Cuckoo parentage of the exclusion of women

The exclusion of women from priestly ordination –
its cuckoo parentage

Extracts from The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church. Unmasking a Cuckoo’s Egg Tradition, by John Wijngaards, Darton, Longman & Todd, London 2001.

The cuckoo’s egg hypothesis

Excerpt from chapter one

Suppose cultural prejudice rather than God’s will was responsible for relegating women to a purely passive role in the Church. Through this theological error – if it were true, enormous damage was inflicted on the faithful in previous centuries, and the harm still continues today. Cultural bigotry invaded Christian beliefs and succeeded in enthroning a pagan prejudice as if it were a genuine Christian practice. In other words, suppose the opposition to women priests is a classical example of what I call a ‘cuckoo’s egg tradition’ — of which there have been more in the Church!

Cuckoos not only lay their eggs surreptitiously in the nests of other birds; the eggs they lay cunningly imitate the eggs of the hosts. In Britain, for instance, cuckoos can variously lay eggs that resemble in spots and colours the eggs of dunnocks, redstarts, sparrows and warblers. The host bird remains unaware of the fact that a foreign egg has been added to the clutch. In a similar way we see how in the Early Church, bias against women was presented in typically scriptural and Christian guises. But wait for what is to come!

The cuckoo chick has evolved a fiendish form of behaviour known as ‘nest-mate eviction’, to ensure that it does not have to compete with members of the foster brood for food. Within a few hours of hatching, the blind, naked, young cuckoo displays a strong urge to evict any objects, such as eggs or other nestlings, from the nest. It does this by working itself under the offending object and, aided by the presence of a depression between the shoulder blades, it heaves the object over the rim of the nest. Within about 24 hours of hatching, the young cuckoo has the nest and the attention of its foster parents to itself. Remarkable as it may seem, the spurious anti-woman tradition in the Christian Church acted in the same way. For many centuries women had served in a number of ministries, including the sacramental diaconate. It all went overboard. The priestly vocations of women were suppressed. Ancient practices that ran counter to the established prejudice, such as a devotion to Mary as priest, were suffocated. A cuckoo’s egg tradition is a killer tradition.

But the villainy does not stop even here. When the cuckoo chick grows up, it usually exceeds its foster parents in size. However, the parent birds have now bonded to it and keep feeding it, in spite of the incongruity. They are firmly convinced this is their own chick. One can therefore see a tiny warbler offering newly caught insects to a cuckoo fledgling ten times its size! The same happens in the Church with cuckoo’s egg traditions. Those with teaching power are often blinded by the long standing and seemingly ancient origins of the tradition, and will seek to defend its authenticity, even though the incongruity is obvious to impartial observers.

Hold on, you may say. These are just your opinions. How do we know that what you say is true? Rome holds the trump card. Women have not been ordained for two thousand years. You cannot dismiss such a long tradition out of hand! — You are right. I may not presume your agreement. Consider what I have said so far as the hypothesis that I will defend to you in the rest of this book. I maintain that opposition to the ordination of women does not come from Christ. It is not God who decreed the exclusion of women, but pagan sexist bigotry which squashed the true Christian tradition of women’s call to ministry.

Roman culture and women

Excerpt from chapter 7

Although a bias against women existed everywhere, the hardest prejudice was found in the Latin speaking regions of the old Roman empire: central and north Italy, Gaul [= present-day France], Northern Africa, Spain and Britain. Let me give some examples.

In Carthage, North Africa, lived Tertullian (ca. 155 – 245 AD) who exercised a great influence on the Latin Fathers who were to follow him. As the initiator of ecclesiastical Latin, he was instrumental in shaping the vocabulary and thought of Western Christianity for the next 1,000 years. Tertullian opposed any participation of women in Church ministries. “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither may she teach, baptize, offer, claim for herself a share in any masculine role, certainly not in any priestly office.”(1) Tertullian’s negative stand was followed by other Latin Fathers, such as Augustine (Hippo, North Africa), Jerome (Italy, Palestine) and Ambrosiaster (North Italy).

The local synod at Carthage (345-419) forbade bishops, priests and deacons to touch women before eucharistic celebrations. The synod of Orange in Gaul (441 AD) abolished the ordination of women as deacons in its area. The priest Gennadius of Marseille in Gaul drew up a list of rules, known as the Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua that included restrictions against women (late fifth cent.). The synods of Epaon (517) and Auxerre (588), both in Gaul, reiterated the local abolition of the diaconate of women and forbade women to touch sacred objects or receive communion in the hand. Bishop Theodore of Canterbury in Britain (died 690 AD) forbade women, whether lay or religious, to enter into church or receive communion during the time of menstruation.

From such examples we can establish that the rejection of women was strongest in the Latin tradition.

