A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

Magistra 21.2 (Winter 2015): 51-80


In her article, Women in the Church? A Historical Survey, Magdalena Kubow begins her conclusion with “the argument that women have historically participated in sacramental orders does not wish to eliminate the apostolic tradition; however, it does not regard the exclusivity of males to the apostolic tradition as a timeless truth. It sees it as purposeful exclusion, acceptable in the past but no longer acceptable in the present” (76). This is a succinct, yet pithy summary of her work. Her premise is that women were, along with men, founders and leaders of the early Christian Church, and the focus of her survey is to demonstrate how this process of exclusion developed over time, slowly eroding away the female role until all traces of it disappeared by the Middle Ages. Unlike other writers on this topic, Kubow does not spend much time looking at what Scriptures say about it but concentrates on examining the historiography of more current Church documents and teachings. The primary underlying factors to which she attributes this erosion include the shift of church ministry from the private to the public sphere, the development of market economy, and the influence of Roman law on the formation and establishment of Church law. All told, this is a good overview of a variety of influences that led to the demise of female leadership roles over the first few centuries of early Christianity. And it is the perfect resource for an audience who knows enough theology, history, philosophy and cultural development to understand the implications of what she covers in it.

While I found the majority of Kubow’s composition interesting, creative and well-founded, her opening six pages were not as strong as they could have been. First, she offers an opinion that misconstrues a foundational Church document. Then she presents several of the Church’s current arguments against women’s ordination to the priesthood, to which she simply counters with historical evidence that women had once participated in the diaconate. And, to support a later argument, she includes a citation that misrepresents the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass.

To my first point, that she misconstrues a foundational Church document, Kubow offers an opinion taken from someone else’s work in such a way that it is clear she shares it. She references Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical of April 1963, which she notes was interpreted as “opening just a crack the door to the priesthood for women” (51) based on his conclusion that man and woman have a right to “follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life” (51). In my opinion, either Kubow or Margaret Sittler Ermarth, whom Kubow cites, or both, are stretching to construe that the Pope’s comment refers woman-to-priesthood in this statement. Although Pope John XXIII often wrote about the Church looking to the future, and the Church is always referred to in the feminine, the correlations in his statement are meant to be read as man-to-priesthood and woman-to-religious life.

To my second point, that Kubow offers evidence that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church to counter the current arguments against women being ordained to the priesthood today, she is not comparing the same role. There is a major difference between being an ordained priest and being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and while that has not always been so, it has been for most of the Church’s history. A priest holds the second highest position in Holy Orders, with the bishop taking first place. He assists the bishop, serves as a mediator between God and the human person, and confers all sacraments except for Holy Orders (only the bishop can do this) – which includes celebrating Mass and the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. The deacon holds the third position in Holy Orders, serves to assist the priest but reports directly to the bishop. Seminarians become transitional deacons on their way to priestly ordination, and as of Vatican II, laymen selected by the diocese can become permanent deacons. Their primary responsibilities include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching homilies at Mass, ministering the Eucharist, and serving the parish. They can baptize, as well as marry and perform funeral rites that do not include a celebration of the Eucharist. Consecrating the Eucharist is the realm of priests and bishops alone, and it is this action that renders the Mass Heaven on Earth.

As I continued to read, it occurred to me that Kubow may have been trying to make the point that evidence exists of women being ordained as deacons, or more accurately deaconesses, during the time before the structural hierarchy of the Church was established, when the only role of formal ministry that existed was that of the diaconate. And as the hierarchy strengthened, the role of deaconess met its demise. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, although I hesitated when I read the next few pages, as she cites dates that do not directly support the points she is trying to make. This tends to cause a bit of confusion and leads the reader to wonder which side of the debate she is advocating. This sense of uncertainty is disorienting and detrimental to the trust that should exist between reader and writer.

Kubow states in her opening paragraph that “the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith justifies their position by arguing that women have never been ordained into sacramental orders and that this has been the unbroken historical practice for the last two thousand years” (51). And she counters, but not for several pages, that “the constant tradition of which the Congregation speaks did not originate two thousand years ago, but was born in the twelfth century when the exclusion of women from the diaconate was formally established in canon law” (53). While her citations are factual, they are confusing as any student of Church structure knows the hierarchy was in place well before the twelfth century. And it is this hierarchy that eliminated the role of deaconess earlier than the twelfth century.

