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Innocent III and the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven by E. Ann Matter from 'Women Priests'

Innocent III and the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven

by E. Ann Matter

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 145-151.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

E. Ann Matter received her Ph. D. from Yale University. She was at the time Historian of Christian Doctrine and Spirituality in the Department of Religious Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. She has presented papers at the 1976 Berkshire Conference and the 1977 SEMA Conference.

It should be noted first of all that this portion of the Declaration is not an argument based on Scripture, nor does it have much to do with the Blessed Virgin Mary. There is, of course, a biblical passage to which Innocent III here alludes: Matthew 16:19, the promise of the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power of binding and loosing to Simon Peter, the disciple who first witnessed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But any reference in this verse to the priesthood as a whole is derivative—in the opinion of tradition—from the institution of the papacy through that one disciple, Peter.

The power of the Church in general, and of the papacy in particular, was a special concern of this thirteenth century occupant of the Holy See. The power was clearly understood to be political and temporal as well as spiritual and eternal, following Christ’s promise “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” As one modern historian has pointed out, the pontificate of Innocent III stands at the apex of the quest for secular power among the popes of the medieval Church. Of a series of popes who claimed such power, “Innocent III alone made good the claim. He not only ruled the Church, but he was a greater force in the secular politics of Europe than either emperor or national king.”(1)

But without any doubt Innocent III ruled the Church as well. In fact, the quotation in the Declaration is the concluding sentence of a letter written to two Spanish bishops regarding the behavior of abbesses in their region:

Recently certain news has been intimated to us, about which we marvel greatly, that abbesses, namely those situated in the dioceses of Burgos and Palencia, give blessings to their own nuns, and they also hear confessions of sins, and, reading the Gospel, they presume to preach in public. This thing is inharmonious as well as absurd, and not to be tolerated by us. For that reason, by means of our discretion from apostolic writing, we order that it be done no longer, and by apostolic authority to check it more firmly, for, although the Blessed Virgin Mary surpassed in dignity and in excellence all the Apostles, nevertheless, it was not to her but to them that the Lord entrusted the keys to the kingdom of heaven.(2)

In short, Pope Innocent III is in this letter exercising the powers of binding and loosing to deny the privileges of preaching, reading the Gospel, hearing confession, and giving the blessing to abbesses in a certain area of Spain. An immediate question arises: what is the historical context of this prohibition?

The letter seems to be directed to a situation in which women were already exercising a significant degree of authority in their communities and beyond. The monastery for which this warning was evidently intended was Las Huelgas, a Cistercian house of women which was founded with royal and papal sanction, and which had a good deal of power. In fact, the abbess of Las Huelgas exercised civil jurisdiction over sixty-four villages and quasiepiscopal authority in a wide variety of circumstances.(3)

The difficulty an historian must have with Innocent III’s claim that such practices are “inharmonious as well as absurd” centers around the fact (admitted by scholars on both sides of the debate about the ordination of women) that certain jurisdictional and liturgical roles were held by abbesses in more than one time and place in the medieval Church.(4) The Commentary on the Declaration admits the existence of such a tradition very grudgingly, claiming that “these customs have been more or less reproved by the Holy See at different periods.”(5) This is certainly not universally true. The order of Fontevrault, founded in 1101 as a community of nuns and canons ruled by the women, was given the honor of a papal dedication for its church.(6) In an earlier period, the Venerable Bede goes into great detail in recounting the sanctity of two great contemporary English abbesses, Etheldreda and Hilda. Etheldreda is listed at Ely, where she was abbess, as the first bishop of the cathedral; Hilda presided over the Synod of Whitby in 664, at which the English church decided to follow Roman rather than Irish customs of liturgy and monastic order. Her right in this matter has not been questioned by the Holy See. Hilda’s monastic community included men as well as women.(7)

It is also important to note that reading the Gospel and preaching, two of the duties which Innocent III was so desirous of taking away from these abbesses, were in the early Church assigned to deacons. Again, it is not totally novel for women to be performing some of these diaconal duties. In fact, a good deal of scholarly effort in recent years has gone into the recovery of the outlines of the position of women deacons who are mentioned in the New Testament and by the Fathers.(8) This order of deaconesses is far from a recreation of archaic church discipline. Although the order per se seems to have merged with the mainline monastic tradition for women by the eighth century, claims for special honor and responsibility to be given to women in the category of “widows” (once a term for deaconesses; in the Middle Ages, usually older women who entered the religious life after the death of husband or dissolution of a marriage and often became abbesses) are evident in both medieval theology and liturgy.(9)

The pontificate of Innocent III marks a significant point for the future of women in monasticism. From the mid-twelfth century on, the places available to women in the mainline monastic houses became fewer, and the attitudes of the major orders towards nuns deteriorated rapidly, leading for one thing to the flowering of a less hierarchical and hierarchically-controlled form of religious life for women, the Beguines.(10)

So, the intentions of Innocent III in this letter, when considered historically, can be seen to arise from disciplinary rather than theological concerns, and from a particular disciplinary question with a long history in the Church one which was answered in a variety of ways in a variety of periods.

