY

Tel. 080-317908; Fax 080-317918.

Dr. Mary Ann Rossi, email: Letapriest@aol.com.

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