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Letter to Women

Chapter 7.

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

Naming the culprit

My mother used to say jokingly at times that through the van Ditshuisens from who she descended via her grandmother, she was distantly related to Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma. Now, to Dutch ears, this is hardly something to be proud of. The Duke of Parma was the military governor in the Netherlands (1587-1592) of Philip II of Spain. He is remembered for ruthlessly suppressing nationalist Dutch uprisings while enjoying the amorous advances of local noble ladies. The Duke descended from an illegitimate son of Pope Paul III and an illegitimate daughter of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V. Tracing one’s ancestry can uncover nasty surprises!


The custom of refusing priestly ordination to women does not easily fit what we know about Jesus’ vision in the Gospel. Ordinary believers feel there is something wrong with blaming Jesus for the exclusion of women. But if the ban does not derive from Jesus, where did it come from? Research points to the anti-feminine cultural bias in the past. But we can be even more specific. The greatest culprit was ancient Roman law which the Church gradually made its own. How do we know this?

Geographic variations


Prejudices against women existed everywhere in the past. But in Christian countries that stood predominantly under Greek influence, the prejudices were less. I will give some examples.


Plato’s philosophy (427 - 347 BC), though partly overshadowed by Aristotle’s, remained influential. And Plato’s attitude to women was ambivalent. In some of his writings he ascribed the inferior status of women clearly to a degeneration from perfect human nature. In other writings he advocated a fairer deal for women. In his idealised Republic he foresaw an upper class of ‘guardians’ among whom the chattel status of woman would be abolished, that is: she would no longer be owned by her husband. Then women would receive equal education to men. This is a far cry from Aristotle’s claim that women were inferior by nature.[97]


When we read the Greek-speaking Fathers of the Church, we are often surprised to find a greater openness than among the Latin-speaking Fathers. The Latin Fathers Tertullian, Augustine and Jerome routinely implied that women owed their ‘state of punishment’ to Eve. The Greek-speaking St. Irenaeus (140-203 AD) presented a more even-handed interpretation of the Genesis account. He blamed the devil, rather than Adam and Eve. And he held Adam more responsible than Eve. He showed real empathy with women and regretted the unjust plight they were often made to suffer. St. Ignatius too, another Greek Father (died 110 AD), had no grudge against women. Yes, the fall came through one woman, Eve, he said, but redemption came through another woman, namely Mary.


In Latin speaking circles there existed an abhorrence of menstruation. Women were told to stay at home, to abstain from receiving communion until they were cleansed, and so on. The 3rd century Didascalia, however, an instruction book composed in North Syria, presented a truly Christian response. Women should not think that their monthly periods were a time of evil during which they should keep away from prayer or the Eucharist. No, God has created the body and all its functions. They are all holy. “And through baptism women receive the Holy Spirit, who is ever with those that work righteousness, and does not depart from them by reason of natural issues and the intercourse of marriage, but is ever and always with those who possess him”.[98]


The Greek Fathers of the Church spoke of Mary as a priest. Epiphanius II, a bishop in Cyprus who died in 680 AD, composed a long hymn on Mary’s priestly status, saying among other things: “I call the Virgin both priest and altar,  she, the ‘table-bearer’  who has given us the Christ,  the heavenly bread for the forgiveness of sins.”[99]  The term ‘table-bearer’ was a title of the ‘priestesses’ of Pallas Athene.[100]  We do not find this association between priesthood and women with the Latin Fathers.


For about nine centuries the Early Church had sacramentally ordained women deacons. They flourished in the Greek speaking countries of the Byzantine empire. In the Latin speaking countries, however, they were only grudgingly tolerated. Soon local councils in North Africa and Gaul imposed local bans to stop the diaconate of women altogether.


There are tantalising traces of women having been ordained priests in the southernmost part of Italy among Greek speaking colonies until the 3rd of 4th century when the practice was stamped upon from Rome.


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.”[101]  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 Laws


          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”.


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.[102]


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!”[103]

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.


