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Vatican on Women

by Tim O'Donnell | July 17th, 2010

The Vatican yesterday issued a new set of canon law norms;  MODIFICATIONS MADE IN THE NORMAE DE GRAVIORIBUS DELICTIS

It didn’t really break any new ground or institute any “new laws”.  What it did do however is place the “delict” (violation) of ordaining a woman priest right along side of the delict of a pedophile priest.  It actually states that both the bishop doing the ordination of a woman and the woman herself will be excommunicated and the pedophile priest be “be punished according to the gravity of his crime, not excluding dismissal or deposition“.

Make of that what you will, but is seems that the church still feels more threatened by women than just about any other “threat” out there – even the pedophile priest.

Here are just a few of the things to consider about women and the church:


Any discussion of women’s role in the Catholic Church, and to some extent Christianity at large, must begin with the cultural atmosphere in which Christianity was formed. In the first century, women were seen as inferior to men in all ways, with few rights and little public standing. The Church’s view of women came directly from the views of society and specifically mirrors Roman law, which can be traced back to Greek philosophy.

Roman law granted women no rights, as they were considered men’s property. A man had the right to treat his wife as he wished and dole out punishment in measures of his own choosing. Women could not own property or inherit it. They could not hold public office, be parties to contracts, or be witnesses in court. Women had the same rights as slaves, criminals, minors, and the mentally deficient. According to Roman law and custom, women simply could not be trusted. The rationale for such harsh treatment was the “weakness” and “stupidity” of the gender.

Aristotle, and to a lesser extent Plato, contributed substantially to this attitude. Plato, who lived four hundred years before Jesus, believed women were a “physical degeneration” of human beings.  Aristotle, a student of Plato, took this idea further and taught that women were “defective humans,” “infertile males.” Even Jewish tradition contributed to this prejudice against women through the Adam and Eve narrative, in which Eve is essentially a by-product of Adam and bears responsibility for colluding with the serpent to bring to an end the bliss of Eden. The fall of man, it seems, was a woman’s fault.

The prevailing view in the time when the Christian Church was taking shape was that only a man was fully human, only a man was created in the image of God. Man was believed to be the one responsible for creating new life via his seed. Women were viewed as lesser players in procreation, as they were merely the “field” in which the “seed” was planted; life came from the seed alone, not the medium for the seeds’ growth to fruition.

From common law to science, these beliefs have largely been discredited. Gradually, though not yet universally, women have gained political and social stature in the civilized world, but attitudes and religious custom lag behind in many cultures even today.

The Catholic Church continues to hold firmly to some of the practices, if not the beliefs, that the founders held two thousand years ago. While we could give the founders, or “fathers of the church” a pass for deferring to the prevailing views of their time, the modern Church should be allowed no such rationalization. The Church has other positions that offend modern sensibilities, but, to my mind, none as egregious in all its continuing history.


When Jesus entrusted Mary with the news of the Resurrection, he was behaving counter to convention but true to his own track record. His treatment of women was indeed unusual for his day and time; revolutionary would not be too strong a word. He treated women he encountered during his ministry with respect, dignity, and, most importantly, equality; sometimes his disciples were shocked at the way he interacted with them. He taught women directly, healed them, ate with them, and even had a group of women who traveled with him and his disciples.

Of course Jesus treated Mary, his mother, with the utmost respect, and Mary, his mother was with Jesus until the moment of his death, but another Mary, Mary Magdalene, was found near him throughout most of his ministry as well.

Mary Magdalene may well have been a disciple; almost certainly she was the leader of a group of women who traveled with Jesus and his Apostles: “With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna and several others who provided for them out of their own resources.” (Luke 8:1-3) These women, probably widows, clearly did more than cook; they likely  paid the bills.

This is not the only reference to this group of women who traveled with Jesus. Jesus didn’t exactly rail against attitudes toward women in the culture of his day, but his inclusion of them in every aspect of his ministry would certainly have been controversial. The idea of unmarried women traveling with this group of mostly married men would have raised more than a few eyebrows. Jesus clearly trusted these women and ignored society’s unenlightened view of them.

Jesus also strayed from the Jewish belief that women should not be taught. In the story of Mary and Martha, Martha invites Jesus to her home for a meal and then appeals to Jesus to get her sister Mary (yes, another Mary) to help her. Mary has been sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him preach while Martha prepares the meal. “‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered Martha, ‘Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42)  Jesus asserts in no uncertain terms the right of Mary to learn from him. He goes further to state that nobody can take that right away. He acknowledges her right to choose and defies anyone to overrule her. Mary was at the foot of Jesus and had the right to remain there. Does this right not extend to other women as well? Couldn’t this also mean that a woman has the right to choose a pastoral vocation without anyone denying her the right?

Still not sure? Try another passage.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches one of his most important lessons while conversing with a Samaritan woman he meets at a well in the town of Sychar, a place and a people generally avoided by Jews. She was taboo for many reasons—a five-time widow who at that time was “living in sin” and out retrieving water at a time of day not generally acceptable for women to be doing so—but apparently Jesus was not put off.

