Women and Church Finding 'Herstory' Margot Patterson, Rome Cover Story: National Catholic Reporter Issue Date: June 22, 2007 -- Christine Schenk A woman leader is shown alongside men in this funerary sarcophagus from the Vatican's Pio Christiani Museum. The museum has many third-and forth-century sarcophagi of early Christians that include depictions of prominent women, some shown in the same teaching positions as Jesus. Finding 'Herstory': Pilgrims in Rome examine women's leadership roles in the early Christian church
By MARGOT PATTERSON Rome T
he second-century fresco in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome shows seven people dining, a chalice and seven baskets before them. The guidebook sold at the catacombs says of the fresco: “The scene represents the eucharistic banquet, as we can clearly see.”
The text doesn’t mention it, but the figures in the fresco appear to be women. If the scene shows the eucharistic banquet, were women presiding at Eucharist in the second century?
Feminist scholars increasingly seem to think so. Greater attention to the role of women in the early Christian church indicates that women played an important role in the growth of Christianity and sometimes acted as hosts or cohosts in the house churches where early Christians met for worship and a communal meal.
Archaeological, epigraphic and textual evidence from the first centuries of Christianity suggest that women not only helped spread the Good News as missionaries, financial supporters and patrons but in some cases served in ministry, acting as deacons, presbyters and even, on occasion, episcopoi
, or overseers, in the new religion.
For the Catholic church, which says the priesthood is reserved for men because Jesus chose only men as his apostles and only men can image Jesus, this is touchy material. For women wanting to become priests in the Catholic church or who want other women to have the opportunity to be ordained, it’s heady stuff. Grist for their cause.
“Right there from the beginning, the early church was gender-balanced,” says Christine Schenk, a Sister of St. Joseph who is executive director of FutureChurch, an organization that advocates the ordination of women and married men in the Catholic church.
In March, FutureChurch sponsored a pilgrimage to Rome to look at evidence of women’s leadership roles in early Christianity. The 13 women and one man who attended were exposed to a crash course in the differences between “herstory” and history. They looked at depictions of women in funerary art; heard about the power of the blood taboo, which Jesus broke when he touched the hemorrhaging woman in the Gospels; toured Christian churches; built on the remains of early house churches; and learned about the influence wealthy women in the Roman Empire exercised in the adoption of Christianity.
Along the way, they were exposed to the ambiguities of history -- both his and hers.
“When you get to the bottom of the well, it’s muddy,” says Janet Tulloch, a cultural historian at the University of Ottawa who accompanied the group and offered daily lectures on what was visited. Scholarly evidence
Tulloch began her PowerPoint presentation on the Catacombs of Priscilla with “Fractio Panis,” the name for the fresco of the seven women at banquet, now one of the most controversial images in early Christian art. From there, Tulloch flashes on the projection screen another fresco from the same catacombs -- this one a picture of a woman, two men and a third male figure. The woman stands upright, her hands outstretched in prayer. Nothing marks the scene as a depiction of the biblical story of Susanna and the elders, but that is how it’s been interpreted. The guidebook notes that another aspect of the same scene is on the opposite wall; “on the right, the perfidious old men place their right hands on Susanna’s head as if accusing her. On the left, Susanna is seen again, this time with another person, and both are in orant stance. This could be interpreted as the scene of Susanna and Daniel giving thanks to God, after her innocence has been proven.” -- Christine Schenk The fresco "Fractio Panis" in the Catacombs of Priscilla shows seven people dining. Scholars are divided about the gender of the participants and whether the figures are sharing Eucharist or simply participating in a funerary meal.
All of this is conjectural, as Tulloch points out. There’s nothing that proves or even particularly suggests that this is the story of Susanna and the elders, except that tradition has had it so. It could equally well be scenes from an actual woman’s life. Scholar Nicola Denzey has suggested that the painting of a woman with two men’s hands upon her head may show the ordination of a female deacon.
Tulloch doesn’t take a position one way or the other. She’s skeptical of the view that it is a scene of Susanna and the elders and likes Denzey’s reading of the scene but is more persuaded by another scholarly interpretation that describes the scene as a woman being shamed.
