Church Law and Women Priests
Church Law was prejudiced in its roots
The Congregation for Doctrine's Commentary on Inter Insigniores makes this admission regarding the Decretum Gratiani, which was the beginning and main source for the Church's official Law, the Codex Iuris Canonici from 1234 AD until 1916 AD:
Quia mulier est in statu subiectionis. A similar formula is found earlier in the Decretum of Gratian (in Caus. 34; q. 5, c. 11), but Gratian, who was quoting the Carolingian Capitularies and the false Decretals, was trying rather to justify with Old Testament prescriptions the prohibition-already formulated by the ancient Church ( Council of Laodicea, can. 44; St Gelasius, Epist. 14, ad universos episcopos per Lucaniam, Brutios et Siciliam constitutos, 11 March 494, no. 26) -of women from entering the sanctuary and serving at the altar. Commentary, § 29.
The Congregation for Doctrine claims that the exclusion of women from ordination in Church Law was a proper theological reason:
From the moment that the teaching on the sacraments is systematically presented in the schools of theology and canon law writers begin to deal ex professo with the nature and value of the tradition that reserved ordination to men, the canonists base their case on the principle formulated by Pope Innocent III in a letter of 11 December 1210, to the bishops of Palencia and Burgos, a letter that was included in the collection of Decretals: Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was of higher dignity and excellence than all the apostles, it was to them, not her, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven.(Decretal. Lib. V. tit. 38, De paenit., can. 10). This text became a locus communis for the glossatores ( e.g., Glossa in Decretal. Lib. 1, tit. 33, c. 12 Dilecta, Vo Iurisdictioni. Commentary, § 34.
The truth, however, is this: the Decretum Gratiani and the rest of Church Law throughout the centuries has been steeped in the ancient prejudices against women.
- Church Law accepted the presumed inferiority of women as a proven fact.
- Church Law agreed with the state of punishment for sin which women were supposed to be in.
- Many laws in the Church's Code of Law were based on the presumed ritual uncleanness of women.
- The letter of Pope Innocent III, 1210 AD, on abbesses was just one theological reason with which the prejudices were covered up in later writers.
The presumed inferiority of women can be seen from all these passages in the Decretum Gratiani. Remember that the Church's official Law, the Codex Iuris Canonici was based on this from 1234 AD until 1916 AD!
- Woman signifies weakness of mind
- In everything a wife is subject to her husband because of her state of servitude
- Woman is not created in the image of God
- Wives are subject to their husbands by nature
- Women may not be given a liturgical office in the church
- Women cannot become priests or deacons
- Women may not teach in church
- Women may not teach or baptize
The legal situation of women under the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD) that depended on the Decretum Gratiani 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, still 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 Decretum Gratiani took over the judgement by Ambrosiaster that ascribed a woman's state of subjection to her role in sin.
Ambrosius (=Ambrosiaster) says: Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them. Their heads must be covered in church in order to honor the bishop. In like manner they have no authority to speak because the bishop is the embodiment of Christ. They must thus act before the bishop as before Christ, the judge, since the bishop is the representative of the Lord. Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive. Decretum GratianiCausa 33, qu. 5, ch. 19.
In a classic of contorted theological reasoning, the Decretum Gratiani even states that in the New Testament (which is a state of more perfect grace) women are allowed less than in the Old Testament, because now they have to carry the responsibility for their share in original sin! This reasoning is directly tied to the ban against women's ordination! To understand the following passage, one must distinguish questions (by a presumed outsider) and answers by Gratian himself.
[Question] May a woman lay an accusation against a priest?
[Answer] It seems not because as Pope Fabian says, neither complaint nor testimony may be raised against the priests of the Lord by those who do not have, and cannot have, the same status with them. Women cannot, however, be promoted to the priesthood or even the diaconate and for this reason they may not raise a complaint or give testimony against priests in court. This is shown both in the sacred canons (=Church regulations) and the laws (=Roman & civil laws).
