Exclusion of women from the priesthood "cannot be sustained on either logical or historical grounds," a group of Roman Catholic biblical scholars have concluded after a major three-year study.

The report of a task force of the Catholic Biblical Association, published in the fall issue of the Catholic Biblical Quartely, contradicts the 1977 Vatican declaration that ruled out the possibility of having women serve as priests because women could not "image" Christ.

"While male leaders have been more prominent and numerous in the early church, and while women's activities may have been somewhat limited by what was culturally permissible, many roles which ultimately were associated with the priestly ministry were evidently never restricted to man," says the report.

Arguments against women's admission to the priesthood based on the example of Christ and his apostles, or on disciplinary regulations, or the created order as mentioned in Genesis, "cannot be sustained by New Testament evidence, "says the report of the seven-member task force, headed by Auxiliary Bishop Richard J. Sklba of Milwaukee.

The task force, which included three women, was commissioned by the association in August 1976 to study "The Role of Women in Early Christianity." That was before the Vatican issued its declaration excluding women from the priesthood, and was not intended as a response to that document, said the Rev. Joseph Jensen, of Catholic University, who is executive director of the Washington-based association.

The task force's report rebuts many of the points raised in the Vatican declaration approved by the late Pope Paul VI, and reiterated by Pope John Paul II, most recently on his visit to the United States.

The Christian priesthood, as understood today, began to be established around the end of the First Century or the beginning of the second, the report states. Different services that were later incorporated into the priestly ministry were performed by various members of the community -- including women.

"The New Testament evidence does not indicate that one group controlled or exercised all ministries in the earliest church," says the report.

"Rather the responsibility for ministry, or service, was shared by various groups within the community."

There is no evidence that women were excluded from any of the functions later associated with the priestly ministry, the study says. Women were instrumental in the founding of the churhces, held leadership roles, performed functions in public worship, taught converts and were prophets.

It says there is a "serious logical difficulty" with the historical agreement that exclusion of women from the priesthood was the intention of Jesus. The New Testament does not show that a "theological decision was made to exclude women from the priestly ministry."

It says that the 12 apostles exercised their roles as part of a wider circle not restricted to males.

"Nowhere in the New Testament are roles and functions later associated with priestly ministry explicitly attributed" to the apostles, the report notes.

The Christian terminology of priesthood arose in relation to the eucharist, as that gradually came to be understood as sacrifice. Very little is known as to who presided at the eucharist in the early church. While it is reasonable to suppose that the Twelve and the missionary apostles were among those who did, our only evidence is that prophets and teachers played this role, and prophecy, the charism, second in importance only to apostleship, is one which we are certain was given to women," according to the report.

"Thus the claim that the intention and example of Jesus and the example of the apostles provide a norm excluding women from priestly ministry cannot be sustained on either logical or historical grounds," it states.

Similarly, the report says exclusion of women from church office cannot be deduced from three passages ordinarily cited. In I Corinthian 11:3-6, Paul instructs women to wear a headdress so that new converts would not appear eccentric to others in their society. "The church has acknowledged the cultural contingency of the regulation by no longer imposing it," the report says.

Also in I Corinthians, 14:33-35, women are forbidden "to speak" in the assembly. "To understand these verses as barring women from the official function of teaching is unwarranted by text and context," the report says. "The context indicates that the prohibition is against asking questions or in some way disturbing the assembly."

Another passage, I Timothy, 2:11-15, in which women are ordered to be submissive and silent, is generally assumed to have been written in a later period, the report states, and is contradictory since it is known that women in Paul's mission prayed and prophesied at worship and also exercised the ministry of teaching.

"These three passages are pastoral directives concerning worship and are motivated by social and cultural factors. They can scarcely be taken as permanent theological norms relating to church ministry," the report notes.