To my last point, that Kubow includes citations that misrepresent the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass, she writes that women are not able to invoke the Holy Spirit for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. She also states that the Church teaches that women are “incapable” of doing so as if to suggest that we lack the actual capability. She rightly clarifies that it is the Holy Spirit “who alone transforms the bread and wine into the Eucharist” (54). But then she quotes Fr. Bernard Haring as questioning, when speaking about invoking the Holy Spirit, “‘how are women inferior to men?’ Saying ‘this is my body’ has nothing to do with the priest’s own masculinity as he is not speaking in his own name; therefore women ‘can cultivate Eucharistic memory as well as a man’” (54). What Kubow has done in this one paragraph is cobble together a series of thoughts that do not belong together, and I will attempt to untwist them.

To her statement about the Church teaching that women are incapable of calling on the Holy Spirit, incapable is not the correct word. The Church teaches that this is not a question of capability but a question of role, which is evident in Kubow’s correct statement that transubstantiation – the change of the substance or essence of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ – is the doing of the Holy Spirit. Then there are Fr. Haring’s quotes which look as if they are mixed in with Kubow’s own thoughts, and that makes me question whether she is trying to tie together bits and pieces of what he has said to support her point. The Church does not teach that women are inferior to men. While society may have been responsible at one time for that interpretation, bolstered by the misinformed teachings of a few church leaders, the idea of male-female complementarity – God’s deliberate design of male and female, which together comprise the covenant of redemption – is evident from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The inclusion of Haring’s rhetorical question is as baffling as it is and distracting.

When a priest recites “this is my body” during the Eucharistic liturgy, he is quoting the

words of Christ to his apostles during the Last Supper. Throughout the whole act of consecration, the priest is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and because Jesus was a man when he was on earth and charged his apostles, who were all men, with the power to sanctify, we believe the role of in persona Christi is inherently male. There is a reason God created men and women differently, but as that topic exceeds the bounds of this paper, allow me to simply say that as we are different, so are our gifts. To wrap up the dissection of the preceding paragraph and answer the last sentence, yes, women have the capability to cultivate Eucharistic memory, but it is simply not their role. The theology is deep and wide beyond this statement; suffice it to say those who protest to the contrary are not giving that theology the authority and detailed study it deserves. It is inaccurate to say what the priest is doing during the liturgy is merely reminding us of the Last Supper, when, in fact, what he is doing is calling on the Holy Spirit to bring us into the sacrifice of Christ.

Why did I keep reading after plowing through Kubow’s first six pages, which were wobbly at best? Because right in the middle of all of this, she made a statement that is at the heart of this and many other issues in Christianity: “Only since Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante spiritu, issued in 1943, have Catholic biblical scholars been liberated to use the tools of historical criticism to assess the biblical foundations of church teachings. This suggests that the question of the ordination of woman has been considered in its modern formulation for no longer than 63 years” (54). Bingo! So, while I would approach any commentary she presented on theology or liturgy with skepticism, I felt her command of history might prove to be stronger.

Kubow’s historiography focuses on two historical assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Western Church: that a female diaconate did not exist, or, if it did, it was not authentically sacramental. To address the first, she reviews the destruction of the wealth of ancient libraries over the centuries, which is enough to make any historian cry. And she points out that much of what has been used as source material for the Roman Catholic Church’s contention is what it decided to adopt when the Catholic Church split in 1054 A.D. The richness, the details, and most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers come from the Eastern Church, which is a subtle but important detail when one examines the history of the relationship of the two churches over the last millennium. At this point, Kubow gets into some of the New Testament evidence in support of the female diaconate, and also cites a bit of what the Early Church Fathers wrote in support of it. Then she reaches 325 A.D., when Christianity was established as the religion of state under Constantinople. At this point, “the Church began attracting members of municipal ruling elites who were professionally trained for public life and experienced in public politics… the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches. By shifting church practice and ministry obligations from a largely private sphere into the public sphere, which was largely patriarchal in belief, practice, and law, the role of women was drastically reduced” (60). This is a rather unique thread.

