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Women and the Church by Rosemary Lauer from 'We Won't Keep Silence Any Longer'

Women and the Church

From “The Commonweal,” Volume LXXIX No. 13, December 20, 1963

Rosemary Lauer, Ph.D.,

Associate professor of philosophy at St. John's University, New York

published in Wir schweigen nicht länger! (We Won't Keep Silence Any Longer!), Interfeminas-Verlag, 1964, pp.100-105

Whatever its final pronouncements, the Second Vatican Council has certainly shown its willingness to make changes. Recently there have been indications that some Council Fathers are willing to see some changes made even in the attitude of the Church (which is all of us) toward women. On October 22 Cardinal Suenens, in an address to the Council, proposed the desirability of inviting a number of women to attend the conciliar session along with the lay auditors already present. His speech was applauded. Moreover, the NC news service reported, it was known on reliable authority that Pope Paul had brought up the question of including women when the list of lay auditors had been submitted for his approval. At about the same time Cardinal Suenens made his proposal, Mlle. Monique Lahaye, president of the Catholic Women Workers League in France, was a guest speaker before a gathering of 120 French cardinals, archbishops, and bishops. A short time later, Melkite Bishop Georges Hakim of Galilee objected in the Council that the schema on the Church had ignored women completely though they make up half the membership of the Church and “their work is indispensable in the apostolate of the Church”. Again, there was applause in the aula of St. Peter’s.

However, this new look at women had not yet filtered down to the petty officials in the basilica. The November 16 issue of America reports that an accredited journalist invited to be present at one of the Council Masses was physically prevented from approaching the altar railing to receive Holy Communion with the others. “What was the offense that provoked this vigourous police action? The journalist was a woman.”

How could such a thing happen? As is the case with almost everything else that occurs in today’s world, this “police action” can be understood only in a historical context. We in the West have inherited certain traditions in the areas of thought and practice, and according to these traditions women ought to be treated differently from men. Nor has there been any successful attempt to rationalize the traditional practices with anything like a “separate but equal” theory. Despite all the fine romantic statements about woman’s place being on a pedestal, the roots of our tradition require that women be given a “separate” treatment because they are not equal, because they are inferior.

Jews at the time of Christ—and at least the Orthodox today—prayed regularly, “I thank thee, Lord, that thou hast not created me a woman.” There was no problem that women would find it difficult to recite the prayer, for women were simply not expected to learn the prayer formulas—or the Scriptures, or anything else, except how to discharge their domestic duties. In Palestine two thousand years ago, as in many areas in the East and Middle East today, no man would deign to speak with a woman in public, not even his own wife.

The Disciples who found Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well were not amazed merely because she was a Samaritan. Did they not all know the words of Ecclesiasticus, “In woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her we all die” ? We can see too in the Gospels that the “double standard” was in force. The “woman taken in adultery” was brought to Christ for judgment, but nowhere do we hear of the man in the case. In fact, Jewish law prescribed punishment only for women in such instances. The wife’s duty to be faithful to her husband was regarded as immeasurably greater than his duty to be faithful to her. Indeed, the wife was thought to have no genuine right to her husband’s faithfulness. (A New York Times dispatch from Rome, dated November 28, reports that Italy’s High Constitutional Court upheld a law that imposes a severer punishment on women than men for adultery. The law, the Court maintained, was justly based on the “greater gravity of infidelity of the woman.”)

In the thirteenth century, the old tradition was still being carried on, even in so mild a man as St. Bonaventure. In his Rules for Novices he wrote, “Shun the society of women as you would a snake and never speak with a woman unless necessity compels you. Do not look at any woman’s face, and if any woman speaks to you cut her off as quickly as possible.” Three hundred years later, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote that there were three classes of people who could grasp no more of theology than the sound of the words. These classes were country folk, idiots, and women.

However, what has been, perhaps, the most potent force shaping a “Catholic” attitude toward women is the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, which is in harmony with at least half of a Russian proverb: “A hen is not a bird, nor a woman a human being.” Last year, when Dr. Gertrude Heinzelmann, a lawyer in Zurich, Switzerland, dispatched to the Central Preparatory Commission of the Vatican Council her Frau und Konzil, Hoffnung und Erwartung, she based her arguments on a critical exposition of the Thomistic view of woman. And, in truth, if an aggiornamento is to occur with respect to the place of women in society and the Church, it is absolutely necessary that we understand what St. Thomas wrote and why he wrote it. It is not sufficient —though it is pertinent—to point out that he entered a monastery at the age of five, and that, therefore, anything he had to say about women had its foundation in a “Wolffian rationalism” rather than a scientific induction.

