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Does the Spiritual Equality of the Sexes Mean That Women Can Be Priests?. By Dr. Catherine Brown Tkacz. Introduction.

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Does the spiritual equality of the sexes mean that women can be priests l.jpg

Does the Spiritual Equality of the Sexes Mean That Women Can Be Priests?

By Dr. Catherine Brown Tkacz

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  • Jesus gave strong emphasis to the teaching that men and women are spiritually equal. A wealth of evidence shows that he advanced the doctrine of the spiritual equality of the sexes. Full consideration of this will allow then looking at what implication, if any, exists for the popular modern interest in ordaining women as Catholic priests.

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Jesus and Spiritual Equality

  • Genesis had already taught that men and women are both made in the image of God.

  • Jesus gave this doctrine of the spiritual equality of the sexes new emphasis by his actions and by his words.

  • He healed and forgave and loved both men and women.

  • He responded to the intercession of both men and women.

  • His parables and prophecies cite both men and women.

  • He elicited professions of faith from both men and women.

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The Parables

  • In his parables Jesus highlights the spiritual equality of the sexes in two ways.

  • First, he expects everyone to see the personal application in a parable that involves only one sex:

  • Everyone is to see himself in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, for instance, or in the parable of the talents.

  • Second, he often gives pairs of parables, one about a woman, the other about a man.

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Pairs of Parables

  • The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man plants, like leaven that a woman mixes in the dough (Matt. 13:31-33, Luke 13:18-21).

  • Rejoicing over one repentant sinner is like the joy a man leads his friends in when he finds his one lost sheep, or the joy a woman leads her friends in when she has found her one lost coin (Luke 15:4-10).

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  • It was innovative of Jesus to use pairs of sexually balanced examples as often as he did.

  • This is not to say that he always gave a pair of examples; but he did so much more than was usual.

  • Such pairs are “really quite rare” in the Jewish haggadah, according to Jewish scholar Tal Ilan (Mine and Yours are Hers: Retrieving Women’s History from Rabbinic Literature [1997], p. 269).

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Defense of Jesus’ Purpose

  • However, Ilan also doubts the value and historicity of Jesus’ use of paired examples, because some other instances of it can be found in antiquity (p. 272).

  • Her reasoning is not sound, though: Simply because a few other examples can be found does not mean that Jesus must have mindlessly used sexually balanced examples.

  • Moreover, for Christians who believe Jesus was and is God incarnate, it is proper to recognize his words as deliberate.

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Pairs of OT Saints

  • Jesus also gives sexually balanced examples of faith from the Old Testament.

  • Speaking of faith outside the Jews, he cites the widow of Zarephath, to whom Elijah was sent, and then Naaman, whom Eli healed (Luke 4:24-27).

  • Moral authority can reside in both men and women: Jesus prophesies that the Ninevites and the Queen of the South will rise up and condemn those who do not acknowledge Christ (Matt. 12:41-42, Luke 11:29-32).

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Balance of Sexes in Art

  • Briefly looking ahead from the NT, one sees that the Church imitated the Lord in representing both men and women in art.

  • For instance, here is a famous image, the Anastasis (“The Resurrection), showing both Adam and Eve being delivered from Hell.

  • The icon of the “Holy Ancestors” of Christ can be named the “Holy Fathers and Mothers.”

  • Other artworks show both men and women entering heaven, etc.

  • In some churches, half the decoration depicts men and the other half, women.

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Focus on Women

  • Other artworks focus on women.

  • Consider a recent icon, written by Diane Plaskon Koory, which you may have seen on the poster for this talk: the Handmaiden Icon, showing several holy women.

  • The icon was used with the kind permission of Conciliar Press ( It was commissioned for the Chapel of SS. Peter and Paul, of the Midwest Chancery of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, in Toledo.

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Basis for this: Jesus

  • The basis for artists depicting both the balance of the sexes and also the focus on women is the emphasis Our Lord gave to the spiritual equality of the sexes.

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Pairs in Prophecy

  • Jesus’ description of the coming of the Son of Man is rich in male and female examples:

  • The man on the housetop and the man in the field are not to turn back but to remember Lot’s wife. Of two men in bed, only one will be taken; of two women grinding, only one will be taken. Woe to those who give suck in those days (Matt. 24:17-19, 40-41; Luke 17:30-35).

