A woman archeologist says she has discovered mosaics and other artifacts dating to the first centuries of Christianity that depicts women as priests and bishops. The report has stirred both excitement and skepticism among Roman Catholic leaders.
Dorothy Irvin, who is on the theology faculty at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minn., says she has uncovered "archeological evidence (which) shows women as receiving ordination and exercising ministry on a par with men."
If further scholarly investigation should prove Irvin's findings and inpretations correct, it could have major implications for the Roman Catholic Church.
A 1977 Vatican statement says women may not be ordained to the Catholic priesthood because they do not bear a physical likness to the male Christ and because of the church's tradition of a male priesthood.
Irvin has discovered and photographed a variety of artifacts that she says disproves the latter point. These include:
Frescoes in the catacombs in Rome showing women "receiving ordination from a bishop" and another fresco in the catacombs of Priscilla which she says depicts seven women celebrating the eucharist. When the latter fresco was reproduced later in a mosaic for a chapel, Irvin said that "most of the women have been changed to men" and a beard has been added to the face of the celebrant, who Irvin maintains was depicted in the original fresco as a woman.
Inscriptions on tombstones or for "legal-financial purposes" name women as priests, "ruler of the synagogue" and "mother of the synagogue," titles that Irvin said were used by Jewish and Christian communities at the time.
Tombstone inscriptions for women bishops.
A mosaic in Rome's Church of St. Praxedis portraying "Bishop Theodora," using the feminine form of the Latin word for bishop.
Medieval carvings and paintings in a small German museum of "women holding the host and chalice, of women preaching and of women singing the office, all public liturgical acts for which ordination was required," Irvin said.
Irvin, who is trained in both theology and archeology and holds a doctorate in Old Testament from the German University of Tuebingen, has been going around to parish and other groups for the last six or seven years giving illustrated slide lectures on her findings.
Her theories came to a wider audience last week with the publication of an article in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent Catholic weekly.
A number of church scholars, asked for comment, hesitated to respond because they lacked expertise in the highly specialized area of study.
Even those familiar with the field were hesitant.
"I just don't know what so say," said the Rev. James Ramsay, of the Dominican House of Studies, who also teaches at Catholic University.
Ramsay, whose area of scholarship roughly parallels Irvin's added, "I can't dismiss it out of hand . . . It could be a collection of curiosities or it could really be something." He expressed interest in studying Irvin's photographs."
"What she is talking about is not borne out by any of the written texts," he said.
Irvin readily agreed to that point, but said that the type of research she is involved in bridges two specialties, as few scholars have done before.
"There are the theologians who study the texts and the art historians who are concerned with the images, and they don't really meet," she said.
Bishop F. Joseph Gossman of Raleigh, N.C., who saw Irvin's slide lectures when she was teaching in his area, said he was "impressed with her apparent scholarship," though he added that he was not an expert.
A spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said the hierarchy was not likely to take a position on Irvin's work. "Like most othr scholarly work, it needs to be submitted to other scholars for further study" before the church could be expected to take any action, he said.
Dr. Leonard Swidler, a leader in the movement for the ordination of women and a professor of church history at Temple University, asserted that Irvin's work is "not just a repetition of a known argument. While the evidence that she presents is not something that no one has ever seen before, it has never been looked at in this way before."
He conceded, however, that "it's not going to turn Rome around" in its views on ordaining women even though Irvin, whom he said he has known for 20 years, is "a very good scholar."
Irvin said in a telephone interview that "turning Rome around" was not necessarily her objective. "I don't know anything about church politics," she said. "For me, it's just a question of scholarship."