|The image of Episcopa Theodora as found in the|
Basilica of Santa Prassede, Rome
Was this woman the mother of a Pope or - as some
claim - a bishop of the Catholic Church?
This image is in the public domain
(source: Wikimedia Commons)
Bearing this in mind, I should have known that watching last night's second episode in the BBC's Divine Women series, written and presented by the historian Bettany Hughes, would have ended up spoiling my evening. I confess that I missed much of the programme's first half, which seemed - from the bits that I did see - to marvel with uncritical wonder at the priestesses of various Greek and Roman cults. Hughes seemed unable to contain her ecstasy at the thought of pagan women priestesses, even when engaging with the real horrors that faced the lives of most women - of the priestly caste or not - throughout the pre-Christian Mediterranean.
I was able to watch the second half of last night's programme, though. What I saw can only be described as one of the most inaccurate, poorly researched and completely biased pieces of nonsense that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing on television. Bettany Hughes may be a historian, a theologian she most definitely is not. She was either completely out of her depth in discussing the history of the early Church, or even deliberately neglected to give a rounded and objective view of the first centuries of Christianity.
It seemed to me that in discussing the role of women in the Catholic Church, Bettany Hughes had a huge axe to grind - which is rather strange seeing that, from what I gather, she herself is not a Catholic. In presenting her ideas, it appeared that Hughes had little intention of being objective in the classical sense, or to discuss the historical facts or theories in their entirety.
Was Pope Paschal I's mother also a bishop?
An example of her apparent one-sidedness was found in her assertion that a woman depicted in a ninth century mosaic in a Roman church was a bishop - the figure had the words Episcopa Theodora (Bishop Theodora) written next to her. Hughes failed to place the mosaic in its historical context, and by looking at the image many viewers may have thought that it was from a much earlier century - no sane historian would contend that there were women bishops in the 800s (in fact, no historian worth his / her salt would claim that there had ever been female bishops in the Church)! She went on, though, to suggest that the mysterious woman in the mosaic was unknown, and that later clerics had tried to airbrush her episcopal ordination from history. In so doing, Hughes skilfully, if not mischievously, made it look as if the early Church had women bishops and that there was some subsequent conspiracy to hide this from the world.
The fact of the matter is that Theodora was the mother of Pope Paschal I, who had the chapel that contains the mosaic built for her whilst she was still alive. Everyone knows this - it is common knowledge. There is no mystery concerning the identity of Theodora. It is also well-known that female relations - especially the wives or mothers - of deacons, priests and bishops often adopted the clerical titles of their husbands or sons. This apparently still happens in the Eastern Church, where the discipline of clerical celibacy was never as strictly enforced or applied as it was in the Roman Rite. Even to this day in some Orthodox and Eastern Rite Churches, the wife of a deacon is referred to as a diakonissa, whilst he wife of a priest is sometimes given the unofficial and honorific title, presbytera.
It is generally accepted by historians - of art, the church and the middle ages - that Theodora was called 'bishop' in recognition of her status as the mother of a bishop; a bishop of Rome at that. She was never an ordained cleric, and her style Episcopa - like similar ones held by so many wives and mothers of the clergy - was what we would now refer to as a courtesy title. Did Bettany Hughes mention any of this? Of course she didn't.
Hughes seemed confused as to what exactly a Catholic priest is or does. He is not merely a worship leader - something that any lay person can do regardless of gender - just look at how many Rosary groups are led by women, or how many abbesses lead their daughters in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours. A Catholic priest is someone who stands in persona Christi, who is called specifically to administer the Sacraments and especially to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He, in a specific way, gets on the Cross with Christ. Of course, we can all unite our sufferings to Christ's - but the priest does so uniquely on behalf of us all. Again, a priest is not merely someone who teaches the faith or leads religious services - for it is often the case that women and laymen can do that, too. No, he is someone called to offer a Holy Sacrifice, standing in for Christ amongst his people.
Bettany Hughes seemed to have no qualms about the fact that the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome had to be women - it was a state not open to men - even if being one often involved a horrendous death. Yet, the fact that the priesthood of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches - like the Temple priesthood of the Israelites - is open only to men seemed to annoy her. I got the feeling that what she wanted to say was: It isn't fair! But did she really understand what a Catholic priest (or any priest, for that matter) actually does? I was left wondering whether Hughes was aware of the subtle differences between priesthood and ministry, ordination and consecration?
Although she seemed keen to make wild assertions based on dodgy texts from the second century or the odd mosaic, Hughes hardly mentioned the fact that since the Church's very beginning many women have chosen to consecrate themselves to God in a special way, eventually becoming what we now call hermits, nuns and religious sisters. In many ways, these Catholic states of life are similar to those entered into by women who dedicated themselves to their gods in the ancient world. The status of these pagan priestesses was more like that of the consecrated women of the Judeo-Christian tradition than ordained pre-Christian priests offering (often bloody) sacrifices on altars.
Also, many women who joined temple cults in the old religions of the Middle East and the Mediterranean often did so as a means of aiding devotees to unite themselves - in an emotional or even sexual way - to the cult's particular goddess. They had to be female, as they represented a female god. The fact that Jesus Christ was born a man, and that he has wedded himself to his bride, the Church, is likewise very significant when considering the Christian priesthood - a priest marries himself to the Church, as a man weds his wife - both states are vocations based on gender, not jobs dependent upon skill.
At one point, Hughes interviewed a "liberal" priest who teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He told her that: "Women were essential in the early Church." But what on earth does that mean? It seems to imply that women have not really contributed to the Church since those early centuries. The fact of the matter is, though, that women have been totally essential to the life of the Church since the very beginning, and they remain so now - the Christian faith would not have got off the ground, or continued to have been so successful, without them. What Hughes may not understand about Catholicism is that to be essential, one doesn't have to be a priest.
