When a local Catholic woman was “ordained” as a priest recently, I received a call from the religion editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. The five-minute interview resulted in a single quotation from me in the newspaper. (I did not feel slighted. Later on, Jimmy Akin was interviewed by a television reporter. His ten minutes before the camera showed up as a single sentence on the air.)
After the article about the “ordination” ran in the city paper, several letters to the editor were printed. One took me to task:
“Karl Keating of Catholic Answers says there will never be women priests in the Catholic Church. He is mistaken. There were women priests and deacons in the early centuries of the church, only to be relegated to the sidelines by a man-made canon that states only baptized males can be ordained. . . . It’s time to rethink ancient church law. We, the laity, are the church.”
Uh, no you aren’t.
First, while laymen do constitute the vast majority of the Church’s population (I am reminded of a comment John Henry Newman made, when speaking to another cleric, about how silly the Church would look if there were no laymen), the Church is not run as a democracy, and thank goodness for that.
Second, the letter writer and the “ordained” woman are no longer really members of the Catholic Church. One officiates at, and the other attends, what is called the Mary Magdalene Apostolic Catholic Community, which, perhaps fittingly, meets twice monthly in a Methodist church. Even if the Catholic Church were a democracy, the two of them would be disenfranchised because they have given their allegiance elsewhere.
But the chief problem with the letter to the editor is its historical claim that “there were women priests and deacons in the early centuries of the church.”
Not so. True, some women were styled “deacons,” but they had no ordained status; the closest modern analogue would be women religious. There were certainly no women priests in the early Church. How can I say that so emphatically? Because there is absolutely no historical evidence for them. None.
The first great history of the Church was written by Eusebius of Caesarea around 325. It appears in two volumes in the Loeb Classical Library series, with Greek on the left page and Kirsopp Lake’s English translation on the right. The Ecclesiastical History is the fullest account we have of goings-on in the Church up to the time of Constantine. Nowhere in that work does one find a mention of women priests, just as nowhere does one find a mention of dragons—and for the same reason. Neither existed.
A close reading of other ancient Christian texts will show the same thing: no dragons and no women priests (and, early on, no more women “deacons”). Was this the consequence of a male conspiracy, an attempt to subvert our Lord’s will by disenfranchising half of the Christian population? If so, where, in writings from the first centuries of the Church, is there the least evidence for such a brazen act? The sad fact is that there is no evidence outside the imaginations of people who are unwilling to accept Christianity as it was given to us by its Founder.