Kubow then follows a path I have seen elsewhere, which nonetheless intrigues me and is bound to provide rich detail on closer examination. “Roman law in effect during the time of Jesus shaped much of Church law in the Catholic Church… As the Church became publicly institutionalized, it adopted Roman law as its own and in spite of a slight relaxation in laws (in later years)… the overall inferior status of women remained in place” (61). She makes a pivotal observation that “during the Middle Ages priesthood was redefined as a role of privilege, power and authority, not a life commitment to ministry and service” (77). And as we enter the medieval era, when religion was the underpinning of daily life, we see the “changing social status of labour and a shift from a generally private to public economic market” (64), which impacted both the role of women in society and the practices of the Church.

The change in the market economy and its impact is an interesting dynamic to ponder. She writes that “the primary purpose of mentioning these complex changes in labor, production and gender dynamics occurring in the secular sphere… is to provide a general understanding of the framework in which misogyny has been built into the very foundation of the symbol systems of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as natural, hence it becomes invisible” (65). And Kubow ties up this section with “It was medieval thinkers who constructed the theological framework that underpins the structures of ministry and hierarchy that society continues to uphold. They moulded the sacrificial focus of the priesthood, the feudal power structures of the Church, the exclusion of women from all authority based on Roman law which they had made the basis of Church law” (67).

The rest of Kubow’s survey consists of familiar ground, covering some of the ancient texts and a bit more of the primary evidence. Within the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 380 A.D., we see that “the female ordination rite, when juxtaposed on the male ordination rite, is essentially identical. This aspect is crucial when addressing the question whether in fact the female diaconate was fully sacramental rather than a service which was merely blessed” (70). Thus, Kubow observes, “it is evident that the exclusion of women from sacramental orders is based on patriarchal tradition, which was strengthen by Roman law, rather than a clear and convincing argument based on historical tradition, Scripture, or theology” (72). She goes on to write about St. Olympias, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Sienna, women she sees as having been particularly influential within the Church during their time (400A.D., 1098 A.D. and 1347 A.D., respectively). While none were deaconesses, the latter two are Doctors of the Church, a rare and distinguished title conferred to saints recognized by the Catholic Church as having particular importance, typically in their contribution to theology and doctrine. There are thirty-six Doctors of the Church, only four of whom are women (the others are St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both Carmelite mystics – the former from the sixteenth century and the latter from the nineteenth century).

Kubow offers that “patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy” (79). She concludes that “without the wisdom and collaboration of women in leadership roles, the church, a sign and instrument of unity with God and among all people, is diminished” (80). This echoes my sentiments exactly when I have written in earlier pieces that without the inclusion of women in significant, material leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church, something will always be lacking.

In this article, Magdalena Kubow reiterated threads I am familiar with and introduced new ones. As this article is meant to serve as an overview, there is plenty of detail to uncover in the course of digging deeper. My only surprise in Kubow’s work was the absence of any commentary on the impact of ancient Greek philosophy on Roman law and society, as well as on the thinking of the Early Church Fathers. Regardless, Kubow introduces her readers to a handful of wonderful sources and authors, as well as presents several areas to consider when examining why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.

An Afrofuturist Africana Womanist Affair

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The Sexy Part of the Bible
Kola Boof
Akashic Books, 2011

It’s easy to assume that Kola Boof’s 2011 novel The Sexy Part of the Bible contains long-lost messages from ancient sages, and perhaps it does, but not in the way one would think. The title, according to an audio recording of Boof discussing the book, comes from seventeenth century sermons delivered by priests of the Church of England and other churches to remind sailors and traders who were taking African women as wives that “white women are the virtue in the bible, her hand is fair; but the black man’s mother is the sex in the bible, her hand was wicked” (Boof).  The title serves as an assertive reclamation of African women’s bodies against the backdrop of colonial history. Reclaiming oneself, or a group of people, pushing back on the dominant cultural hegemonic narrative and reappropriating discourse as a way to not only name yourself, but place yourself in a space that upends the dominant narrative is powerful. What Boof does, in titling her novel, is confront the historicized devaluing of Black women and their bodies. She also challenges the notion of the binary construction of Black womanhood versus white womanhood. In The Sexy Part of the Bible, Boof uses an Afrofuturist and womanists metaphorical constructs to contest and up-end the notion that Black women, and thus their bodies, are wicked.

