For many people one of the most archaic aspects of the Catholic Church is the fact that it prohibits women from serving as priests. Pope John Paul II ruled in 1994 that the issue of women priests was not open to discussion, and a 2018 essay from the Vatican’s doctrinal office reaffirmed the ban. The subject is the source of some controversy with some claiming that church teaching is nothing other than a patriarchal attempt to suppress women.
One flashpoint in this debate is the history of the early church: some have argued that as women served in liturgical roles back then, they should be allowed to serve today in some capacity. Now a respected academic is going one step further and arguing not only that women in the early church were priests, but also that the Vatican deliberately concealed the artistic evidence that would prove it.
Art historian Ally Kateusz, the author of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership and a research associate at the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research, presented a paper on the subject at the International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome on Tuesday.
Kateusz’s paper focusses on early Christian artwork that, she argues, depicts women as priests and even bishops. These images are especially important because of our limited evidence for early Christian liturgy. Examining the three earliest surviving images of Christians worshipping at the altar (two from the fifth century and one from the early sixth century), Kateusz notes that all three artifacts show women by the altar in seemingly official roles. “They depict women at the altar in three of Christendom's most important churches—St Peter's in Rome, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.”
What is significant about these images is that they show women and men in parallel roles, their bodies and gestures mirroring one another. The parallelism, she argues, suggests equality. In the image of worship in Old St. Peter’s in Rome preserved on a fifth century ivory box, it appears that the female figure is raising a chalice above the altar. Today, this is an act performed by priests. She shows that the same idea that women participated in the celebration of the liturgy is present in a variety of early Christian pieces of art as well as early as the writings of the second-century Christian bishop Irenaeus of Lyon. She concludes not only that the Eucharist was performed by both men and women, but also that the origins of this gender parallelism can ultimately be located in ancient Jewish philosophical principles and religious practices.
One of Katuesz’s most important examples is a mosaic in the Lateran Baptistery of the Chapel of San Venantius in Rome. The mosaic, which sits above the altar, was commissioned by Pope Theodore in the seventh century. According to Kateusz, it contains an image of the Virgin Mary wearing her traditional blue garment, accessorized with a “bishop’s pallium” that is identifiable by the red cross on the vestment. Mary’s arms, said Kateusz, are raised “as if [she is] performing the Eucharist. It is a symbolic way of saying Mary was a church leader.”
Today, the mosaic is almost entirely hidden behind a huge baroque altarpiece. The altarpiece features a very different kind of portrait of Mary in which she sits in a more demure, traditional pose, holding baby Jesus. In her book, Kateusz hypothesizes that the altarpiece was installed around 1916, when the Vatican ruled that images of Mary as a bishop were no longer permitted. She argues that this was part of a deliberate effort “to disguise the fact that Mary was portrayed as a bishop.”
As with all artwork, there are alternative explanations for the iconography. Mary’s pose with outstretched arms is called an “orans pose” and is generally understood as depicting a figure at prayer. Rather than celebrating the Eucharist, perhaps Mary was performing her more traditional role of praying for sinners.
Several other scholars have wondered whether or not Mary is really wearing a bishop’s pallium in the Lateran Baptistery mosaic. Nicola Denzey Lewis, a professor at Claremont Graduate School, told The Daily Beast that women in the late antique period were more likely to act as patrons than priests or bishops. Dr. Jessica Dello Russo a specialist in catacomb art sounded a note of caution about interpreting even seeming “smoking guns” like the use of the title “presbytera,” priest, for women as literal statements. She added that in funerary art these were “tools of commemoration” and “social convention[s]” that need not be read literally.
Some might also object to the characterization of the installation of the altarpiece in front of the mosaic as a deliberate attempt to erase the idea of Mary as cleric. It is not, in principle, strange to find baroque furniture obscuring the decorative features of older medieval and late antique design. In fact, it is fairly common in European churches in general. Against this potential objection, Kateusz notes that nearly every other ancient mosaic in Rome is in on full display. It is suggestive that a mosaic showing Mary as a bishop is concealed. She also notes that when the red tessare (tiles) that made up the cross on the pallium started to fall out they were replaced by white ones, thereby obscuring their original significance. It is only the preservation of the cross on a nineteenth century illustration that allows us to see its original color. And there still remains the question of what to do with the earliest depictions of altar worship that she analyses.
Even if the artistic evidence is not conclusive, it adds to the weight of academic arguments for the centrality of women in early church life. In a 2017 peer-reviewed article published in the journal Harvard Theological Review, Duke graduate student and text critic Elizabeth Schrader argued that Mary Magdalene’s role in the Jesus story was deliberately obscured by the scribes who copied out the Bible in order to dilute her importance. It might sound like a Dan Brown novel, but Schrader’s argument was grounded in a detailed analysis of early Christian manuscripts.
Beyond the artwork, there is the data that can be gleaned from the texts of the New Testament. Jesus has a number of female followers and disciples, including Mary Magdalene. The apostle Paul mentions a female deacon named Phoebe, in his letter to the Romans. He labels another woman, Junia, an apostle, and the greetings he sends to women like Chloe in his letters show that there were a number of important and influential women in the early church.
The question, then, is not, “did women hold leadership roles?” (they did) but rather “for how long?”
Dr. Sara Parks, who teaches New Testament at the University of Nottingham, told The Daily Beast that “the heavy presence of every sort of women’s leadership in the earliest Jesus movements” was largely due to the fact that in Judaism of their day women were “taking on more public roles, becoming more politically active, initiating divorce, owning businesses and property [and] leading religious movements.” Jesus and Paul, she added, were part of this broader trend. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the situation would start to reverse.
As with so many debates about early church history, there’s a lot at stake in these claims. In 2016, Pope Francis created a stir when he said he would create a commission to study the role of female deacons. During an audience with the heads of women’s religious orders he said, “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this as well,” even adding that women might participate in the consultations on this topic. Kateusz’s research self-consciously presents itself as an answer to Francis’s invitation for additional research that has, as one glowing review notes, some practical ramifications.
It will take some academic debate and historical sifting to come to any kind of consensus about the relative importance of these findings for our knowledge of the past. Even if scholars were to agree that there were women priests in orthodox Christian communities in the second century and beyond, it is possible that modern doctrine and practice would never be affected by this work. But for women today who are looking for role models in the church Kateusz’s arguments complicate the ordinarily demure portrait of Mary as mother and women as silent witnesses to the ritual performances of men. Moreover, for those who seek out gender parity, it offers hope that women’s leadership is not just a modern feminist dream: it existed in the past and that has significance for the present.