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Women were considered Ritually Unclean

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Women were considered Ritually Unclean

Through much of its history, especially in the West, women were considered ritually unclean.
According to Jewish tradition, a woman's monthly flow of blood put her regularly into a state of ritual defilement.
Similar taboos against menstruation existed in pagan Greek and Roman circles.
Through their anti-sex mania, the Fathers of the Church aggravated the fears of women's ritual uncleanness.
Church leaders were anxious that such uncleanness might defile the holiness of the church building, the sanctuary and mainly the altar.
In a climate that increasingly looked on all aspects of sex and procreation as tainted with sin, theologians considered that an ‘unclean creature’ like a woman could not be entrusted with the care of God's sacred realities.
Prohibitions based on the presumed ‘ritual uncleanness’ of women have remained in official Church Law for the last 700 years.

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 a ‘ritually unclean’ person could not be entrusted with the ministry of the Eucharist.
It is clear that this social and cultural bias invalidated their judgment as to the suitability of women for ordination.

The Jewish fear of contamination by menstrual blood

A key Old Testament text on the defilement by monthly periods is Leviticus 15,19-30 which can contains the following prescriptions:

  • “ When a woman has a discharge of blood, and blood flows from her body, the uncleanness of her monthly periods shall last for seven days.”
  • “Anyone who touches her will be unclean until evening.”
  • “ Any bed she lies on in this state will be unclean; any seat she sits on will be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed must wash his clothing and wash himself and will be unclean until evening. If there is anything on the bed or on the chair on which she sat, anyone who touches it will be unclean until evening.”
  • “ If a man sleeps with her, he will be affected by the uncleanness of her monthly periods. He shall be unclean for seven days. Any bed he lies on will be unclean.”
  • “If a woman has a flow of blood for several days outside her period or if the period is prolonged, during the time the flow lasts she shall be in the same state of uncleanness as during her monthly periods.”
  • “When she is cured of her flow, she will let seven days pass then she will be clean. On the eighth day she is to take two turtle doves or two young pigeons and bring them to the priest at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. With one of them the priest is to offer a sacrifice for sin and with the other a holocaust. This is the way in which the priest will perform the rite of atonement over her before Yahweh for the flow rhat caused her uncleanness.”
  • “The children of Israel are to be warned lest they defile the tabernacle that is set among them.”

These laws were made even more onerous and complicated in the rabbinical traditions that followed. The consequences for women were:

  • Every month, there were seven or more days during which she was ritually unclean.
  • She needed purification at childbirth; after the birth of a son a mother was unclean for 40 days, of a daughter for 80 days (Leviticus 12,1-8).

The taboo of menstruation in Graeco-Roman culture

A taboo against women during pregnancy and menstruation was common among many nations in early pre-Christian centuries. Not only were women considered to be “impure” during these periods, but in danger of communicating their impurity to others.

“Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. The Dead Sea, thick with salt, cannot be drawn asunder except by a thread soaked in the poisonous fluid of the menstruous blood. A thread from an infected dress is sufficient. Linen, touched by the woman while boiling and washing it in water, turns black. So magical is the power of women during their monthly periods that they say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the flashes of lightning” from Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 28, ch. 23, 78-80; book 7, ch. 65.

The Latin Fathers and the taboo of menstruation

During the first five centuries of the Christian era, the Greek and Syriac speaking part of the Church protected women against the worst effects of the menstruation taboo. The 3rd century Didascalia explains that women are not unclean during their periods, that do not need ritual ablutions and that their husbands should not abandon them. The Apostolic Constitutions repeated this reassuring message. In 601 AD, Pope Gregory 1 endorsed this approach. Menstruant women should not be kept out of church or away from holy communion. But this truly Christian response was, unfortunately, overwhelmed by an intensified prejudice in later centuries.

It was the Latin Fathers who re-introduced an anti-sex hysteria into Christian morality. It began with Tertullian (155-245 AD) who declared even legal marriages ‘tainted with concupiscence’. St. Jerome (347-419 AD) continued this line of thought, teaching that corruption attaches to all sex and intercourse, even in legitimate marriages. Marriage, with all its ‘dirty’ sex, only came after the fall. Small wonder then that Jerome too held that the ‘menstrual fluids’ make women unclean.

St. Augustine (354-430 AD) was no better. ‘Pleasure’ during intercourse was equated with concupiscence, i.e. the remnants of sin. Even in marriage, sex is a sin, a ‘venial fault’. The ‘pleasure’ [=concupiscence] of intercourse is, in fact, the means through which original sin is passed on. For the human seed is now corrupted. It is clear that for him a menstruating woman could never have served at the altar as a priest.

