The theory that women are inferior because of their sex and thus unworthy to say Mass reflects an ancient Mid-Eastern culture--Greek, Roman and Arab--and not that of a loving God who embraces all humanity. Propaganda about women’s inferiority has been exacerbated over centuries by a Catholic Church which indoctrinated followers in a false dogma. Worse, such doctrine was contrary to precepts of God and Jesus--of love, mercy, and charity.
Giogio Otranto, a 21st C Italian professor of Church history, shows through papal letters and inscriptions that women participated in the Catholic priesthood for the first thousand years of Church’s history. Recent American scholarship has produced an amazing range of evidence for women’s roles as deacons, priests (presbyters), and bishops in the Christian Churches from the first through the 13th centuries. [Gary Macy, The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination.]
Women priests clearly existed in the early church. But when the Church became a monarchial system by the third century it’s ambivalence about women priests increased. Women priests were resented; but they were necessary due to the cultural mores of the time. Strict separation of sexes and seclusion of women made it improper for males to instruct or visit women. So ordained women provided baptismal instruction; they baptized women at a time when adult baptism was by naked immersion; they made pastoral visits to sick women and accompanied women in dealings with bishops--all priestly functions. When adult baptism by naked immersion ceased and infant baptism became the norm, it was no longer necessary to have women baptize women.
Opponents of women priests appealed to an ideology that divided society into the city, a male domain, and the household, (oikos), a female domain. As the Church became increasingly institutionalized, these arguments that only men belonged in public life and women belonged in the home, carried greater weight. For example, in the fourth century, the Church resisted the practice of independent female asceticism because it threatened to emancipate women from men. Nonetheless, women priests continued into the Middle Ages. The sacramental symbols and powers of the priesthood are seen in medieval abbesses who wore elements of priestly vesture in procession, gave blessings, and received confessions of their nuns.
As the Church organized itself along the lines of existing Middle Eastern political structures, Jesus’ teachings of love, equality and justice were altered; and the Church view of women became increasingly odious and pervasive. Part of this attitude was due to culture, and part to a growing Church bureaucracy that struggled for increased control in a tumultuous time.
The Church campaign for dominion was successful but resulted, among other evils, in terrible denigration of women. As a result, until the mid-1960’s, the belief that women were never and cannot ever be priests due to their sexual inferiority was taken for granted.