Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Letter to Women

Chapter 11.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Carrying the burden of Eve’s sin?

It was only in the early Middle Ages that the ordination of women began to be discussed in theological treatises. It was always dismissed out of hand, usually with just a few lines of justification. The reasons given are instructive. Let us listen to Guido of Baysius’s judgment in 1296 AD:


“Women are unfit to receive ordination, for ordination is reserved for perfect members of the church, since it is given for the distribution of grace to other men. But women are not perfect members of the church, only men are.

Moreover, woman was the effective cause of damnation since she was the origin of transgression and Adam was deceived through her, and thus she cannot be the effective cause of salvation, because holy orders causes grace in others and so salvation.”[183]


          For Guido, women are not perfect members of the church because they do not reflect the glory of God.[184] Moreover, woman was the effective cause of damnation. This applies not only to Eve, but to all women. All women are defiled by sin and cannot administer grace. It is like saying that all women are carrying an incurable, infectious disease such as AIDS and can therefore not be doctors or nurses. Then what about Jesus’ mother Mary? Guido has his answer ready: “A woman can be the cause of salvation in a material way. Indeed because woman was [after all] taken from man in a material way since she was made from Adam’s rib. And in this way [that is only materially] the Virgin Mary had to be the cause of salvation. And this is true that the female sex was the material cause of our salvation since Christ our salvation proceeded materially from the Blessed Virgin.”[185]


          For medieval theologians, every woman carries the curse of sin. The consequences were that God punished her by subjecting her to man and this punishment was irreversible. She could not be ordained to any spiritual ministry. She always had to be treated with circumspection as a lasting source of temptation. On the question why a mother remains unclean for forty days after giving birth to a son, but for eighty days after giving birth to a daughter, the Franciscan theologian Sicardus replies: “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’.[186]


          And the official law book of the Church made the curse official:

 “Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them .  .  .  Because of original sin, they must show themselves submissive.”[187]

The opinion of the Fathers of the Church


The early Greek Fathers had no such idea as the curse of Eve lying on women. St. Ignatius of Antioch ( died 110 AD) taught that the fall came through a woman, but so came redemption.[188]  St. Irenaeus (ca. 140 - 203) stated that, though the devil defeated the human race through a woman, he also lost through a woman, namely Mary, Jesus’ mother.[189] He even maintained that Adam was more to blame than Eve.

“If you say that the devil attacked Eve as being the weaker of the two, [I reply that], on the contrary, she was the stronger, since she appears to have been the helper of the man in the transgression of the commandment. For she did all by herself resist the serpent, and it was after holding out for a while and after offering resistance that she ate of the tree, being tricked by deceit; whereas Adam, making no fight whatever, nor refusal, simply took the fruit handed to him by the woman, which is an indication of the utmost imbecility and effeminacy of mind. And the woman, indeed, deserves pardon since she was defeated in the contest by the devil; but Adam deserves none, for he gave in to the woman, - although he had personally received the command from God.”[190]

          Such Greek voices were soon silenced by the Latin Fathers who began to explain women’s subject state as a consequence of Eve’s role in original sin. Tertullian (155-245 AD) was one of the worst. Listen to this master piece of undiluted prejudice:

“Every woman should be  walking about as Eve, mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve, -- the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium [attaching to her as the cause] of human perdition. ‘In pains and in anxiety you will bear children, woman; and you will desire your husband, but he will lord it over you.’ And do you not know that you are [each] an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on in this age: the guilt must of necessity live on too.

¨      You are the devil’s gateway!

¨      You violated that [forbidden] tree!

¨      You were the first to desert divine law!

¨      You were she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack (Adam)!

¨      You destroyed so easily God’s image, man!

¨      On account of what you deserved - that is, death  - even the Son of God had to die!”[191]


Now we should read Tertullian’s words carefully. “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on in this age.”  What did he mean?  What was the sentence of God?  Being under the dominion of men.  How do we know that it lives on in this age, in spite of Christ?  Because women are still under the dominion of men! Remember Roman law?[192]  Women were owned by their husbands and subject to their every command. Women could not hold any public responsibility or exercise any authority. They could not be witnesses in a court case or represent themselves. If so, Tertullian argues, God’s punishment still lies on women! But God does not punish without guilt  .  .  .  . “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on in this age. This means that the guilt must of necessity live on too.” Therefore, every woman still carries the guilt of Eve’s sin!