This would be continued in the Middle Ages. The anti-woman code of church laws assembled by the monk Gratian in Bologna, Italy, in 1140, became the core of future church legislation. The theologians and canon lawyers of the Latin speaking universities of Italy, France, Spain and England carried on the same tradition of keeping women in submission and barring them from access to ‘sacred things’.

What is behind all this? Why all this hostility in the territories of the ancient Roman empire? What is the Latin connection?

Roman Law

No system of law has been so influential in the world as that which arose in the city of ancient Rome. Its thinking dominated the Roman empire for more than a thousand years, and in the Byzantine empire it remained in use till 1453. It formed the basis for the law codes of most western countries. More important for us: it shaped much of church law in the Catholic church.

The great contribution of Roman legislation was its laying down of simple and clear principles. Roman law was detailed, specific, practical. It lent itself to resolving disputes. It was a form of law developed by people who were able administrators and efficient organizers. But organization often hides structural prejudice, and this is what happened in the case of women. For Roman law was hostile to women.

Roman family law was based on the principle that the father of the family (pater familias) had complete authority both over the children and his wife. This was defined as paternal power (patria potestas).

The wife depended totally on her husband:

  • The wife was the property of her husband.
  • She was completely subjected to his disposition. He could punish her in any way, even kill her, or sell her as a slave — though this last punishment was forbidden after 100 BC.
  • As far as family property was concerned, the wife herself did not own anything. Everything she or her children inherited belonged to her husband, including also the dowry which she brought with her to her marriage.

In later time this absolute power of the husband was somewhat diminished leading to what was known as a form of ‘free marriage’ which husband and wife could agree upon. However, even in this new situation, the husband had the right to make the final decisions in all questions concerning the family: for instance the place of residence which the wife had to share with him, the education of the children, the exclusive rights on her wifely duties, while the husband himself could make love to other women with impunity.

The rights of women in general civil Roman law were not much better.

  • Although the woman was considered a Roman citizen, she obtained her position only through her husband. Women could not carry their own name, as little as slaves could. Only men carried this distinct sign of their being a Roman citizen.
  • The general principle was: “In many sections of our law the condition of women is weaker than that of men”.
  • Moreover, the woman was excluded from all public functions and rights: “Women are excluded from all civil and public responsibility and therefore can neither be judges nor carry any civil authority, they cannot bring a court case, nor intercede for someone else nor act as mediators”.
  • A woman could not have charge of another person. “Guardianship is a man’s duty.” She could not have patronage of even her children and cousins — except in later Roman law.
  • Women could not function as witnesses, whether at the drawing up of a last will, or in any other form of law. “A woman is incapable of being a witness in any form of jurisprudence where witnesses are required”. Like minors, slaves, the dumb and criminals, women were reckoned to be incapable of being witnesses.
  • Women could not enter a court case without being represented by a man. Women could not represent themselves in law “because of the infirmity of their sex and because of their ignorance about matters pertaining to public life”. (2)

In spite of a slight relaxation in laws which offered more protection to women in the Roman Empire of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the overall inferior status of women remained the same.

If we understand that this was the condition of women by law, a law which everyone greatly respected, we can appreciate how this devaluation of women slipped into Church thinking. The inferior status of women was so much taken for granted that it determined the way Latin speaking theologians and church leaders would look on matters relating to women. Just listen to this reasoning by Ambrosiaster (4th cent) which is typical of the time:

“Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God . . . 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!” (3)

Ambrosiaster states that woman ‘has no kind of authority’. Why not? Because by civil law a woman could not hold any public function or exercise any authority. He goes on to say that she cannot be ‘a witness in court, or exercise citizenship [ = take part in public meetings] or be a judge’. Why not? Because civil law forbade it. Now notice the argument. Woman does not bear the image of God because she is manifestly subject to man as we can see from civil law! The real argument rests on Roman law which is taken as right and just. And here the parent is revealed. The cuckoo raises its ugly head. The position of woman is not really decided by any Christian tradition or inspired text, but by the pagan Roman law which was believed to be normative.

The same attitude was enshrined in the later law books of the Church . . . (4)

Since Church leaders took Roman Law as the norm for what is right and just, negative rules regarding women found their way into Christian thought, practice and law. It is obvious that Christians who accepted the socially and culturally inferior status of women enshrined in civil law, could not envisage her in the leadership role demanded of bishops and priests. Here we find the true origin of the so-called ‘christian’ tradition of banning women from the ministry.

Let us now go into further details . . . .

John Wijngaards

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1. Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, chap. 9.

2. H.Heumann and E.Seckel, Handlexikon zu den Quellen des römischen Rechts, Graz 1958, pp. 246 and 265. L.Wenger, Institutes of the Roman Law of Civil Procedure, Littleton 1940; F.Schulz, Classical Roman Law, London 1951; M.Kaser, Roman Private Law, Oxford 1965.

3. Ambrosiaster, On 1 Corinthians 14, 34.

4. For instance, the Decretum Gratiani, Causa 33, question 5, chapters 11, 13,15 & 19. Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 1254-1256.

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