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'Ordination had no part in early Church': The cultural bias informing Vatican views


Pope John Paul II arrives in Dublin.

Pope John Paul II arrives in Dublin.

Pope John Paul II arrives in Dublin.

There's been controversy about a woman leading a congregation in a liturgical prayer service in her local parish but this is exactly how the early Jesus movement began. Prayers accompanying a meal in memory of Jesus took place in what the scriptural scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza identified as 'House Churches'. And these communal gatherings were frequently led by women. Fiorenza goes on to demonstrate that women were among the most prominent missionaries and leaders in the early Christian movement.

Eucharistic celebration has always been at the heart of Catholic practice. As the numbers of priests decrease, this will become a crisis. Already, in many European countries, prayer services are led by non-ordained members of the community with pre-consecrated hosts. Catholics in Limerick have already been leading liturgies of the Word. In Blessington, in 2012, a nun led the liturgy in the absence of a priest.

The Vatican cites two main reasons why women cannot be ordained: it has elevated the maleness of Christ over the needs of the community. Does this mean that Christ cannot be seen in women? The other reason given is that Jesus ordained only men.

Scriptural evidence reveals Jesus did not ordain anyone. Ordination as we know it today was not a feature of the early Church. Jesus's followers were women and men who formed the first Christian communities. Mary of Magdala was his most significant female disciple. Along with other women, these were the disciples who stayed at the foot of the cross, becoming the first messengers of the resurrection. The early Pauline Church exercised a radical equality of all the baptised where any ministry which contributed to the building of the community was Church ministry. Women such as Phoebe, who went on a mission to the church of Cenchreae, near Corinth, is called a diakonos, Junia was described as " distinguished among the apostles".

Ordination as we know it was not a feature of the early church communities. It was some 300 years later when Christianity and the Roman empire merged that the original Jesus movement became hierarchical and patriarchal.

Cultural biases against women gradually took root, the elders, leading the communities took on increasing authority, especially after the conversion of Constantine and the embrace of the Roman empire. Those early leaders gradually emerged as powerful authorities in the centres of the empire: Rome, the deathplace of Peter and Paul, became a central authority. The centrality of Rome continues to the present day. Only the ordained can determine Church teaching. The radical equality of all the baptised in the early community was replaced with a male-dominated ministry. The maleness of Christ became a definitive requirement for priesthood. And, as theologian Mary Daly has said; "When God is male, then male is God". The exclusion of women from ordination is an absurd limit to impose on God's power to call - who can say God cannot call women to priesthood?

In 1976, a Pontifical Biblical commission established to examine the scriptural evidence of the possible ordination of women concluded in favour of the view that Scripture alone does not exclude the ordination of women and that the Church could ordain women to priesthood without going against God's original intentions.

Ignoring these conclusions, within a few months, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) released a document, Inter Insigniores, where it claimed the Church has no authority to admit women to priestly ordination. This document was published with the approval of Paul VI. Pope John Paul II made a much stronger condemnation of the idea of female ordination in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. He said: "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

John Paul II had wanted this to be "irreformable", an even stronger statement than "definitely held", but this met substantial resistance from significant bishops.

Perhaps, seeing the pastoral needs of the communities they serve, they are not as convinced as John Paul that God requires maleness as essential to priestly ministry.

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In 1995, the CDF released another document saying this teaching demanded "definitive assent".

This early Church was not hierarchical. Ministry was not a function of office but of the gift of the Spirit. There was no ordination. The Leonardo da Vinci fresco portraying the reaction of the guests to the disclosure by Jesus that one of them would betray him seems to have entered the Vatican and public psyche as a definitive statement that Jesus ordained only men. However, as a Passover celebration in remembrance of the Exodus, the liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, women, men and children would have been present.

In response to the shortage of priests, it seems a church of the people is emerging. Is this not a good development, in keeping with the identity of "the people of God" as the church in the Vatican II documents?

Gina Menzies

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