Ecclesia offers the Eucharist.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 86r.
With the declaration of St. Hildegard of Bingen as the fourth female Doctor (Teacher) of the Church last year, my thoughts have turned repeatedly to the question of how women have exercised teaching and other institutional authority within the Church, and to how the examples of the past might shape the future of the Body of Christ. As western society has moved decisively over the last century to break down the structural inequalities of patriarchy that had for so long held women inferior to men, the silence that the Church still seems to command of women in its own institutional structures deafens ever more with the cries of injustice. Indeed, several commentators noticed the seeming disconnect between Pope Benedict’s canonization and valorization of Hildegard, on the one hand, and the nearly simultaneous criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the other. How can the Church authorize one of her most stridently critical prophetic voices as one of her most important teachers of the faith, and yet continue to bar entry into its modern magisterium to the women who serve that faith today?
The most vocal advocates for women’s equality in the Church today are those who call for their ordination to the priesthood. Despite the fact that one of those advocacy organizations hosts material on Hildegard on their website, however, she explicitly rejected the notion that women could be ordained to the priesthood:
So too those of female sex should not approach the office of My altar; for they are (…) appointed to bear children and diligently nurture them. A woman conceives a child not by herself but through a man, as the ground is plowed not by itself but by a farmer. Therefore, just as the earth cannot plow itself, a woman must not be priest and do the work of consecrating the body and blood of My Son; though she can sing the praise of her Creator, as the earth can receive rain to water its fruits. And as the earth brings forth all fruits, so in Woman the fruit of all good works is perfected. How? Because she can receive the High Priest as Bridegroom. How? A virgin betrothed to My Son will receive Him as Bridegroom, for she has shut her body away from a physical husband; and in her Bridegroom she has the priesthood and all the ministry of My altar, and with Him possesses all its riches. And a widow too can be called a bride of My Son when she rejects a physical husband and flees beneath the wings of My Son’s protection. And as a bridegroom loves his bride with exceeding love, so does My Son sweetly embrace His brides, who for love of chastity eagerly run to Him.Although at first the image of a woman needing a man to be fruitful may strike the modern reader as quite sexist, as Augustine Thompson has shown, this relationship between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church his Bride is, in fact, dynamic and powerful. The father of a child, the farmer plowing the land, and the priest consecrating the Eucharist each offers a singular moment of service that then passes away—but the mother of the child, the tilled earth that brings forth its fruit, and the Church who gives birth to the faithful all work continually in their fertile service and creative ministry. If anything, it is the feminine office of mother, earth, and Church that is the more powerful because it is the more attentive. Furthermore, as Thompson notes, the masculinity of Christ the Bridegroom “does not of itself claim either for him, or for his priests, a position of superiority to the church who is the mother and body of Christ.” Hildegard’s theology of gender demands that the femininity of the Church be balanced by a masculinity in the priesthood, for she understands each gender role to operate in complementarity to the other, rather than in opposition. But the priesthood and its institutional structures are not the sum total of the Body of Christ.
Crucially, Hildegard distinguishes between the priesthood as the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, on the one hand, and other forms of ministry and even authority within the Church, on the other. For example, in the passage quoted above, she affirms the ministry of women in singing the divine praises—and as I have indicated elsewhere, she considered the music of the Divine Office, the Opus Dei or “Work of God”, to be itself sacramental. Her own voice of authority was not presbyteral but prophetic—two charisms in which she saw, in principle, no conflict. The prophet as complement but not replacement for priest has been a role filled by women throughout the history of Christianity; and as the CDF’s Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR pointed out, that prophetic office complements ecclesial life as a grace. Yet problematically, the Vatican seems to drive a wedge between such prophecy and that which is critical of ecclesiastical abuses, declaring the latter a “distortion”, despite the nearly simultaneous declaration of one of the greatest critical prophets of the Middle Ages to a Doctor of the Church.
It is such plain evidence of women actively serving and teaching the Church in her past that forms a critical component of many calls for women’s ordination today. As Gary Macy has chronicled, for her first thousand years (and a bit more), the Church did ordain women—but “ordination” meant something different than it does today. The term evolved in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it was set on the narrower course of today’s practice of Holy Orders: the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy. All three of those orders (ordines) are today defined by their relationship to the sacerdotal character—the ontological change that the sacrament of ordination effects in the ordinand, by which he receives, irrevocably and forevermore, the power in turn to effect the sacraments, and most especially, the sacrament of the Eucharist. In that narrower definition, the teaching of the Church has always maintained a firm commitment that the priesthood is an office specifically and inalterably reserved to men.
For its first millennium, however, the Church was a Body of many different members, of many different ordines (“orders”, or better, “communities”, as Macy succinctly describes them) in which spiritual authority was exercised by men and women alike. The “sacramental” priesthood, i.e. which performed most importantly the Eucharist, was only one of those many ordines, albeit one that all evidence indicates had always been restricted to men. Ordination, then, was a marking out (significatio) or entry into the leadership of an ordo, an order or community of and within the Body of the Christ—and there is abundant evidence, from the New Testament letters forward, of women often fulfilling such leadership roles. Even in its oldest usage, moreover, ordination marked a boundary line between the laity and the clergy, broadly defined. An ordinand ceased to be a lay person, for they now held an office of the Church.
