Did the Vatican Hide Art That Depicted Female Priests?

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tags: feminism, Catholic Church

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.


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.

Read entire article at The Daily Beast

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