A few misinterpretations of scripture in the Vatican archive

2014 02 11 the perfection of twelve, 12-point star circles fit squares

In his document, “On the Dignity and Vocation of Women,” Pope John Paul II argues against the ordination of women to the priesthood on the basis that Jesus called only males to be apostles.

For support, the Pope invokes a scripture passage, Matthew 22:16.  The Pope says, “The assumption that [Jesus] called men to be apostles in order to conform with the widespread mentality of his times, does not at all correspond to Christ’s way of acting. ‘Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men” (Mt 22:16). These words fully characterize Jesus of Nazareth’s behaviour.

Here is the context for that passage from the NRSV which cleans up the male-speak in the version cited by the Pope and lets me know that in the text, the people characterizing Jesus’ attitude are his enemies:

15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap [Jesus] in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  (NRSV throughout this post except where noted.)

In this passage, Jesus does not fall into his enemies’ trap, instead he punts and does not answer their question directly.  Rather, Jesus says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  Clearly Jesus is able to “conform” enough so that he does not blurt out something treasonous and risk offending the occupying Romans.  And yes, Jesus was eventually murdered, so maybe he was not always cautious.  However, this passage where Jesus does not speak freely hardly supports the Pope’s contention that Jesus acted “in a completely free and sovereign manner” in calling only males to be apostles.  Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.  Maybe just like anyone, Jesus decided when to fight to change the social structure and when to just make the best of a situation.


Pope John Paul II quotes himself in a later document refusing ordination to women, so that document also is based on the same questionable logic:  “In the Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, I myself wrote in this regard: ‘In calling only men as his Apostles, Christ acted in a completely free and sovereign manner. In doing so, he exercised the same freedom with which, in all his behavior, he emphasized the dignity and the vocation of women, without conforming to the prevailing customs and to the traditions sanctioned by the legislation of the time.’”


In deciding whether Jesus was acting in conformance with prevailing traditions, perhaps one should consider opinions other than those of Jesus’ enemies as stated in Matthew 22:16.  Clearly, this passage in scripture does not support the Pope’s argument against ordaining women.  In some ways Jesus was very inclusive of women.  Whether Jesus felt “free” to go even further to include women, and instead decided to choose only men as apostles, is something we don’t know, and maybe can never know.

Pope John Paul II’s Mulieris Dignitatem has a second questionable scriptural reference.   The Pope wrote, “On Easter Sunday night [the apostles] receive the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins: ‘Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained’ (Jn 20:23).”  The Pope would have me believe that only the apostles, and by extension only other males, can hear confessions.  The problem is that in John 20:19-23, Jesus speaks to “disciples,” not “apostles.”  So clearly this passage in scripture does not support the Pope’s argument against women.  And in fact maybe has nothing to do with hearing confessions; rather with the obvious point that if you don’t forgive someone, then you “retain” that unforgiving attitude as a burden on yourself.

Yet a third questionable reference is Pope John Paul II’s assertion in Mulieris Dignitatem, “[The Twelve] are with Christ at the Last Supper. They alone [emphasis added] receive the sacramental charge, ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19).”  Setting aside the likelihood that “Do this in remembrance of me” may be part of a confusing edit (because Jesus “takes the cup” two times), the Pope apparently has overlooked the fact that in Luke 22:11 Jesus says he will eat the Passover with “disciples.”  While 22:14 has “apostles” taking their place at the table, it does not say “only apostles” were at the table, and Jesus speaks either to those apostles present or to all those disciples among whom they were seated (reclining as was the custom).  After dinner the “disciples” follow Jesus out (22:39). -1-  Matthew likewise has Jesus indicate he will dine with “disciples” (26:18) and hands the Holy Bread to “disciples” (26:26), and the apostles are present at the table (26:20), but a NRSV footnote lets me know that “other ancient authorities add disciples.”  Mark 14 is similar.  John has “disciples,” not “apostles” (13:5, 22), although some apostles are named.  John has “There was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved” (13:23, 25 (KJ21)).  A woman??

Since a Passover dinner is traditionally a family meal, it does not seem very likely that women were not seated at the table.  Did the women followers of Jesus cook the dinner and then excuse themselves while thirteen men ate all alone?  Such would have been quite unusual to say the least.  And if the apostles were not alone, then why assume that any sacramental instructions by Jesus were for the apostles only and not for the other disciples as well?

