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The Scholastic Doctrine by George H. Tavard from 'Women Priests'

The Scholastic Doctrine

by George H. Tavard

from Women Priests,Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp 99-106. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

George H. Tavard, AA, professor of theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, is the author of Woman in Christian Tradition as well as of several essays on related topics especially “Sexist Language in Theology?” in Woman. New Dimensions, ed. by W. Burghardt.

As treated by the three major scholastic doctors, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and John Duns Scotus, the question of the ordination of woman ismore canonical than theological. All three reflect about the fact of non-ordination, which they try to justify with suitable theological arguments. We will therefore examine the Decree of Gratianus, which embodies the canonical legislation of the Middle Ages, and to which all three refer, before looking at the argumentation of the three great theologians.

1. Gratianus’s Decretum(1)

Part 1, dist. 23 of the Decree treats several points of liturgical discipline. Chapter 25, to which the three theologians refer, states that religious women are not allowed to handle sacred vessels and vestments or to act as thurifers around the altar. This “plague” must be abolished everywhere. Chapter 29 takes up another relevant point: “No woman, however learned and holy, may presume to teach men in an assembly (in conventu). No layman may dare to teach in the presence of clerics, except at their request.” Let us also take notice of two chapters, 22 and 32, which, irrelevant as they may seem to us, weighed in the theological argumentations: both forbid clerics to let their hair grow.

These canons should be related to another section of the Decretum: Part II, causa 23, question 5, apropos married women who wish to take a vow of continence, discusses the proper hierarchy of authority. No married woman may take such a vow without her husband’s consent, for “it is the natural order among men (hominibus) that females should obey males and children parents, for there is no justice in the higher obeying the lower” (chapter 12). Further, “the image of God is in man (homine) in such a way that there be only one lord, the origin of all others, having the power of God as God’s vicar, for every king is in God’s image; and thus woman is not made in God’s image” (ch. 13). The reference is of course to Eve being formed from Adam, who alone qualifies as the source of humankind and as the image of God. Chapter 15 should be quoted in its entirety:

Since the male is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the male, a woman who does not obey her husband, that is, hcr head, is guilty of the same crime as a male who does not obey Christ, his head. It is blasphemous against the word of God to despise the first point and make nothing of it, and to insult the gospel of Christ, as when a Christian woman, who is, by divine law, subject, wants to dominate her husband in spite of the law and fidelity of nature, while even pagan women, in keeping with the universal law of nature, obey their husbands.

Chapter 18 adds: “Adam was deceived by Eve, not Eve by Adam. It is fair that the one whom she called to sin should now assume her governance, lest she fall again through female weakness.” And chapter 19: “Woman must veil her head, for she is not God’s image. But, to show that she is subject and because sin began through her, she must carry this sign: not to hold her head free in the church, but covered by a veil in respect for the bishop, and not to have the authority to speak, for the bishop stands for the person of Christ. On account of original sin, she must be seen as an inferior before the bishop, who is the vicar of the Lord, as before a judge.” Chapter 19 repeats the point that woman is made from man.

Thus medieval canon law embodied an anthropology in which woman was by nature inferior to the male of the race: her secondary status in the Church was seen as naturally flowing from her inferior status in nature. It was with this basic material that the scholastic theologians had to work.

2. Thomas Aquinas (2)

The Sentences of Peter Lombard do not include a discussion of woman in their section on who can or cannot receive the sacrament of Orders. Nor do the first Commentaries on the Sentences. Thus the Glossaof Alexander of Hales does not even mention the problem. But the question is raised, a little later, in the influential Commentaries written by St. Thomas Aquinas and by St. Bonaventure.

St. Thomas’s treatment of the question comes from his first major work, the Commentary on the Sentences, book IV, dist. 25, quest. 2, art. 1. The text of the Summa theologica, 111, suppl., quest. 39, art. 1, which was added to the unfinished summa aftcr Aquinas’s death, quotes the commentary word for word. Therefore we do not really know how Thomas would have treated the question had he lived long enough to finish the summa. The solution he has left us is from his youth; and Thomas modified many of his positions between the commentary and the summa.

Aquinas begins by mentioning three arguments in favor of the ordination of woman: (1) Women have been prophets in the Old Testament; and prophecy is a higher function than priesthood. (2) Women have been in positions of spiritual authority, like abbesses, or Debora, or the women martyrs; therefore they can have authority in the Church. (3) The power of Orders, being spiritual, lies in the soul, not in the body; and the soul is the same for both sexes.

