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Does Catholic praise for Mary Magdalene show progress towards women priests?

Noli me tangere by Titian Image copyright Alamy
Image caption The emotional scene in John's Gospel in which Jesus calls to the grieving Mary Magdalene by name and she tries to touch him has inspired many artists. This is Titian's interpretation.

The gospels depict Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus' closest companions. Her emotional encounter with the risen Jesus and her supposed sinful past have fascinated Christians for centuries.

The latest of many films about her is released shortly. Its heroine, played by Rooney Mara, is billed as a young woman who joins "a radical new social movement" and "must confront the reality of Jesus' destiny and her own place within it".

There was amusement when cast members were pictured in ancient garb smoking on set.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has enhanced the saint's status. Last year her Saint's Day (22 July) was promoted to a Feast, equal to those of most of the male Disciples.

Explaining the decision, Archbishop Arthur Roche pointed out that she had long been known as "apostle to the apostles, as she announces to the apostles what they in turn will announce to all the world."

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption A bizarre tradition in depictions of Mary Magdalene shows her naked, but clothed with her long red hair. Terracotta by Andrea Della Robbia of about 1590

This refers to John 20:17, in which Jesus sends her to the disciples to tell them he would ascend to God - "apostolos" in Greek means "one who is sent".

The Vatican press office said that 22 July would be "a feast, like that of the other apostles." A special prayer for use at Mass on that day says Jesus honoured her with the task of an apostle (apostolatus officio),

This has coincided with what some believe are signs of a change in Rome's attitude on the possibility of women priests.

The announcement on Mary Magdalene, and the setting up of a commission to discuss the ordination of women as deacons - not priests, but able to preside at weddings, christenings and funerals is an indication to some of change.

Tina Beattie, Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton, says: "I accept that it has to be slow, it has to be sensitively done... But my own feeling is that something is happening".

What was said about the feast day was encouraging, says Pippa Bonner of the campaign group Catholic Women's Ordination. "As soon as we spotted that we shared that news around - I think that's a very, very positive step."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Pope Francis met Sweden's female archbishop, Antje Jackelen. But on his journey home he said Catholic policy forbidding women priests had not changed.

In 1994 Pope John Paul II declared "that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." Jesus had "called only men as his Apostles", The constant practice of the Church, he stressed, "has imitated Christ in choosing only men."

In November, while returning from a visit to Sweden where he worshipped with the country's female Lutheran archbishop, Antje Jackelen, Pope Francis was asked if his Church still ruled out women priests.

"Saint Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands," he said.

Asked again if the ban was permanent, he responded: "If we read carefully the declaration by St. John Paul II, it is going in that direction."

Prof Beattie comments: "Whenever he's asked to give a reason he always references John Paul II... I'm not aware of him saying that under his own Papal authority."


St Mary Magdalene

Image caption Paloma Baeza played Mary Magdalene in The Passion, shown on BBC1 in 2008.
  • Appears in all four gospels as one of Jesus's closest companions during his ministry in Galilee and Jerusalem in the first century AD.
  • She has colleges named after her at both Oxford and Cambridge, a distinction she shares with Jesus.
  • The gospel of Luke says seven demons had "come out of her". Mark says Jesus cast them out.
  • "Magdalene" seems to come from an Aramaic word for tower - it may refer to a place name.
  • Legend tells that she went to Gaul (France) in a rudderless boat and died there after a life spent in devotion and repentance. For centuries it was disputed whether her body was at Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume in Provence or Vezelay in Burgundy.

The idea that statements about Mary Magdalene and her "apostleship" contradict the rulings of John Paul II is discounted by many Catholic commentators.

"Many Catholics from the Anglican tradition will rejoice at her commemoration being raised to the dignity of a Feast, while thinking that the idea that this has any relevance to the closed question of women's ordination is entirely fanciful," says Fr Simon Chinery, spokesman for the Ordinariate set up by Pope Benedict as a home within the Catholic Church for Anglicans opposed to women bishops.

Image copyright Alamy
Image caption The idea of Mary Magdalene as a great sinner led to celebration of her as a great penitent, as in this haggard sculpture by Donatello (about 1455).

Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of the group Catholic Voices, says: "Declaring her day a Feast reflects a growing awareness that the role of women in the early Church was an important one, and needs to be recovered.

"But opening church leadership to women's unique gifts does not equate to opening the priesthood to women - at least that argument is not being made in any significant way in the Church at the moment,"

Arguments against women's ordination in the Church of England were ultimately unsuccessful.

But of course the Catholic Church is very different. In the CofE the argument over women's ordination went on for decades. But it was possible to say where it had got to by referring to the state of discussions in the General Synod. It could not have been stopped for good by a ruling like that of Pope John Paul.

Image caption Of all the hundreds of churches named after Mary Magdalene, the grandest is perhaps La Madeleine in Paris. Marochetti's statue on the high altar shows angels lifting her to heaven..

A change in doctrine can come as news to Catholics. And it can happen suddenly.

That was the case with Mary Magdalene herself. In the late 6th Century AD Pope Gregory I declared that she was also the woman in Luke 7:37 who "lived a sinful life", who washed Jesus's feet and dried them with her hair.

This fuelled the tradition that Mary Magdalene was not only a sinner (which Christianity says we all are) but a particularly colourful one, and inspired dozens of artistic portrayals of her ranging from ravaged penitent to borderline erotic.

But the revised Roman Calendar of 1969 simply declared that 22 July was indeed the day of Mary Magdalene, but she was not the woman in Luke 7:37. And that, after nearly 1,400 years. was that.

Is she, as the Anglican Rev Giles Fraser claims some see her, "the standard bearer for women's developing role in the Catholic church, and even... for women's ordination"?

The Church can hardly show it is moved by the late unofficial gospels - one of which talks of Jesus repeatedly kissing Mary Magdalene,; the recent crop of stories claiming she was actually married to Jesus; or the Rooney Mara film. And Pope Gregory's claims about her sinful life may be discredited. But all these things contribute to her prestige.

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