In his conversation with this woman, he imparts some of his most important ideas about spirituality. On meeting her, he asks her for a drink of water. She is initially surprised that Jesus, a Jew, would even address a Samaritan woman, and even more shocked as he displays knowledge of her life. It is to her, individually, that he delivers the crucial sermon about “living water,” explaining that one who drinks the water he gives “will never be thirsty again.”

Jesus concludes his message to the Samaritan woman with perhaps one of the single most important parts of his theology: “God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24) Then he confesses to her that he is Christ. The Gospel narrative reports that as his disciples catch up to Jesus, they are surprised to see him speaking to her but not surprised enough to comment: “His disciples returned and were surprised to see him speaking to a woman, though none of them asked, ‘What do you want from her?’ or, ‘Why are you talking to her?’”  The woman then proceeds to tell the rest of the town about her encounter with Jesus and many Samaritans beg Jesus to stay with them. He remains there for two days.

Not only does Jesus defy the cultural norm of not speaking to a strange woman of dubious reputation, he becomes the guest of a theretofore unacceptable class of people. The message of equality could not be clearer. Jesus delivers an important lesson to the Samaritan woman, entrusts her to deliver the message to the rest of her people, and then graciously allows them to host him. The Samaritan woman acts in the most literal way as a disciple or minister of Jesus: she delivers the word and the flesh of Jesus to her people. Is this not the action of a minister of Christ?

The Gospel accounts of both John and Matthew also find Jesus relying on the testimony of women to relay news and instructions to his disciples. “Then Jesus said to them [the women] ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee; they will see me there.” (Matt 28:10) Jesus is clearly utilizing these women as witnesses to the Resurrection: “Go and find the brothers and tell them: ‘I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God.’ So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her.” (John 20:17-18) Isn’t this also the work of a minister of Christ—to spread the news of the risen Lord and how to follow him? According to the Church, this work is reserved for men, but evidently not according to Jesus himself.


And the argument that the Church cannot depart from Jesus’ own recruitment policies contains a major inconsistency. Following the same line of logic, since the men Jesus selected as disciples were all Jewish, only Jewish men should be eligible for the priesthood. So how did the Church adapt its personnel policy to include non-Jewish men as priests? Why were Gentiles acceptable when Jesus clearly chose all Jews? Why did the early leaders take that liberty? Didn’t they expand, or change, the scope of Jesus’ own selection process to be more inclusive? Would Jesus have objected to the inclusion of women as priests?  Is it even reasonable to assume he had intended such a fraternal organization?

The Fathers of the Church took great (and enlightened) initiative in allowing the inclusion of Gentiles; why did they stop at the inclusion of women? Why do they still? Why not adapt to the message of equality that Paul states in Galatians: “You have all clothed yourself in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”(Gal. 3:27-28)


Continuing to deny women the right to be ordained is the single most perilous position the Church can take for its long-term survival. The arguments against ordaining women are severely outdated, the rationale for the status quo is increasingly scanty, and the stance against women is more and more indefensible to the modern mentality. It is a position that prompts the world to view the Church as sexist, chauvinistic, and perhaps even misogynistic.

Ordaining women is the single most important change the Church must make to survive in the future.

From a practical point of view, the dwindling numbers of priests demand it. The danger of driving women, and the children they raise, away from the Church demands it. Plain, impartial, egalitarian morality demands it. It is inevitable. Any well-run organization would be (or should be) reconsidering its recruitment policies.

If the Church is good at anything, it is good at surviving. It may take time, but sooner or later, women will be ordained priests, and the time won’t come a moment too soon. Personally, I find the Church’s treatment of women to be archaic and repugnant. To think that Jesus, if he intended to start a church in the first place, would exclude women from ministering to the souls of mankind seems ludicrous, if not unimaginable. The Church views and treats women with the same respect they were given in society over two thousand years ago. One is hard pressed to find one intelligent argument that favors this status quo.

Thomas Aquinas said: “The male sex is more noble than the female, and for this reason Jesus took human nature in the male sex.”  Aquinas is considered one of the most enlightened theologians in the history of Christianity. Does this statement from such a theological “superstar” merit defense today? Do the leaders of the Church today actually believe this to be true?

The idea that women can’t do the work of priests defies any psychological, spiritual, theological or practical answer one could attempt to put forth. To believe that women would do anything short of making the Church a more loving institution, a more viable choice in the marketplace of religion, and help it fulfill its true mission seems to verge on the phobic.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the historical hard-line positions bound to crumble in the future. We don’t need a crystal ball to see plainly that the Church will not survive forever if it holds to this doctrine. The only obstacle is the hard lines held by men in power. When these men and their hard lines pass the torch to more enlightened and evolutionary leaders, this anachronistic stance toward women will change.

Will it be too late? Maybe.

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