          It becomes a theme repeated by many of the Fathers. St Chrysostom (344 - 407) reasoned like this: “Does Eve’s sin affect other women? Certainly; for the whole sex is weak and fickle, and scripture speaks of the sex collectively. For it says not Eve, but ‘the woman ate’, which is the common name of the whole sex, not her proper name. Was then the whole sex included in the transgression for her fault?   .   .   . Yes, the whole female sex transgressed, and not the male.”[193]


          St. Jerome (347 - 419) repeatedly said that the punishment of Eve rests on every woman. But women can escape the punishment by bearing children, or even better by remaining virgins.[194] In a letter to Lucinus, a wealthy Spaniard who, together with his wife Theodora, had made a vow of sexual abstinence, Jerome stated that his wife had now ‘become a man’. “She was once your partner in the flesh but is now your partner in the spirit; once your wife but now your sister; once an inferior but now an equal; once a woman but now a man.”[195] The curious reasoning is, therefore, that as a wife Theodora carried God’s curse of subjection. By abstaining from sexual intercourse she is free from the curse -- and has become a man.

 What do we find in Scripture?


Genesis 3,1 - 24  describes our human sinful condition in the myth of our two  original ancestors, Adam and Eve. Both the man and the woman share in the rebellion against God. Both feel guilty and ashamed. On both, hardship is inflicted as punishment. The text then mentions examples of typical human hardship: a man’s toil to produce a crop on hostile land, a woman’s pain in childbirth and domination by the husband.


To the woman God says: “I will multiply your pains in childbirth. You shall give birth to your children in pain. You will long for your husband, but he will lord it over you.” This is not to be understood as a licence to husbands to keep their wives in submission. It is a statement of fact. It notes the consequences of sin. In a perfect world men would not need to struggle to grow crops amidst drought, disease and locusts. In the same perfect world, women would not have pain in childbirth or face bullying by their husbands. This is now the accepted interpretation of Catholic scholarship.[196]


The rabbis interpreted this in terms of the guilt and punishment of women. This crops up in 1 Timothy 2,14 where the author adduces additional reasons for women to stick to a subservient role.

“For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”

As I have shown in the previous chapter, these rationalizations were added in the context of pastoral concern that women could become entangled in Gnostic sects. It is clear that these verses are not carefully considered theological statements. And just think of the absurdity of imputing to later women guilt for Eve’s transgression.

¨      Parents may not be put to death for their children, nor children for their parents. Each person should die for one’s own sin.[197]

¨      Even the Old Testament taught complete forgiveness: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”[198]

¨      If Eve’s transgression was part of original sin, which it is not, it would still be wiped out by baptism. For baptism forgives all sins, including original sin.

¨      If some guilt would still cling to women, why would a similar guilt not cling to men? For God is not a respecter of persons and in Christ the distinction between men and women has vanished.[199]


In spite of all this, the official law of the Church maintained that women should be kept in submission also because of their responsibility for bringing sin into the world. I will print here the official text from the Corpus Iuris Canonici which I have provided with headings and comments to facilitate its reading.


[A legal question]

“May a woman lay an accusation against a priest?

[The legal answer]

It seems not because as Pope Fabian says, neither complaint nor testimony may be raised against the priests of the Lord by those who do not have, and cannot have, the same status with them.

Women cannot, however, be promoted to the priesthood or even the diaconate and for this reason they may not raise a complaint or give testimony against priests in court. This is shown both in the sacred canons [= Church regulations] and the laws [= Roman & civil laws].

[my comment]

Notice that the exclusion of women from ordination, cited as part of the argument, is based both on previous church laws and (!) on civil law, which was the ancient Roman law! The law he refers to is mainly the principle that no woman can hold any authority.

[Legal objection]

However, it would seem that whoever can be a judge may not be prevented from being a plaintiff and women became judges in the Old Testament as is clearly shown in the book of Judges [Deborah was a judge]. So those cannot be excluded from the role of plaintiff who have often fulfilled the role of judge and who are not forbidden by any word of Scripture to act as plaintiff . . . .

