According to Roman family law, the husband was the
absolute lord and master.
- The wife was the property of her husband and completely
subjected to his disposition.
- He could punish her in any way he liked.
- As far as family property is concerned the wife herself did
not own anything. Everything she or her children inherited belonged to her
husband, including also the dowry which she brought with her to her
In Roman civil law too women's rights were very
limited. The reasons given in Roman law for restraining womens rights are
variously described as the weakness of her sex or
the stupidity of her sex. The context makes clear that the
problem did not lie in womens physical weakness, but in what was
perceived as her lack of sound judgement and her inability to think
- Women could not hold any public offices.
- Women could not act in their own person in court cases,
making contracts, acting as witnesses, and so on.
- Women were grouped with minors, slaves, convicted criminals
and persons who were dumb and mute; that is, with people whose judgment could
not be trusted.
For details and references, read
The Right of Women According to Roman Law
The prevailing tradition of Romans and Hellenists
saw society as layered in higher and lower forms of human being. Women were
inferior to men by nature. We need not be surprised that this greatly
influenced the judgment of the Fathers of the Church.
The inferior status of woman was simply
- Both nature and the law place the woman in a
subordinate condition to the man Irenaeus,
Fragment no 32.
- It is the natural order among people that women serve
their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in
(the principle that) the lesser serves the greater . . . This is the natural
justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident
justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who
excel in reason, excel in power. (Augustine,
Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, §
- Nor can it be doubted, that it is more consonant with
the order of nature that men should bear rule over women, than women over men.
It is with this principle in view that the apostle says, "The head of the woman
is the man;" and, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands." So also
the Apostle Peter writes: "Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord."
Augustine, On Concupiscence, Book I, chap.
- The Apostle wants women who are manifestly inferior, to
be without fault, in order that the Church of God be pure
Ambrosiaster, On 1 Timothy 3,11.
- Who are there that teach such things apart from women?
In very truth, women are a feeble race, untrustworthy and of mediocre
intelligence. Once again we see that the Devil knows how to make women spew
forth ridiculous teachings, as he has just succeeded in doing in the case of
Quintilla, Maxima and Priscilla Epiphanius,
Panarion 79, §1.
Confirmation of the inferior status of women was
often seen in the belief that only man, not woman, had been created in God's
- You (woman) destroyed so easily God's image,
man. Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum,
book 1, chap. 1.
- How, then, would God have failed to make any such
concession to men more (than to women), whether on the ground of
nearer intimacy, as the male being in "His own image," or on the ground of
harder toil? But if nothing (has been thus conceded) to the male, much less to
the female. Tertullian, On the Veiling of
Virgins, chap. 10.
- Women must cover their heads because they are not the
image of God . . . How can anyone maintain that woman is the likeness of God
when she is demonstrably subject to the dominion of man and has no kind of
authority? For she can neither teach nor be a witness in a court nor exercise
citizenship nor be a judge-then certainly not exercise dominion
Ambrosiaster, On 1 Corinthians 14,
The Fathers also accepted Aristotle's view that
the father, as full human being, contributes the seed, while the mother is no
more than the soil in which the seed grows.
- So the soil, that is the womb, accepts the human race,
and she nourishes what is her own after receiving it , and while nourishing
this body, and while giving it a body, distinguishes it into various
members. Jerome, Letter to Pammachius.
- They shut themselves up alone with women and justify
their sinful embraces by quoting the lines: The almighty father takes the
earth to wife; pouring upon her fertilizing rain, that from her womb new
harvest he may reap. Jerome, Letter 133. To
- See also the excellent article by Kim Power,
Of godly men and medicine: ancient
biology and the Christian Fathers on the nature of woman.
The prejudice about women's inferiority is also
reflected in some of the rules laid down for women in Church practice.
- If the "man be the head of the woman," and he be
originally ordained for the priesthood, it is not just to abrogate the order of
the creation, and leave the principal to come to the extreme part of the body.
