Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Women’s apostolic succession

It is well known that the Vatican, led by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has forbidden the ordination of women in modern times. Less well known is its rationalization for this stance. The institutional answer to the fact of women priests—clearly they exist; we attend liturgies at which they preside—is to argue that they’re not really priests because the sacrament of ordination cannot be performed for a woman and that Jesus intended only men to be ordained. In fact, Jesus of Nazareth ordained no one and he didn’t found the religion of Christianity.

Roman Catholic leaders claim that women have never been ordained. This is false. Most Catholic priests probably are in the dark, but surely the scholars at the Vatican know that women deacons, priests, and bishops existed in the early centuries of Christianity. There's a word for a deliberate falsehood—a lie.

One scholar who has unearthed evidence of the truth is Dorothy Irvin, Catholic theologian and field archaeologist. She presented evidence of women in church ministry on October 9 at the St. Cloud Library.
The ordination of women is part of our Catholic history and theology, says Dr. Irvin. She has worked for over 30 years to find and identify archaeological documentation of women’s ministries, including ordained ministries, in the early church. She reveals,
Whatever the art form of a particular period and culture, women appear as church officeholders in that art form. Whether it is tomb inscriptions, catacomb frescoes, mosaic floors, or even church architecture, women’s names and women’s faces are presented there as deacons, priests, or bishops. Although much of this material was found and published before 1900, it is still not well known today.
Beginning with archaeological evidence of women’s participation as leaders in Jewish worship, her presentation shows women attested by their contemporary communities as ordained and ministering within the episcopal structure of the church, in fact, even as bishops themselves. The photographs she shows are authentic photographs, not artists’ reconstructions.
Irvin states,
I agree with those who are concerned about the shortage of priests today, and I sympathize with those women who are frustrated in their desire to serve in an ordained capacity, but those are not my reasons for supporting the ordination of women. I support it because it is part of our Catholic history and theology, and is called for by the gospel as much as the ordination of men is.
Read more about her WORK HERE and listen to Irvin's scholarly PRESENTATION HERE.
One record of women officeholders in the early Church is a ninth century portrait in Rome honoring WOMEN LEADERS in the Church. Irvin explains:
Inscribed above Theodora is the word Episcopa, with the feminine ending, meaning a bishop who is a woman. Just as contemporary churches, cathedral offices and seminaries frequently display photographs of previous pastors, bishops and rectors; the mosaic at St. Praxedis reveals the succession of female pastors and bishops from Mary of Nazareth though Praxedis and Pudentiana to Theodora. Like her predecessor, St. Praxidis 700 years earlier, Theodora wears an episcopal cross attesting to her service as bishop of the titular church of St. Praxedis.
After 9 years of study in the Near East and at Tübingen University in Germany, Irvin received a pontifical doctorate in theology, with specialization in Old Testament, archaeology, and the Ancient Near East. She has taught at several American universities, including the University of Detroit and Saint Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publishing credits are many:
• the book, Mytharion: the Comparison of Tales from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East (1978).
• articles on biblical and archaeological topics to several books.
• articles for several encyclopedias, including the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East.
• commentaries on the Sunday readings in the entire lectionary cycle for parishes to use in planning Sunday mass.
• most recently, calendars depicting her work on women ministries in the early church, with commentary for each photo. The first five years of calendars, together with articles, book reports, and a Bible study guide, have been re-bound together in the book, The Archaeology of Women’s Traditional Ministries in the Church, also called The Rebound, which can be ordered.

Since 1987 she has been on the staff of the Madaba Plains Project, which excavates in Jordan. There she specializes in linking ancient spinning and weaving tools to the handicrafts of tent-dwelling women today, whom she interviews.

Dr. Irvin is available for illustrated lectures on women in the Bible and early church. Injustice depends on ignorance. Let’s counter injustice in the Church by spreading truthful information.

1 comment:

Florian said...

I did watch the video presentation of Dorothy Irvin that you linked to. She presents evidence that there were women priests in the official church of the past. It is fine if feminists get excited about this evidence, but that doesn't mean that they are now justified in badgering the Vatican into accepting it. Just because we can call something evidence does not mean that it is strong or conclusive. If you imagine being a responsible and objective historian, then you have to admit that you would not judge the evidence to be conclusive or even strong. The evidence is actually terribly weak.

Principally, the evidence is weak because it is only iconographic evidence; you literally have to dig for it. This evidence ought to be supported by literary evidence, which is better evidence because we can read it and therefore easily interpret it. But the literary evidence is massively against the hypothesis that there were ever women priests in the OFFICIAL church. Church officials have condemned the idea of women priests throughout church history. In fact, the best literary evidence for the existence women priests is evidence against the women priest hypothesis: there have been reports of there being women priests, but always by Christian authors who are condemning them.

I am not surprised that the dearth of literary evidence does not phase Jeanette. She can just resort to the feminist conspiracy theories. That is, the victors rewrite history, so the literary evidence has been suppressed, and so we are left only with the iconographic evidence. But here I want to talk about what responsible historians would say, and it would be beneath them to indulge in conspiracy theories. Besides, lack of literary evidence has not stopped feminist revisionist historians before. It is not beneath them to latch on to any scrap of literary evidence, even if it is not really evidence, then spin it as being evidence, and then proclaim that there is literary evidence that official church teaching did allow the ordination of women in the past. That the feminist revisionist historians don't do this shows just how non-existent the literary evidence is.

Then what about the inscriptions of episcopa and prebytera that Irvin mentions? Well, in the video, she did say that some think that these words mean a bishop's or priest's wife, but then she quickly dismisses the idea. Why dismiss it? Probably because it seems like a desperate attempt to explain the iconographic evidence away. But it seems like a legitimate attempt to me. There's nothing wrong with trying to explain it away in this case, because we have to find some way to reconcile it with the opposing literary evidence, which tells us that the Church did not accept women into the priesthood. So, the proper explanation for the episcopa and prebytera appearing in the icons may indeed be one that explains them away.

In fact, this theory that presbytera means presbyter's wife is completely reasonable. It might sound odd to a Western Christian (especially because our priests don't have wives anymore), but, apparently, the Eastern Orthodox Churches are quite familiar with the custom of calling a priest's wife or even a priest's mother by terms that literally translate into the English language as “priestess”. The custom dates back many centuries. So, no matter how many inscriptions of “presbytera” that feminists find, they are not accumulating any evidence. It's all evidence that can be logically explained away.