The National Catholic
Reporter, Aug. 10, 2010
priests offer differing approaches to valid ordination
By Rosemary Radford Ruether
2002 seven Roman Catholic women were ordained in Austria on the
Danube River by an independent Catholic bishop, Romulo Antonio
Braschi. Later unnamed Roman Catholic bishops ordained some of
these women priests as bishops. These women bishops, in turn,
have been ordaining other women deacons, priests and bishops.
From this beginning there has developed a movement, Roman Catholic
Womenpriests (RCWP), which presently claims four women bishops
and 45 women priests in the United States, as well as others in
Europe and Canada. This movement has shaped a thoughtful ecclesiology
defining itself both as in valid succession in the Roman Catholic
tradition and also as a valid reform that is reclaiming the authentic
discipleship of equals of the earliest church based on the redemptive
mission of Christ.(1)
Rejecting the papal declaration of May 28, 2008, that the women
and the male bishops who originally ordained them are "excommunicated
latae sententiae" (automatically), RCWP declared that "we
will continue to serve our beloved church in a renewed priestly
ministry that welcomes all to celebrate the sacraments in inclusive,
Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered communities wherever we are
called." RCWP claims to stand in "apostolic succession"
based on the validity of the episcopal ordination of their founding
The ordinations of Roman Catholic Womenpriests are valid because
of our unbroken line of apostolic succession within the Roman
Catholic Church. The principal consecrating Roman Catholic male
bishop who ordained our first women bishops is a bishop with a
line of unbroken apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic
Church in full communion with the Pope. Therefore, our bishops
validly ordain deacons, priests and bishops. Consequently, all
qualified candidates, including baptized ministers and priests
from other Christian traditions, who are presented to our bishops
for ordination are ordained by the laying on of hands into the
same line of apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church.(2)
Clearly the pope does not agree with this view. For him the women
bishops, priests and deacons as well as the originating
bishops are automatically excommunicated, based on the
fact that these ordinations took place against church teaching
and without papal approval. Besides this, there is the theological
assumption that women by their very nature are incapable of receiving
valid ordination as priests in the Roman Catholic Church.(3) (The
Vatican mentality toward women was revealed on July 15, 2010,
with the release of a document lumping sexual abuse of children
by priests and women's ordination as both "very grave crimes.")
What then is the concept of "apostolic succession" and
"full communion with the pope" that this movement assumes
can be unaffected by this profound conflict with papal authority?
Before discussing this issue, let us look at a different approach
to valid ordination that has emerged in a faith community in San
Diego, Calif., under the leadership of one of the Roman Catholic
Womenpriests, Jane Via. Desiring to create and be a part of a
vibrant Catholic community that reflected her vision of what such
a community should be, Via, a religious educator and lawyer, developed,
with the help of ex-priest Rod Stephens, the Mary Magdalene Apostle
Catholic Community (MMACC) in 2005.
For some years Nancy Corran, a woman of Protestant background
who holds a degree in theology from Oxford and a Master's of Divinity
degree from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.,
has served with Jane Via and Rod Stephens as a pastoral associate.
In 2009 Corran decided that she wanted to become a Catholic in
the context of the Mary Magdalene community. The leadership of
the Mary Magdalene church decided to call her as a priest to their
community. However they decided not to call a bishop from the
RCWP movement to come and ordain her, but rather to ordain her
as a collective action of their faith community. They based their
right to do this on their reading of early church history in which
they learned that Christians in the early centuries had called
priests and ordained them through the collective action of local
faith communities. This ordination of Corran to the deaconate
and then to the priesthood by the collective action of MMACC took
place July 30 and 31, 2010. Everyone in the community, including
the children, laid hands on Corran and signed the official paper
as her ordainers.
This decision by MMACC has caused consternation among some in
the RCWP movement. Some have even suggested that this action undermines
the "apostolic succession" of their movement. By implication
the ordination of Corran would be outside of this lineage of "apostolic
succession." The emergence of this difference sparks inquiry
into the basis of this concept of "apostolic succession"
which has become so important for the RCWP movement, and upon
which they base the validity of their own ordinations, despite
its repudiation by the pope. Why does the leadership of MMACC
feel they can disregard this, even though Via was herself ordained
in this movement? What does "apostolic succession" as
the basis of valid ordination of priests by bishops mean?