[Legal answer]

In the Old Testament much was permitted which today [i. e. in the New Testament] is abolished, through the perfection of grace. So if [in the Old Testament] women were permitted to judge the people, today because of sin, which woman brought into the world, women are admonished by the Apostle [Paul] to be careful to practice a modest restraint, to be subject to men and to veil themselves as a sign of subjugation.”[200]

[my comment]

In other words: because of the enduring sin that rests on women -- for they brought sin into the world, women are not allowed to hold authority in the New Testament, as they could in the Old! This shows that we live in a time of more perfect grace!


Rarely in my 45 years as a theologian have I come across such utterly ridiculous and twisted thinking. Yet the above text was part of the Church’s official book of law, the Corpus Iuris Canonici, until 1918. This was the kind of reasoning with which women were barred from priestly ordination. [201]






Readings from Women Priests web site


Readings from ‘tradition’ on women’s carrying Eve’s guilt


Four articles on the psychological and social effects of the negative Eve myth:

Anne Baring

‘The Separation from Nature and the Loss of the Feminine Aspect of Spirit’ &

 ‘The Myth of the Fall and the Doctrine of Original Sin’


Anne Baring and Jules Cashford

‘Eve the Mother of all the Living’ &  ‘Eve in Christian Culture’





















[183]   De Baysio, Rosarium super Decreto, Causa 27, quaestio 1, chapter 23; Lyon 1549.

[184]   De Baysio, “On account of three reasons a man is said to be the glory of God and not a woman. Firstly, because God appeared more powerful and more glorious in the creation of a man than of the woman, because it is especially through man that the glory of God is manifest because God made him by himself and from the slime of the earth against nature, but woman is made from the man. Secondly because the man was made by God without any intermediate tool, which is not the case with regard to woman. Thirdly because the man glorifies God directly, that is without any intermediary, whereas the woman only glorifies God through the man, because the man teaches and instructs the woman to glorify God”. Ib, Causa 33, quaestio 5, chapter 13.

[185]   De Baysio, ib.

[186]   Simon of Cremona, Mitrale V, chapter 11; Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen 1976, pp. 58-60.

[187] Decretum Gratiani, Causa 33, question 5, chapter 19. Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 1255-1256.

[188]  Ignatius, Letter to the Trallians, ch. 10.

[189]  Irenaeus, Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 21, § 1.

[190]   Irenaeus, Fragment no 19.

[191]  Tertullian, De Cultu Feminarum, book 1, chap 1.

[192]   See chapter 7.

[193]  St. Chrysostom, Homily 9.

[194]  Jerome, Against Jovinianus, Book 1, § 27-28.

[195]  Jerome, Letter 71. To Lucinius, § 3.

[196]  Exegesis in: L.Ouelette, ‘Woman’s doom in Gen 3,16’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12 (1950) pp. 389-399; G. Duncker, ‘In dolore paries filios’, Angelicum 34 (1957) pp. 18-32; F. de Fraine, The Bible and the Origin of Man, New York 1962; H. Renkens, Israel’s Concept of the Beginning, New York 1964; B. Vawter, A Path through Genesis, London 1957; On Genesis. A New Reading, New York 1977; J.M.Ford, ‘Tongues-Leadership-Women’, Spiritual Life 17 (1971) pp. 186-197; P.K.Jewett, Man as Male and Female, Grand Rapids 1975; biblical theology of the text in: Arlene Swidler, Woman in a Man‘s Church, New York 1972; Sr. Albertus Magnus Mcgrath, What a Modern Catholic Believes about Women, Chicago 1972; G. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, Notre Dame 1973; R. Kress, Wither Womankind? The Humanity of Women, St. Meinrad 1975; L. Russell (ed.), The Liberating Word: a Guide to nonsexist Interpretation of the Bible, Philadelphia 1976; Ph. Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Philadelphia 1978; etc.

[197]   Deuteronomy 24,16; Jeremiah 31,29-30; Ezekiel 14,12-20.

[198]   Isaiah 1,18.

[199]   Acts 10,34; Romans 2,11; Galatians 3,28.

[200] Decretum Gratiani, Causa 2, question 7, princ.; Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 750-751.

[201]  In the succeeding codes of Church law the reasoning was dropped, but the conclusion stayed. Codex Iuris Canonici (1918), can. 968; (1983), can. 1024.

Next Chapter?

Return to Contents page?

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests
Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.