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“Human rights in the Church: a non-right for women in the Church?”

“Human rights in the Church: a non-right for women in the Church?”

by Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chenu

published in Human Rights. The Christian contribution, July 1998.

Proceedings of study days held on 30-31 January 1998 organised by Justice et Paix-France and the Faculté des Sciences Sociales et Economiques (FASSE) of the Institut Catholique de Paris on the occasion of the Fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights 1948-1998

translated for www.womenpriests.org from the French by Joanna Waller (see credits), and published on the Internet with permission of the author and the publishers.

In the field of relationships between the sexes, belonging as it does both to private and public life, to our deepest levels of consciousness and to our social structures, there is greater overlap than in many other areas between civil and religious society, between culture and faith. The issue of the particular status which religions, and especially the Roman Catholic church, accords to women, has become of increasing importance in the public mind over the last decade. Its significance in reflecting changes in modern life has meant that it has acquired an importance in the media well beyond the religious sphere. It has initiated debate along three main lines of tension:

  • The first appears between civil society and the Church as a discrepancy, or even an exception that is harder and harder to justify given the universal value accorded to human rights.
  • The second area of tension sometimes sets members of the same Church against each other. The particular status of women, and the justification made for this, result in serious theological debate that can help the life of the community, however.
  • A third line of tension lies between the various Christian persuasions, which no longer maintain the same traditional unanimity with regard to women, some of them having taken decisions in this respect with which the others do not agree.

In this discussion, we will only look at the first area of conflict, although they are all connected. The argument put forward is not that the issue of women is made a cause in itself, however justifiable that may be, but to use the exception of a non-right for women in a particular society, in this case the Catholic church, to question the ethical nature of the universality of Human rights.

We will first propose a few brief points to consider about the past, and then turn to the present situation and its challenges.

  2. Agreement

    Over the centuries, it will be remembered, there has always been agreement between the laws of the ecclesial institution and those of the civil institution, which were broadly alike, to the point where ecclesial law, and later canon law could be used to a certain extent to "theologise" current social norms. Thus, the prohibitions applied to women in the Church were based only on arguments such as their personal incapacity and their subject status with respect to men: "How can it be said that she (woman) is made in the image of God when it is clear that she is subject to the power of man and has no authority herself? She cannot teach, nor give evidence, nor act as guarantor, nor dispense justice; how much less therefore can she exercise power", states the Ambrosiater in the IVth century.

    Equivalence and subordination

    Christianity nonetheless showed itself to be prophetic with respect to civil society by stating the equality of the soul, of basic reason, between woman and man. This principle could not be followed without causing a distortion between the status of equivalence and that of the subordination of women, between what Thomas Aquinas called the order of grace and the order of nature.

    But this distortion did not commonly give rise to any criticism, the "natural" inferiority of women was assumed from the evidence, and it gave rise so automatically to their exclusion from ecclesial functions that, a few centuries later, as Suzanne Tunc stated, it was not even necessary to specify this. Canon Naz’s Dictionary of canon law (1953) stated that: "baptism grants a legal personality within the Church: it gives rights and imposes obligations that are attached to the quality of being Christian". Nonetheless, the same volume, under the heading Women, recognised "Canon law does have reservations with respect to women…(which) seem to be inspired either by a consideration of "imbecilitas sexus" or by a memory of the part played by the woman in original sin and the occasion of sin which she represents". Similarly, in his Treatise on canon law, written in 1954, Naz wrote, in paragraph 328, about the diminution of personality: "Christians are not all equal, neither in the practice of their rights, nor with respect to their obligations. These differences of situation arise from sex and from sickness."

    The 1917 code of canon law could reserve ordination to man (vir) alone without the slightest objection being raised, "naturally" renewed in the new code of 1983 (1). Until recently, in the Church as in society generally, some exclusions relating to women needed no justification.

    Nonetheless, there are many examples of Christianity’s progress ahead of that of civil society, in its respect for women, whether that involves personal consent given by a future wife before the match, or defending the right of young girls to keep their virginity, or taking on the education and instruction of girls long before it became mandatory.


New equality between the sexes

What is the position today on the agreement on the status of women in society and in the Church? In most civil societies, with the notorious exception of Islamic countries, equality of dignity and rights between men and women is sacrosanct. It is enshrined in the first article of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and repeated in numerous national constitutions.

It does not relate simply to changes in legislation: these are connected, both as cause and effect, to development on an unprecedented scale in social relationships. An ever greater degree of participation of women, competent and acknowledged as such, in all areas of civil society, as well as in some sectors of church life, goes side by side today with what the theologian Hervé Legrand identifies as a gradual decline in androcentrism. There is a certain acceptance in public opinion of these changes, as well as for the values relating to the new standards of equality between the sexes. Recent United Nations conferences on women focussed attention even more on both the progress and the delays in this area, and demonstrated the critical stance developing towards societies whose legislation and general attitude towards women goes against human rights and contravenes the new special conditions intended to eradicate all sexism.

As regards these conditions, the Roman Catholic church actually constitutes an exception which may be stated as follows: in civil society, sexism, although prohibited by law, still persists here and there in everyday life, while in the organisation and society of the Catholic church, it is still the rule both in everyday life and in the law.

Under these conditions, it may be wondered what remains today of the witness of Christian prophecy for our contemporaries. An ever greater section of opinion, both inside and outside the Church, denounces what seems nowadays to be a discrepancy which is all the more difficult to legitimise when other religious groupings – especially Islam – use the same argument of "religious" justification to impose cruel discrimination on women.

