AFTER five days of silence while working in language groups behind closed doors, the synod re-emerged with a press conference that made major headlines in all the Italian press. At the opening of the synod, several delegates, including Cardinal Godried Danneels, Primate of Belgium, and Cardinal George Basil Hume, Primate of Great Britain, called for a recommendation on admitting women to the Diaconate, as did the German delegation. Others had proposed opening to women at least the minor orders of Lector and Acolyte.
Nothing doing was the word brought by Archbishop John May (USA) from the language groups to the press. The consensus was that the synod was not equipped to study the problem of ordained ministry or even of minor orders. The most that could be hoped for was authorisation for girls to join boys as Mass servers.
Even the more dignified Italian newspapers poked fun at the mouse that had emerged from the massive labours of the fathers. In addition to the fun, however, we have had serious analysis of the claim that ancient Church tradition forbade such initiatives. What is the oldest tradition? It was asked, and what were the motives that led to what is now called "The Tradition"?
Phoebe, the first known Deaconess, lived in Greece near Corinth. In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul points to her as an exemplar of Diakonia. Most exegetes agree that Paul's use of Deaconship signified a ministerial role and not a generic charitable service. And in his letter to Timothy, Paul sets out the qualifications for Deacons of both sexes. This text is interpreted by St John Chrysostom as meaning that men and women enjoyed a ministerial
Gary MacEoin, at the Rome synod, puts the bishop's declarations on women into an historical perspective.
diaconate on equal terms in the first century.
Women Deacons were common in the fourth and fifth centuries, especially in Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople. The sixth Century saw growing pressures against them, with an imperial law that limited the role to virgins and widows. Other laws said they must be 40 years old, and later, 50 years old. In parts of Western Europe, where power and ritual were the preserve of men, opposition had grown even earlier. The Council of Nimes, France, in 396 condemned the ordination of women to the Diaconate as "against reason," an indication that they then existed in France.
A study of conciliar decrees and other early documents makes it clear that the resistance to ordination of women resulted from the belief that menstruation made them unclean. The Council of Nicea in 325, just a few years after Constantine had made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, decreed: "All faithful and Christian women must abstain from entering the House of God, that is, their temples, for the entire duration of their menstruations and similarly, they must not take the Eucharist until their menstrual period has ended.
56 years later, the Council of Constantinople went a step further. It decreed that a woman could not even be baptized during her menstrual period. And a century after this Council, Pope Gelasius wrote to the Bishops of Lucania in Southern Italy, "I have learned with sadness that divine affairs have fallen in such low esteem that women are allowed to serve at the altar." That, said Gelasius, is "a shameful thing."
The so called penitential books, which laid down the penance appropriate for each kind of sin, which were written from the sixth to the ninth century but continued to be used by confessors up to the thirteenth, repeated these prohibitions: "Women, whether lay or religious, shall not dare enter the Church or receive the Eucharist during the time of menstruation. Any who do so must do penance for three weeks."
These specific restrictions have been happily lain to rest. But the fourth-century decree of the Council of Laodicea (Syria) that forbade women to enter "The place of the Altar," that is, the presbyterium or sanctuary, still applies. An instruction of the Congregation of the Sacraments dated April 3 1980 reaffirmed that "Women are not permitted to perform the functions of the Acolyte," functions which involve approaching the altar.
If, however, the synod does in fact make the small gesture of authorising altar girls, does that not breach this barrier? perhaps yes, perhaps no. It is a material breach certainly, but would it not leave intact the taboo underlying the prohibition, since altar girls will presumably be simply that, females before the age of puberty?
So we still have to face the real question: what tradition? Is it the tradition solidly rooted in the era of the Apostles and their immediate successors, or that based on two unacceptable foundations, namely, on the attitudes and practices of pagan Rome and on ignorance of the creative role played in the divine plan by certain biological functions?