Rome’s Position on Women’s Ordination

The official church does not seem to recognize that women are equal in Christ. In 1976, experts of the Pontifical Biblical Commission determined that there were no scriptural reasons preventing women’s ordination. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith overturned the commission’s judgement and instead wrote its own statement (Inter Insigniores, 1976) stating that women do not image Jesus who was a man; and therefore only male priests can adequately represent Christ.

Rome has closed its ears to objections and dissent from theologians, bishops, scholars and lay people and has told bishops to suppress any more discussion of the issue. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith said bishops should refuse ". . . any support to people who, either as individuals or as groups, defend the priestly ordination of women, whether they do so in the name of progress, of human rights, compassion or for whatever reason it may be" (Letter 1983).

In 1994 John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) stating that the subject of women’s ordination to the priesthood is no longer open to debate. This was followed by Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998) and its official commentary which appears to excommunicate dissenters. However, after an outcry from the people, or perhaps dissent from bishops, the meaning of this latest edict remains somewhat unclear. J. Augustine DiNoia, OP, member of the doctrine committee of the US Conference of Bishops, stated that many are under the mistaken impression that women’s ordination cannot be discussed publicly. To the contrary, DiNoia said, such debates are necessary to a fuller understanding of the gift that ordination is to the church, and would be approved by the Holy Father. (March 1999).

"For Men Only"

The Vatican contends that Jesus did not call any women to be part of the twelve apostles and therefore he established a permanent norm of a male priesthood.

However, Jesus’ not chosing any women as apostles does not mean he deliberately barred them from ever becoming priests. After all he left many aspects of his apostolate to the future church; the writing of the New Testament, or the abolition of slavery, not to mention the full liberation of women which is still in process. The decision not to include women among his twelve apostles says nothing about women as priests except that Jesus, as a Jewish male of his time, knew that the custom and tradition of his day did not allow women to assume leadership roles. By following the prevailing custom Jesus was not precluding a time when women, along with men, could be ordained.

For if women were to be permanently excluded then why not Gentiles? Cultural conditions can change and with them the justification for barring women from the priesthood. The fact that women were not among the twelve does not rule out a day in the (near) future when women will be ordained as priests. Using tradition as a rationale for why a practice does not exist is no proof that it won’t become a reality in the future.

Rome also uses a male priesthood as the norm when it proclaims that women do not image the male Jesus and therefore only ordained men can adequately represent Christ. However, they ignore the fact that the priest is not signifying Christ’s maleness, but rather his role as mediator. Women can, just as truly, signify Christ because they are equal in Christ.

Jesus Established a New Priesthood

Christ made women’s ordination possible when he revoked the Old Testament priesthood of Aaron and brought both men and women into a new convenant; into a new priesthood through baptism.

"All of you are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. All of you who have been baptized in Christ, have clothed yourselves in Christ. Thus there is no longer Jew nor Greek, free nor slave, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3,27-28

Christ abolished the priesthood of the Old Testament, removing any difference between the sacred and the profane. He did away with a priesthood founded on the holiness of certain days, places, objects or priestly lineage. No longer was the temple more holy than the market, or the sabbath the most sacred of days, nor the priest a manifestation of the divine.

Jesus abolished these Old Testament distinctions. He disagreed with the Pharisees about continuing his work on the sabbath. Jesus tells us, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" (Mk 2, 27). When Christ died the Temple curtain, which hid the Holy of Holies, "was torn in two, from top to bottom" (Mk 15,38). The early Christian communities understood the meaning of this. They had no churches or temples. Wherever they gathered as a community they celebrated the Eucharist. However by the fourth century the setting aside of special places of prayer had gradually reappeared .

Likewise, Christ did away with the priesthood as a sacrad tradition. In fact, Old Testament ideas of the priesthood were so foreign to Christ that he never applied the word priest to his followers or himself. He would not have wanted his followers to establish a new sacred group as in Old Testament times. The subsequent growth of a separate clergy class, with its sacred vestments, special status and privileges would have troubled him.

The ordination to the priesthood is a fuller participation in baptism’s sacrificial and prophetic gifts. Christ replaced a priesthood based on the sacred by a priesthood based on grace; a universal priesthood shared by all the baptized. This priesthood is given through the sacrament of baptism, and baptism is the same whether for a man or a woman.

"But It's Always Been That Way"

Rome alleges that the church has always prohibited women from the priesthood. The tradition of not ordaining women was built, however, on theological and cultural beliefs that have been discredited. Just as Rome’s belief in the creation of the universe in six days, or that the earth is the center of the universe are now acknowledged as untrue, so past arguments from tradition only have validity when the church possesses informed knowledge of the issue.

