The Meaning of Ordination: How Women Were Gradually Excluded

By Macy, Gary | National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Meaning of Ordination: How Women Were Gradually Excluded


Macy, Gary, National Catholic Reporter


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 century. 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. Only then 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 "ordination."

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. …

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