About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Women’s Ordination, Part 2: More Thoughts and Reconsiderations

St. Hildegard of Bingen,
Scivias II.5: Orders of the Church.
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 66r.

After offering an initial set of thoughts in my last post on the possibilities for using ancient notions of ordination to expand the authority of women in today’s Church while also preserving the sacramental reasons for the male priesthood, I had a lively conversation with various friends and colleagues that brought to light several areas of concern, reconsideration, and clarification:

1. An Order of Doctors? The magisteria of bishops and of theologians

My proposal that the Doctors of the Church could be considered an ordo with a corresponding magisterium (teaching authority) raised several issues, some of which will require further clarification by the Church in general. First, there is the fact that, because of the admission requirement of sanctity, all of the officially-proclaimed Doctors of the Church have left this life. While it is certainly true that the Communion of Saints connects the members of Christ’s Body today with all those who have gone before us and are now at rest in the sleep of peace, it is not possible for that Communion, or any subset thereof (like the Doctors), to be active in the life of the Church here and now in the same way as ordines of her living ministers. Specifically, the sacramental authority of an order—that is, authority which is ordained, animated, and effected by divine grace that operates in and transforms the ordinand in their exercise of it—can only be exercised by a member of Christ’s Body living in this world. Thus, it would not be appropriate to say that St. Hildegard of Bingen has been “ordained” in the same way that women today might be ordained.

A second issue concerns the still ambiguous relationship between the magisteria (teaching authority) of theologians—and the Doctors preeminent among them—on the one hand, and the bishops, on the other. The most common use of the term “Magisterium” today refers to the latter authority, that is, to the Church’s institutional teaching authority as exercised by the bishops who compose her hierarchical administration. Yet, the former also exercise a legitimate and powerful teaching authority. Indeed, in Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Letter proclaiming Hildegard a Doctor of the Church, he spoke both of her “authority reaching far beyond the confines of a single epoch or society” (Sec. 1) and of her “magisterium” (Sec. 6).[1] While it is true, at least in theory, that, if both bishop and theologian are authentically inspired by the faith and devoted to its truth, their magisteria ought not to conflict; the realities of human institutions almost ensure that at some point, conflicts will arise. How are such conflicts to be mediated?

This brings us back to the conflicts between the LCWR and the CDF that I used symbolically in my previous post to pose this very question. The latter was certainly accurate in censuring the LCWR when their theological positions were clearly errant—supporting abortion, for example. On the other hand, the CDF appeared to go too far in claiming that all critically prophetic voices are intrinsically aberrant. When the institutional Church has failed, the critical voices of her prophets—who often are women—need to be heard, even when their message is painful and embarrassing. The basic problem today appears to be that a magisterium of the bishops has too often failed to teach and practice Christ’s authentic message—and this failure is no more explicit than in the decades of widespread cover-ups of the sexual abuse of minors. Indeed, when a new round of cover-ups in Europe shook the Church in 2010, Pope Benedict chose to quote St. Hildegard’s words of castigation against the perverted male clergy of Holy Mother Church:

In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1170, I had been lying on my sick-bed for a long time when, fully conscious in body and in mind, I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. Her face shone with exceeding brightness and her gaze was fixed on heaven. She was dressed in a dazzling robe of white silk and draped in a cloak, adorned with stones of great price. On her feet she wore shoes of onyx. But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened. And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, ‘Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!’

And she continued: ‘I lay hidden in the heart of the Father until the Son of Man, who was conceived and born in virginity, poured out his blood. With that same blood as his dowry, he made me his betrothed.

For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.’

And I heard a voice from heaven which said: ‘This image represents the Church. For this reason, O you who see all this and who listen to the word of lament, proclaim it to the priests who are destined to offer guidance and instruction to God’s people and to whom, as to the apostles, it was said: go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15).’[2]

Opening up the closed doors behind which the sins of the clergy are allowed to fester in shadows and secrecy is essential to rooting out this systemic sin that keeps Christ’s wounds open and bleeding, and His Church weeping and forlorn. So long as the relationship between different types of teaching authority in the Church remains unclear and poorly defined, however, it will remain difficult to determine how the often more critical voices of (female) theologians are to act within the institutional Church and her reform.