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Spiritual Equality in Art

  • Early Christian art often shows a balanced representation of the sexes.

  • This visually shows forth the spiritual equality of the sexes.

  • For instance, on the Brescia Casket (4th c.) both a man and a woman are shown being healed and a different man and woman are shown being resuscitated.

  • Furthermore, the resuscitations occurred at the intercession of a man and a woman.

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The Brescia Casket, 4th c.

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The woman with the flux of blood

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Left side

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Jairus’ daughter resuscitated

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Right side

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The blind man healed

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Lazarus resuscitated

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Equal agency

  • Consider the events depicted on the Brescia Casket in terms of male and female agency.

  • Both a woman and a man approached Jesus for personal healing, and he gave it.

  • Both a man, Jairus, and two women, Martha and Mary of Bethany, approached Jesus to ask him to heal loved ones who died before Jesus arrived, and Jesus resuscitated them.

  • Clearly both sexes are able 1) to approach the Lord on their own behalf and 2) to intercede for others.

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Forgiveness, Love

  • Jesus forgives the woman taken in adultery (John 8:2-11) and he forgives the paralytic before he heals him (Matt. 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, Luke 5:17-26), although in neither case was Jesus asked for forgiveness.

  • He is reported by John to love all three siblings of Bethany, Lazarus, Mary and Martha (John 11:5).

  • This is further evidence of the spiritual equality of the sexes.

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  • Patricia Ranft, Women and Spiritual Equality in Christian Tradition (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

  • Tkacz, “The Doctrinal Context for Interpreting Women as Types of Christ,” Studia Patristica 40 (2006) 253-57.

  • Tkacz, The Key to the Brescia Casket: Typology and the Early Christian Imagination (Turnhout: Brepols, Notre Dame, 2001), see index.

  • Tkacz, “Jesus and the Spiritual Equality of Women,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars 24.4 (Fall, 2001) 24-29.

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Peter and Martha

  • Critical for tonight’s topic are two professions of faith, one made by Peter after the Bread of Life sermon (John 6:35-60) and the other by Martha of Bethany at the threshold of her brother’s tomb (John 11).

  • Both Peter and Martha affirm their faith at moments of excruciating difficulty.

  • In each case, the Lord elicits a statement of faith.

  • In each case, the Lord responds with an historically important act.

  • These two, quite different acts manifest the iconic complementarity of the sexes.

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Christian Innovation:Women as Types of Christ

  • A striking way of showing that women, equally with men, are called to be holy was introduced in the first century, in the Gospels: interpreting women, alongside men, as types of Christ.

  • Previously only Jewish men, such as Moses and David and Jonah, had been interpreted by the Jews as prefigurations of the Messiah.

  • Then Jesus made himself a model for his followers to imitate, saying that the one who would follow the Lord must take up his cross daily and follow him.

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Gentile and Female Types

  • At once, Gentile and also female types of Christ became appropriate, even necessary. The gentile Melchisedek and the woman Susanna were interpreted as types of Christ in the New Testament.

  • Soon other women gained this role: Jephthah’s daughter, Jairus’ daughter, Judith, the widow of Zarephath, Ruth, and the woman in the parable who finds the lost coin.

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Balanced Pairs of Types

  • Sometimes the early Church presented a male and a female type of Christ together, giving a sexually balanced pair of models for the faithful to imitate.

  • For instance, at Mount Sinai and at the Red Sea one finds a pair of depictions in the sanctuary: Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter.

  • On the Brescia Casket, both Daniel and Susanna are depicted prominently, as types of Christ.

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Bibliography by Tkacz

  • “Typology Today,” New Blackfriars (in press).

  • “’Here Am I, Lord’: Preaching Jephthah’s Daughter as a Type of Christ,” The Downside Review 434 (2006): 21-32.

  • “Aneboesen phonei megalei: Susanna and the Synoptic Passion Narratives,” Gregorianum 87.3 (2006): 449-86.

  • “The Doctrinal Context for Interpreting Women as Types of Christ,” Studia Patristica 40 (2006): 253-57.

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Bibliography, cont’d

  • “Susanna victrix, Christus victor: Lenten Sermons, Typology and the Lectionary,” in Speculum Sermonis, ed. Donavin et al. (Turnhout: Brepols, 2004), pp. 55-79.