Throughout the trip, Tulloch and Schenk provide complementary and sometimes different takes on the topics under discussion. In the Church of St. Praxedis, Schenk points to the beautiful ninth-century mosaic of St. Theodora with the word episcopa
written above her and says the female bishop appears beside images of Mary of Nazareth and Sts. Praxedis and Pudentiana in a female version of apostolic succession. Tulloch looks doubtful and suggests that Theodora may be shown beside Mary of Nazareth and the two female saints simply to associate her with other holy women.
Tulloch is more convinced of Christian women serving as co-ministers in Rome, either brother-sister duos or husband and wife pairs. She mentions references in the New Testament, a fresco in the Catacombs of Callixtus, banquet scenes from the fourth-century Catacombs of Sts. Marcellino and Pietro showing mutual blessings, accounts in the early sixth century of chaste unmarried couples in Breton being admonished for living together and jointly serving the Eucharist.
Probably the most compelling and comprehensive evidence for women’s role as officeholders in the early church appears in a book by Sacred Heart Sr. Carolyn Osiek and Kevin Madigan called Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History
. The two met at Catholic Theological Union where they were teaching. Osiek, now a scholar at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, and Madigan, now at Harvard Divinity School, compiled literary and inscriptional evidence of women officeholders and found 61 inscriptions and 40 literary references to female deacons in the Eastern church and four inscriptions and two literary references to female deacons in the Western church.
The larger number of female deacons in the Orthodox church than in the Latin church reverses itself when it comes to the number of female presbyters.
Presbyters, or elders, were the precursors of today’s priests and acted as the bishop’s representative in the countryside in the early centuries of Christianity. Madigan and Osiek found 29 references to women holding the role of presbyter in the Western church (including a reference to a female episcopa
in Rome) and 10 references to women who were presbyters in the Eastern church. -- Christine Schenk The room in which the fresco "Fractio Panis" appears.
The distinction between presbyter and priests points to a key issue that Osiek and Madigan discuss -- the difference between ancient and modern concepts of ordained ministry and clergy. At one time, stewards and widows were considered members of the clergy, but were not ordained. In some cases, deaconesses were ordained but did not have a sacramental role.
The texts Madigan and Osiek present are not themselves controversial. “What is controversial is to what extent this ordained ministry of women went,” Osiek said in an interview.
"Here lies the minister and bride of Christ, Sofia the deacon, a second Phoebe. She fell asleep in peace on the 21st of the month of March ...” -- The Greek inscription found in 1903 on a fourth-century tombstone on the Mount of Olives. The Phoebe referred to is a deacon mentioned by St. Paul in Romans 16.
While some “maximalist” historians might contend that the ordination of women as deacons was integral to the Eastern church, many others would argue that the ordination of deaconesses was restricted and arose to deal with specific needs and circumstances and was neither enduring nor widespread, which to a great degree, Osiek acknowledged, is true. Female deacons ministered to female Christians -- anointing their bodies for baptism and officiating at the ceremony in which adults were immersed nude in water. In an era of greater segregation of the sexes, female deacons paid pastoral visits to sick women and acted as a liaison between women and their bishop and deacons.
By the sixth century, church offices for women were declining. One reason Madigan and Osiek cite in their book is the decline of baptism by immersion and the emergence in its place of infant baptism; female deacons ceased to be necessary. The rise of cultic sacramentalism demanding cultic purity was another factor. Across a variety of cultures, they write, men have excluded women from the sacred because of the fear of contamination associated with menstruation and childbirth. “Cultic purity becomes associated with men; impurity with females.”