Church practice in later centuries

Already in 241 AD Dionysius, Archbishop of Alexandria, wrote to say that: “menstruous women ought not to come to the Holy Table, or touch the Holy of Holies, nor to churches, but pray elsewhere.” This was a rare voice in the eastern part of the Church in which, after all, women deacons served in all dioceses.

The real problem came from the West, from the Latin speaking dioceses of North Africa, Italy, Gaul and Britain.

  • The local Council of Carthage in North Africa (from 345 AD) introduced rules imposing abstinence from intercourse on bishops, priests and deacons.
  • Local Councils in France: Orange (441 AD) and Epaon (517 AD), decreed that no women deacons were to be ordained in their region. The obvious reason was the fear of menstruous women defiling the sanctuary.
  • Pope Gelasius I (494 AD) objected to women serving at the altar.
  • The diocesan Synod of Auxerre (588 AD) decreed that women had to cover their hands with a ‘dominical’ cloth in order to receive communion.
  • The Synod of Rouen (650 AD) forbade priests to give the chalice into the hands of women or to allow them to help in distributing communion.
  • Bishop Timothy of Alexandria (680 AD) laid down that couples should abstain from intercourse on Saturdays and Sundays and on the day before receiving communion. Menstruous women may not receive communion, may not receive baptism or visit the Church at Easter.
  • Bishop Theodore of Canterbury (690 AD), ignoring Pope Gregory the Great's letter to his predecessor, forbade menstruant women to visit a church or receive holy communion. Mothers remained unclean for forty days after giving birth.
  • Bishop Theodulf of Orléans (820 AD) forbade women to enter the sanctuary. Also: “Women should remember their infirmity, and the inferiority of their sex: and therefore they should have fear of touching whatever sacred things there are in the ministry of the Church.”

Scholastic theologians and women's ritual impurity

The rhetoric against women's presumed ritual impurity was continued by theologians in the Middle Ages.

  • “Women are not allowed to visit a church during menstruation or after the birth of a child. For a woman is an animal that menstruates. Through touching her blood fruits will fail to get ripe. Mustard degenerates, grass dries up and trees lose their fruit before time. Iron gets rusted and the air becomes dark. When dogs eat it, they acquire rabies” Paucapalea, Summa, Dist. 5, pr. § 1 v.
  • Women may not take communion to the sick and have to stay out of church after childbirth. Reason: “That blood is so execrable and impure, as already Julius Solinus has written in the book about the miracles of the world, that through its contacts fruits do not mature, plants wither, the grass dies, the trees lose their fruits, the air becomes dark, if dogs eat it they are afflicted with rabies..... And intercourse at the time of the monthly period is very risky. Not only because of the uncleanness of the blood has the desire to be restrained from contacting a menstruating woman: from such an intercourse a spoilt foetus could be born.” Rufinus, Summa Decretorum, passim.
  • Women may not touch any sacred vessel. The birth of a child carries a double curse: “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” Sicardus of Cremona, Mitrale V, ch. 11.

The supposed ‘ritual uncleanness’ of women led to many prohibitions in Church Law

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.

The ritual prohibitions against women under the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD) can be seen in the following examples:

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, contained the following canons based on a woman's presumed ritual uncleanness:

Reversal in 1983?

The new Code of Canon Law (1983 AD) saw many improvements in the status of women in the Church. While it retains the prohibition against the ordination of women, and reserves even the lectorate and the ministry of acolyte only to men, it finally reversed the Church's position by stating that women, ‘by temporary deputation’ may fulfil these ministries in the Church.

  • Women may be readers of Sacred Scripture during liturgical functions;
  • Mass servers;
  • commentators during the Eucharist;
  • preachers of the Word;
  • cantors and singers, either alone or as members of a choir;
  • leaders of liturgical services;
  • ministers of baptism;
  • distributors of Holy Communion.

Through this change in Church Law and practice the official Church has finally acknowledged, to some extent, that its prejudice against women based on ‘ritual uncleanness’ was unfounded. Why do Church leaders not draw the obvious conclusion that their ban on the ordination of women, which was based on this and other prejudices, is totally invalid?

In the past many Fathers, canon lawyers, theologians and Church leaders were of the opinion that women could not be ordained priests because their monthly periods made them ‘ritually unclean’.
If women were not allowed to approach the altar, touch altar linen or sacred vessels, could not enter a church during menstruation or after childbirth, and so on, how could they imagine women presiding over the Eucharist at the altar?
It is undeniable, therefore, that their opposition to ‘women priests’ rested, to a great extent, on the prejudice that women were a ritual risk.
It is clear that this social and cultural bias invalidated their judgment as to the suitability of women for ordination.

Read also: Uta Ranke-Heinemann, ‘Female Blood: The Ancient Taboo and its Christian Consequences’, from Eunuchs for Heaven, André Deutsch, London 1990, pp. 12-17.

John Wijngaards

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