  • “Women as Types of Christ: Susanna and Jephthah’s Daughter,” Gregorianum 85.2 (2004): 281-314.

  • “Susanna as a Type of Christ,” Studies in Iconography 21 (1999): 101-53.

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  • Peter: “We have believed and have known that you are the Christ, the Son of God” (John 6:70).

  • Following Peter’s affirmation of faith, the Lord declared him the Rock on which Jesus will build his church.

  • Peter had already been one of the twelve disciples; now his special responsibilities and authority were indicated.

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  • Martha: “Yes, Lord, I know (pisteuo) that you are the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world” (John 11:27).

  • This affirmation is more complete than Peter’s, yet Martha was not one of the twelve, and the Lord did not respond to her profession by making her one.

  • After all the Lord had done to make clear that he emphasizes the spiritual equality of the sexes, it is reasonable to see the difference here as deliberate and purposeful on the part of Jesus.

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Profound Response to Martha

Following Martha’s affirmation of faith, the Lord performed the greatest miracle of his entire ministry: He resuscitated Lazarus.

  • Jairus’ daughter had been dead only a matter of minutes; the son of the widow of Nain had been dead long enough that his body was being taken for burial, but Lazarus had been in the tomb for three days.

  • This miracle was the strongest evidence that Jesus had ever given that he had the power of God, and Jesus performed this miracle in response to a woman’s demonstration of faith.

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Further implications

  • Moreover, this miracle foreshadowed the Lord’s own resurrection, which occurred one week later.

  • Finally, this raising also remains a type of the resurrection of the faithful at the end of time.

  • In light of this, what meaning is in the fact that a woman’s faith prompted the miracle?

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Iconic Complementarity

  • The iconic complementarity of the sexes (to use the words of the late Pope John Paul II) is seen in Peter and Martha here.

  • Peter is a priest, and the Rock of the Church.

  • Martha is pre-eminently one of the faithful: She is a type of the individual soul, and she is also a type of the Church Herself.

  • Spiritually equal, and sharing equally in the universal vocation to holiness, this man and woman also demonstrate dynamically the spiritual mystery of sexual difference.

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The Mystery of the Priesthood

  • In mystery, God reserves the priesthood to those men whom he calls.

  • The original Levitical priesthood was established at the foundation of community worship at Sinai and involved only men descended from Levi.

  • The new priesthood established by Jesus is no longer genetically limited, and it involves God’s calling the priest, but, in mystery, it remains all male.

  • This is shown by Jesus’ deliberate choice of men for the twelve.

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Contrary views

  • Since the Enlightenment, however, and especially in the past fifty years, some have asserted that there are limits to how authoritative Jesus and the Gospels are.

  • If these limits exist, they undercut the basis for believing that the priesthood is all male.

  • Thus, we will look in some detail at this.

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The views

  • Some hold that Jesus was socially limited, that he pragmatically accommodated his actions to what the prevailing culture would accept.

  • Others hold that he was limited in his understanding.

  • Some hold that he was limited in his ability to determine the Gospel record.

  • Some explicitly hold that he was not God and was too unenlightened to value women.

  • Others hold that Jesus had no active influence after his death and that the male disciples misrepresented his ministry and purpose, wrongfully excluding women.

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1. Socially Limited

  • The mildest of these views is that Jesus was limited by the social norms of Jerusalem in the first century.

  • That is, he chose only male disciples because he knew that no one would follow him if he had women among the twelve. With this view, one can still think him God.

  • The assumption is that he always intended that eventually women would be priests and that the time for this has come.

  • However, given all that the Lord did that shocked Jewish sensibilities, and given the prominence he gave to women, it appears that he would have called women to be among the twelve if he had wanted women to be priests.

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2. Intellectually Limited

  • Some modern academics hold that Jesus was personally limited in his understanding.

  • Conveniently, that view allows the critic to improve or correct Jesus, on the assumption that the critic is more enlightened than the Lord.

  • That view is beautifully skewered by C.S. Lewis in the character of the “Episcopal Ghost” in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (1946):

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The “Episcopal Ghost”

  • “People always forget that Jesus (here the Ghost bowed) was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he had lived. … Consider what his mature views would have been. …What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature.”