There are many historical cases of various ordines within the Church that were not directly connected to the performance of the sacraments and especially the Eucharist. In addition to the offices of deaconesses, ordained widows, and abbesses, on which Macy focuses and to which we will return in a moment, there is the early medieval conception of sacred kingship. Because they were anointed with chrism (holy oil) at their coronations and “ordained” as the rulers of God’s people, Carolingian kings and German emperors understood themselves to be sacramental representatives of Christ’s Kingship, parallel to the sacerdotal representation of Christ’s Priesthood performed by the priests and bishops of the Church. The great battle between the German emperors and the Church’s popes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was over what role that ordained authority had in the governance of the Church—whose authority was supreme in Christendom? Ultimately, the Pope’s authority in matters ecclesiastical won out, at least in theory, and the concept of kingship as a sacramental order within the Church fell out of favor. Nevertheless, during a time when the Church’s theology of ordination was broader than it is today, kings held a semi-ecclesiastical and ordained office of high authority that did not include the authority to confect the sacraments.
The problem for today’s Church, then, is that the diaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy—the sacerdotal orders, as it were—have become the only ordines invested with any institutional spiritual authority. How can the Church open up channels of authority to women, then, without admitting them to the priesthood? A recovery of a first-millennium situation in which non-priestly ordines also exercised spiritual authority might offer a solution that would both increase the authoritative voices of women within the Church whilst also preserving the specific character of the sacramental priesthood. Any attempt at ressourcement with regards to ordinatio would, however, need to be careful not simply to discard medieval and modern evolutions. That is, we must continue to recognize that ordinatio is not simply the temporal granting of institutional authority; rather, it is a sacrament in the fundamental sense—a spatio-temporal office which is a channel for the specific divine grace that animates and fulfills the authority of the officeholder. The issue, then, is whether the celebration of the Eucharist (the “source and summit” of the spiritual life) is the sine qua non of such sacramental authority; or whether such sacramental authority can be recognized in offices other than the priesthood.
If the former, then the whole quagmire is, for the moment, inescapable. If the latter, however, then I think there could be room to develop a more robust place for women as holders of sacramental authority without necessarily admitting them to the specific order of the priesthood. The revival of the permanent diaconate could potentially pave the way for the revival of deaconesses, since the permanent diaconate breaks the necessary developmental link between deacon and priest.
Another route would be to revive the institutional authority of “mitred abbesses,” as it were, for up until some time in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, abbesses were ordained just as abbots were as the guardians and leaders of the religious communities under their care. Because their institutional authority was once equal, under canon law, to that of a bishop (though of course they were not of the priesthood as are bishops), one could probably make a good argument for allowing them to be voting members of councils. Furthermore, since religious superiors can also be made cardinals, one could even possibly articulate an argument in favor of giving mitred abbesses red hats, though of course they would not be eligible to the Bishopric of Rome. These are all solutions that involve, not an innovation, but a recovery of Church tradition; do not break the consistent link between the confection of the Eucharist and an all-male priesthood; and yet invite women to take up places within the institutional authority structures of the Church. As Hildegard herself said of the order of virgins under her care and from whose ranks the mitred abbess would come, “in her Bridegroom she has the priesthood and all the ministry of My altar, and with Him possesses all its riches.”
Finally, we return to the question of teaching authority and its investment in the magisterium, which for all intents and purposes today is exclusively male. In our recovery of non-sacerdotal yet still sacramental orders in the Church, we might consider establishing the Doctors of the Church as their own ordo that embodies the magisterium—as crucially, women have now been admitted to the Order of Doctors. It is in this order that St. Hildegard has now taken her place as a great teacher of the faith—a sacramental charism of grace that the Lord granted to her, transforming her into a powerful messenger to bring the Gospel to his people.
A follow-up post examining some of these suggestions and their implications in more detail can be read here.
 Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop (Paulist Press, 1990), p. 278. ↩
 Augustine Thompson, “Hildegard of Bingen on Gender and the Priesthood,” Church History 63:3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 349-364, esp. 364. ↩
 See Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 250-4 and 265-71. ↩
 See e.g. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker, eds., Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity (University of California Press, 1998). ↩
 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Doctrinal Assessment” (MS Word doc), April 18, 2012, p. 5. ↩
 See especially Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination (Oxford University Press, 2008). The great strength of Macy's work is to lay out with clarity the evolution of the concepts of ordo and ordinatio. ↩
 Other than a late antique altar and a few other scattered inscriptions discussed by Macy, all references to women celebrating the Eucharist (as with the letter of Pope Gelasius I from 494) are in the negative form of ordering it to be to be stopped. What little evidence there is for women celebrating the Eucharist in late antiquity indicates that it was a marginal and heterodox practice; there is no orthodox historical support for extending the specific ministry of the Eucharist to women. Despite the great methodological strength of Macy's research, his conclusions are often flawed because he fails to distinguish between legitimate manifestations of women ordained to lead ecclesiastical ordines (such as deaconesses, the leaders of widows, and abbesses) and illegitimate ordinations (such as presbyterae [priestesses] and episcopae [female bishops]). Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the twelfth- and thirteenth-century canonists and theologians (with the notable exception of Peter Abelard's defense of abbesses) condemned all female ordinations as illegitimate, precisely because they had narrowed the meaning of ordo to mean only the three orders tied to the priesthood. ↩
 See especially the treatise, “On the Consecration of Bishops and Kings” by the so-called Norman Anonymous, trans. O’Donovan and O’Donovan, eds., From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 100-1625 (William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999), pp. 250-259; and discussion in ch. 3 of Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies; A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton Univ. Press, 1957). ↩
 Its conceptual framework, however, did eventually evolve into the English legal concept of “the King’s two bodies” (see Kantorowicz, as above). ↩