As Dr. Heinzelmann points out so clearly, it was Aristotle’s rationalistic biology that made it possible for St. Thomas to make statements which appear so completely ridiculous to any Western contemporary who has not been indoctrinated with a scholastic anti-feminism. Woman, according to Aristotle, was not completely developed as a human being; she was a “misbegotten”, or defective, male. This was made evident in two ways. First of all, women were merely passive in human generation (the discovery of the ovum had to await the invention of the microscope); only men could truly pass on human nature to their offspring. Women, in fact, offered a resistance to the implantation of the human form; and if the father was not sufficiently virile to overcome this resistance completely, his offspring might resemble their mother, thus presenting all their lives a silent testimony to their father’s inadequacy.

The second piece of evidence that women were misbegotten was their inability to reason. Since the human species is characterized by rationality, women must not be fully human. The fiction of “feminine intuition” disposed of those instances in which women seemed to do something suspiciously resembling reasoning.

From this defective Aristotelian biology, reinforced by an equally defective interpretation of Genesis, there followed for St. Thomas certain ethical principles: “Man is the principle and end of woman, as God is the principle and end of man.” “Woman exists for the man, not man for the woman.” Lest it be thought that these principles lie safely hidden away on obscure library shelves, it must be noted that these notions are taught currently in some Catholic schools. In one college, women students were told recently in their theology class that “the end of man is to know; the end of woman is to bear children.” And, of course, according to Aristotle and St. Thomas, the only reason why nature would produce “misbegotten males” is that they are somehow, and unfortunately, necessary for the continuance of the human race.

Even aside from the primitive, rationalistic nature of the biology borrowed from Aristotle, there is good reason to object to St. Thomas’ doctrine on women. As Dr. Heinzelmann so clearly notes, his Aristotelian teachings contradict other Thomistic doctrines. For example, there can be, according to St. Thomas, no greater or less degree of possession of an essence; therefore, woman is either as fully human as man or she is not human at all. While a monastic-bred St. Thomas might have been willing to grant the second alternative, this would have presented insuperable difficulties in the area of theology. Consistency, therefore, would have required him to maintain, against Aristotle, that woman is fully human.

Again, according to Aristotelian theory, only the male, possessing human nature in its fullness, is able to communicate the “form” of humanity to his offspring. But St. Thomas, in his psychology, equates the form with the soul, which, according to Catholic teaching, is given by God, not by the human parents. Moreover, the same being that confers the form, says St. Thomas, confers the act of existence, and only God can confer existence. These are, incidentally, just a few of the many instances in which St. Thomas is caught between the consequences of his Aristotelian philosophy of nature and the demands of his own theology or metaphysics.

One may easily show that St. Thomas’ metaphysical position absolutely demands that all differences between beings of the same species be regarded as “accidents.” Consequently, to maintain scientifically—in St. Thomas’ sense of this term—that women are such and such by nature requires that one show that a certain “accident” or set of “accidents” which belong to all women and to no men (the physical organs of generation, which are what they are by reason of “accidents,” would fulfill this requirement) are the necessary cause of at least one other accident. Then this accident would be “natural” to women.

To date, no one has ever produced this type of demonstration that any manner of acting, any particular degree of intellectual ability, or any special emotional makeup is “natural” to women. Indeed, such a demonstration is impossible, for women, as a matter of fact, differ markedly in these characteristics. The statement, frequently made, that women should act in accordance with their nature is one of those pious platitudes which satisfy the thoughtless, but it has no possible meaning within an authentically Thomistic context; the only nature woman has is humannature.

However, there are two other sources of a conception of woman’s “nature”: Scripture and social custom. Until the very recent past, the account of woman’s creation in Genesis was almost universally interpreted as indicating woman’s God-imposed inferiority and subjection. Today, however, it is the general opinion of biblical scholars that what Genesis was intended to teach was, in fact, the opposite notion; namely, that woman, being flesh of man’s flesh and bone of his bone, was of the same nature as he, equal to him. It is significant that in one of the two accounts of creation in Genesis we are told simply, “God created man in his image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them.”

But there seems to have been through the centuries a very understandable tendency to interpret Scripture in the light of what “everyone knew” to be true. Since “everyone knew” that women were inferior, it was easy to read this inferiority into Genesis, just as it was easy, for centuries, to read into Scripture an approbation of slavery or a doctrine of papal temporal sovereignty. Inasmuch as there exists no official interpretation of St. Paul’s passages concerning women—just as there exists no official interpretation of the pertinent passages in Genesis—one can at least hope that once “everybody knows” women are not inferior or naturally subject to men it will be seen that St. Paul did not intend to teach that they are.

