WIT welcomes Janet O. Antico, a Feminist Catholic & advocate for women’s authority and leadership in the Roman Catholic Church as a guest poster. Janet Antico has a Masters in Theology, Concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies, Drew University (Aug. 2020). 

During Vocations Week, the Women’s Ordination Conference held a campaign to “swarm” our local parishes with letters calling for women to be ordained in the Catholic Church.  One of the responses that I received commended my efforts, but also sought to remind me that Jesus chose only men, and referred to the 1976 Papal Declaration, Inter Insigniores as support. This document argues several reasons why women could not be ordained as priests, with the main one being “tradition”:  it states that according to the Synoptic Gospels and the Book of Acts, Jesus called only men to be his apostles. Emphatically asserted, this was the Vatican’s most important defense to bar women from ordination and positions of authority: the gender of the historical Jesus and his choosing only male apostles. 

First of all, Jesus’ identity as a man in his human capacity does not, and should not, transcend into a “male” Christ. According to the baptismal formula we are all one in God and Christ: “there is no longer male and female” (Gal 3:28). This is even reiterated by the Vatican II Council quoting Paul’s equality from Galatians 3:28 and noting  “…every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s interest.”[1] However, this does not seem to apply to their own hierarchy.

Secondly, did Jesus really only call on the men?  I beg to differ.

Women were there.  Women travelled with Jesus and provided financial support.  Women refused to leave Jesus during his crucifixion.  Women went to the tomb to anoint the body of their friend and teacher.  Women spoke to the risen Christ, were the first to understand its significance, proclaiming the Christological message.  Women were the first witnesses; they were the backbone of this early movement and they saw themselves as shapers of the Church. Women are specifically named in all four canonical gospels, acknowledged in the undisputed Pauline epistles, glimpsed in the Acts of the Apostles, commented on in sermons and literary correspondence, and highlighted in several apocryphal texts.  Historians, theologians, archaeologists, and feminist scholars alike, all attest to the most basic of assumptions: women were present in all forms and all places; as apostles, disciples, deacons, leaders of house churches, and evangelists. 

And there is literary proof of female-centered authority within the early Christian movement.  There are texts that highlight the diversity of thought and beliefs circulating in the late first to early second centuries, with evidence of women representing leadership, sanctioned by Jesus.  For instance, the Pistis Sophia/Belief Wisdom, describes the ascended Jesus’ experience with the divine Feminine, and the audience is twelve apostles, which includes eight men and four women.  Mary the Magdalene is one of the women and is portrayed as the main speaker and interpreter of Jesus’ teachings. 

In the First Apocalypse of James, NH 26:4-10, a non-canonical text included in the Tchacos Codex and found with the Nag Hammadi lost gospels, Christ and James are in a dialogue about his (James’) future suffering and martyrdom.  The twelve male apostles are admonished for their false piety (similar theme in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus reprimands the men for not understanding…), and the seven women disciples are praised.  Christ elevates the status of the women over the men and instructs James to be “persuaded by the testimony of Salome and Mariam and Martha and Arsinoe.”[2] In this text the women are specifically identified as disciples of Jesus, and their wisdom and knowledge is to be followed by James.

Another apocryphal text from Nag Hammadi, The Sophia of Jesus Christ,[3] highlights Mary the Magdalene with a clear role, included as one of seven women and twelve men gathered to hear the savior after the resurrection but before the ascension. She is specifically named in the text and included in the conversation of  Christ’s elevated teachings.

Consistently vilified by theologians and church authorities, these early Christian congregants were deemed heretical, an effective tool to silence the voices of women and those that did not conform to the party platform.  And yet there are comments recorded which insinuate women’s active, influential roles in society and religious groups, a significant threat to those men that sought to maintain control and power.  Tertullian rages, “These heretical women, how bold they are! They dare to teach, to dispute, to perform exorcisms, to promise healing, perhaps even to baptize” (Chapter 41.5).[4] And Augustine laments, “they give such great positions of leadership to women that women even receive the honor of priesthood among them.”[5]  

As time went on, women’s achievements and voices were silenced with man-made edicts against heresy, enforced with canon law. These women worked side by side with the men, something that is only hinted at in the gospels.  However, the apocryphal literature adds substance to the stories that were circulating in the first and second centuries, and carried forward into the third and fourth centuries.  Using these texts we could remind ourselves, our congregations, as well as the Catholic hierarchy that women were vital to the proliferation of the early Christian movement. 

The denial of women’s presence in tradition as defined by the Roman Catholic Church is outrageous.  They use “tradition” as a means to exclude women; I argue that women were indeed part of that tradition, and we need to reclaim it. We need to deconstruct our terminology, our language of God, to highlight and define the holy feminine within the Trinity.  We need to reclaim Sophia as a divine symbol, acknowledging the feminine in God in addition to the masculine, how God and the Christ and the Holy Spirit are both male/female, all of the same substance, representing all of humanity.  Reimagining our Tradition to include religious and lay women, a tradition that illuminates a “discipleship of equals.”[6]

[1] James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel, The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1985), 140.

[2] The (First) Apocalypse of James, trans. William R. Schoedel, The Gnostic Society Library, The Nag Hammadi Library, 2020, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/1ja.html.

[3] The Sophia of Jesus Christ, trans. Douglas M. Parrott, The Gnostic Society Library, The Nag Hammadi Library, 2020, http://gnosis.org/naghamm/sjc.html

[4] Angelo Nicolaides, “Assessing Tertullian on the Status of Women in the Third Century Church,” Pharos Journal of Theology 97 (2016): 7.

[5] Kateusz, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 53.

[6] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread Not Stone, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984, 1995), 21. 

One thought

  1. Thank you Janet for your essay. You build an excellent case for expanding our definition of what is included in “Tradition”. Thank you for bringing your knowledge of the full tradition that included women ministering as priests, evangelists, & founders of early church bodies to more of us.

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