  • (Lewis, The Great Divorce [1946], ch. 5, end)

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“The Son of Man”

  • The “Episcopal Ghost” is not alone. Jesus is seen as barely average by many scholars: He lacked the intellectual ability and imagination to correlate his actions and thoughts with the Scriptures. For instance, the Gospels record numerous statements attributed to Jesus using the phrase “Son of Man.” Maurice Casey doubts that Jesus actually said any of these sayings because in order to do so he would have had to understand them. – Son of Man, p. 167.

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“The Son of Man,” cont.

  • In a bit of circular reasoning, after Casey discounts the scriptural evidence that Jesus often used the phrase "Son of Man“ (Dan. 7), then Casey asserts that Dan. 7 "was not an important formative influence on the thought of Jesus"; ibid., p. 202.

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Defense of Jesus’ Words

  • Only a minority hold that Jesus was deliberately quoting Daniel and calling himself “the Son of Man.”

  • Raymond E. Brown, S.S., soundly argues that if one holds that “later Christians ‘retrojected’ the phrase onto Jesus, then "one faces two major difficulties: Why was this title so massively retrojected, being placed on Jesus’ lips on a scale far outdistancing the retrojection of ‘the Messiah,’ ‘the Son of God,’ and ‘the Lord’? And if this title was first fashioned by the early church, [not Jesus,] why has it left almost no traces in nonGospel NT literature, something not true of the other titles?” –Death of the Messiah (1994), 507.

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  • Reason suggests that Jesus’ followers were influenced by him and uses his ideas and words.

  • Yet, a "radical principle" used by many biblical scholars is to assume that if "the vocabulary of a saying" in the Gospels is also found in the NT Epistles, then "it cannot safely be attributed to Jesus."

  • Brown notes that "such a principle guarantees deformity in understanding Jesus" (2:1481).

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Bibliography: Son of Man

  • Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Death of the Messiah (1994).

  • Chrys Caragounis, The Son of Man: Vision and Interpretation (1986)

  • Extreme case of limiting Jesus: Maurice Casey, Son of Man: The Interpretation of Daniel 7 (1979)

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Correcting Jesus, revising the priesthood

  • Those who arrogate to themselves the presumed power to correct and edit Jesus can easily make the step to revising what the priesthood should be.

  • It is popular today to attempt to remake the Church on a socially egalitarian model, without regard to grace and the sacraments.

  • However, while the Church is social, it is not merely social, and priesthood is a vocation, not merely a job.

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3. Jesus unable to guide Church

  • Some hold that Jesus was unable to prevent his patriarchal disciples from misrepresenting him and his teaching.

  • For instance, it has been claimed that women were present at the Last Supper, but that the bigoted evangelists suppressed this information.

  • Ultimately, however, this view has to mean that Christianity is invalid. Instead of meaning that women should be priests, it would mean that there is no real priesthood.

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4. Jesus as social product

  • Whereas Lewis’ “Episcopal Ghost” thought Jesus would have discarded his juvenile views, many modern critics simply suggest that he was a social product of late antiquity, and incapable of their enlightened views.

  • Implicit in their thought is that Jesus was just a man. Often implied in their argument is that the Incarnation is a fiction invented by manipulative men like Peter and Paul.

  • Many who claim to seek “the historical Jesus” in fact assume, as an unquestioned article of faith, that Jesus was not God. The “Jesus Seminar” advances and popularizes this unChristian view.

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The Jesus Seminar

  • A group of fewer than 200 academics, mostly associated with Harvard and Claremont, claim the authority to identify as fictitious various parts of the Gospel.

  • They are quite dogmatic about their idiosyncratic beliefs.

  • They reject as “inauthentic” the Gospel records of Jesus’ prophecies, his references to the Old Testament, most of the Our Father, and the accounts of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. Having censored all that is Jewish in Jesus, they find him to be Greco-Roman culturally.

  • They accept as valid gospels sixteen other texts, most written 2-3 centuries after the canonical Gospels.