[Question] But then it would seem that whoever can be a judge may not be prevented from being a plaintiff and women became judges in the Old Testament as is clearly shown in the book of Judges. So those cannot be excluded from the role of plaintiff who have often fulfilled the role of judge and who are not forbidden by any word of Scripture to act as plaintiff . . . .
[Answer] No, in the Old Testament much was permitted which today [i. e., in the New Testament] is abolished, through the perfection of grace. So if [in the Old Testament] women were permitted to judge the people, today because of sin, which woman brought into the world, women are admonished by the Apostle to be careful to practice a modest restraint, to be subject to men and to veil themselves as a sign of subjugation. Decretum GratianiCausa 2, question 7, princ.
The presumed ritual uncleanness 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.
- Women may not distribute communion
- Women may not teach in church
- Women may not teach or baptize
- Women may not touch sacred objects
- Women may not touch or wear sacred vestments
The ritual prohibitions against women under the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD) can be seen in the following examples:
- Women cannot be ordained
- A woman may not normally baptize
- A woman may not touch the corporal
- Women may not receive communion during their monthly periods
- Women should receive communion in their hand on a housel-towel or on the tongue
- Women should be veiled when receiving communion
- Women may not be singers in Church
The ridiculous prohibition for women to sing in church was reiterated more than once by the Sacred Congregation for Liturgy. Girls or women could not be members of any church choir (decree 17 Sept. 1897). Women should not be part of a choir; they belong to the ranks of the laity. Separate women's choirs too are totally forbidden, except for serious reasons and with permission of the bishop (decree 22 Nov. 1907). Any mixed choir of men and women, even if they stand far from the sanctuary, is totally forbidden (decree 18 Dec. 1908).
The Codex Iuris Canonici, promulgated in 1917, still contained the following canons based on a woman's presumed ritual uncleanness:
- Women are the last choice of minister for baptism
- Women may not distribute holy communion
- Girls or women may not be Mass servers at the altar
- Only men can be ordained to Holy Orders
- Women should have their heads veiled in church
- Sacred linen must first be washed by men, before women touch them
- Women may not preach in church
- Women may not read out Sacred Scripture in church
4. The letter of Pope Innocent III, 1210 AD, on abbesses was just one theological reason with which the prejudices were covered up by later writers.
Pope Innocent's letter ran as follows:
Recently some news has come to our ears, which has caused no small amazement, namely that abbesses, resident in the dioceses of Burgos and Palencia (in Spain), bless their own nuns, hear their confessions on crimes, and reading the Gospel give public sermons. Since this is both incredible and absurd, and not to be tolerated by us, I am sending to your discretion, through these apostolic writings, the order to suppress this firmly with apostolic authority so that it does not happen again. For although the most blessed Virgin Mary was so much more worthy and excellent than all the Apostles, the Lord did not entrust to her, but to the Apostles, the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Innocent III.
The argument in the letter, borrowed from Epiphanius, was, indeed, used by later Glossatores as a theological reason to justify the ban on women priests. The underlying reasons, however, were the standard prejudices of the time. They can be found clearly in the writings of the theologians who were instrumental in drawing up Church Law.
The argument itself is very weak precisely because, in the spiritual consciousness of the Church, Mary has always been seen as embodying a true priestly office in her person and in her work. This awareness revealed a true and latent Tradition of the Church, implying that gender is not a determinative element in the requirements for Jesus' sacramental priesthood.
Conclusion: From its inception with the Decretum Gratiani, the Law of the Church has been formulated on the basis of prejudice against women, often disguised behind specious theological or scriptural reasons. This is still the true, but hidden, reason underlying the present Law's ban against the ordination of women.
- Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chénu and Louise Wentholt, The Status of Women in the Code of Canon Law and in the United Nations Convention, Praxis juridique et religion 1 (1984) pp. 7-18.
- Marie-Thérèse Van Lunen Chenu, Human rights in the Church: a non-right for women in the Church? in Human Rights. The Christian contribution, July 1998.
- Kari Elisabeth Børresen, Religion Confronting Womens Human Rights: The Case of Roman Catholism, Ch.24 in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, ed. Tore Lindholm e.a., Derk Book, the Hague, 2001.
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