The church’s concept of women was based on what today we know are obvious falsehoods. Whether through ignorance, lies, misogyny or lack of scientific knowledge, the church thought of women as inferior, unclean and sinful creatures lesser in every way than men. For example, the Fathers of the church used obsolete and archaic ideas to support their position that women are inadequate to be ordained, such as the notion that God created women as inferior beings, and that men were superior to women in intelligence and character. Also they used the concept that God subjected women to men as a punishment for original sin and that women were ritually unclean.

Popes made mistakes in the past despite the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They have defended doctrines and practices which have afterwards proven erroneous. Thankfully, many of these errors have been nullified by other popes or councils. Most certainly, further corrections will be forthcoming.

Early Women Priests

Those opposing the ordination of women deny any historical precedent. However, the presence of women in the priestly ministry of the early church has been ignored or denied. Giorgio Otranto, director of the Institute of Classical and Christian Studies, University of Bari, Italy believes evidence of women priests is found in an epistle of Pope Gelasius I (late 5th c). His epistle was sent to bishops in three regions in southern Italy. One of his decrees in this epistle states,

"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."

This Pope condemns very harshly the conduct of bishops who went against certain church canons by conferring priestly ordination on some women. He is probably referring to canons from four councils which took place within a 100 year span starting in the second half of the 4th century; the councils of Nicaea, Laodicea, Nimes and the first council of Orange (441). These church councils prohibited women from participating in the liturgical service in any way, or from being members of the clergy.

Professor Otranto thinks these prohibitions prove just the opposite. "If the church councils banned the ordination of women as priests or deacons that must imply that they really were ordained." Otherwise, why ban them? As Otranto says, "A law is only created to prohibit a practice if that practice is actually taking place – if only in a few communities."

He points to the presence of women priests (presbyterae) in the area of Tropea, in Calabria where there is an inscription from a sepulchre referring to Leta presbytera. It is dated 40 years before Gelasius’ letter, a date and location that indicate she probably was one of the women to whom Gelasius was referring. In the term ‘presbytera’ one should see, Otranto believes, "a true and proper female priest, and not the wife of a male priest, as other scholars have held on the impulse of a Catholic historiographic tradition that has never made any concession to the female priesthood."

Another presbytera is recorded in an inscription on a sarcophagus in Dalmatia and bears the date of 425. The inscription reads that a plot in the cemetery of Salona was purchased from the presbytera Flavia Vitalia. Here a presbytera (female priest) has been invested with an official duty, which from a certain period on was appropriate to a presbyter.

So far fifteen archeological inscriptions have been found that indicate ordained women. Rome maintains these women were ordained by heretical groups.

However, it is known that all of the geographical regions where these inscriptions are found were places with only orthodox Christian communities. None of the heretical groups existed in these areas.

Dorothy Irvin, a theology professor with a doctorate in Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern archaeology, believes she also has found evidence that women were priests and bishops in the early Christianity.


One site she refers to is a mosaic in an ancient church, Santa Praxedis, where four women are depicted, two saints, Mary and a fourth woman with the inscription Theodora Episcopa (Bishop [feminine] Theodora). The pastor of the church says the church was built by Pope Pascal I who was honoring his mother, who was named Theodora, with the title Episcopa because she was the mother of a pope. However, Professor Irvin points out that she is clearly wearing a coif, indicating that she is not married.

To the right:Theodora Episcopa

One Tradition Conveniently Forgotten

Rome asserts that from the beginning of Christianity women have never been ordained as priests. Yet, women were accepted into the diaconate which is a part of Holy Orders. The letters of Paul speak again and again of how Christian communities were led by women who were referred to by the title of diakonos, or, deacon.

• "Phoebe, our sister, who is a servant (diakonos) of the church at Cenchreae. She has often been a helper both to myself and to many others" (Romans 16, 1-2)
• "Greet Prisca and Aquila my fellow workers in Christ Jesus" . . . "Greet Mary who has worked so much among you." In the same way "Tryphaena, Tryphosa and Persis labor in the Lord."(Romans 16,1-16)
• "Evodia and Syntyche who have struggled together with me in the Gospel with Clement and the rest of my fellow-workers." (Philippians 4,2)

In the fifth century the church spelled out the distinct roles of ‘deaconesses’. Councils laid down conditions for their sacramental ordination, e.g., the Ecumenical Councils of Chalcedon and Trullo both speak of the minimum age for the ordination of women deacons as forty.