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Bibliography: Jesus Seminar

  • Philip Jenkins, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

  • Birger A. Pearson, "The Gospel According to the Jesus Seminar," Occasional Papers, 35 (Claremont Graduate School, Institute for Antiquity and Christianity: April, 1996), available online:

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Jesus as bad, patriarchal

  • Kathleen E. Corley of the Jesus Seminar severely criticizes Jesus as patriarchal in her book Women and the Historical Jesus (2002).

  • Poor reasoning and manipulation characterize her study.

  • She uses the Jesus Seminar’s radically truncated Gospels and thus rejects as “inauthentic” many of the actions and words of Jesus concerning women.

  • Where she retains his words, she misrepresents them.

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Corley’s misogynistic Jesus

  • Two examples show her manipulation.

  • First, she treats two parables involving women, the woman who finds the lost coin and the woman who kneads the leaven into the dough (Luke 13:20-21, 15:8-10).

  • These are in fact positive parables, with the women acting successfully.

  • Corley, though, interprets each idiosyncratically:

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Corley’s View

  • “The images of women in these parables are hardly complimentary. One loses a coin worth two days sustenance, … another overproduces bread; the point of the parable is made at each woman’s expense.”

  • (Corley, Women & the Historical Jesus, 57)

  • This is a strained and unusual reading.

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Corley ignores Sexual Balance

  • Note that Corley also fails to treat these parables in the context of the parables Jesus paired with them, namely, the man who sows the mustard seed and the shepherd who finds the lost sheep (Luke 13:18-19, 15:4-7).

  • If the women in the parables are failures, so are the men. Of course, in a fair reading none of them are failures.

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Corley’s scandalous charge

  • Startling is Corley’s assertion that Jesus was guilty of “repeating a gender stereotype that labeled [the women who followed him] ‘whores’” (p. 142, also p. 4).

  • The one piece of evidence Corley offers to support this charge is Matt. 21:31-32.

  • Again Corley is idiosyncratic in how she interprets the passage.

  • Again she ignores comparison with men.

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Matthew 21:31-32, context

  • The context is that the chief priests and Elders have asked Jesus by what authority he teaches, and he has countered by asking them whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men. They deny knowing (vv. 23-27). He then asks, which son did his father’s will, the son who first refuses to serve, but then does, or the one who first says he will, but then does not? The Elders reply that the first son served. Then Jesus makes the statement Corley objects to:

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Matthew 21:31-32

  • “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes (pornai) are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. “

  • First, this passage does not refer to all women who follow Jesus: it refers to some men and women who believed John. Based on this, Corley’s equation of “whore = follower of Jesus” is unreasonable.

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Corley ignores Sexual Balance

  • Second, Jesus has offered a pair of sexually balanced examples of repentant sinners who are redeemed, the male being the tax collectors and the female being the prostitutes.

  • Corley has ignored Jesus’ reference here to men, just as she did in his sexually balanced parables.

  • Only by ignoring this information can she pretend that Jesus is misogynistic.

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5. Disciples ruined the Church

  • Another view, related to ones already mentioned, implies that Jesus had no ability to influence his followers after his death.

  • Specifically, the claim is made that the disciples invalidated their priesthood by running away from the passion, and that the women by remaining faithful became the only proper persons to be priests.

  • This view has a strange reading of the Gospels:

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Arbitrary Selection

  • This view treats part of the Gospels as accurate, namely in reporting that the men ran away and that the women came to the tomb.

  • But it ignores much of the narratives.

  • The Gospels report that the resurrected Lord gave the commission to baptize and the power to forgive sins to the eleven remaining disciples, for instance, and that does not fit this view.

  • This view is based on an immature hermeneutic of accepting some passages because “I like them” and rejecting others because “I don’t like them.”

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Criticisms of Jesus’ Authority

  • The five criticisms that seem to undermine Jesus’ authority have all been shown to fail.

  • This seems to indicate that his selection of men for his new priesthood is valid and ought still to be normative.

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Women, Justice and Priesthood

  • Many fine works have been written addressing the issues and arguments offered to support the idea of ordaining women.

  • Here is a brief bibliography:

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Bibliography: Roman Catholic

  • Benedict Ashley, O.P., Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996).

  • Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption, trans. David Kipp (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988)

  • Francis Martin, The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmann’s, 1994).

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Bibliography: Orthodox

  • God and Gender, a special double-issue of Saint Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37.2-3 (1993).