Still, Innocent III’s answer is the one held up by our twentieth-century canon lawyers and theologians, who point to the prolific citation of this letter in the classical texts of canon law as evidence of its importance.(11) We must therefore, examine this tradition.

The references cited in the Declaration itself give us our most important clues: the letter of Innocent III is quoted in its entirety in the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX, under the heading “An abbess cannot bless monastics, hear confessions, and preach in public.”(12) The glossa ordinaria for this passage (the standard commentary which accompanied the text in the medieval manuscript tradition) refers the reader to another passage of the Decretals for the reason for these prohibitions.

This passage (also cited in the notes to the Declaration) is a letter of Pope Honorius III, dated 1222, forbidding abbesses in Germany to excommunicate their subject nuns and clerics.(13) The glossa ordinaria on this passage is extremely rich. Beyond the standard fleshing out of the argument, it offers a broad commentary on the role of women with regard to law. Crucial to this interpretation and to the subsequent use of this text is the statement that women do not have legal right of jurisdiction. Abbesses, therefore, even though they must preside over their own communities, do so with power granted from the chapter (the regular meeting of all the abbesses and prioresses of the order). They do not, therefore, have full legal powers, as men do.(14) Within the monastic world proper, we should note that the same prohibitions were extended here to monks as well as nuns, as the abbots also drew their power of jurisdiction from the chapter. To some extent, then, the issue can be seen in monastic/clerical terms as easily as in male/female terms.(15)

Further, the gloss links the letters of Innocent III and Honorius III, and offers an over-arching rationale for such prohibitions: “a woman should not have such power, since she is not made in the image of God, but man is the image and glory and God, and the woman should be subject to the man, and should be as his handmaid.”(16) The reader is then referred to the major text of classical canon law, the Decretum of Gratian, which makes very clear the connection between the legal role of women and their inherent incompleteness. In a chapter entitled “There is no power in woman but in all things she is under the dominion of man,” Gratian quotes from Saint Ambrose to the effect that women are not to be allowed to teach, to give witness to swear oaths, or to judge. This is because they have no authority (auctoritas), but must be under the rule of the man.(17)

The next few chapters of the Decretum give the case its biblical underpinnings: Adam was deceived by Eve, therefore women should cover their heads, since they are not in the image of God.(18) But the use of the word auctoritas, and the reference in the gloss to civil law,(19) give witness to another of Ambrose’s sources here: the legal traditions of the late Roman Empire, codified in the Corpus Iuris Civilis of the Emperor Justinian. Here, women are stripped of all voice in legal matters, even to the point of being forbidden to legally represent the rights of their children before the court.(20)

As Joan Range has pointed out, the role of Gratian and the other canonists is essential to the tradition of denying orders to women.(21) She shows how his response to developing tradition was crystallized as the true voice of that tradition. The same can be said for the canonists’ use of Ambrose (steeped as he was in Roman Law), and of Innocent III (who was responding to a particular situation at Las Huelgas)—these statements came to be regarded as normative, but at each step of the tradition, as now, there were dissenting voices within the Church.

Of course, a difference remains between these sources and modern theologians in the relationship of the prescribed place of women in the Church to the acknowledged view of the nature of women. As we have seen, the medieval theologians and canonists are firmly rooted in a biblical teaching that woman is not in God’s image and in a convenient Roman legal tradition that denies women all voice. Our contemporary Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith can hardly claim such presuppositions with any credibility.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is the place of the Blessed Virgin Mary in this associative web. Perhaps one would better say her non-place—the concerns of Innocent III, Gregory IX, and Gratian were to do with temporal rather than spiritual power. Clearly, Christ gave no temporal power per se to his mother. But modern Catholic biblical scholarship is increasingly ready to admit that neither did he intend to give such temporal power to his disciples, nor to link such power to the celebration of the Eucharist.(22) Furthermore, if the Virgin is to represent woman’s role in the Church as Christ does man’s role, then surely no theological argument can be made for the exclusion of women on the basis of the Fall. If Christ is the new Adam, must not his mother be the New Eve? This is, in any case, the opinion of the Fathers, who from the time of Irenaeus (second century) expanded the Pauline description of Christ as the New Man (“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” 1 Corinthians 15:21) to include Mary, the mother of that salvation, as the New Woman who undid the first disobedience of Eve through her obedience.(23) By the fifth century, Mary, the mother of the Savior, was held to be the Theotokos—the God-bearer. At the council of Ephesus in 431, and again at Chalcedon in 451, the Nestorian party was anathematized for attempting to down-play the role of that one woman in the drama of redemption.(24) If Mary is, in the words of the Declaration, “the example of Christ’s will in this [priestly] domain,” how can her example be used as the witness to women’s sacramental inferiority?