The other source of a conception of woman’s “nature”—social custom—must also be examined in the light of reason. The fact that “we have always done things this way” can be regarded only by the uncritical as sufficient reason for our continuing to do things this way. The fact that women have “always” been restricted to hearth and home is no reason why Valentina Tereshkovna should not go barreling about our globe in a spaceship, even though this did cause considerable embarrassment to our American male astronauts. The fact that we have never had a woman President in the United States is no reason why Margaret Chase Smith should not aspire to that office. Women’s having always been excluded from the rabbinate provides no valid evidence that the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods was foolish in asking at its convention in November that Reform Judaism consider ordaining women as rabbis. In fact, in 1922 the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared that “women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.”

Nor is “it has never been done” a sufficient argument against ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood. As Dr. Heinzelmann, drawing upon St. Thomas’ psychology and metaphysics, pointed out in her Frau und Konzil, woman’s soul does not differ from man’s and therefore can receive the sacramental character of ordination as well as his. Acting on this premise, the St. Joan’s International Alliance, founded in 1931, resolved at its annual meeting in Fribourg this year “that diaconal duties be entrusted to women as well as men if the diaconate is restored as a permanent ministry” and “that women would be willing and eager to respond if the Church extends the priesthood to them.”

And we must ask in all seriousness, why should the Church not do so? The cultural and historical reasons for which women have been excluded no longer justify such an exclusion. Moreover, there is undoubtedly much that women could contribute to the Church through the priesthood. And those who, in the past, have been sure that they could never adjust to having a woman in this or that position in society have always managed to adjust when it became necessary. Those Russian men, for example, who would have died rather than go to a woman physician doubtlessly by now have done so—died or gone.

If we do not take a long, cold look at our images of feminity and masculinity —imposed by social custom —we may find ourselves pushed into many undesirable situations, some of them much more detrimental to men than to women. Take the problem of homosexuality for example. It has been stated seriously that women, by wearing slacks, have made it difficult for men to distinguish clearly between man and woman; and, in their confusion, some men have formed homosexual relationships. Well, anyone unable to tell whether slacks are being filled out by a masculine or feminine physique is either myopic or seriously deficient in some of the fundamentals of ornithology and apiology.

What seems more likely is this: our society requires of a man that he be bigger, braver, and more intelligent than the woman with whom he becomes linked, and that he be capable of dominating her and asserting his superiority over her. As women become more and more self-sufficient, more and more capable, and less and less afraid of mice—or space travel—it becomes more and more difficult for many men to conform to the accepted image of masculinity. Those who tend to unthinking conformity find themselves facing a most frustrating experience, the frustration being increased by the fact that it operates on the level of the unconscious. For those who cannot endure the pressure, and for the nonconformists, homosexuality is a way out.

Of course, the healthy “way out” would be to recognize the pressures which are operative and to acknowledge the absurdity of the images which give rise to them. For women, the whole problem is much easier; it takes no genius to pretend to be weak, timid, and stupid. But it is rather difficult for some women to admire men who make such pretense expedient.

Perhaps this difficulty of pretending explains the phenomenon that, while many women are ready and anxious for cultural changes, others cling emotionally and tenaciously to the old notions of feminine inferiority and dependence. If a woman wishes to please men in our culture she must ordinarily either genuinely think that she conforms to the traditional image or she must pretend to. And our society exerts tremendous pressure on women to please men; in fact, it exerts tremendous pressure on little girls to please little boys.

To one who thinks seriously about these things, it seems very clear that the entire question of woman’s position in society and in the Church needs desperately to be reconsidered in the light of the most recent findings of Scripture scholars, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. Great strides have been made in all these areas, but it remains to synthesize the results and present a quite new picture of women and a corresponding program of action.

As for the theory, Pope John, in his Pacem in terris, laid the cornerstone: “It is obvious to everyone that women are now taking a part in public life. This is happening more rapidly, perhaps, in nations of Christian civilization, and more slowly but broadly, among peoples who have inherited other traditions or cultures. Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life.” “Human beings have the right to choose freely the state of life which they prefer, and therefore the right to set up a family, with equal rights and duties for man and woman.”

As for the program of action, perhaps the present Council will pay some attention to the resolutions of the St. Joan’s Alliance and to Dr. Heinzelmann’s Frau und Konzil. Indeed, there is every reason why it should.

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