The Sed contra, which provides the basis for Thomas Aquinas’s position, argues from 1 Tim. 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach in the aasembly or to dominate a man”) and from the liturgical practice of the clerical tonsure: such a shaving of the head is not appropriate to women, in keeping with 1 Cor. 11:6.

Having found the problem solved by this combination of Scripture and custom, Thomas Aquinas explains theologically that woman is naturally unable to receive the sacrament of Orders because the sign-quality of the sacrament cannot be found in her. For this sign indicates eminence and authority and woman is in a natural position of subjection and inferiority (in statu subjectionis).

Aquinas adds that wherever such terms as diaconissa (deaconess) and presbytera (priestess) are used, they must have a non-sacramental meaning. And he refutes the previous arguments: (1) prophecy is not a sacramental sign, and so there is no difficulty about woman prophesying; (2) the authority of abbesses is not “ordinary” but delegated, and it is justifed by the danger of cohabitation between men and women; and Debora had temporal, not priestly, power. Curiously enough, argument (3), about the non-sexuality of the soul, is left unanswered.

3. Bonaventure (3)

St. Bonaventure’s examination of the question is more complete. In his Commentary on the Sentences, I V, dist. 25, art 2, quest. 1, he lists, as usual, arguments pro and con before stating his own position. Four arguments favor the ordination of males only: (1) Since woman must wear a veil on her head when she prays (1 Cor., 11:5), the clerical tonsure is not appropriate to her. (2) Only the male is the image of God by virtue of sex (ratione sexus); and the sacrament of Orders can be given only to the image of God, because it makes man (homo) somehow divine. (3) Woman cannot have spiritual authority, because she is not allowed to speak in church (1 Tim. 2:12). (4) All the Orders prepare ultimately for the episcopate; but woman cannot be a bishop, since a bishop is the husband of his Church, and a woman cannot be a husband.

Four arguments for the ordination of woman are also presented: (1) The example of Debora shows that a woman can have jurisdiction, and therefore the priestly power. (2) Abbesses have the authority to bind and to loose, they could therefore also receive the sacerdotal Order. (3) Orders arc received in the soul; and, in her soul, woman is as much the image of God as the male. (4) There is no higher perfection than that of the religious vocation and no greater strength than that of martyrdom; women have been admitted to both therefore they can also be admitted to a sacred Order.

In his own solution, Bonaventure begins with the remark that the common opinion rcjccts the admission of women to sacred Orders on the strength of Gratianus’s Decree, dist. 23, ch. 25, which forbids women to handle sacred vessels (see above). He also notes the opinion of some, called Cataphrygians, for whom woman has the capacity for ordination, even if she is never ordained in fact; but he also argues, like Thomas, that the words diaconissa and presbytero have no sacramental meaning. His own judgment is that it is “the saner and the more prudent opinion” to think that women not only must not but also cannot be ordained either de jure or de facto. The reason for this is “not so much the Church’s decision (institutio)” as the non-congruity of the sacrament of Orders with the female sex. “For the person ordained must signify Christ as mediator, and the mediator can be signified only in the male sex and through the male sex.” Why this should be so, however, Bonaventure does not make clear. He concludes only that males alone can “naturally represent and actually carry the sign (of the mediator) by virtue of the reception of the character (of the sacrament).” “This position is more probable, and can be confirmed by many texts of the Fathers.”

The four arguments in favor of the ordination of women are then refuted. (1) Debora had temporal, not spiritual, authority. (2) Abbesses, unlike priests, have no “ordinary” authority; power (regimen) may be appropriate for women, but the spiritual significance of Orders is not. (3) The sacrament of Orders is received indeed in the soul, but only inasmuch as the soul is joined to a body, and the sign dimension belongs to the visible realm, and therefore to the body. (4) The religious vocation and martyrdom belong to the level of sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens) where there is no difference between men and women; but the sacrament of Orders pertains to another level (that of gratia gratis data): it may well be reserved to one sex because it is not a purely interior grace but has exterior significance.

It seems clear that Bonaventure is more aware than Thomas Aquinas of the difficulties of the problem. His conclusion is less absolute, since he considers it only “more probable” than its opposite. Hc does not stress the inferiority of woman. Yet he dare not ascribe the impediment of sex for ordination to a decision of the Church. At the same time, Bonaventure does not argue from Scripture. He rather sees the impediment as a theological conclusion based on congruity, and, more specifically, on the natural symbolism of womanhood, which he considers to be incompatible with the sacramental symbolism of Orders.