The development of Marian piety in the Middle Ages, especially between the period of Charlemagne and the High Middle Ages, is acknowledged by scholars to be partly in response to the world in which the Church found itself.(25) It is recognized, then, that the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary can only be properly seen through the parallel development of Christology and theology of the Eucharist. The cult of the mother is inextricably bound to that of her Son, each developing in response to the changing dynamic of revelation and tradition. Believers (even those who assent to the Marian implications of the Declaration) understand these changes as God working through history in a dialectic between the needs and the historical reality of the Christian community. Obviously, the historical reality and the needs change in relation to one another—John Henry Cardinal Newman described this process in a throughly Roman Catholic way. (26) The most disappointing aspects of the Declaration are its tone-deafness to the tension between the needs and the history of the Church in the twentieth century, and its implication that any desire for growth in the Church (even along the lines Newman described so well a century ago) should be taken only as disobedience. No place is left for loving critics of the status quo; no possibility is considered that such criticism may be given in the name of Christ.

The situation is complicated and the answers are not obvious. Reinstating the jurisdiction of the abbess of Las Huelgas would not necessarily constitute a step towards the ordination of women. No critic of the use of the letter of Innocent III in the Declaration could seriously advocate such an anachronism as a panacea for our dilemma. But neither must modern theologians base their estimation of the role of women in the Church on concern for ecclesiastical power and theories of human nature which are no longer accepted by the people of God who are the Church. In this regard it is far easier to admit the canonists’ use of the letter of Innocent III than it is to accept the Dcclaration’s dependence on a questionable solution to an outdated problem of monastic discipline and privilege.


1. M. Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church 590-1500 (London Methuen, 9th ed., 1972), p. 140, at the beginning of a chapter about Innocent III. J. A. Range also points to the Investiture Contest as an important factor in Gratian’s synthesis: “Legal Exclusion of Women From Church Office,” The Jurist, . Vol.34 (1974), p.119.

2. Epistle 187 (11 December, 1210) PL 216: 356. Quoted in full in the Decretals of Gregory IX, Corpus Juris Canonici Lib. V, tit. 38, De Poenitent. ch 10, “Nova” ed. J. Friedberg (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1928), Vol. 2, coll .886-887.

3. That the letter of Innocent III was meant for Las Huelgas is suggested by the Commentary, par. 35., where the secular power of the abbess of Las Huelgas is mentioned. Las Huelgas was founded by Alfonso VIII of Castille and his wife Leonora in 1187. The jurisdiction of the abbess was confirmed by Pope Urban VIII. In spite of such concerns as that of Innocent III, the jurisdiction of the abbess was not suspended until 1873, when Pope Pius IX voided all exempt jurisdictions in Spain. See J. M. Escrivá, La abadesa de Las Huelgas (Madrid: Editorial Luz, 1944).

4. M. de Fontette, Les religieuses à l’age classique du droit canon (Paris: J. Vrin, 1967) gives a discussion of the role of abbesses in six orders of the High Middle Ages. The best collection of data on the positions and functions of abbesses in medieval monasticism as a whole is J. Morris, The Lady Was A Bishop (New York: Macmillan, 1973), although the conclusions reached by this work are not always historically satisfactory. See also Range, pp. 122-127.

5. Commentary, par. 35.

6. By Pope Callistus in 1119. See L. Cottineau, Réperroire topobibliographique des abbayes et prieurés (Macon: Protat frères, 1939), Vol. I, pp. 1185-1188, and R. Niderst, Robert d’Arbrissel et les origines de l’ordre de Fontevrault (Rodez: G. Subervieu, 1952).