"Let the canon of our holy God-bearing Fathers be confirmed in this particular also; that a presbyter be not ordained before he is thirty years of age, even if he be a very worthy man, but let him be kept back. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach when he was thirty. In like manner let no deacon be ordained before he is twenty-five, nor a deaconess before she is forty." (Council of Trullo)

Ordination rituals exist confirming that women were ordained into the diaconate. Over twenty women deacons are saints of the church. Holy Orders consists of ordination as a bishop, priest or deacon. Therefore, if women were validly ordained as deacons, they can, likewise, be ordained as priests.

Women deacons existed up until the ninth century. As adult baptisms declined so did the demand for deacons. The important role of women deacons in the early church was gradually forgotten.

Women Priests and Deacons During the Communist Period

The 1948 communist takeover of then Czechoslovakia brought vast social changes. It also brought heavy persecution to Catholics who constituted 66% of a population of 16 million. Thousands of people were imprisoned for practicing their religion. Despite the threat of imprisonment, believers nourished a vibrant faith in an underground church that paralleled the government-controlled parish structure.

Bishop Felix Davidek (1921-1988), a brilliant scholar, linguist and medical doctor, was consecrated with Vatican approval to serve the underground church. When a need for sacramental ministry for women in prison emerged as a serious concern, it was clear that a male priesthood could not answer it. Davidek called a secret Synod composed of bishops, priests and laity to consider the ordination of women.

After heated debate, the decision was made to proceed. On December 28, 1970, Davidek ordained the first woman priest, Ludmila Javorova, who served as Vicar General of the underground diocese for 20 years. In 1991, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague confirmed that up to five or six women were ordained as priests, but only Ludmila has come forward.

Following Vlk's disclosure, a Women's Ordination Conference delegation traveled to Czechoslovakia to find and meet Ludmila. At first, they were warily received, but after hours of deep exchange, were warmly welcomed by her and other representatives of the underground church who had suffered and lived in deep secrecy for so many years. On a second trip in 1996 a WOC delegation invited Ludmila to visit the United States to share her story and to hear stories of American women called to the priesthood.

Bishop Felix Davidek
Ludmila Javorova

Under the auspices of the Women's Ordination Conference, she paid a private two-week visit to the United States late in 1997. She was accompanied by three Slovak women, one of whom, Magdalena Zahorska, served as an ordained deacon in the underground church. Ludmila was able to share with Americans her story and the story of the underground church in Czechoslovakia.

Ludmila's story and that of her community is one of people being church under the most oppressive conditions. Felix Davidek, ordained a priest in 1946, was a man who recognized the danger of the communist takeover to people's spiritual, intellectual and physical lives. He acted immediately, organizing an underground university and seminary. When discovered, he was imprisoned in 1950 for fourteen years. Ludmila said that the very day he was released from prison, Davidek was busy rebuilding the system he had begun. Ludmila, a family friend since childhood, was asked to help make the necessary contacts and to assist in the rebirth of the persecuted church.

"It was an extraordinary time," Ludmila recalls. "You cannot understand. For us it was a question of survival. We feared the church would not survive."

Miraculously, Davidek and the underground church had access to the smuggled documents of Vatican Council II. They built a "church community for the future" as Ludmila put it. It is remarkable that a church under such persecution, which needed to have strict security, was so determined and able to implement a model of church that was open and inclusive. Broad consultation in Synod was the hallmark of the underground church's decision-making process!

Felix Davidek led the underground church from 1970 until 1988, the year of his death with Ludmila Javorova serving as his Vicar General during the same period. She was responsible for communication and keeping the community's records for posterity.

Davidek's death came just one year before the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia. Bishop Jan Blaha took his place as head of the diocese. In 1990, the underground church surfaced. Ludmila felt responsible to communicate to Rome what had been happening during all those underground years. Bishop Blaha alone went to Rome, however, to report on everything.

Ludmila submitted a written report, including the information on all the ordinations, but never received a reply. Ultimately, the ordinations of the women and men were declared invalid by the Vatican and both were forbidden to function, though single men were allowed to be re-ordained and the married men to be re-ordained into the Eastern Rite where marriage is allowed. The women were given no such options. Ludmila accepts that she cannot function as a priest without the official church's mandate, but she clearly maintains the validity of her orders.

Ludmila has committed herself to writing her memoirs. She believes her story and the story of the underground church must be told for the good of all the church.