4. John Duns Scotus (4)

His treatmcnt of the question is found in both the Opus oxoniense and the Reportata parisensia, at the classical locus of the Sentences. I V, dist. 25, quest. 2. There are some differences between the two, which I will indicate. Above all, Duns Scotus brings new material to bear on the question in relation to his predecessors.

Only two arguments favorable to the ordination of women are presented at the beginning of the question, in both places. But the first is new: (1) It is based on Gal. 3:28 (“In Christ Jesus there is neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female”); “therefore there is no difference between female and male in the law of Christ, as between serf and free; therefore this sacrament of the evangelical law, which a male can receive, can also bc received by a female, as with serf and free.” (2) The second argument is the one about presbytera and diaconissa being used in old canons. Against ordination, Duns Scotus refers, like his predecessors, to (1) the canon about woman not handling sacred vessels, and (2) 1 Cor. 11:6 about the shame of a woman shaving her hair, and the relevant canon about the clerical tonsure.

Duns Scotus’s own position begins with a clearer distinction than either Thomas or Bonaventure had made between congruency (is ordination proper or not?), liceity (is it allowed by the Church’s discipline?), and validity (is there in woman a basic incapacity to receive ordination?). Applying this to the problem, Duns Scotus considers that the point at stake is the third one. it is a matter of validity. But his reason for this understanding of the case is new:

One should not hold it to be decided by the Church, but it comes from Christ. The Church would not presume to deprive the entire female sex, without any guilt on its part, of an act which might licitly pertain to it, being directed toward the salvation of woman and of others in the Church through her. For this would seem to be an extreme injustice both toward the entire sex and toward a few specific persons. If by divine law the ecclesiastical Order could licitly be fitting to woman, it could be for the salvation of women and of others through them. But what the Apostle says in 1 Tim. 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach,” speaking of the public doctrine in the Church, he does not say on his own authority; but, “I do not permit,” because Christ does not permit (Opus oxoniense, ad locum).

To support this, Duns Scotus argues from the non-ordination of the Mother of Jesus, and from natural reason: “Nature does not permit women, at least after the fall, to hold a position of superiority in the human race.” Duns Scotus then formulates a philosophical objection: the ordaining bishop being of the same species as a hypothetical woman-ordinand, nothing can stop the effect of ordination from taking place in the woman. But, he responds, the effect is not automatic, for it is a contingent action (which depends on certain conditions).

The opposite arguments are then easily refuted: (1) There is no distinction of male and female as far as grace and glory are concerned; but the order of the Church is not that of grace and glory, for it follows the law of nature. (2) A presbytera is not a priest, but may be the wife of a Greek priest, or else an elderly lady; a diaconissa is not a deacon, but a nun who is designated by an abbess to read the gospel.

There is no essential difference between the Opus oxoniense and the Reportata parisiensia on the question. In these also the decision not to ordain women is attributed “not to the Church’s institution or the Apostles’ precept,” but to Christ himself, for neither the Apostles nor the Church could withdraw from women the possibility of ordination if it was given to them by Christ. But Duns Scotus is now more explicit on the appropriatness of this decision of Christ. Ordination is not allowed to women “on account of the weakness of their intellect and the mutability of their will .... For a doctor must have a quick intellect for the knowledge of truth, and a stable will for the affirmation of the truth." The non-congruity of woman’s ordination follows also from the analogy of nature, in which woman is naturally subject to the male. This natural subjection has been reinforced by the fall, so that, by Christ’s will, woman “is not capable (non est materia capax) of receiving ordination.”

To his refutation of the philosophical argument about the effect of an act when the agent is of the same kind as the receiver, Duns Scotus now adds the theological argument that the ordaining bishop is only a secondary agent of ordination; the primary agent is God, who himself decides to whom this sacrament may be given, and who has reserved it to males.

Given the forcefulness of John Duns Scotus’s argumentation, which comes out much more strongly in the Reportata parisiensia, another addition to the treatment of the matter is indeed surprising: the possibility is admitted that “Mary Magdalen was an apostle (apostola), and like a preacher (tamquam praedicatrix), and a supervisor of all penitent women.” But this would have been a personal privilege granted to Mary by Christ: Duns Scotus does not see it as a precedent for ordinations of women in the future.