Who is there at the Last Supper?  Consider Luke 22:35 where Jesus says to those assembled at the Last Supper, “’When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?’ They said, ‘No, not a thing.’”  Compare that to Luke 10:1-4, where Jesus gives instructions to the 70 disciples, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”  (See also Luke 9:1-6 and Mark 6:7-13.)  Both the Twelve and the Seventy are messengers, not “priests.”  Both groups are “appointed” (Luke 10:1 and Mark 3:14-16). And the 70 have no specified gender.

I’m not implying that all of the Seventy were at the Last Supper (although they could have been if the room was big enough), just that attendance was not necessarily limited to Jesus and the Twelve, and Jesus was not necessarily speaking only to the Twelve.  So clearly the scriptural descriptions of the Last Supper do not support the Pope’s policy against women.

Mulieris Dignitatem spins the ancient symbolism of the Bride and Bridegroom that pre-dates Christianity:  “It is the Eucharist above all that expresses the redemptive act of Christ the Bridegroom towards the Church the Bride. This is clear and unambiguous when the sacramental ministry of the Eucharist, in which the priest acts ‘in persona Christi,’ is performed by a man.” (Emphasis added.)

One wit remarked that the Vatican’s peculiar symbolism of Jesus-Bridegroom-and-Church-Bride would work better if only women were in the pews (as brides) and no men were allowed to sit in the pews.

If we must have males to represent the sacrificed Bridegroom, then we need to have females to represent the weeping Goddess-Bride who brings the gifts or shares the gifts on her Tree of Life.  Or we can just be sensible about this, like those Christians of the first century who had one baptism for all, one baptism in which there is neither male nor female (Galatians 3:28).

We can be sensible and recognize that the historical Jesus did not make any priests, and certainly did not ask anyone to play-act at being Jesus-the-Bridegroom in a ceremony.  Jesus only asked people to “do this in memory” of him.  Anyone, male or female, can share the holy bread and remember Jesus.

I was disappointed in the scriptural arguments used by the Vatican to refuse ordination to women.  I have to wonder what sort of review these two documents received before publication?

Sad that the vast majority of people in the pews will never even glance at these two Vatican documents and I admit I may not have bothered to read them through, only cutting and pasting and saving a few paragraphs; the thinking in the documents is not very inviting.  So the Vatican is assured that the few who actually click on the documents and read them through and who have actually read the scripture, will be an extremely tiny minority.  The Vatican can make up whatever anti-women policies they want, call it “dogma” or “definitive” or infallible or whatever they want, and most people in the pews just continue snoozing.

What would happen if the Church did everything exactly as Jesus did in choosing apostles?

(1) Jesus selected twelve apostles as messengers.   So the Church could have no more than 12 messengers (or no more than 12 plus 70) and no other missionaries and no priests, following the logic of the Vatican that everything had to be the same.

(2)  The twelve apostles selected by Jesus were Jewish.  The Church members would have to be Jewish.

(3)  The twelve apostles were likely married.  All Church hierarchs would have to be married.

(4)  Jesus and the twelve apostles were circumcised, so . . . . (ahem).

(5)  All the twelve apostles, except for John??, died at a young age.  So all priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes would have to retire at age 40.

(6)  The twelve apostles spoke Aramaic?? And so all church members would have to speak Aramaic also.

(7)  The twelve apostles were all born in the occupied Land of Israel.  Membership would be limited to such.

(8)  If the twelve apostles wore untrimmed beards, then all men in the church would have to do likewise, even the Pope.

(9)  We can surmise that none of the apostles wore perky red hats, lace skirts, or pointy red shoes.  So none of the cardinals could either.

(10)  Jesus selected fishermen and a tax collector, etc. to be among the Twelve.  Only males with experience in such occupations need apply.

(11)  The apostles were not princes, but community leaders.  Jesus did not establish a hierarchy, in fact discouraged such (Matthew 20:25-28), so all hierarchs would have to learn how to be facilitators rather than princes.