This concept of apostolic succession is widely contested. Although
claimed by Roman Catholicism, most Protestants, based on historical
studies of early Christianity, see this as an historical fiction
with little basis in "apostolic" or first century Christianity.
In the view of most modern church historians, first and second
century Christianity was highly diverse. Christianity manifested
itself in several movements that reflected a variety of world
views of the time. In many cities of the eastern Mediterranean,
such as Alexandria, some of the first Christian groups were Gnostics
of various kinds.
According to the gospels, Jesus chose 12 disciples in his life
time.(4) After his death, one of them, Judas Iscariot, the traitor
of Jesus, was replaced by Matthias by collective action of the
remaining 11 disciples (Acts I: 15-26). But these 12 disciples
have left little record of evangelizing Gentiles and founding
churches around the world. In fact, the original idea of the 12
disciples probably was intended to represent the 12 tribes of
Israel, not a group of worldwide founders of churches from which
a succession of bishops descended.
The concept of a Gentile church drawn from all nations originated
with the evangelizing mission of Paul, himself not a member of
Jesus' original disciples, but rather a convert to the Christian
movement after Jesus' death. In the story of the spread of Christianity
outside Palestine, the names of most of the 12 disciples disappear.
The only ones claimed to be related to areas outside Palestine
are Peter, associated with Antioch and also with Rome (in death),
John in Ephesus, although not as a church founder, and Thomas
in India, the last of questionable historicity.(5)
The concept of a monarchical episcopacy; that is, city-based churches
headed by a bishop in hierarchical power above elders (presbyters)
and deacons, emerged slowly between the late first and early third
centuries. Ignatius of Antioch claimed such a monarchical episcopacy
for himself in the church of Antioch in letters written in the
early 2nd century on his way to martyrdom in Rome, but he makes
no mention of Peter as the founding apostle of his church.(6)
Irenaeus of Lyons, combating various gnosticisms in his writings
Against the Heresies in the late second century, expounds the
idea of a succession of teachers that guarantee apostolic teaching
versus gnostics. For him the church of Rome is the primary example
of such a succession of bishop-teachers. (7)
Several "tools" of orthodoxy emerged in this period.
One was a canonical New Testament composed of writings known to
be of older tradition and hence as "apostolic." These
were seen as distinguishable from the plurality of writings circulating
among the churches that used the names of apostles such
as the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of Peter and the Revelation of
Peter, the Acts of Andrew and the Acts of John but perceived
as heretical in content.(8) A historical lineage of teaching going
back to the 1st or early 2nd centuries, guaranteed by a succession
of bishop-teachers, was seen as validating this apostolic tradition.
These tools emerged in order to separate what was being defined
as orthodoxy against the plurality of other traditions of a more
In the process of defining this "apostolic tradition"
against the "heresies," writers like Irenaeus constructed
an historical argument that posited that what was emerging as
"orthodoxy" in the late 2nd century was the original
teaching of Jesus and the apostles while the various other
forms of Christianity were decried as later deviations. Modern
historians generally have decided that the historical reality
was more the opposite of this schema. In other words, many variant
Christianities were actually earlier. What was being defined as
orthodoxy was a construct that emerged later. The successful purge
of this earlier diversity allowed the emerging orthodoxy to claim
lineage of bishops descending from founding apostles of leading
churches was the key idea in this emerging claim of "apostolic
teaching." In this construct the twelve disciples were sent
forth around the world, founded churches in key cities with themselves
as founding bishops, and gave each church an apostolic teaching
that was identical. The succession of bishops descended from the
founding apostle carried this same teaching unchanged through
the generations. This concept of apostolic succession, with successions
of bishop-descendents of founding apostles, bears little basis
in the historical reality of how Christianity actually spread,
although it was a useful (and doubtless sincerely believed) idea
to define an emerging orthodoxy for churches seeking a common
front against their rivals.
Rome was an early claimant for this role of guarantor of apostolic
teaching, although, interestingly enough, the monarchical bishop
appears to have been slow to emerge there. The 2nd century "orthodox"
Roman church was one among several Christian groups in the city.
