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Women were considered to be in a state of punishment for sin
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Women were considered to be in a state of punishment for sin

Women were considered to be in a state of punishment for sin.
The biblical creation stories were interpreted as having put women in a permanent state of submission to men, by way of punishment.
The Latin Fathers of the Church held women responsible for bringing original sin into the world, and for being a continuing source of seduction.
Women continued to be condemned by the theologians of the Middle Ages.
In Post-scholastic times we find real ‘misogyny’ and even persecution.

It would be wholly inappropriate for such ‘sinful creatures’ to be chosen as channels of God's grace.

Misinterpreted Scripture Texts

The habit, in certain Christian writers, of blaming women for sin derives from a lop-sided interpretation of Scripture texts.

  • Genesis 3,1-16 describes the fall of Adam and Eve. Eve was seduced by the serpent and Eve in turn made Adam eat of the apple. They are both reprimanded by God, who says to Eve: “I will multiply your pains in childbirth. You shall give birth to your children in pain. You will long for your husband, but he will lord it over you.” Women's subjection to men was interpreted as a specific and inescapable curse by God, instead of just an example of how the hardships of life are punishment for sin: just as Adam has to till the soil in the sweat of his brow (Genesis 3,17-19).
  • 1 Timothy 2,14 blames woman (Eve) for being deceived rather than Adam, and thus for being responsible for sin. This text is clearly a rationalization which may not be treated as balanced theological statement.

No modern theologian interprets these texts as teaching that women are more guilty of sin than men, or that women's low social or cultural status is directly willed by God as a punishment.

The Fathers of the Church

The Greek Father St. Irenaeus (140-203 AD) presents a rather even-handed interpretation of the Genesis account. He blames the devil, rather than Adam and Eve. He holds Adam more responsible than Eve. He also shows real empathy with women when he comments on the plea by the mother of the children of Zebedee.

St.Ignatius too, another Greek Father (died 110 AD), has no grudge against women. Yes, the fall came through one woman, Eve, but redemption came through another, namely Mary. Unfortunately, later Greek Fathers, like Chrysostom had a much more negative interpretation of the fall and its consequences for women.

The anti-women rhetoric started especially with the Latin Fathers. Tertullian (155-245 AD) was one of the worst. Listen to this master piece:

(“Every woman should be ....) walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve,-the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium (attaching to her as the cause) of human perdition.
"In pains and in anxieties dost thou bear (children), woman; and toward thine husband (is) thy inclination, and he lords it over thee."
And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too.
  • “You are the devil's gateway!
  • you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree!
  • you are the first deserter of the divine law!
  • you are she who persuaded him (Adam) whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack!
  • You destroyed so easily God's image, man!
  • On account of what you deserved-that is, death-even the Son of God had to die!”
“And do you think about adorning yourself over and above your tunics of skins?” Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum, book 1, chap 1.

Also St.Jerome (347 - 419 AD) blames women for the fall from grace. Women can only overcome their guilt by childbearing, or by abstaining from sex and becoming virgins.

The same attitude we find with Ambrosiaster (4th cent. AD) whose writings were wrongly attributed to St. Ambrose. He manages to combine many prejudices against women in one and the same passage.

“ 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.
“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.” On 1 Corinthians 14, 34.

The local Council of Gangra in North Africa (325-381 AD) condemned women belonging to the sect of Eustathius who put on a male dress and cut off their hair to show independence from their husbands.

The subjection of the ‘whole female race’ to men as a permanent punishment for sin is also taught by St. Chrysostom.

The condemnation of women in the Middle Ages

The Decretum Gratiani (1140 AD) on which Church Law was based until 1917, 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 ‘curse of woman’, because of her sin, is simply presumed by many theologians of the time. Here is a quote from the Franciscan Sicardus of Cremona (1181 AD).