What seemed to lay behind this statement by the priest from the Gregorian is the extremely (post-Vatican II) clericalist idea that to be "essential to the Church" one must be a priest or a bishop. If that's the case, though, what about all the lay men who are not priests (I'd say over 98% of male Catholics)? Are they of no use, either? This priest, whoever he was, just proved to me how clerical - in a bad way - many modernists are. They are the ones who seem obsessed with the power of the ordained. This attitude may be the result of a profound shift towards clericalism in the post-Vatican II Church, in which the priest is often called the "presider" at Mass, and which has seen the rise of a strangely human-centred, God dis-orientated, liturgy.
There were many other points raised or examples used by Bettany Hughes in last night's documentary that seemed to be factually incorrect or appeared to be presented in a particularly one-sided way. Here are a few: -
Did women celebrate the Eucharist in the early Church?
|Does this fresco, the Fractio Panis, prove that women celebrated the|
Eucharist in the early Church, or is it a depiction of an Agape meal?
In the public domain (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Whilst in the same catacomb, Hughes spent a few moments viewing and describing a painting that seemed to depict a woman being touched on the shoulder by a bishop. She claimed that the woman in the image was wearing an alb, and that these garments "could only be worn by ordained priests". Nonsense! In the early centuries of the Church, albs were often a common garment worn by newly baptised men and women. It was only later that it became a distinct liturgical vestment - normally worn by sacred minsters; bishops, priests and deacons.
Having said that, it is known that there were women deacons (deaconesses) in the early Church. They were not priests, and not deacons in the ordained sense. Rather, these female deacons were not ordained like their male counterparts, though may have been blessed or consecrated in some way. Deaconesses probably functioned in a way similar to religious sisters today - i.e. as teachers or pastoral workers. They did not serve a liturgical function. If anything, then, it is highly likely that the woman depicted on the catacomb wall was a deaconess (not a priestess) - though she may actually just have been an aristocrat (whose garments from that time were used by the Church as templates for priestly vestments).
Did the Council of Nicea stop the ordaining of 'priestesses'?
This brings me to the next point. Hughes claimed that the First Council of Nicea did away with early Christian "priestesses"! Yes, that's right, according to this historian, that Ecumenical Council banned something that didn't even exist, namely women priests in the Church. Here is what that Sacred Council actually said: -
Concerning the Paulianists [a schismatic and heretical sect founded by Bishop Paulianus Samosatanus in the mid-third century] who have flown for refuge to the Catholic Church, it has been decreed that they must by all means be rebaptised; and if any of them who in past time have been numbered among their clergy should be found blameless and without reproach, let them be rebaptised and ordained by the Bishop of the Catholic Church; but if the examination should discover them to be unfit, they ought to be deposed. Likewise in the case of their deaconesses, and generally in the case of those who have been enrolled among their clergy, let the same form be observed. And we mean by deaconesses such as have assumed the habit, but who, since they have no imposition of hands, are to be numbered only among the laity. (Canon 20, First Council of Nicea, AD 325)This decree primarily concerns the re-admittance of some schismatics into the Catholic Church. Just as many Protestant ministers have been (re)ordained into the priesthood after converting to Catholicism in recent times, so the Council of Nicea decided to allow Paulianist priests and deacons to be ordained once they had received conditional baptism. As an aside to this measure, the Council Fathers defined what was meant by the word 'deaconess' - just in case some became confused by the term (there weren't many deaconesses after all, and many wouldn't have come across them). In short, a deaconess was always a layperson, even if she may have - like nuns and female religious of today - "assumed the habit". So, contrary to what Bettany Hughes claimed on last night's BBC documentary, the Council of Nicea did not ban "priestesses", for there were none to ban in the first place.
Towards the end of the programme, St Augustine was introduced as a man responsible for a "hotch-potch of women-hating bile"! He was also accused of having given the Church the belief that "sex was the work of the Devil and women were his instruments". (Since when did the Church ever preach this heresy?). Hughes also claimed that St Augustine of Hippo's attitude "caused trouble for women for the next 1700 years"! As someone who spent his early 20s absolutely obsessed by Augustine - one of the greatest saints the Church has ever produced - I would really like to know how Hughes arrived at these conclusions about him.
My fear is that Hughes's ideas about Augustine and the Catholic Church were based mainly on a lazy regurgitating of 'feminist' interpretations of de-contextualised statements - interpretations that have often led to misunderstandings or to the creation of unquestioned academic assumptions. Needless to say, Augustine - through his works - was not given the opportunity to speak for himself during last night's programme. Those who have actually read him will know that neither his theology nor his ideas concerning women and sex really conform to those myths created by those caught up in the anti-Augustinian hysteria. It is a hysteria that has succeeded in creating an acceptable anti-Catholic narrative for many people who, given their intelligence and level of education, should know better.
It was good to see Joanna Bogle defending the Catholic Church on last night's Divine Women. Sadly, though, the only Catholic priest that appeared on the documentary seemed more willing to support Bettany Hughes's theories than to speak up for the truth - or provide some counter-balance, at least. But then, Hughes also appeared oblivious to the irony of the situation created by her programme: a lay woman, Joanna Bogle, was providing a far more profound and authentic witness to the Catholic faith than the priest seemed able to give! To paraphrase said priest, this just proves that women are essential in the present Church! They are the ones who so often keep the faith and its traditions alive, despite the bizarre clericalism of certain modernist members of the priesthood.