But this emerging church maintained into the third century a more
collective form of church government in which the bishop was a
leading elder, rather than a monarchical bishop in hierarchical
relation over the other elders. (10)
Hippolytus of Rome
A significant document that testifies to the tradition of this
Roman church is that of Hippolytus of Rome, a Greek-born presbyter
of this church who wrote in the early 3rd century a treatise called
The Apostolic Tradition. Hippolytus was a rigorist thinker who
sought to exclude various heresies from acceptance. He was briefly
elected bishop as a rival to a more lax leader of the church,
Callistus, who later tradition defines as "pope" from
217-222 A.D. Hippolytus, writing in The Apostolic Tradition, reflects
his own memory of how things were done in this church back into
the mid-second century. Significantly he assumes a collective
authority in which the church as a whole or "all the people"
together call the bishop. The presbyters and "any bishops
who happen to be present" give their consent and lay hands
on this leader. Clearly what is understood as the church order
of mid-second to early third century Rome is one of collective
calling and ordination by the local faith community as a whole.(11)
This is the tradition claimed by Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic
The notion of the "apostles," that is, the 12 disciples
chosen by Jesus, founding churches and inaugurating a succession
of monarchical bishops, became formulated in its historical form
in the late second and third centuries and appears as a set idea
in the History of the Church by Eusebius, who wrote successive
versions of this work from 305 to 330 AD. For Eusebius, orthodoxy
was guaranteed by apostolic succession through the foundation
of churches by apostles and the passing down of identical apostolic
teaching through their succession of bishops in each church. Eusebius
has many references to bishops of various churches from Asia Minor
to Italy, but he can only produce continuous lists from apostolic
times to his own time for four leading churches: Jerusalem, Alexandria,
Antioch and Rome.(12) He has a few partial lists for other churches,
such as Corinth, but does not claim apostolic founders for them.
examination of his lists for the four leading churches raises
the question whether any of these were actually founded by one
of the 12 apostles. Jerusalem claims as its founding leader, James,
the brother of Jesus, who was not a disciple in Jesus' time, but
was converted to Christianity after his death. The names of 12
Jewish leaders of this church "of the circumcision"
are claimed from the time of James until the Roman destruction
of the city in 139 A.D. when this church disappeared. But it is
hard to imagine that this extensive list actually represents a
succession of monarchical bishops, rather than names of coexisting
leaders. When this church disappeared in 139 A.D., a second list
of bishops is claimed for a gentile church in a newly founded
Roman city near Jerusalem, but one is puzzled about how this list
can be seen as continuing the line from James, Jesus brother.
Eusebius of Caesarea
The lineage of Alexandria does not claim an apostle founder but
cites Mark, author of the Gospel of that name, as its founder.
But the succession of bishops of that city is likely a later construct,
as orthodoxy gradually asserted itself against earlier gnosticisms.
In Antioch, "where the disciples were first called Christians"
(Acts11:26) Peter was apparently present on more than one occasion.
Eusebius claims Peter was the first bishop of Antioch, with Ignatius
as his second successor,(13) but Ignatius himself seems unaware
Rome, which became the model for the idea of apostolic succession,
claims both Peter and Paul as founders. But we know that the church
of Rome already existed at the time of Paul's ministry in Greece,
when Peter had not been to Rome. Peter may have been martyred
there, but did not found the church of Rome and was probably not
a leader there, much less a "bishop." So, in each case,
the connection of later bishop lists to a supposedly founding
apostle fades on examination.
Not only is there a historical gap between apostles and later
bishop lists, but also, this original concept of apostolic succession
that developed in the late second to fourth centuries did not
originally have anything to do with passing down the priestly
power to do Eucharist from Jesus to apostles to bishops (who were
thereby empowered to ordain other bishops and priests with the
charism to do Eucharist). Apostolic succession was originally
about apostolic teaching,(14) not priestly power to do Eucharist.
It was a way of claiming a unitary form of Christian teaching
from Jesus through the apostles for a lineage of bishop-teachers
that could be defined across churches against heretics, thus ruling
out the earlier diversity of forms of Christianity.
