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Letter to Women

Chapter 8.

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

The arguments found in ‘tradition’

When Florence Nightingale arrived in the British military hospital at Scutari in 1854 during the Crimean war, she found that atrocious conditions prevailed. The barracks were overcrowded with the wounded and dying, and infested by fleas and rats. Furniture, clothing, bedding and medical supplies were deficient. Sanatory provisions were minimal. The water allowance per patient was one pint a day for all purposes. Florence took in hand a thorough reform of the local situation, but she did more: she began to campaign for soldier welfare in the whole British army. And she invented a surprisingly effective tool: statistics.


To overcome the hostile reception by the army establishment, she started to compile lists of facts and to display them in simple diagrams. She would detail, month by month, how many soldiers had died in battle and how many had died of infectious diseases. She would make comparative tables of the cost of health prevention and of medical aftercare. She published these statistics in Britain and even presented them to Queen Victoria in October 1856. They achieved their purpose. A royal commission on the health of the army began work that same year.


In this chapter I will try to follow her approach. Leaving the detailed discussion of various arguments to later, I want to achieve clarity on some basic facts.


My main question is: what were the traditional arguments for refusing ordination to  women? Now, during the first 1000 years after Christ, the ordination of women to the priesthood was rarely discussed. In the few sporadic texts where it was mentioned we cannot speak of any systematic reflection on the issue. Fathers of the Church, Popes or local church councils responded to this or that event. These early testimonies are, of course, important and we will give due weight to them when tracing the origin of various arguments. It is more revealing to study the reasons given by the medieval theologians, because it was during this time that (a) the ban against women’s ordination became part of church law and (b) the reasons for it were methodically reflected on.


Rome quotes five medieval theologians in support of their arguments: Aquinas, Bonaventure, Richard of Middleton, John Duns Scotus, Durandus a Saint-Pourçain. These will be my main source. I have done my own research on them. I obtained the original Latin texts, translated them into English and analysed them in full.[110]


I have supplemented this list with eleven contemporary canon lawyers.[111] It should be noted that church law and theology were closely related in those days. Commentators of church law were theologians. Theologians used church law as one of their principal sources.


My list therefore contains 16 medieval theologians who have expressed a theological judgment on women’s ordination. This list seems to be complete as far as known written sources go. We can safely base a representative analysis on them. If we catalogue the reasons they gave for excluding women from ordination, we have a fair idea of how the tradition of not-ordaining women was justified.


¨      Gratian of Bologna (1140)

¨      Paucapalea (1148)

¨      Bandinelli (1148)

¨      Rufinus (1159)

¨      Sicardus of Cremona (1181)

¨      Hugucchio (1188)

¨      Teutonicus (1215)

¨      Aquinas (1225 - 1274)

¨      Bonaventure (1217-1274)

¨      De Sergusio (1253)

¨      Richard of Middleton (13th cent.)

¨      John Duns Scotus (1266 - 1308)

¨      Durandus a Saint-Pourçain (1270 - 1334)

¨      De Baysio (1300)

¨      Joannes Andreae (1338)

¨      Antonius de Butrio (1408)


The arguments these theologians give can be divided under two main headings: (a) women are inferior to men and (b) women have been excluded from ordination by the Church.

Women are inferior to men


This is, without any doubt, the main argument presented. In short it comes to this: women lack the intelligence and leadership qualities that men possess. They obviously depend on men for guidance and need to be ruled by men. Women cannot hold any position of authority. Thus women lack that degree of pre-eminence that is required in the spiritual leadership of the ordained ministers.

¨      “In the female sex a pre-eminence of degree cannot be signified since she occupies a state of subjection”.[112]

¨       “Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order.”[113]

¨      “[Holy] Orders establish the ordained person in some degree of eminence, which has somehow to be signified in the eminence of nature of the person ordained. But woman possesses a state of subjection with regard to man, which also corresponds to her nature. For the female sex is naturally imperfect in comparison to the male sex.”[114]


The inferior status of women is theologically justified in various ways. A woman is not created in God’s image. God subjected women to men at creation, or God subjected women to men in punishment for Eve’s sin. Table 1 speaks for itself.



Table 1.      Women’s Inferior Status



Medieval theologians who held this view

Medieval theologians who presented this explicitly as an argument against the ordination of women


God made women subservient to men.

Gratian, Bandinelli, Sicardus, Huguccio, Teutonicus, Aquinas

Huguccio, Bonaventure, de Sergusio, Middleton, Scotus, Durandus, Andreae


Women are inferior to men by nature.

Gratian, Bandinelli, Sicardus, Huguccio, Teutonicus

Aquinas, Bonaventure, Middleton, Scotus, Durandus



Women are not created in the image of God, as men are.