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Final Case

  • A particular instance of how the Church has shown great respect for the spiritual equality of the sexes is a fitting topic to conclude tonight’s presentation.

  • This phenomenon was created by the Church in order to insure that women could receive the sacraments of life in full, Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, Anointing.

  • The historical circumstances which made it necessary no longer exist, so many people have not even heard of it…

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Eastern Deaconesses

  • The historical phenomenon of female deacons is a striking expression of the Church’s doctrine of the spiritual equality of the sexes.

  • In Semitic and Eastern cultures of extreme modesty, when nude adult baptism was the norm, the Church was concerned to insure that women could receive the full sacraments of baptism and chrismation while preserving their modesty.

  • In the third century the Didascalion attests female deacons, who assisted women in these sacraments

  • Other sources indicate deacons also visited housebound sick women.

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Syrian diaconal abbesses

  • Diaconal abbesses among the Syrian Monophysites had the greatest range of duties assigned to female deacons.

  • If no male clergy was present, the abbess could distribute Communion to the nuns and read the Epistle and Gospel at liturgies attended solely by women.

  • Again, the clear intent is to insure that women are enabled to have as full a sacramental life as possible.

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Limited roles

  • All the documents present deaconesses as having these few, practical sacramental roles, and not the full range of duties of male deacons.

  • It shows how highly the Church esteems women, that it conducted ordinations of women deacons.

  • This occurred in the same liturgy with male deacons, even though it is clear that the scope of duties was never identical.

  • For instance, after the ordinations, the new male deacons would proceed to assist in administering the Eucharist, while the female deacons did not.

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Infant baptism

  • When infant baptism became the norm, the need for female deacons waned and they ceased to be ordained.

  • The documents attesting their ordination have been available in mainstream editions since the nineteenth century.

  • Much of the evidence comes from saints’ Lives, which describe women deacons assisting at baptism.

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Recent claims

  • Recently, Orthodox scholars who are radical feminists have focused on the female deacons of the past.

  • They consider the facts out of context, and treat very slight pieces of evidence idiosyncratically, in order to seem to show that women today ought to be ordained as deacons and all clerical orders.

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NT evidence

  • In the New Testament, the word “servant” (diaconos) is often used, sometimes meaning simply a servant, sometimes meaning a deacon, famously, Stephen.

  • In the same way, in the Gospels the word “disciple” is often used, sometimes meaning in general a follower of Jesus and sometimes meaning one of the twelve.

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  • The feminine form of the word servant (diaconissa) is found twice in the Epistles.

  • It is not clear that the word has a technical meaning here, or what precisely the word implies.

  • Clearly the women in question serve the church, but no details survive.

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Inflated Claims

  • Those who currently want women to be ordained to the priesthood tend to refer to the NT references to deaconesses as if they proved the existence of an established clerical order.

  • That is anachronistic.

  • St. Paul writes of persons of different ages and walks of life, giving instruction in morals for them, but this does not mean that there was a formal “order” of widows, anymore than there were formal “orders” of masters and slaves.

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Ordination Rites

  • The third-century Didascalia and the eighth-century Barberini Codex contain ordination rites for deaconesses.

  • Actual ordination of deaconesses occurred in Constantinople and some parts of Asia Minor, especially Syria.

  • The evidence suggests that the Church so revered the sacraments of Baptism, Chrismation, and Communion, that the women who assisted in administering these rites were themselves ordained to a kind of diaconate.

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“minor order” or “major order”?

  • Valerie Karras argues at length that female deacons were considered a “major order,” along with bishop, priest, and deacon

  • She admits that it is anachronistic to apply the distinction of “minor” and “major orders” to the early Church (“Female Deacons,” p. 290, n. 76, 296).

  • It would be like trying to find in the Gospels every technical term concerning the sacraments or doctrine.

  • However, her purpose is to suggest that women should be priests, and she considers that goal to be advanced by claiming that deaconess was a major order (pace p. 315).

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Amending a single document

  • Critical to her argument is a single text.

  • To make use of it, she also alters the text.

  • That is a very slender base of support.

  • Specifically, Council of Nicaea (in 325), canon 19, “regulated the manner in which Paulinist clergy were to be received into the catholic Church, requiring re-baptism and re-ordination (Karras, “Female Deacons, 287).

