Part Six: The Witness of the Magisterium and the Early Church

The following is the sixth in a seven-part series.

Those familiar with the history of the Catholic Church will know that it often happens that the pope and the bishops have to act to define or secure an aspect of the Catholic faith that has come under fire.

A doctrine or practice attested at least implicitly in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, something that was a part of the ancient consensus of the faithful from the beginning, can be called into question, watered-down, or distorted. Then the pope, if he is faithful to his office, may have to act decisively to restore the historic faith of the Church. He may even have to do so in the face of a divided Catholic community - even a divided College of Bishops! He may have to insist absolutely, with the fullness of the supreme authority granted to him as the Successor of St. Peter, Rock of the Church, and Vicar of Christ, that the Church remain faithful to the truth that came down to us from the apostles, and unfolded in the Sacred Tradition of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

For example, in the fifth century AD Pope St. Leo the Great faced a Catholic population and episcopate that was bitterly divided over the question of who Jesus Christ really was. In his great work called The Tome, Pope St. Leo absolutely insisted, with the fullness of his Petrine authority, that Jesus was and is the divine Son of God dwelling among us as a fully human being. In other words, Pope Leo acted to clarify and protect the apostolic faith. In fact, he insisted that the hundreds of bishops present at an ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, compose a new definition of faith that conformed to his teaching.

Even after that Council, much rancor and in-fighting continued over this subject (heretics, after all, are not known for instantly or humbly submitting to ecclesiastical authority!). Nevertheless, in the end, the matter was settled, and the mainstream of the Catholic Church, the consensus of the faithful, returned to the historic faith in the full divinity and full humanity of our Savior.

On the issue of who may be ordained to the priesthood, the papacy has again acted clearly and decisively to restore the historic belief and practice of the Church. The popes who did this - especially Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II - did not actually make a new, solemn, infallible definition on the subject. Rather, what they did was to proclaim, and leave no room for doubt, that the truth on this matter had always been infallibly taught by the Church in the ordinary way, that is, through the exercise of what the Church calls the infallible, ordinary magisterium.

Some Catholics may be confused about this, because they may have been taught that the Church only speaks infallibly when the pope issues an extraordinary ex cathedra definition of faith, or an ecumenical council (with the approval of the pope) does the same. For example, the popes defined the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary ex cathedra, declaring them divinely revealed truths that all Catholics are duty-bound to accept. Many Catholics have never even heard that there is something called the infallible ordinary magisterium of the Church. But this is actually the normal way that the Church teaches the faith with infallible, completely trustworthy authority.

Ex cathedra definitions by popes, and solemn decrees of ecumenical councils are actually very rare. But day in day out, the Catholic Church teaches infallibly in the ordinary way when the pope and the bishops, although scattered around the world, proclaim the same doctrine of faith or morals as certain, revealed truth from God. Such a consensus could only be the product of the Holy Spirit living in the universal Church, "the Spirit of truth" as Christ called Him. The Holy Spirit, who never ceases to give life and light to Christ's Body on earth, the Catholic Church, would never lead the pope and the bishops to teach one thing, implicitly or explicitly, from the beginning and for many centuries, only to call them to teach precisely the opposite a few centuries later. After all, the Church is "the pillar and bulwark of the truth," according to the New Testament (I Tim 3:15), in fulfilment of Jesus' promise: "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32). A Church that contradicts herself from one generation to the next on matters of faith and morals is hardly much of a pillar and bulwark!

Let's look at the issue of the ordination of women in this regard. The Vatican has officially declared that it is simply not possible for the Catholic Church to ordain women to the priesthood. Moreover, Rome has declared that this has always been an infallible teaching of the Church's universal, ordinary magisterium. In other words, it was not something solemnly defined for all time by any single papal or conciliar decree. Rather, it was something believed and taught as certain and definitive, and universally practiced as essential to the constitution of the Church and the priesthood, by popes and bishops scattered throughout the world, and by the general consensus of the saints from the beginning.

