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Women were considered Inferior Creatures

Throughout the Church's history, women have been considered inferior by nature and by law.
Greek philosophy which was adopted by Christians, held women to be inferior to men by nature.
Roman law, which became the basis for the Church's laws, gave women a low status in society. Women did not enjoy equal rights in their homes and in civic society.
Some Fathers of the Church linked women's presumed inferior status to scriptural texts: only the man, they said, was created in God's image. Moreover, Paul had forbidden women to teach in church.
‘Church Orders’of the first millennium also show traces of the belief in women's inferiority
Theologians too copied this line of thinking, integrating the anti-women views of Greeks and Romans into their theological reasonings.
Church lawyers formulated Church Law on the basis of Roman Law, and on the negative statements of Fathers and local Church Councils.

Knowing this background, we need not be surprised to find that the vast majority of Fathers, canon lawyers, theologians and Church leaders were of the opinion that such an ‘inferior creature’ could not be ordained a priest.
It is clear that this social and cultural bias invalidated their judgment as to the suitability of women for ordination.

Women are ‘inferior by nature’ according to Plato and Aristotle

According to Plato (427 - 347 BC), women came about through a physical degeneration of the human being. “It is only males who are created directly by the gods and are given souls. Those who live rightly return to the stars, but those who are ‘cowards’ or [lead unrighteous lives] may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation.”

Aristotle (384 - 322 BC) considered women ‘defective’ human beings.

  • Women were ‘infertile males’. “The female, since she is deficient in natural heat, is unable to ‘cook’ her menstrual fluid to the point of refinement, at which it would become semen (i.e. ‘seed’). Therefore her only contribution to the embryo is its matter, and a ‘field’ in which it can grow”. Her inability to produce semen is her deficiency.
  • The reason why the man dominates in society is his superior intelligence. Only the man is a full human being. “The relationship between the male and the female is by nature such that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female is ruled.”

Greek doctrine of 'Natural Law' had many consequences for the Christian sexual code, affecting the status of women, contraceptives, homosexuality and nudism.

Roman Law attributed to women a very low status

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 marriage.

In Roman civil law too women's rights were very limited. The reasons given in Roman law for restraining women’s 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 women’s physical weakness, but in what was perceived as her lack of sound judgement and her inability to think logically.

  • 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 Fathers of the Church saw woman as inferior

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 accepted.

  • “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, § 153.
  • “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. 10.
  • “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 image.

  • “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, 34.

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.

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Early ‘Church Orders’ and women's lower status

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 constitutionApostolic 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, canon 70.

Theologians accepted the inferiority of women

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 inferiority.

  • “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. 13.
  • “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 God.

  • “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 do—that is, in relation to spiritual nature—the 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 ad 1.
  • “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 OrderSumma Theologiae, Suppl., qu. 39, art 1.

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To see how all this affected the lives of women in the Middle Ages see “The Mould for Medieval Women”

Church Law enshrined the inferiority of women

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 1916.

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 man.”
  • “A woman is sooner excused on account of fear than a man. She is dispensed from going to Rome to obtain absolution from an excommunication.”

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 inferiority:

  • “A wife who is not legitimately separated from her husband, automatically retains her husband's domicile”, Canon 93, § 1.
  • “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, § 2.
  • “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, § 2).
  • 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 other areas:

  • “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 ordained priests.
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.

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John Wijngaards

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