“There were two commandments in the (Old) Law, one pertaining to the mother giving birth, the other to the delivery itself. With regard to the mother giving birth, when she had given birth to a male child, she was to refrain from entering the Temple for forty days as an unclean person: because the foetus, conceived in uncleanliness, is said to remain formless for forty days. But if she gave birth to a female child, the space of time was doubled, for the menstrual blood, which accompanies birth, is considered to such an extent unclean that, as Solinus states, fruits dry up and grass withers at its touch. But why was the time for a female child doubled? Solution: because a double curse lies on the feminine growth. For she carries the curse of Adam and also the (punishment) ‘you will give birth in pain’. Or, perhaps, because, as the knowledge of physicians reveals, female children remain at conception twice as long unformed as male children.” Mitrale V, chapter 11

The same judgment is taken for granted by Johannes Teutonicus (1215 AD).

Guido de Baysio (1296 AD) links the ban against women priests directly to women being ‘the cause of damnation’.

“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.”
“Moreover, woman was the effective cause of damnation since she was the origin of transgression and Adam was deceived through her, and thus she cannot be the effective cause of salvation, because holy orders causes grace in others and so salvation.Rosarium C. 27, qu. 1, ch. 23

The same connection between the ban against ordination and woman's role in original sin is made by Joannes Andreae (1338 AD).

“Regarding the ordination of women . . . it is clear that the sacrament requires both substance (res) and sign (signum) . . . . But in the female sex a pre-eminence of degree cannot be signified since she occupies a state of subjection: (1 Timothy 2) ‘I do not allow a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man’.
For because she had made a bad use of her equality, she was put into subjection: (Gen 3) ‘you shall be under the power of your husband’.
Therefore she does not receive the character of the sacrament which possesses pre-eminence.” Novella V, fol. 125v.

Persecution of women in later centuries

A good idea of the misogynist theology of post-scholastic times may be had from ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’ by John Knox (1514 - 1572 AD). He was the best known protestant theologian during the time of the Reformation after Luther and Calvin. The main contention of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’ is that the exercise of authority by women is contrary to both natural law and religion. The interest of this lengthy treatise for us is that Knox's arguments reflect the beliefs of the day, both among Catholics and Reformers. Here is just one excerpt:

“ . . . God has pronounced sentence in these words: "Thy will shall be subject to thy husband, and he shall bear dominion over thee" (Gen. 3:16). As [though] God should say, "Forasmuch as you have abused your former condition, and because your free will has brought yourself and mankind into the bondage of Satan, I therefore will bring you in bondage to man. For where before your obedience should have been voluntary, now it shall be by constraint and by necessity; and that because you have deceived your man, you shall therefore be no longer mistress over your own appetites, over your own will or desires. For in you there is neither reason nor discretion which are able to moderate your affections, and therefore they shall be subject to the desire of your man. He shall be lord and governor, not only over your body, but even over your appetites and will." This sentence, I say, did God pronounce against Eve and her daughters, as the rest of the scriptures do evidently witness. So that no woman can ever presume to reign above man.”

The hatred against women did not remain with words. The actual persecutions that followed are beyond belief. To demonstrate this, consider a ‘Catholic’ book, the Hammer of Witches, written by two theologians, Jakob Sprenger OP and Heinrich Kramer OP. The book was endorsed and recommended by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 AD, and was used for centuries. It caused thousands of innocent women to be burnt at the stake. It is these publicly honoured, uncontradicted, widely quoted “theologians” who wrote:

“What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours.”
“It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives”.
“(When Eve answered the serpent) she showed that she doubted and had little faith in the word of God. All this is indicated by the etymology of the word; for Femina (Latin for "woman") comes from Fe (=faith) and Minus (=less) since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith”.

The Malleus Maleficarum , p. 43. It continues for page after page of vitriolic hatred of women.

It cannot be denied that much that has been written in our theological handbooks and a large part of the ordinary “traditional” interpretation of Scripture against women is an inheritance of this kind of theology.


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, among other things, on the prejudice that somehow held every woman responsible for Eve's sin.
It is clear that this religious bias invalidated their judgment as to the suitability of women for ordination.

John Wijngaards

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