Two points are important to make about the development of leadership roles in the church in the period from the fifth to the 13th centuries.
First, the definition of ordination changed radically during the 12th
Second, women were considered capable of ordination up until
the 13th century.
This having been said, it is important to understand
what ordination meant from the fifth to the 13th centuries.
can we understand what it meant to ordain women during that period.
During the first millennium of Christianity, ordination meant election
by and installation of a person to perform a particular function in a
Christian community. Not only bishops, priests, deacons and subdeacons
but also of porters, lectors, exorcists, acolytes, canons, abbots,
abbesses, kings, queens and empresses were all considered equally
ordained. This makes perfect sense. An ordo (order) was a group
in the church (or society) that had a particular job or vocation. In
fact, any job or vocation was called an "order," and the process by
which one was chosen and designated for that vocation was an
To quote Cardinal Yves Congar, the French Dominican theologian who died
in 1995 at age 91, "Ordination encompassed at the same time election as
its starting point and consecration as its term. But instead of
signifying, as happened from the beginning of the 12th century, the
ceremony in which an individual received a power henceforth possessed in
such a way that it could never be lost, the words ordinare, ordinari, ordinatio signified the fact of being designated and consecrated to take up a certain place, or better a certain function, ordo,
in the community and at its service."
Ordination did not give a person,
for instance, the irrevocable and portable power of consecrating the
bread and wine, or of leading the liturgy, but rather a particular
community would charge a person to play a leadership role within that
community (and only within that community) and he or she would lead the
liturgy because of the leadership role they played within the community.
So any leader of a community would be expected to lead the liturgy.
As the quotation from Congar indicated, only in the 12th and 13th
centuries did theologians and canonists devise, after lengthy debates,
another definition of ordination. According to this definition -- and it
is the one with which we are most familiar today -- ordination granted
the recipient not a position within a community, but a power that a
person can exercise in any community.
The central power that ordination
granted was the power to consecrate the bread and wine at the altar, and
so, over time, ordination was considered to include only those orders
that served at the altar, that is, the orders of priest, deacon and
subdeacon. All of the other earlier orders were no longer considered to
be orders at all.
As a part of this redefinition, women were excluded from all the orders
including that of priest, deacon and subdeacon. In fact, it was taught
and believed, and still is, that women never performed any of the roles
now limited to those three orders.
Under the older definition of order,
however, women played several liturgical and administrative roles now
reserved to deacons, priests and bishops. Evidence from the fourth
through the 11th centuries indicates that a few women led liturgies with
the approval of at least some bishops.
The best surviving example of
this is a stone carving dated between the fourth and sixth centuries and
found near Poitiers, France; it commemorates that "Martia the priest [presbytera]
made the offering together with Olybrius and Nepos."
Scholars who have
studied the carving agree that this inscription refers to Martia as a
minister who celebrated the Eucharist along with two men, Olybrius and
Nepos. That the practice continued is witnessed in a letter of Pope
Gelasius I from 494 that admonished bishops who confirmed women to
minister at the altar.
Pope Zachary also condemned the practice of
allowing women to serve at the altar. The Council of Paris in 829 made
it extremely clear that it was the bishops who were allowing women to
minister at the altar. Women certainly did distribute Communion in the
10th, 11th and perhaps the 12th centuries. Texts for these services
exist in two manuscripts of this period.
All of this changed over roughly a hundred-year period between the end
of the 11th century and the beginning of the 13th. For many different
cultural reasons, women were gradually excluded from ordination.
many roles in the church ceased to be considered as ordained -- most
importantly, abbots and abbesses. Powerful women in religious orders
went from being ordained to laity.
Second, canon lawyers and then
theologians began to debate whether women could be ordained to the
priesthood or diaconate. Several canonists argued, for instance, that
women had once been ordained to the diaconate but now no longer were.
the end of the 12th century, arguments were put forward that women had
never been "really" ordained despite references in canon law to the
Finally, by the beginning of the 13th century, canonists and
theologians argued that women had never been and could never be ordained
since they were physically, mentally and spiritually inferior to men.
One Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus (1266-1308), took a different
Women were the equal of men in all ways, but since Jesus had
never ordained women, the church could not do so. This is, of course,
the position of the magisterium in the present.
Little has changed, then, in the theology of ordination since the 13th
century, when the church structure we have now was first solidified. The
official teaching on the ordination of women dates from about a hundred