Gratian, Aquinas, de Sergusio

Huguccio, Bonaventure, de Baysio, de Butrio


Women cannot hold public authority, as stated by law.

Sicardus, Teutonicus

Gratian, de Sergusio, Scotus



Women still carry the burden of Eve’s sin.

Gratian, Sicardus, Teutonicus

Huguccio, de Baysio


Women cannot be ordained ‘because of their sex’, i.e. it is against their nature.



Bandinelli , Huguccio, Sicardus, Teutonicus


Women are not perfect human beings and thus cannot represent Christ.


Aquinas, Bonaventure, Andreae



The Church excludes women


The second batch of arguments start from the fact of women’s exclusion. This is most frequently attributed to Paul. Since he forbade women to speak in church or to have authority over men, it is obvious that women cannot be ordained.

“Every Order is received towards the priesthood and teaching. But teaching belongs chiefly to priests, as it is held in dist. 16. quaest. 1 [= in church law]; and not to Deacons, unless by commission, when a sermon or an instruction is regarded as the reading of the Gospel, which it is fitting for deacons to read. But that deed is prohibited to women, 1. Timothy 2. ‘Let the women learn in silence’, and ‘I do not permit them [women] to speak or to teach’, where a gloss [reads], ‘not only I but also the Lord does not permit it’; and this is so because of the weakness of their intellect, and the mutability of their emotions, which they commonly suffer more than men. For a teacher ought to have a lively intellect in the recognition of truth, and stability of emotion in its confirmation.”[115]


Some theologians - only 4 out of the 16! - attribute the exclusion to Jesus Christ. They usually point to the fact that no women are mentioned in the Gospel as having been present at the last Supper. The words: “Do this is commemoration of me”, can, in their opinion, only apply to men.

“The female sex is an impediment to the reception of [Holy] Orders because the male sex is required by necessity of the sacrament, whose principal cause is the institution of Christ, whose right it was to institute the sacraments, both regarding the administering of them as their reception. But Christ ordained only men in the supper when he bestowed upon them the power of consecrating, and after the resurrection when he gave them the holy Spirit saying: whose sins you will remit, etc.[116]


The theologians see the exclusion of women confirmed in other legislation. For women may not touch sacred objects, distribute communion, wear sacred vestments, or enter a church when having their periods. Some state that it is not proper for women to wear a tonsure - the distinguishing mark of a person entering the clerical state. In all these cases the argument is presented as a conclusion from less to more. If women may not even touch a chalice, how could they be allowed to be priests?


“Clerics need to be given the tonsure, as has been stated before. But 1 Cor. says it is a shame for a woman to shave her hair, and she should not. If she looks after her hair, it is her glory. Therefore, only clerics should be ordained, a woman ought not to be ordained.”[117]

“The fact that the female sex impedes the taking of Orders, is clear in the Decrees [of church law], distinc. 23. We do not permit women consecrated to God, or nuns, to touch the sacred vessels or the sacred palls, or to carry incense around the altar, etc., because—there is no doubt to any wise person— all such ministries [of women] are filled with reprehension and condemnation. But what impedes the handling and touching of the sacred objects, impedes much more the reception of Orders. Therefore if sex impedes in the first [case], then also in the second.”[118]


See Table 2 for yourself!


Table 2.     The Exclusion of Women by the Church


Medieval theologians who held this view.

Medieval theologians who presented this explicitly as an argument against the ordination of women.


Paul forbids women to  teach in church or to have authority over men.

Gratian, de Sergusio

Aquinas, Bonaventure, Middleton, Scotus, Durandus, Andreae


Christ did not include a woman among the apostolic twelve. There were only men at the last Supper.


de Sergusio, Middleton, Scotus, Durandus



Women cannot be ordained because it is forbidden by the Church.


Rufinus, Huguccio, Teutonicus, Bonaventure


Women may not touch sacred objects or wear sacred vestments.

Gratian, Rufinus

Middleton, Scotus



Women may not visit church during their monthly periods, etc.

Paucapalea, Rufinus, Sicardus




It is not proper for women to receive the tonsure.


Middleton, Scotus


Women are not perfect members of the Church.


de Baysio


From what these theologians themselves say it is clear that the weightiest argument is the inferior status of woman. That was the reason why Paul forbade women to teach, they say. Her lack of pre-eminence must also have been the reason why Jesus himself chose only men to continue his mission.


The legal position of women was well summarised by Henricus de Sergusio who later became cardinal-bishop of Ostia and who is also known as Cardinal Hostiensis. He wrote the Summa super Titulis Decretalium, also called the Summa Aurea between 1250 and 1253; and the Commentaria in Quinque Decretalium Libros in 1268. He lists “eighteen reasons why women are worse off than men”.