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Nicaea on deaconesses

  • Karras continues: “Deaconesses were specifically banned from ordination because, the canon states, ‘since they have received no laying on of hands (cheirothesian tina), [they] are thus to be counted among the laity” (p. 288).

  • Jerome Cotsonis suggests changing the word tina to tines so that the canon would mean: “since some of these women have received no laying on of hands, [they] are thus to be counted among the laity” (p. 289).

  • Introducing this change implies that some deaconesses were ordained by this time.

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Implications of Deaconesses

  • The evidence suggests that the female diaconate arose when there was need to preserve women’s modesty during nude baptism and ceased when the norm became infant baptism.

  • Given that deaconesses never had the full sacramental duties of male deacons, their past existence does not indicate that women today could be ordained to the diaconate, let alone to the priesthood.

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Exaggerated Implications

  • Karras, however, ignores the evident purpose of the female diaconate when she makes her conclusion.

  • She urges that the only reason women deacons did not have duties identical with male deacons was “the Byzantine ideology of the private role of women versus the public role of men”

    • (p. 316; also “Women,” p. 5).

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  • Repeatedly Karras and her supporters deny that her purpose is to argue for the ordination of women to the priesthood.

  • However, she suggests that since deaconesses did so much when there was an “ideological” limit on them, “what might we do … in the 21st century?” (“Women,” p. 5).

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Parallel with Jesus Seminar

  • Intriguingly, Karras and the advocates of the Jesus Seminar make some of the same logical errors:

  • They exaggerate how old the evidence is.

  • They exaggerate the implications of the evidence.

  • In each case, they are seeking to remake the Church in their own image.

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  • Jerome Cotsonis, “A Contribution to he 10th Canon of the First Ecumenical Council,” Revue des etudes byzantines 19(1961) 190ff.

  • Valerie A. Karras, “Female Deacons in the Byzantine Church,” Church History 73.2 (Summer 2004).

  • Karras, “Women in the Byzantine Liturgy,” public lecture, Pittsburgh, May 8, 2006. On CD.

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  • Jesus gave a new emphasis to the spiritual equality of the sexes, and his followers embraced this doctrine.

  • Women have always had equal access to the sacraments of life—baptism, chrismation (confirmation), anointing, Eucharist– even when the Church had to create female deacons to insure that women had this access.

  • At the same time, in mystery, Christ’s new priesthood remains reserved to men whom God calls.

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  • The very fact that Jesus and the early Church gave such impressive emphasis to the spiritual equality of the sexes highlights the fact that Our Lord’s selection of men and only men for the twelve was His free choice, not a culturally conditioned mistake that has to be corrected now.

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Four Suggestionsfor negotiating controversy

  • In class work and in conversations, keep four thoughts in mind when treating scholarship--

  • 1) To report is not the same as to affirm.

  • 2) Quote your sources.

  • 3) Creatively avoid false dichotomies.

  • 4) If Christian, keep in mind the goal…

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  • Our goal is to understand and to grow in knowledge, to seek to live in the communion of saints, while recognizing that some who are to be saints do not yet believe in sanctity.

  • Believing that every human person is called to be holy, we are to live and conduct our conversations in such a way as to help each other to be holy.

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  • We are each of us, male and female, young and old, called by our Creator to be saintly, heavenly -- to become living images of God.

  • That is the universal vocation to holiness.

  • The vocation to the Catholic priesthood is, in mystery, reserved to men whom God calls.

  • In our spiritual equality, however, every one of us is called to be holy.

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Additional Bibliography

  • For a comprehensive summary of traditions concerning women in the Church, see the following:

  • Tkacz, “Women and the Church in the New Millennium,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly (in press).

  • The chapter on “Women in the Church” in Tkacz, Theological Reflections on the Ruthenian Liturgy in English: Language, Women, and Worship (Pittsburgh: Stauropegion Press, in press).

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Additional Bibliography

  • On the importance of women’s words in the liturgy and in the prayer life of the faithful, see also:

  • C. B. Tkacz, “Singing Women’s Words as Sacramental Mimesis,” Recherches de Theologie et Philosophie Medievales 70.2 (2003): 275-328.

  • _______, “Reproductive Science and the Incarnation,” Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 25.4 (2001) 11-25.

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