2. Can women vote in Church councils?

Although the original right of participation in councils was reserved to bishops, ecclesiastics with canonical jurisdiction and authority equivalent to bishops began to participate in the high and later Middle Ages, e.g. cardinal-priests and deacons, mitred abbots of whole orders or congregations of monasteries, and ministers-general of regular, mendicant and monastic orders.[3] Furthermore, at the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which marked the height of conciliarism (the late-medieval development during the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism that invested ultimate ecclesiastical and juridical authority in the council), the doctors of theology and canon law who served as its theological advisors were also allowed to vote—though that voting membership has not been maintained in the modern era. Furthermore, all such theologians had also received clerical ordination of at least some sort, so they were eminently not lay persons under canon law.

The evidence for women’s participation in councils is slim but useful. The Empress Irene convoked the Second Council of Nicaea (nominally counted in the West as the Seventh Ecumenical, and the last recognized by the Anglican Church as ecumenical) together with her son, Constantine VI, in 787 to deal with the iconoclasm controversy. While the Emperor’s authoritative role in early councils is a matter of dispute, by the eighth century, the Empress’ shared authority only extended to the convocation of the council and not to its canonical decisions.

Non-universal councils and synods in early medieval England reveal the most important participation of women in the form of the powerful abbesses of several Anglo-Saxon monasteries. The most famous of these is St. Hilda, whose abbey at Whitby hosted the famous Synod of Whitby in 664, in which was settled the dispute between the Anglo-Saxon King Oswy and his son over whether to follow the Celtic or the Roman dating for Easter—an issue that served as a proxy for the larger of issue of whether to maintain ecclesiastical independence from Rome or to acknowledge her as the preeminent see of Christendom. From what we can gather from Bede’s account, although the principal ecclesiastical actors were the Bishops Colman (who took the Celtic side with King Oswy) and Wilfrid (who sided with Rome together with Oswy’s son, Alchfrid), St. Hilda likely played a key mediating role between the two sides. Modern taxonomies of councils assign to these Anglo-Saxon synods the status of “mixed synods”, as they often dealt with ecclesiastical and secular matters simultaneously—but it is problematic, especially for this period, to try to distinguish the two, as they are often indissolubly intertwined.

The example of St. Hilda, together with the canonical equivalencies between bishops and mitred abbots and ministers general of religious orders, offers us a traditional avenue for opening up future conciliar participation to women not only as advisors but as voting members: the revival of the mitred abbess or ordained governess of a religious order. But to discuss such a possibility, we must deal with a further issue:

3. Sacramental potestas, Juridical potestas, and Canonical mission

As it stands today, the holy orders of priest and bishop come with two types of potestas, or authoritative power: (1) sacramental potestas, by which they perform the sacraments, preeminent among which is the Eucharist; and (2) juridical potestas, by which they govern the institutional Church and administer her laws. It is in the latter power that they are often designated “the hierarchy”. Their teaching authority (magisterium) arises out of both powers: the sacramental power is their unique relationship to the Word, which they manifest not only in preaching the Gospel but in mediating the presence of the Word within the Eucharist; the juridical power is that by which they determine legitimate and illegitimate teachings of the faith, promulgating the former and censuring the latter.[4]

All members of Christ’s Body, however, are called in some way to an apostolate—a mission from Christ to spread the Gospel in word and deed. For the non-sacerdotal religious of the Church, which includes all women who are vowed religious, as well as non-ordained men in monastic and other religious orders, those apostolates are regulated, both by the Rules of their orders and by canon law. Thus, their authority within the Church is administered within the constraints of their canonical missions. It is within those canonical missions, then, that women religious can exercise teaching and preaching authorities, but always in ways that are distinct from their ordained counterparts in the priesthood.

The issue I foresee in maintaining women’s roles as merely canonical missions rather than as actual ordines is that it does nothing to address the power imbalance, for “canonical missions” and apostolates simply do not carry the juridical and institutional heft of major orders. The question thus remains: could the canonical missions of the leaders of religious women be raised again to the juridical potestas of an ordo, without thereby violating the sacramental potestas that properly belongs to the priesthood?