Or take this example from the law book assembled by Gratian (1140):

“Wives are subject to their husbands by nature  .  .  .  As Augustine states: ‘It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater’  .  .   And Jerome states: ‘God’s word is blasphemed by either despising God's original sentence and reducing it to nothing, or by defaming the Gospel of Christ, when a woman, against the law and fidelity of nature, in spite of being a Christian and made subject by God’s law, desires to dominate her husband, since even pagan wives serve their husbands by the common law of nature’.”[104]

What is the subjection of women based upon? Nature  .  .  .  How do we know what is natural? Quoting Augustine and Jerome, the answer lies in law: ‘the natural order of people’, ‘against the law and fidelity of nature’, ‘the common law of nature’. What they mean is: the law as they knew it, Roman civil law and family law. The pagan laws of ancient Rome thus became the basis for the Church’s own legislation against women. The crass Latin bias against women is even expressed in these words which remained in the Church’s Book of Law till 1917:

“You must know that Ambrose does not call the husband ‘man’ (Latin vir) on account of his male sex, but by the strength (Latin virtus) of his soul; and you should realise that ‘woman’ (Latin mulier) is not called so because of the sex of her body but because of the weakness (Latin mollicies) of her mind.”[105]

          Since Church leaders took Roman Law as the norm for what is right and just, the same 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. But is this all?

Monthly periods


The Latin speaking countries, more it would seem than countries that had adopted Greek culture, abhorred menstruation. A taboo against women during their monthly periods was common. Not only were women considered to be ‘impure’ at such a time, but in danger of communicating their impurity to others. This is why Pliny the Elder said in a Latin classic that was quoted and re-quoted as an authority:


“Contact with the monthly flux of women turns new wine sour, makes crops wither, kills grafts, dries seeds in gardens, causes the fruit of trees to fall off, dims the bright surface of mirrors, dulls the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory, kills bees, rusts iron and bronze, and causes a horrible smell to fill the air. Dogs who taste the blood become mad, and their bite becomes poisonous as in rabies. The Dead Sea, thick with salt, cannot be drawn asunder except by a thread soaked in the poisonous fluid of the menstrual blood. A thread from an infected dress is sufficient. Linen, touched by the woman while boiling and washing it in water, turns black. So magical is the power of women during their monthly periods that they say that hailstorms and whirlwinds are driven away if menstrual fluid is exposed to the flashes of lightning.” [106]


We can see this prejudice at work in the Fathers. “For our salvation the Son of God was made the Son of Man. Nine months he awaited his birth in the womb, undergoing the most revolting conditions there, to come forth covered with blood.”[107]  We see it at work in Church practice. “Menstruous women ought not to come to the Holy Table, or touch the Holy of Holies, nor enter churches, but to pray elsewhere.”[108] “While a priest is celebrating Mass, women should in no way approach the altar, but remain in their places, and there the priest should receive their offerings to God. Women should therefore remember their infirmity, and the inferiority of their sex: and therefore they should have fear of touching whatever sacred things there are in the ministry of the Church.”[109] The prejudice was repeated over and over again by medieval theologians.


Apart from stopping women from receiving communion during their monthly periods, it also became an obstacle to women’s ordination. For who dared to imagine what could happen when a woman served at the altar?


The real culprit that stopped women from being received into the ministry was pagan bias. On the one hand  it consisted in the prejudice that considered women incapable of holding authority, a prejudice that lay enshrined in Roman civil law and that became part of church law. On the other hand there was the taboo that considered a woman’s menstrual blood unclean and dangerous. How could such an inferior and unclean creature ever be a priest?  And did Scripture not say the same thing?









Readings from Women Priests web site


The Rabbinical tradition regarding women’s monthly periods


Quotes from St. Augustine that show his negative attitude towards women


The law collection of Gratian










The taboo against menstruation





[97] Julia Annas, ‘Plato’s Republic and Feminism’, in Osborne (ed.), Woman in Western Thought, pp. 24-33; Anne Dickason, ‘Anatomy and Destiny: The Role of Biology in Plato’s Views of Women’, in Carold C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky (eds.), Women and Philosophy. Toward a Theory of Liberation, New York 1976.

[98]  G. Homer, The Didascalia Apostolorum, the Syriac Version, Oxford 1929, ch. 26.

[99]  Epiphanius II, Patrologiae Cursus. Series Graeca, Migne, Paris 1857-1866, vol. 43, cols. 497a.

[100]  C.B.Hale, Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, Paris 1854, col. 2363-2364.

[101]  Tertullian, On the Veiling of Virgins, chap. 9.

[102] 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.

[103]  Ambrosiaster, On 1 Corinthians 14, 34.

[104] 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.

[105] Decretum Gratiani, Causa 32, question 7, chapter 18. Corpus Juris Canonici, edited by A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881; reprint Graz 1955; vol. 1, col. 1145.

[106] Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 28, ch. 23, 78-80; book 7, ch. 65.

[107]  Jerome, Letter 22. To Eustochium, § 37.

[108]  Dionysius, Letter to Basilides, canon 2.

[109]  Capitulary of Bishop Theodulf of Orléans (760-821), canon 6.

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