Afrofuturism engages in a “critique [of] not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also… interrogates and re-examines the historical events of the past” (“Afrofuturism,” 2011). I contend that Boof’s novel is an Afrofuturistic vision of west Africa that is a warning to readers about what can happen when colonialism, racism, sexism, classism, colorism, homophobia, patriarchy, and misogyny go unchecked and unchallenged. Academically, Afrofuturism has roots in the black American experience. However, with the spread of the American brand of blackness across the diaspora, its definition“[s]peculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture—and more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future” (Dery 182)is also not only applicable to Africa, but wherever Africans have been dispersed across the globe. Afrofuturism both in the academy and in the arts utilizes speculative fiction as a framework, and the end goals are also political in that they seek to “recover lost black histories,” “think about how those histories inform a whole range of black cultures today,” and “think about how these histories and cultures might inspire new visions of tomorrow” (Yaszek 2). In Sexy Part, Boof pursues the routes of Afrofuturism and Africana womanism to reclaim a space for black women, position them in a location of power, and envisions a tomorrow where black women are not objectified, or externally constructed as the other.

Womanism positions black women at the center, the norm. It allows her to engage in the process of individuation, which positions her as a full human, worthy of all the rights that come with humanity. Womanism respects her as an individual and by centering black women, womanism also removes the white gaze, the lens through which much of the Western world is viewed (Phillips, 2006). While womanism is a space to begin to explore Boof’s work, Africana womanism, which was coined by University of Missouri professor Clenora Hudson-Weems in the late 1980’s. Hudson-Weems writes:

The first part of the coinage, Africana, identifies the ethnicity of the woman being considered, and this reference to her ethnicity, establishing her cultural identity, relates directly to her ancestry and land base—Africa. The second part of the term Womanism, recalls Sojourner Truth’s powerful impromptu speech ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’, one in which she battles with the dominant alienating forces in her life as a struggling Africana Woman, questioning the accepted idea of womanhood. Without question she is the flip side of the coin, the co-partner in the struggle for her people, one who, unlike the white woman, has received no special privileges in American society. (22-23)

Kola Boof, herself, is an Afrofuturistic womanist and this is reflected in Sexy Part. Born in 1969 as Naima Bint Harith in Omdurman, Sudan, Boof’s parents “were murdered in her presence for speaking out against atrocities in Sudan” (Boof). After being taken to London, she was eventually adopted by an African American family in Washington, DC. Boof’s renaming allowed her to claim a space for herself in a world where she became alien. In a foreign land, amongst foreign people, she was able to create a black womanhood for herself that was pieced from past histories—Sudanese, Egyptian, and African American.

As Afrofuturism is grounded in speculative fiction, so is Sexy Part. The novel is set in a fictional country called West Cassavaland (then later the U.S. and Europe) and is centered around a female character named Eternity Frankenheimer, a pure black girl, whose name is an obvious ode to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We later find out that she is a clone of a woman named Mother Orisha, who was beaten to death in the streets by a mob because she was an outspoken critic against skin bleaching. Here, Boof is reclaiming and re-examing events of the past—the murder of Eternity’s parents. As Boof was displaced, so is Eternity who has no history to call her own and only knows what she has been taught by the couple who raised her—the white scientists who created her. Eventually, Eternity becomes a supermodel, actress and activist who opposes skin bleaching and later she becomes the partner of a wildly successful rapper turned politician, Sea Horse Twee, who becomes ruler of West Cassavaland.