In many articles of our law, the situation of woman is worse than that of men.[119]

First, because a woman may not act as judge . . . .

Secondly, because she cannot undertake arbitration . . . .

Thirdly, because she may not teach, preach public sermons, hear confessions or exercise any other function belonging to the power of the keys . . . .

Fourthly, because she cannot receive holy orders . . . .

Fifthly because she cannot start a court case . . . .

In the eighth place, because she cannot launch an accusation . . . .

In the ninth place, because she may not adopt a child . . . .

In the fourteenth place, because her condition is worse as a witness to a will . .

In the fifteenth place, because she cannot represent others in a court case . . . .

In the eighteenth place, in her subjection to man, and the need to veil her head, and her defective formation into the likeness of God.”[120]

The key arguments


          It is obvious that we do not need to discuss each and every single one of these medieval arguments against the ordination of women. The Roman authorities themselves concede the influence of bias. “It is true that in the writings of the Fathers one will find the undeniable influence of prejudices unfavourable to women.”[121]  We shall have to return again to this Roman admission later. At this stage, everyone agrees that we need not waste time to discuss the merits of reasoning involving the tonsure, women touching sacred objects or visiting church during their monthly periods and so on. Also, we may forgo the general statements of prejudice such as: “Women cannot hold public authority”,  or “Women are not perfect members of the church”. Everyone admits that such reasonings were invalid -- even though the knock-on effect of these faulty reasonings may not be overlooked.


What then remains of arguments that deserve a fuller discussion? I have selected five on one or more of the following criteria:


¨      They were the main theological reasons on which the tradition of non-ordaining women was explicitly based by medieval theologians.

¨      They rested on specific scripture texts.

¨      They are still invoked by the Congregation for Doctrine as valid arguments today.




Table 3.     The five key arguments


Scripture texts quoted in support of this argument

Ranking of this argument among medieval theologians

Status of this argument according to recent Vatican documents

Will be discussed in:


Women are not created in the image of God, as men are.

Women are created subservient to men.

Gen 1,26-27

Gen 2,21-22

1 Cor 11, 7-9




not valid

according to Rome


chapter 9

Women are not allowed to teach in church.

1 Tim 2,11-15

1 Cor 14,34-35


still valid today

according to Rome


chapter 10

Women still carry the burden of Eve’s sin.

Gen 3,16


not valid

according to Rome

chapter 11

Christ did not include a woman among the apostolic twelve.

Mk 3,13-19


main argument according to Rome

chapter 12

Women are not perfect human beings and thus cannot represent Christ.



still valid today according to Rome, with modification

chapters 13 and 14


We will now look at these arguments in detail.




Readings from Women Priests web site


Medieval Theology and ‘Women Priests’


Overview of medieval theologians writing about women


Bonaventure (1217 - 1274)

on women priests, general











Bonaventure’s actual text on women priests






[110]  Translations and analysis published on www.womenpriests.org.

[111]  For data on these authors I am endebted to Ida Raming, Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt, Cologne 1973, esp. pp. 79-119; The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination?, Metuchen 1976.

[112] Johannes Andreae, Novella in Decretales Gregorii IX, V, fol. 125v.

[113]  Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Suppl. qu. 39 art. 1.

[114] Richard of Middleton, Super Quarto Sententiarum [= commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum vol. 4] Dist. 25, a. 4, n. 1; ed. Bocatelli, Venice, 1499 (Pellechet-Polain, 10132/9920), f 177-R.


[115] John Duns Scotus, Duns Scoti Opera Omnia, ed. Vives, Paris 1894, vol. 24, ‘Reportata Parisiensia’, Liber 4, Distinctio 25, Quaestio 2, § 19. pp. 367-371.

[116]  Durandus a Saint-Pourçain, In Petri Lombardi Sententias Theologicas Commentarium, Venice 1571, vol. 4, Dist. 25, Quaestio 2, f 364-v.

[117]  Richard of Middleton, Super Quarto Sententiarum [= commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sententiarum vol. 4] Dist. 25, a. 4, n. 1; ed. Bocatelli, Venice, 1499 (Pellechet-Polain, 10132/9920), f 177-R.

[118] John Duns Scotus, Duns Scoti Opera Omnia, ed. Vives, Paris 1894, vol. 24, ‘Reportata Parisiensia’, Liber 4, Distinctio 25, Quaestio 2, § 5. pp. 367-371.

[119]  Quote from the Codex Iuris Civilis, I 7, that is: the civil law of the time, based on ancient Roman law.

[120]  Henricus de Sergusio, Commentaria I, fol. 204v. Source: Ida Raming, The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen 1976, pp. 83-87.

[121]  Inter Insigniores, § 6.

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