The references to other scholastics contained in footnote 9 of the Declaration would add nothing of substance. Both Richard of Middleton (Franciscan between Bonaventure and Duns Scotus) and Durandus of St-Pourcain (Dominican, d. 1334) ascribe to Christ himself the restriction of the sacrament of Orders to males. Durandus, who gives the usual arguments, affirms that “it pertained to Christ to institute the sacraments both as to their ministers and as to their recipients” (IV, dist. 25, q. 2). He also picks up the point made by Duns Scotus about injustice. The restriction must come from Christ, because the Church could not be guilty of “causing prejudice” to women. And the reason behind Christ’s decision must be one of congruity: “A position of predominance over males is not fitting for women, but rather a state of subjection, on account of the weakness of their body and the imperfection of their mind.” (5) The idea has not been strengthened by this reformulation. For the congruity now depends on a point of fact: is woman physically weaker and intellectually less perfect than the male?


It appears clearly from a careful reading of the three major scholastic theologians that what weighed the most in their approach to the matter was the canonical tradition. The theologians do little more than try to find legitimate reasons for the legislation. They seek for such reasons in the order of nature and the analogy between the sacraments and nature, in some scriptural texts, especially taken from the Pastoral Epistles, and in what seemed to them the appropriate symbolism of the priestly functions compared to the symbolism of womanhood.

At the same time, their positions are not identical. The theology of St. Thomas is tied more than the others to a belief in woman’s basic inferiority. But the positions of St Bonaventure and of John Duns Scotus are considerably more flexible. Both hold that the legislation goes back to Christ himself. But Bonaventure does not see this as a certainty: it is only “more probable.” And Duns Scotus introduces two points that may well be ultimately incompatible with his own conclusion: first, the admission that there could be a basic injustice in the legislation; second, the admission that Mary Magdalen may have been truly an Apostle.

Furthermore, on the related problem of the ordination of children Duns Scotus formulates a notion which could be applied to the question of the ordination of women, although he himself does not make this application. This is the idea that laws can change “especially when a new reason brings about contrary practices” (Opus oxoniense, IV, dist. 25, quest. 3). This principle is itself borrowed from Gratianus’s Decree, part 1, dist. 4, ch. 3, where it instanccs a broader axiom: “In laws affected by time, whatever the thought of those who instituted them, once they have been instituted and applied, one must not pass judgment about them, but one must judge according to what they are.” As surviving in the present code of canon law, this principle is now formulated: “Custom is the best interpreter of laws” (canon 29). Changing customs therefore call for changing the laws. The changing customs of our society as regards the status of woman and the changing sensitivity of Catholic women toward the problem of ordination force us to take a new look at the legislation and the theology of ordination. Practices that were formerly believed to pertain to nature are now recognized to derive from culture. In addition, the contemporary reading of Scripture has rendered untenable the assumption that Jesus handed down a finished sacramental system. The argument from symbolism, which seems the most solid of the medieval discussion, is itself not persuasive; for symbols vary with varying cultures, and people can be educated into new readings of symbols. The vanishing of the former symbobsm of womanhood obliges us to take seriously John Duns Scotus’s insight that there would be an injustice in “depriving the entire female sex, without any guilt on its part, of an act which might licitly pertain to it....”

As this study shows, it would be fallacious to base upon scholastic theology the continuation of the negative legislation on ordination of woman, as scholastic theology was based chiefly upon the negative legislation. And scholastic theology itself contains the seeds of a positive judgment about the question.


1. For Gratianus’s Decretum I have used Corpus juris canonici emendatum et notis illustratum, Gregorli X111 Pont. Max. jussu editum (Paris 1587). In Part 11, causa 15, q. 3, Gratianus sums up the canonical tradition .’Women cannot be promoted, not only to the priesthood, but even to the diaconate." But this text is not quoted by any of the theologians I have been able to look up. The canonical tradition has been investigated by Ida Raming: The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination? (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1976). There is no systematic study of the theological tradition in the Middle Ages; but elements of the problem, especially as treated by Thomas Aquinas, have been examined in Haye van der Meer: Women Priests in the Catholic Church? (Philadelphia: Tcmple Univ., 1973).

2. I have used the text of St Thomas’s Commentary on the Sentences in Doctoris Angelici Divi Thomae Aquinatis Opera Omnia, Vol. II (Paris: Vives, 1874).

3. Doctoris Seraphici S. Bonaventurae Opera Theologica Selecta, tome 4 (Quaracchi: Coll. S. Bonaventurae, 1949).

4. J. Duns Scotus: Opera Omnia, Vol. 9 (Hildesheim: Olms, 1968); this reproduces the Questiones in lib. I YSententiarum (Lyon: Durand, 1939). For the Reportata parisiensia, I use vol. I I of the same edition.

5. Durandus: Commentarium in Sententias Lombardi (Paris: Petit, 1527).

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