The idea of apostolic succession as a transmission of Eucharistic
power from Jesus and the apostles to bishops is a later idea that
emerges slowly to replace the earlier emphasis on a lineage of
apostolic teaching. It becomes fully developed only in the 12th
century when a concept of priesthood is defined based on the power
to "confect" the Eucharist (that is, the power to turn
the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ), as the
central idea of ordination, excluding earlier ideas of ordination
based on installation into various offices. This earlier view
of ordination as installation into holding offices allowed various
people to be seen as ordained, including women as queens, abbesses
As ordination came to be linked primarily with priesthood and
its ability to "confect" the Eucharist the idea of ordination
as installation into an office was eliminated and, with it, the
possibility of women being ordained. Only men who share Christ's
maleness could inherit this power to do Eucharist which was supposedly
passed down from Christ himself to his twelve apostles and from
them to their bishop-descendents. Thus the triumph of a priestly
eucharistic concept of ordination, passed down through apostolic
succession, is itself an integral part of a process in which women
were eliminated as ordainable.(15)
Ironically, it is this 12th century concept of apostolic succession
as the transmission of the power to do Eucharist which is claimed
by the RCWP movement as they lift up the episcopal ordination
of their founding bishops as proof of the validity of their own
ordinations. This concept of valid ordination, transmitted through
the apostolic succession from their founding bishops, works only
if one implicitly assumes a mechanistic view of the transmission
of this power from one bishop to another. In other words, ordination
in apostolic succession is assumed to transmit a kind of spiritual
power as a personal "possession" which the ordained
persons can dispose of as they wish apart from agreement
with the pope as authorizer in the Roman Catholic Church of who
can or should be ordained.
This power can then be assumed to continue in force, even allowing
the bishop ordaining the women to be described as in "full
communion with the pope" despite being excommunicated by
the pope. Thus being in "communion" with the pope in
this context has nothing to do with being in agreement with the
pope on who can be ordained, but rather as possessing this ordaining
power as a personal endowment that can be transmitted to others
by engaging in the sacramental act of ordaining.
By contrast, the leaders of Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community
go back to a much earlier view of church and ordination closer
to apostolic times, manifested in Hippolytus' treatise on The
Apostolic Tradition. Here ordination has to do with installing
a person in an office of teacher and worship leader for a faith
community who "all the people" of that community call
and ordain collectively.
Does this mean that the MMACC community is "right" in
their views, and the RCWP should abandon their faulty claims to
apostolic succession? This is not the point. Rather both movements
can recognize their common ground on which both can claim the
validity of their divergent forms of ordination. This common ground
lies in a history and tradition of Christian churches as faith
communities linked to the past through memory and through constant
imaginative efforts to reconstruct what is most life-giving in
their traditions and to base themselves on faithful reproduction
of that life-giving tradition. RCWP and MMACC are both seeking
to be "apostolic" in their thinking and living through
different versions of that process.
(1) "Ordinations," romancatholicwomenpriests.org
(3) This view of women's incapacity to be ordained due to the
defective nature of femaleness was developed by Thomas Aquinas,
based on Aristotelian anthropology. See Kari Borreson, Subordination
and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Women in Augustine and
Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America,
1981), pp. 236-239.
(4) The lists of 12 apostles are found in Matthew 10:2-4, Mark
3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16. Acts 1:13 contains eleven names, dropping
Judas Iscariot. The lists are not fully consistent. Matthew and
Mark list a Thaddeus. Luke and Acts lack this name, but have Jude,
son of James instead.
(5) See the Wikipedia articles on "John the Apostle"
and "Thomas the Apostle."
(6) See The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Gerald G. Walsh, trans.
The Apostolic Fathers, The Fathers of the Church, vol. 1 (NY:
CIMA Publishing Company, 1947), pp. 83-127.
(7) Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, III.3,23
(8) See Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and
Meaning (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985).
(9) The scholar whose work helped establish this view is Walter
Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Early Christianity (Philadelphia:
(10) See Kurt Aland, A History of Christianity, vol. 1 (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1985), p. 120.
(11) The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, Burton Scott Easton,
trans. (Archon Books,1962).
(12) Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine,
G.A. Williamson, trans. (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing
House, 1965) appendix, pp. 415-17.
(13) Ibid., p. 145 (Book III.36)
(14) See Irenaeus, op.cit., who refers to the succession of bishops
at Rome as teachers who all agreed in teaching "right doctrine,"
offering no "secret teaching."
(15) For a key book showing the development of this kind of view
of ordination and the suppression of earlier forms of ordination
that included women, see Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women's
Ordination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
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