For the woman is the body of the man, taken from his side, and subject to him,
from whom she was separated for the procreation of children. For says He, "He
shall rule over thee." For the principal part of the woman is the man, as being
her head. But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted them to
teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office
of a priest? For this is one of the ignorant practices of the Gentile atheism,
to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of
Christ. For if baptism were to be administered by women, certainly our Lord
would have been baptized by His own mother, and not by John; or when He sent us
to baptize, He would have sent along with us women also for this purpose. But
now He has nowhere, either by constitution or by writing, delivered to us any
such thing; as knowing the order of nature, and the decency of the action;
as being the Creator of nature, and the Legislator of the
Constitutions, III, no 9.
- The same text is quoted in the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua ch. 41 which
was well known in the Middle Ages.
- Women are not permitted to speak at the time of the
Divine Liturgy; but, according to the word of Paul the Apostle, "let them be
silent. For it is not permitted to them to speak, but to be in subjection, as
the law also saith. But if they wish to learn anything let them ask their own
husbands at home" . Council of Trullo,
The Theologians of the Middle Ages, who accepted
both Greek philosophy, Roman Law, the teaching of the Fathers and Church Canons
as valid sources for their reasonings, inherited the prejudice of women's
- On account of three reasons the man is said to be an
image of God and not the woman. First of all: just as there is one God and from
him everything arose, so one man was created from the beginning from whom all
the others arose. Therefore to this extent he has a similarity with God namely
that as everything proceeded from this one God so all other human beings
proceed from this one man. Secondly just as from the side of Christ when he was
sleeping in death on the cross the origin of the Church flowed namely water and
blood through which are signified the sacraments of the Church through whom the
Church subsists and has its origin and becomes the spouse of Christ, so from
the side of Adam when he was sleeping in paradise was formed his spouse because
from there was taken a rib, from which Eve was formed. Thirdly: just as Christ
is head of the Church and governs the Church so the husband is head of his wife
and rules and governs her. And through these three causes the man is stated
to be the image of God and not the woman, and therefore the man must not be
like the woman a sign of subjection, but a sign of freedom and preeminence.
However, in a fourth way both the man and the woman are said to be an image of
God, wherefore we have the expression Let us make man that is
let us make him in our image and our likeness that is capable of
the divine essence through reason, through the intellect, through memory,
through genius and this is said both about the woman and the man.
Hugguccio, Summa, C. 33, qu. 5, ch.
- Women cannot carry any public responsibility . . . .
Women cannot hold any civil office . . . . Nature produced women for this
purpose that they give birth to children . . . The man is the image of God . .
. . The womb is the soil in which the seed grows . . ., etc. Johannes
Teutonicus, Apparatus, passim.
- Women cannot hold male responsibilities. This applies
even to noble women and abbesses . . . . Eighteen reasons why women are worse
off than men . . . Henrick de Sergusio,
Commentaria, I fol. 173r, 204v.
- Women are unfit to receive ordination, for ordination
is reserved for perfect members of the church, since it is given for the
distribution of grace to other men. But women are not perfect members of the
church, only men are.
Add to this that woman is not an image of
God, only man is. Guido de Baysio, Rosarium, c. 27, qu. 1, ch. 23.
- It is fitting that woman does not possess the power of
the keys because she is not made in the image of God, but only man who is the
glory and image of God. That is why a woman must be subject to man and be as
his slave, and not the other way about Anthony de Butrio,
Commentaria, II, fol. 89r.
Thomas Aquinas followed Aristotle in attributing
the conception of a woman to a defect of a particular seed. The male
semen intends to produce a complete human being, a man, but at times it
does not succeed and produces a woman. A woman is, therefore, a mas
occasionatus, a failed male. She is also not fully created in the image of
- Vis-a-vis [seen as caused by] the natura
particularis [i.e., the action of the male semen], a female is deficient
and unintentionally caused. For the active power of the semen always seeks
to produce a thing completely like itself, something male. So if a female is
produced, this must be because the semen is weak or because the material
[provided by the female parent] is unsuitable, or because of the action of some
external factor such as the winds from the south which make the atmosphere
humid. But vis-a-vis [seen as caused by] natura universalis [Nature] the
female is not accidentally caused but is intended by Nature for the work of
generation. Now the intentions of Nature come from God, who is its author. This
is why, when he created Nature, he made not only the male but also the
female Summa Theologiae, 1, qu.