Though her work has been taken up by champions of women’s ordination, a cause she supports, Osiek is wary of identifying the case for women’s ordination with the historical evidence of women’s ministry in the early church. “Ordained ministry rises out of needs,” she said. “I think it’s rather dangerous to say you have to have a precedent because if you say if it happened then it can happen now, does that mean if it didn’t happen then, it shouldn’t happen now?” Feminism and Christianity
The FutureChurch pilgrims train flashlights, binoculars and cameras on the mosaics, frescoes and ruins. Not all members of the pilgrimage have come so thoroughly equipped for studying the sights on the tour, but many have. They are keen to see all that they can see, and when Janet Tulloch or Chris Schenk adds to or in a few instances corrects the explanation of the official guide to the sights, the pilgrims hang back. They shine their flashlights in the corridors of the dimly lit catacombs and squint at the frescoes. In the Catacombs of Priscilla, they share an informal liturgy of song and prayer complete with a quasi-eucharistic meal, breaking off morsels of bread from rolls taken from breakfast and serving the bread to each other with a murmured invocation. All of them believe it is high time for the church to ordain women, that there is no good reason why it should not. Some are impressed by the evidence they’re seeing of women’s leadership roles in the early church. But the cause of women’s ordination is important to them on other grounds.
“It’s just wrong to take one segment of the human community and to say that one segment is elevated over another. I don’t need to go back 1,900 years to prove that men and women are equally gifted and able to minister to people equally,” said JoAnn Schwartz, a nurse from Kentucky.
A couple of women feel that they are called to the priesthood. Nancy Fusillo, a nurse practioner in Florida, recounts meeting with her local priest when she was 19 to tell him of her vocation. “I’m sure I’m not the only woman on the planet to have felt that call,” she said. -- Chris Warde-Jones The interior of the Chapel of St. Zeno, covered in ninth-century mosaics commissioned by Pope Paschal I. This view shows the cealing and the left wall, which depicts Sts. Agnes, Prassede and Pudentiana.
The folders given to every member of the FutureChurch pilgrimage bulge with articles about women in the church -- Catherine of Siena; Clare of Assisi; Perpetua and Felicity; and Prisca, the co-worker with Paul who, with her husband, Aquila, founded house churches in Corinth, Ephesus and Rome. Prisca is named six times in the New Testament, and four of the six times her name is mentioned before that of her husband, which is unusual, a signal of her prominence.
Wealthy women were key to the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire just as women of means played an important role in supporting Jesus’ ministry. Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Susanna underwrote Jesus’ mission to Galilee, Schenk pointed out. And it was Jesus’ female followers, not his male apostles, who were at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; it was to them that the resurrected Jesus first appeared.
“Most of us grow up thinking it was just Jesus and 12 men. The deepest and most important part of the proclamation that Jesus is risen was entrusted to women,” said Schenk.
Biblical women have been excised from the lectionary, the approved book of scripture readings used in worship, which is one reason FutureChurch is launching a campaign called “Women and the Word” to coincide with the 2008 world synod of bishops in Rome on preaching. The FutureChurch campaign seeks to give a greater role to women in the readings, to expand women’s preaching opportunities, and to spur the synod to invite women biblical scholars to its meetings.
On the bus to Ostia where the group is going to look at Roman ruins, an old synagogue and a Mithraeum, a temple dedicated to the Persian god of light, to get some idea of the rich syncretic stew that Christianity took root in, I ask Schenk if there is a conflict between feminism and Christianity.
“I think for some people feminism and Christianity are in conflict. For me, my Christianity gives me strength for my feminism. In a lot of ways, I wouldn’t know how to separate them,” Schenk said. Issues of authority
The FutureChurch Rome pilgrims are persuaded by the information they’re been given but are not unanimous in their assessment of it. One woman says she’s “stunned” by the amount of material showing women’s role as deacons, presbyters and bishops in the early church; another says she expected more concrete evidence, less material still in the research stage. A third notes there’s not that much evidence there to look at. Their reactions to the material do not seem that different from the scholarly views of it. -- Chris Warde-Jones Scholars have different view on who this fresco from the Catacombs of Priscilla, traditionally considered to depict Susanna, should be interpreted.
“The general problem in assessing evidence from late antiquity is of course that Christianity was such a localized phenomenon. Thus, what is ‘true’ in one place is not in another, and it makes it difficult to universalize textual and archaeological evidence,” said Charlotte Radler, an assistant professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in California. There is scholarly consensus that there were women deacons in the early church, she said; there is less agreement on how deaconesses were viewed, whether they were ordained or not.