4. Cardinal-Abbesses?

The final issue that my previous post raised concerns the extent to which ordained, mitred abbesses (should such an ordo be revived) could participate in the juridical and canonical structures of the institutional Church. The highest level of this corporate hierarchy is the College of Cardinals, whose canonical status rests upon the idea that they are incardinated as clergy of Rome, and thus are the clerical brothers whom the Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, directly oversees. Today, the College includes many members who also belong to religious orders, and some of them have served as superiors or in other leadership capacities. In addition, the Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life is nominally made a cardinal after taking office. Thus, there is ample precedent for religious superiors to be made cardinals, whether by virtue of their service as bishops or because of their service in the Curia.

The problem with giving mitred abbesses the red hat is that the canonical structure of the College was designed from the very start within a system that had already left the older and wider notion of ordines behind. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the College’s functions were first developed, the canonical status of ordained abbesses had been called into question and the orders of deaconesses and widows had fallen by the wayside (or rather, been absorbed by religious houses), so it has only ever contained the three orders we know today. In light of that, it seems unlikely that there is any room within the revitalization of tradition to admit the leaders of women’s ordines to the College.


The purpose of these ruminations has been to explore ways in which offices of institutional, juridical, administrative, and teaching authority in the Church could be opened up to women. It has become increasingly clear to me as to many others that a hierarchy that is exclusively male has become an unstable and at times corrosive force within the womb of Holy Mother Church, as it perpetuates the patriarchal inequalities and inevitable cover-ups, cabals, and corruptions that fester within a closed system—all the result of sins both personal and systemic.

While the problems seem clear, their solutions seem less so. Many calls for an increased role for women focus on their ordination, but in doing so, they often bypass the inviolable nature of the priesthood as an order limited to men. In thus ignoring or rejecting tradition, they undermine the very nature of the Church whom they are trying to preserve.

Tradition does, however, offer possibilities for reinterpreting the roles of women within the Church by broadening the meaning of ordination to include offices besides the priesthood. These offices and ministries are, by and large, already a part of the canonical missions and apostolates of the Church’s servants every day, but they usually do not have the same cultural, institutional, or juridical authority as the male-only major orders. Revitalizing these ministries as actual ordines, equal in juridical potestas and complementary to—but not in place of—the sacramental potestas of the priesthood, is one avenue that the Church might explore in making the holy voices of her female servants heard.

As the Church seeks to make her way forward today, “subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” (as Benedict put it in February when he declared his intention to renounce the papacy), she should look to the holy women of Scripture—such as Deborah leading the children of Israel as God’s messenger, judge, and warrior; and Mary Magdalene, Christ’s faithful friend and servant—for authentic inspiration. Preeminently, she should look to Mary, the Mother of God, who, as St. Hildegard noted, is herself the model for Holy Mother Church. In all, she should strive to keep the love of Christ before her eyes at all times. Only in imitating and consummating that love, which declared freedom to the slaves of sin whilst being obedient even to death upon the cross, can she live according to her true nature as the Bride of Christ and the Mother of the Faithful. So long as that Christian charity animates her search for the authentic witness to the life of Christ today, her efforts to wash away the filth of sin that clings to the world will not fail.

[1] The terms “authority” (Sec. 1) and “magisterium” (Sec. 6) in the English translation correspond to “auctoritas” (Sec. 1) and “doctrina” (Sec. 6) in the Latin, and to “Ansehen” (Sec. 1, lit. “reputation”) and “Lehre” (Sec. 6, “teaching”) in the German. As I indicate above, the confusion between terms here is emblematic of the confused relationship between various teaching authorities as a whole. 
[2] Quoted in Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, 20 December 2010. The Pope quoted from the version found in PL 197, 269ff, and so the translation differs from that given for Letter 149r to Werner of Kirchheim in The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Vol. II, trans. Joseph L. Baird and Radd K. Ehrman (Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 92-4; their translation is based on the critical edition by L. Van Acker, Epistolarium, Pars II (Brepols, 1992). 
[3] See the entry for “General Councils”, subsection “Composition of general councils”, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908). 
[4] There are also a variety of non-ordained ministries today that were once amongst the “minor orders”, e.g. subdeacon, lector, doorkeeper, etc. As those developed in the course of the late Middle Ages and through the early modern era, they were always directed ultimately towards the “major” holy orders of deacon, priest, and bishop; and they were sacramentally still lay offices, but legally clerical. Though they are no longer ordained ministries, they remain geared towards the priesthood. 

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