92, art 1, r.
- In relation to that with which the meaning of an image
principally has to dothat is, in relation to spiritual naturethe
image of God is in man and also in woman.... In relation to something
secondary, it is true that the image of God is in man in a way not found in
woman. For man is origin and goal of woman, just as God is origin and goal of
the whole creation. Therefore the Apostle adds to the words, Man is
the image and reflection of God but woman is the glory of man, the reason
for this (1 Cor. 11:8f. ): For the man does not come from the woman but
the woman from man. Neither was man created for woman but woman for man
Summa Theologiae I, qu. 93 art. 4
- Wherefore even though a woman were made the object of
all that is done in conferring Orders, she would not receive Orders, for since
a sacrament is a sign, not only the thing, but the signification of the thing,
is required in all sacramental actions; thus it was stated above (32, 2) that
in Extreme Unction it is necessary to have a sick man, in order to signify the
need of healing. Accordingly, since it is not possible in the female sex to
signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it
follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order Summa Theologiae, Suppl., qu. 39, art
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To see how all this affected the lives of women in
the Middle Ages see The Mould for
The presumed inferiority of women entered Church
Law especially through the Decretum
Gratiani (1140 AD), which became official Church law in 1234 AD, a
vital part of the Corpus Iuris Canonici that was in force until
The legal situation of women under the Corpus
Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD) has been summed up as follows:
- By a principle of civil law, no woman can exercise a
public office. By Church Law women are equally barred from all spiritual
functions and offices.
- A woman can, therefore, not receive any ecclesiastical
ordination. If she receives one, the ordination will not imprint a sacramental
character . . . .
- No woman, however saintly she may be, may either preach
or teach . . . .
- A wife is under the power of her husband, the husband
not under the power of the wife. The husband may punish her. A wife is obliged
to follow her husband to wherever he decides to fix his residence.
- A woman is bound to greater modesty than a
- A woman is sooner excused on account of fear than a
man. She is dispensed from going to Rome to obtain absolution from an
L'Abbé André, Droit Canon,
Paris 1859, vol. 2, col. 75.
The Codex Iuris Canonici, promulgated in
1916, contained the following canons based on a woman's presumed
- A wife who is not legitimately separated from her
husband, automatically retains her husband's domicile, Canon 93,
- Only [male] clerics can hold the power of order or
ecclesiastical jurisdiction, or obtain benefices and ecclesiastical
pensions, Canon 118.
- [With regard to confraternities or pious unions
established to promote devotional or charitable works], women cannot be given
membership in them, except for the purpose of gaining the indulgences and
spiritual graces granted to the male members, Canon 709, §
- Only a baptized male can receive sacred
ordination, Canon 968, § 1.
- [In the canonization process] anyone of the faithful
can request that a case be instigated . . . . Men can act through themselves or
through a properly appointed procurator; women only through a procurator,
Canon 2004, § 1
The new Code of Canon Law (1983 AD) saw some
improvements in the status of women in the Church. Discrimination on the basis
of sex was removed regarding domicile ( c. 104), the place of marriage (c.
1115) or burial (c. 1177). Also:
- Women may serve as advisory judges in tribunals (c. 1421,
- Women may be authorized to preach in churches (c. 766).
- Women may be entrusted with the pastoral care of local
communities (c. 517, § 2).
However, the discrimination still continues in
- Only a baptized male validly receives sacred
ordination, Canon 1024.
- This entails exclusion from the power of governance in the
Church. In accord with the prescriptions of law, those who have received
sacred orders are capable of the power of governance, which exists in the
Church by divine institution and is also called the power of
jurisdiction, Canon 129, § 1.
- Only clerics can obtain those offices for whose
exercise is required the power of orders or the power of jurisdiction,
Canon 274, § 1.
It is a fact that many Fathers, canon lawyers,
theologians and Church leaders were of the opinion that women could not be
It is undeniable that this opinion rested, and rests, on
the prejudice that holds women to be inferior.
It is clear that this
social and cultural bias invalidated their judgment as to the suitability of
women for ordination.