New conditions in force: The UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women

The first article of the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (Cedaw) (2) provides this definition:

For the purposes of the present Convention, the term "discrimination against women" shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women irrespective of their matrimonial status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

Article 5 states: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:

  1. To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women;

This is a new definition of the battle the UN intends to fight against what it has called sexism; religions are included in the definition by use of the discrete formula "customary and all other practices".

This same article 5 contains the core of the reasons for the difference in attitude held by the Catholic church and lay society with respect to women: the former expounds the richness to be found in parity by defining itself the differences inherent in each sex, as well as their reciprocal status and roles, while civil society, referring to UN standards seeks to show the properly human richness of parity, if the reciprocal value of the differences between the sexes can be freely established from the same rights, opportunities and responsibilities of each sex.

In 1995, the final text of the platform adopted by governments during the UN conference on women in Beijing also provided interesting information.

It states: Religion, spirituality and belief play a central role in the lives of millions of women and men…. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is inalienable and must be universally enjoyed…. However, it is acknowledged that any form of extremism may have a negative impact on women and can lead to violence and discrimination (art 24).

And: Governments must …condemn violence against women and refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women… (art. 124).

Official arguments used to justify the refusal to ordain women

The Catholic church’s refusal to ordain women is not the only prescription in force which limits the participation of baptised women in the fullness of life in the Church, but it will be admitted that it initiates or typifies other prohibitions. This is not a strictly theological point of view, but shows how the aspects of the debate affect the new Human Rights clauses.

The official line, provided from now on by specific texts (3), is no longer based on traditional arguments of personal inadequacy or the lack of legal standing on the part of women. The two arguments put forward as nullifying – the exemplary nature of the choice of the twelve male apostles and the symbolic value of the masculine image for acting in persona Christi – arise from the involvement of the relationship between society and the Church. Whether this involves the meaning given to a religious action in a particular society, or the interpretation of the symbolism applicable in present-day life, this relationship is does not fall solely within the competence and authority of the Catholic hierarchy. It may be noted that the semantic agreement between the cultural fact and the religious fact is no longer self-evident these days, which explains all the astonishment, reproaches or even accusations expressed, sometimes without the shades of opinion needed for the sake of the complexity of the debate, on the question of the status of women in the Roman Catholic church.

If the expression "rights of women in the Church" is not entirely satisfactory, and if recourse to the norms of Human Rights is an inadequate argument in the eyes of faith, it must be recognised nonetheless that the situation of the non-rights of women, together with their total absence from places of discussion and decision-making, appear more and more exceptional and illegitimate.

Finally, it may be remembered that historically, reactions and reflections arising from a situation of injustice towards women have often contributed to a deeper understanding and greater development of rights for all. This occurred in France after women were forbidden to vote for more than a century and a half, despite so-called universal suffrage.

Is the Catholic Church out of line with its own principles?

The particular stance taken by the Catholic institution towards women is made even more complicated by the fact that it has made a solemn undertaking not to discriminate on the basis of sex, contained in a conciliar text of 1964 which is almost word for word a repeat of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of which it emphasises the theological foundation: "Any kind of social or cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, colour, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design (Gaudium et Spes, art. 29, 2). The force of these statements is all the greater as they have been regularly restated by the Pope or his representatives, at the United Nations Assembly, as evidence of the church’s support for the cause of human rights.

These statements are also reinforced further by others which highlight society’s failings: It is deeply to be deplored that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere, as is the case with women who are denied the chance freely to choose a husband, or a state of life. (id.).

Human rights and the message of Christianity

Catholic authority is henceforth in a situation of three-fold paradox: it is in conflict with the cause of human rights in civil society, it is divergent from the other Christian churches and it is contradicting its own principles. This constitutes a sizeable challenge: if it wants to retain the exceptional situation of having reduced rights for half its members, along with an androcentric structure which is more and more disputed and fragmentary, it risks, on the one hand no longer being able to contain its internal disputes and on the other, of no longer being able to give credible support to the cause of human rights and related values. Can the Christian tolerate the reproach of being a cause of injury to the human being? Conversely, embarking on the progressive path of change could be to bear an astonishing witness that would be instantly written into the prophetic tradition of Christianity. Conscious of their deep solidarity with the human race and its history (Gaudium et Spes, 1), Christian men and women may even be astonished to discover that this rejection of slavery, racism and sexism, which are the three main planks of the message of Human Rights, are in accordance with the prophetic statement by Paul in the letter to the Galatians (3, 28). This statement was solemnly recalled by the Council (Lumen Gentium, 32) and later on in the Assembly of the United Nations: "In Christ and in the church there is, then, no inequality arising from race or nationality, social condition or sex, for "there is neither Jew or Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus".


  1. Canon 96: By baptism one (homo) is incorporated into the Church of Christ and constituted a person in it, with the duties and rights which, in accordance with each one’s status, are proper to christians…. This latter reference to the status is an addition to the former canon 87. Is this a status awarding difference effects of baptism according to sex, or is it an allusion to the ontological difference between man and woman? Cf. also canon 1024.
  2. Signed then ratified by the large majority of UN member states since 1980. At the time of the acceptance vote at the General Assembly of the UN in December 1979, representatives of Islamic states opposed it on the grounds that it was contrary to their religion.
  3. Cf. Inter Insigniores, 1977, C.D. n° 1714; Mulieris dignitatem, 1988; Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 1994, C.D. n° 2096.

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