Catholic Objections to Women’s Altar Service: Barred from the Sacred

by Phyllis Zagano

The question of women deacons continues to be discussed in the Catholic Church, and questions about women are again in the news. Whether the discussion is about priestly celibacy or about ordaining women to the diaconate, the common denominator is that women are unclean. In the Roman Catholic Church, marriage is a diriment impediment for priestly orders and women cannot be ordained as deacons. The below is excerpted from Chapter 3, “Altar Service” in Phyllis Zagano’s forthcoming Paulist Press book Women: Icons of Christ, which traces the development of the diaconal ministries performed by women, ordained and not ordained as deacons.

Cover, Women: Icons of Christ by Phyllis ZaganoBARRED FROM THE SACRED

What is the problem with women at the altar?

We can begin with a view from the fourteenth century. Matthew Blastares was a Byzantine monk, theologian, and canonist. Around 1335, he published a work known as the Syntagma, a compilation of then-known ecclesiastical laws….Blastares’s alphabetically arranged work cites canons from the Nomocanon, and it became well-known and well-used, as it presented Church law and civil law where applicable in twenty-four cross-referenced divisions.

As a commentator on laws, Blastares has something interesting to say about women deacons. From his fourteenth-century vantage point, he wrote,

Hardly anyone, however, now knows what ministerial service women deacons fulfilled in the clerical office at that time. But there are those who say that they used to minister to those women who were candidates for baptism, since it was not right for the eyes of men to look upon these women when they were being disrobed, since when they were being baptized they were already well-developed sexually. But others say that it was permitted for these women to approach even the holy altar and to go about the [tasks] of the male deacons much like them. But they have been prevented by later Fathers both from ascending to this and from pursuing the [tasks] of this ministerial service because of the involuntary flow of their menses. But that the holy altar was accessible long ago also to women is something that has been inferred from many other things, and especially from the epitaph that the great Gregory the Theologian has composed for his sister.[1]

Blastares pretty much sums it up. Women cannot approach the sacred. They did serve at the altar, much as male deacons did, but later regulations viewed them unsuitable “because of the involuntary flow of their menses.” Women, Blastares reports, were considered unclean. Things have not changed that much.

Not long ago, I heard about a visiting bishop scheduled to celebrate a baccalaureate Mass at a small coed college in the Southeastern United States. When told there would be female students assisting as lectors and acolytes at the Mass, he exclaimed, “No woman is touching my miter.” He is still a diocesan bishop. His attitude perdures in too many places and seems embedded for whatever reasons within the minds of many, including those clerics who refuse to allow female acolytes.

Local legislations began to restrict women from the altar early on. Canon 44 of the fourth- century Synod of Laodicea (Sicily) states, “Women may not go near the altar.” The restriction is clear, and it is definite.

As noted above, even Pope Gelasius I (d. 496) complained: “With impatience, we have heard that divine things have undergone such contempt that women are encouraged to serve at the sacred altars, and that all tasks entrusted to the service of men are performed by a sex for which these [tasks] are not appropriate.”[2]

It is possible that Pope Gelasius was more interested in asserting his authority over the East and, consequently, over Eastern liturgical practices, than anything else. But Gelasius’s apparent disgust at Eastern women near the altar seems to have been inherited elsewhere in the West. Later canons, from local synods in present-day Portugal and France, repeated the admonition. However, the repeated legislations by small, local assemblies of Western bishops against women’s altar service prove a simple point: at the time these rulings came into being, women, probably women ordained as deacons, were serving at the altar.

Later, sixth-century complaints of bishops in Gaul (France) over the practice of two priests allowing women to “hold the chalices and presume to administer the blood of Christ to the people of God” may indeed have more to do with the fact that the women were, at the very least, traveling companions of the priests. Even so, the growing unease about priests touching women only served to support the ban on women near the sacred. It did not matter if the priests were married to the women involved.

*From Women: Icons of Christ by Phyllis Zagano, available February 14, 2020.


[1] Matthew Blastares, Syntagma Canonum, columns 1173–76 (Migne, PL 144), trans. Steven D. Smith. St. Macrina the Younger (324–79) is venerated as a deacon in the Orthodox liturgical calendar. Historical restrictions against ordaining women under the age of sixty, or forty-two, or forty are probably intended to include only women without responsibilities to children, and to all post-menopausal women.

[2] “Impatienter audivimus, tantum divinarum rerum subiisse despectum, ut feminae sacris altaribus ministrare firmentur, cunctaque non nisi viorum famulatatui deputata sexum, cui non competent, exhibere.” J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio (Paris, 1901), 8:44, cap. 26. Alternatively translated, “We have heard to our distress that contempt of divine things has reached such a state that women are encouraged to serve at sacred altars (ministrare sacris altaribus) and to perform all the other tasks that are assigned only to the service of men and for which they [women] are not appropriate.” Kevin Madigan and Carolyn Osiek, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 186–88.


Phyllis Zagano is Senior Research Associate-in-Residence and Adjunct Professor of Religion at Hofstra University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.