(12)  It is a good bet that none of the 12 apostles ever used a plastic toothbrush or rode in a jet.  I am not advocating that the bishops stay home and not brush their teeth, but are they really like the 12 apostles?

And so on . . . .

If we agree with Paul, the 13th apostle, that a little piece of circumcisable male foreskin is not relevant to the spiritual life, then maybe the whole organ is not relevant spiritually or sacramentally (Galatians 5:6).

The Vatican could take a cue from the 15th apostle named as such, Junia.  She was in Christianity ahead of Paul (Romans 16:7) and did not discriminate against him because he was male; rather, she was willing to work with him.  Would that all who claim to be heirs to the apostles could be as magnanimous as the apostle Junia!

Consider also that Mary Magdalene is shown as apostle (messenger) to the apostles after the resurrection.  Likewise, the Samaritan woman is shown as an apostle (messenger) to her own village.  Mary of Bethany “choosing the better part” and listening quietly at Jesus’ feet as a disciple may have also been such a messenger.  The Vatican needs a better explanation for why, in their view, women should not be priests.  “The 12 apostles were men” doesn’t work for me.

Yes, the twelve apostles were male.

So what?

While the texts often refer to the group of apostles as the “Twelve” it does not seem that the biblical authors were utterly devoted to the idea of the Twelve as an institution (as is the Vatican) because in fact there are 14 or more names given for these 12 men, so either the names of the men were not definitely established even at the time of writing, or the writers had some purpose in listing names, such as making symbolism.  “The Twelve” may simply symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel and the patriarchal writer was not going to have women in the mix.  The historical Jesus, if other passages are more correct, had a motley bunch of followers, including women, and his financial backers were women (Luke 8:2-3).

I don’t think it is wise to make the Twelve into an institution around which to build a misogynist church which is primarily structured on the principles of hierarchical dominance characteristic of the Roman empire which murdered Jesus.  It would be better to build a church around the principles of love, justice, sharing, and inclusivity that Jesus preached.

Regardless of how liturgies are formulated, there is no excuse for a hierarchy that is 100 percent male.  There is no reason why a bishop or a parish administrator needs to be an ordained male.  There is no excuse for the second class role of women in the church, and women who are pew-sitters need to reflect on why they tolerate this role for themselves.  Men who are pew-sitters need to reflect on why they tolerate a second class role for the women in their lives.

We don’t expect that the first-century Jesus would right all the wrongs of his century, but two thousand years later?  In the Vatican’s Church, people are still waiting for liturgies and church governmental structures that make sense.

The apostles, who were not priests, were all male, so no women may be ordained?? huh??  Sadly, even some women have no problem with that argument.


NRSV used throughout this post except where noted.

Posted February 12, 2014


  1. truleeyours says:

    Regarding the Last Supper, Sara has commented: “In Mark’s version there have to be others present, because some (other) disciples have set up the room before Jesus arrives with the Twelve.” Very good point.

  2. truleeyours says:

    One of the major arguments in JPII’s MD is that Jesus spoke to ‘apostles’ in John 20:19-23, but no, Jesus spoke to ‘disciples.’ However, the NABRE, perhaps to support MD, says, “The disciples: by implication from Jn 20:24 this means ten of the Twelve.” No. In 20:24, Thomas as “one of the 12” just means Thomas was a member of the 12, not that other members were necessarily present.

  3. truleeyours says:

    Jesus said ‘do this in memory of me’ to all apostles and disciples present. Compare Luke 22:35 and Luke 10:1-4. The key is who is without “purse, bag, sandals.” It is the 70 (gender not specified). So not just the 12.

  4. truleeyours says:

    The idea that a priest is “in persona Christi Capitis,” meaning that he represents Jesus the Head of the Christ, is a recently blossomed idea with Vatican II. It comes from 2Co 2:10 which is mistranslated in the Vulgate to mean “in the person of” (now correctly translated in the Catholic NABRE on the Vatican website to mean “in the presence of”). Aquinas wrote one sentence on the mistranslation (thinking it was correct). A Pope in 1947 wrote one sentence on Aquinas’. The Baltimore Catechism has nothing on “in persona.” And yet this pope wants me to believe this is part of the faith tradition, that the priest is like unto a god, a representative of Jesus no less. Nonsense. See #1548 in the Catechism for history

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