The novel is strongly Afrofuturistic on several fronts. First, its location, racial makeup, and historical placement: the novel is set in “West Cassavaland,” where the “white ruling colonialists moved out, and the tiny mulatto elite … braced in horror at the thought of being ruled by the very blacks they’d been bread to look down upon” (106). Boof confronts what seems to be the constantly recurring postcolonial conflicts on the continent, particularly in West African and Sub-Saharan nations. The novel is grounded in a realism that causes the reader to critically engage what they know about Africa, specifically in places that have had ongoing deadly clashes within its borders such as the genocide in Rwanda where the German government in 1884, then Belgian government in 1919 created a divide by favoring the lighter-skinned, more European-featured Tutsi peoples, thus eventually instigating a war that would ravage Rwanda and surrounding nations (Prunier 23-6). Boof’s ruling class of West Cassavaland, a light-skinned group who are of mixed European and African heritage initially called themselves the “Bastars Elite” then “renamed themselves the Pogo Metis Signare in 1720 and proclaimed their allegiance to some unforeseen Fatherland in lieu of the Motherland (Africa) they felt ashamed of” (112).

Both the Pogo Metis Signare and Eternity speak to a central theme of Afrofuturism—alienation. Eternity’s alienation is derived from the fact that she is a clone, created in the laboratory of western scientists. The Pogo Metis Signare, though elite, are alienated as they are not fully African, nor are they European. In fact, West Cassavaland is a site of alienation as it is populated with distinct groups who are alien, detached, and inhabit a liminal space—the Ajowan who are killing themselves via the use of toxic chemicals and the “Michael Jackson pill” to bleach their skin, western scientists whose primary duties are HIV/AIDS research, foreign dignitaries, and the Pogo Metis Signare.

Eternity is not only the primary character, she is the narrator and the embodiment of Africana womanism in that she, in keeping with Weems’ definition, “battles with the dominant alienating forces in her life as a struggling Africana Woman, questioning the accepted idea of womanhood.” As a clone who presents as a woman, Eternity grapples with her identity as woman, African and human. As a dark-skinned, world-famous actress/supermodel, she also wrestles with the notion of being regarded as beautiful when the women who are prized in her country are either mixed raced or “boiled orange-colored” from bleaching (108).

In speaking of and for herself and the community that she belongs to, Eternity is practicing Africana womanism—having her say about herself as a Black woman, as well as the collective history of her people. While the language is simple, it evokes immediately recognizable imagery. In referring to herself after being passed up for a role about an African woman which was eventually filled by a lighter-skinned, more ethnically ambiguous actress, Eternity says, “My look, mind you, is not chocolate like Lauryn Hill, Whoopi Goldberg, or Naomi Campbell—it is pitch black shimmering like the purple outer space of the universe. I am the charcoal that creates diamonds” (41).

Boof told interviewer Jason Page that a white female reader contacted her because the reader identified with the pressure of trying to fit in and being something other than who you are. And that is what womanism does; it begins with the individual Black woman, allows her to be at the center of herself, but then pushes against barriers of gender and race to create a new world.

Once Eternity is free from the constraints of a world mired in racism, sexism, colorism, and corruption, what happens? How does the world work for her and her descendants? Easily, Sexy Part could be a trilogy or longer, however, in the end, I am satisfied, but like a gourmand, prepared and willing to overeat.

Works cited

Afrofuturism, Science Fiction, and the History of the Future.” Socialism and Democracy Online. 2011.

Boof, Kola. The Sexy Part of the Bible. New York: Akashik Books, 2011. Print.

Page, Jason. Kola Boof Interviewed on Her Book The Sexy Part of the Bible.” Internet Archive. n.d.

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delaney, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Black to the Future Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Mark Dery. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1994. 179-222.

Eshun, Kodwo. “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003): 287-302.

Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves. New York: Bedford Publishing, 1998.

Phillips, Layli. “Womanism: On its Own.” The Womanist Reader: The First Quarter Century of Womanist Thought. Ed. Layli Phillips. New York: Routledge., 2006. xix-lv.

Prunier, Gérard. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (2nd ed.). Kampala: Fountain Publishers Limited, 1999.

Womack, Ytasha. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2013.

Yaszek, Lisa. “Race in Science Fiction: The Case of Afrofuturism and New Hollywood.” A Virtual Introduction to Science Fiction. Ed. Lars Schmeink, 2013.