7. For Etheldreda, see Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Vol. IV, pp. 19-20 and C. W. Stubbs, Historical Memorials of Ely Cathedral (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1897), frontispiece, and pp. xvii, 70-87. For Hilda, see Bede, Vol. III, p. 25, and Vol. IV, pp. 23-24.

8. On women as deacons, see Sr. A.M. McGrath, Women and the Church (New York: Doubleday, 1972), and the impressive recent work by I. Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination? trans. N. R. Adams, with a preface by A. and L. Swidler (Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1976).

9. The great care with which Peter Abelard discussed the proximity of the role of abbess to the ancient order of deaconesses is discussed by M. McLaughlin, “Abelard and the Dignity of Women: Twelfth-Century ‘Feminism’ in Theory and Practice,” Pierre Abélard, Pierre Le Vénérable (Abbaye de Cluny, 1972), pp. 288-334. Special rituals of the reception of widows (as opposed to virgins) into the cloister echo this heritage; see R. Metz, La consécration des vièrges dans l’église romaine (Strasbourg: Bibliotheque de l’lnstitut de Droit Canonique, 1954), p. 157. One such ordo, found in Paris, B.N. latin 2833, was analysed in my paper “A Twelfth-Century Ordo for the Veiling of Widows,” presented at the Third Berkshire Conference, June, 1976.

10. On the sudden rise of the Beguines, see B. Bolton, “Mulieres Sanctae,” in Women in Medieval Society, ed. S. M. Stuard (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976), pp. 141-158. For the resulting legislation of the mainline orders, see Fontette, passim. By the thirteenth century, the Cistercians and the Premonstratensians had been closed to women.

11. Declaration, par. 13, n. 11, cites Greory IX, the gloss on Gratian, Thomas Aquinas, and the Pseudo-Albert. As the Commentary (par. 15) places special emphasis on the role of the canonists and canon lawyers in transmitting this letter, I will concentrate on Gregory IX, Gratian and their glossators. I am indebted to Van Edwards, of the University of Pennsylvania, for his help in dealing with the canon law material.

12. Gregory IX, Decretals Lib. 5, tit. 38, De Poenitent. Ch. 10, “Nova” Corpus Juris Canonici, ed. Friedberg, vol. 2, coll. 886-887; Bernard of Parma, Glossa in Decretal., Lib. I tit. 38, ch. 10, ed. A. Nardi (Lyons: Huegeton et Barbier, 1671), vol. 2, col.1869.

13. Gregory IX, Decretals, Lib. I, tit. 33, De Maioritate et Obed. c.12, “Dilecta,” ed. Friedberg, vol. 2, col.201, to the abbesses of the diocese of Halberstadt.

14. “Dicas quod abbatissa habet iurisdictionem talem qualem, non ita plenam, sicut vir habet,” Bernard of Parma, Glossa Lib.I, tit. 33, Cap. 12. “Dilecta,” no. C, “Jurisdictione,” ed. Nardi, vol. 2, col. 431.

15. Ibid.,col. 431.

16. Ibid.,col. 432.

17. Gratian, Decretum, Causa 33, quaest. 5, ch. 17, “Nulla est,” Corpus Iuris Canonici, ed. Friedberg, vol. 1, col. 1255.

18. Ibid., ch. 18, 19, ed. Friedberg, vol. 1, col. 1255.

19. Joannes Teutonicus and Bartholomew of Brescia, Glossa in Decret., Causa 33, quaest. 5, ch. 17, “Nulla est,” no. C, “Nunc testis”: “in cause criminalis, nisi in illis casibus in quibus infames admittuntur, nec in testamento.” ed. Nardi, vol. 1, col. 1827.

20. Corpus Iuris Civilis, Codex Iustinianus, Code 2, tite. 12, law 18, ed. P. Kruegen (Berlin: Weidmann, 1954), p. 104.

21. Range, p. 126.

22. Biblical Commission Report, part II.

23. Irenacus of Lyons, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 33. See the references in n.25 below for the medieval development of this image and its importance for the developing cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

24. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorurm, 30th ed. (Freiburg: Herder 1955), p. 143.

25. For further information on the cult of Mary, see H. Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion (London: Sheed and Ward, 1963); and L. Scheffezyk, Das Mariengeheimnis in Frömmigkeit und Lehre der Karolingerzeit (Leipzig: St. Benno-Verlag, 1959). The recent book by M. Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) also has much interesting information, although its radical-feminist bias is evident throughout.

26. J. H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, edition of 1878. (New York: Doubleday, 1960), especially Chapter I “The Development of Ideas,” and Chapter VIII, “Assimilative Power.”

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