“The $64,000 question is how widespread was this practice?” Philip Rousseau, a professor of early Christian history at The Catholic University of America, said of female ministry in the early church.
“What you’re dealing with is not really priesthood in the sense we understand it. What you’re really dealing with is female authority,” Rousseau said. “There is a party, a body of opinion that is in favor of ordaining women, that is quite anxious to prove that this was the practice of the early church. This is a problematic matter. Why should it matter? If you can argue for it on other grounds, why look for this evidence?”
Like Carolyn Osiek, Rousseau sees contemporary arguments for women’s ordination that invoke historical precedent as questionable, both irrelevant and unconvincing. -- Christine Schenk JoAnn Schwartz and her daughter, Lauren, break bread with the other pilgrims in the Catacombs of Priscilla.
“Trawling one’s net in the rather thin evidence from the second century can be a dubious enterprise,” he said. “The evidence is not precise and focused in the way we want it to be. It’s not objective enough. It’s not plentiful enough. There are some texts that seem to suggest that women are conducting the Eucharist, but are they? Is that what the text says? Even if the texts say that, how representative is that? However sympathetic one is, if one is also honest you have to say there are hints and possibilities, but you’re never going to clinch it.”
Rousseau pointed out that it’s only since the 20th century that society has been willing to contemplate the idea that women command authority equal to men. To look for evidence for it in the second century seems to him “very optimistic indeed.” And he said discussions of women’s ministry in the early church sometimes trivialize the issue.
“The ideal that it all boils down to whether women were priests or not is to narrow the question and by narrowing the question to limit one’s self to a very small body of extremely vague evidence. The larger issues constantly being discussed were about female virtue, about female authority, about female leadership, about purity, chastity, virginity. The complicating matter is that they’re also concerned with the issue of male authority. Does a male virgin command more authority than a married male? The answer often is yes in early Christianity.”
Rousseau noted that the elevation of virginity is tied to the relationship between flesh and spirit, a topic much alive in the Greek philosophical world and one whose influence on Christianity appears as early as the Gospels. “The idea is that the virgin, or at least the chaste person, is subjecting the material side to the spiritual, to the transcendent, to the interior. ... The whole question of virginity was something that concerned men just as much as women. There were more men who had time to worry about these things. It’s connected with what you think virtue is, how you define virtue in the ancient world,” Rousseau said.
From the third century onward, enthusiasm for sexual renunciation intensified, said David Hunter, who holds the Msgr. James A. Supple Chair of Catholic Studies at Iowa State University. An acculturation of Christianity took place in the Roman Empire, Hunter said in an interview, and in reaction to the perception of a decline in Christian standards, some Christians began to look to certain elites who could represent or symbolize the sanctity of the whole community. Both ordained “priests” and celibates -- especially female virgins -- began to exercise this function. -- Chris Warde-Jones Kathy Sheehan and Nancy Fusillo participate in an informal liturgy in the Church of St. Praxedis.
“Because celibacy was so prominent among women in the third and fourth century, there was increasing pressure among men, especially for the clergy, to adopt the same kind of spiritual stature as women had,” Hunter said. “Some of the papal documents from the late fourth century that mention the celibacy requirement are quite explicit about that. They say that if even women are adopting celibacy, if the priest and bishop are exhorting people to celibacy, they should be living that kind of life themselves.”
Today, the valorization of celibacy over marriage that took place in the early centuries of Christianity is no longer true, or at least not as true. The church itself has given greater dignity to marriage, while popular opinion often regards celibacy as either impossible or unnatural. And in an era when women have entered professional fields in great numbers and attained distinction, the argument that they possess less authority is more problematic, at least in the West.
