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Debunking the ‘tradition argument’ against female ordination

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Ally Kateusz is a research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research. Earlier this year, she published a thought provoking book entitled ‘Mary and Early Christian Women – Hidden Leadership’. It punctures a hole in the Vatican argument against female ordination on the basis of tradition.
In the book, Kateusz shows how early-Christian documents revealing women in leadership positions were later censored to exclude them. She concludes that (i) there was a significant gender role modelled by Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the first phase of the Christian church; (ii) that women who were called apostles evangelised, preached, baptised and performed exorcisms and (iii) that women who presided at the altar table were called president, bishop, priest, presbyter, deacon and minister.
She also outlines the lives of four extraordinary women in the early church – Marianne, Irene, Nino and Thekla.
Nino, for example, baptised 40 women on her missionary journey to Iberia, where she preached and baptised several tribes, including their queen. Thekla was instructed by St Paul to preach and baptise. A later document censored the baptismal part of the instruction.
On July 2, at a conference of the International Society of Biblical Literature, which was held in the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Dr Kateusz outlined her research to the participants. She drew on iconography from ancient Christian art to buttress her argument that, in the early church, women served as deacons, priests and bishops.
One of the artefacts is an ivory reliquary box, kept in the old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, dating from the fifth century. It shows a man and women standing on either side of the altar, each raising a chalice. Two other artefacts – a stone sarcophagus front in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and an ivory hyx in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, dating respectively from the fifth and sixth centuries – demonstrate similar female prominence.
Dr Kateusz believes that these images are significant because they show women and men in parallel roles, their bodies and gestures mirroring one another. She argues that this parallelism indicates their equality in liturgical roles, saying that the images ‘illustrate that early Christian women routinely preformed as clergy in Orthodox churches’. “The art speaks for itself because women are seen at the Church altar in three of the most important churches in Christendom,” she says.
No specific texts about male or female ordination exist for the first seven centuries of Christianity. Female ordination had been prohibited. The artefacts survived because they were buried and dug up in the 20th century. They provide ‘precious windows through which we can see the early Christian Liturgy as it was once performed’.
One of the participants at the conference, Miriam Duignan, was impressed by the research. She commented: “The Vatican will undoubtedly be reluctant to engage with these findings because they have led a campaign to exclude women via the current argument of tradition. But for most Catholics, the research will confirm what they suspected all along – that the ban on female clergy has always been about the silencing and suppression of women and never about the tradition.”