Was the Vatican right about this? Let's look at the historical evidence.

It is a common misconception that the issue of the ordination of women is a new issue, that only now, in our enlightened and egalitarian age, have we been able to slough off centuries of patriarchal attitudes and finally conceive of the possibility of welcoming women into positions of leadership in the Church.

The historical truth, however, is very different. The fact is that in the early Church, and even in the Middle Ages, several, otherwise heretical groups admitted women into their priestly ministry. Yet in each case, the mainstream Church decisively rejected this innovation.

Among the early Fathers of the Church, the one who wrote at greatest length on this matter was St. Epiphanius of Salamis. In the fourth century, St. Epiphanius wrote a book titled Against Heresies - and note carefully that title: Heresies. In other words, he wrote against what he believed be distortions of the revealed truth from God. In that work, this learned saint developed several arguments against the ordination of women to the priesthood from Scripture and Tradition. He pointed out, for example, that Jesus Christ chose only men to be apostles, that St. Paul forbade women to lead the Eucharistic assembly for worship, and that if women were meant to be in the Apostolic Ministry, then of all women the Blessed Virgin Mary certainly ought to have been made a priestess.
Two of the greatest of the Fathers of the Church, St. Augustine in the fifth century and St. John Damascene in the eighth, also wrote books titled Against Heresies, in which they made catalogues of the heretical movements and pseudo-Christian teachings of ancient times. In both cases, they included the practice of the ordination of women to the Apostolic Ministry among these groups on their list of "heresies."

The testimony of the early saints and Fathers of the Church on this matter cannot be easily brushed aside on the grounds that the Fathers generally had a low view of women, all too common in the culture of late antiquity. Some did, some didn't. Saint Ambrose gets credit for holding women in the highest esteem, while his protégé, St. Augustine, gets blamed for the worst remark. The whole picture gets blurred by the strange fact that many of the Fathers of the Church contradicted themselves on this subject: at times expressing admiration for the superior moral and spiritual qualities women possess, and at other times making misogynistic remarks.

Manfred Hauke in his well-researched study Women in the Priesthood? finds this double-minded opinion about women expressed in the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, St. Jerome, and St. John Chrysostom. In short, it is almost impossible to generalize about the attitudes of the early saints and Fathers on the dignity of women, given the great variety of confusing and even self-contradictory testimony one finds in their work on the subject. It seems that by the Holy Spirit they were struggling to maintain and develop the apostolic teaching about women in the midst of a declining Roman and barbarian world, a crumbling civilization that was generally negative in its attitudes toward women, human life, and the human body.

In any case, contrary to popular belief today, it was not generally true of the ancient Roman Empire or the early Middle Ages that women were confined solely to the home or to the convent. In fact, in the ancient and early medieval world there were many female rulers, many educated women in charge of schools, and many pagan cults with priestesses as well as priests. In the Byzantine Empire - the Christian Empire of the Eastern Mediterranean - women gradually attained a legal and educational status in many respects equal to that of men. Byzantium had female doctors and lawyers, and on a few occasions the whole empire was ruled by the Byzantine Empress. Nevertheless, even in the relatively egalitarian Christian East, the ordination of women to the episcopate and the priesthood was always forbidden.

Nor was the papacy in the West silent on the subject. In the year 494, Pope St. Gelasius issued the following complaint: "As we have noted with vexation, contempt for divine truths has reached such a level that even women, it is reported, serve at holy altars ...."

Again, notice that the Pope did not object to women's ordination merely on the grounds of custom or propriety (although there is a note of the chauvinism of late antiquity in the way he expresses himself: "even women ...."). His fundamental objection is that women's ordination was a violation of the "divine truth" about the Church and the priesthood - in other words, the truth revealed by God through Jesus Christ.

Next time: The Catholic and Magisterial Tradition: from the Middle Ages to Today

Follow the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2019

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