At the same time, clerical authority is under assault today, said Rousseau, who noted that clerical authority is tied to celibacy and as respect for one diminishes so does respect for the other. “Sexuality is a real problem for the Catholic church,” Rousseau said. But there’s a deeper, more fundamental issue, he added. “What’s the theology of authority? Where does authority derive from? What do you expect it to look like? What gives you authority in the Christian community?” Pilgrims on the path
At the last supper together for the FutureChurch Rome pilgrims, Katherine Paul leaned toward me and said she has an idea of how I should begin my article about the trip. Start with St. Egeria, she suggested. “She went seeking, and that’s what we were doing too,” Paul said.
St. Egeria is one of only four women from the time of the early church whose writings are extant. The Spanish nun went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 381 and left an account of her journey to the Holy Land.
In a group of strong, outspoken women, Paul, 62, is among the most forthright. She was a pastoral associate for nine years, a hospice chaplain for two years and in 2000 became a pastoral administrator in Oakley, Mich. New rubrics regarding worship and a new bishop cramped her style and ministry and when in 2005 the bishop said all preaching by laypeople had to cease, Paul resigned as pastor.
“I am a living image of the effects of the misinterpretation of women through all these centuries,” she said.
Her anger and bitterness at leaving a ministry she loved are almost palpable. “I happen to be part of a church that still looks at me primarily in terms of my physical attributes rather than my gifts,” she said.
She compared the church’s attitude to women to someone telling a woman cooking a Thanksgiving meal for her family, “You can do the cleaning, you can do the shopping, you can do the cooking, but as soon as the meal starts: ‘Out of here.’ ”
Now, though, Paul returned to the idea and image of pilgrimage. Every pilgrimage is about two things, she said. Who is God for me, and who am I for God?
The first involves the more spiritual aspect: How is it one understands and interprets God? The second is a more activist side. “What am I to do with this?” is a variant on the question of “Who am I for God?” Paul said.
The more prosaic form of the second question arises in individual conversations with the FutureChurch pilgrims and comes up after dinner at a debriefing session where the group reviewed some of the original expectations and desires they’d discussed their first evening in Rome. They discuss next steps -- if and how members of the tour want to disseminate what they learned about women’s leadership in early Christianity to their churches back home. A few talk about their experience of St. Mary of Magdala’s feast day, a celebration FutureChurch has encouraged. All of it seemed to be about creating openings that women can use to publicize the prominence of women in Christian history and the injustice of their exclusion from leadership.
For this group, the question of who they are for God -- and, just as important, for other women -- seems paramount and clear. The bishops of the church may not be listening to them, but that hardly seems to matter. Convinced of the justice of their cause, they’re determined. What would it mean to ordain women? How would it work logistically? Is ordination feasible in a world where women’s status varies widely from one society to another? These are questions the FutureChurch pilgrims do not ask. There is authority in conviction, and it is in that keen, even blinkered sense of rightness that they draw their strength. Interpreting history Before she became a scholar, Janet Tulloch was an artist working with religious images, the meaning of which she didn’t understand, she said. To do so, she got a master’s degree in religion and sacred art and a doctorate in religious studies. She works today with visual and archaeological evidence, attempting to reconstruct social behavior from artifacts 1,700 years old in some cases. Museums today are full of artifacts that have been catalogued but not interpreted, she said. Much of it is important to women’s history. Tulloch speaks with both passion and precision about her work. Whereas male historians have tended to interpret female figures in the catacombs symbolically, as images of the soul, for instance, Tullochs thinks it is more likely they are depictions of actual women -- that is, family members of the deceased. For one thing, women performed the purification rites in Roman and early Christian society. The dead were thought to be contaminated, and before the ground was broken for burial their bodies had to be purified. Banquets were an important aspect of the funerary rite, which women frequently led. It wasn’t until around the sixth century that priests began officiating at burials. Women in the ancient world could and did command considerable influence depending upon their circumstances. “Wealth trumped gender in the ancient world,” Tulloch said. “One of the reasons why women could get power in the ancient world was if they had money.” -- Margot Patterson National Catholic Reporter, June 22, 2007 Relevant Books:
Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies (Theology) by Ute Eisen Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History
by Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek
When Women Were Priests: Women's Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of Their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity by Karen Jo Torjesen
Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue by Bernadette Brooten