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Letter to Women

Chapter 9.

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

Not created in God's image?

            I was born in Indonesia during the final days of Dutch colonial rule. With considerable embarrassment I remember how, even as a small child, I became aware of my own status and rank as a white person, a tuan blanda, a totok. This distinguished me from the brown-coloured Indonesians, and from the mixed race of so-called indo-blandas.  Though in my family as Christians we believed that all human beings are equal - - my parents taught in missionary schools! - - , I can recall the glow of social satisfaction inherent to belonging to a superior class of people. The tendency to ascribe higher and lower statuses to people seems ingrained in any human culture.


            In the Middle Ages men considered themselves superior to women. It was a fact of life. Not only had the various European races brought their own patriarchal traditions with them. The almost universal adoption of ancient Roman law, with its institutionalisation of male dominance, made sure that men were the boss, whether at home, in politics, in the army, in business or in the pursuit of the arts and sciences. It truly was a man’s world.


            In such an environment, the question of the ordination of women was hardly discussed. In the few theological treatises were it was mentioned, as a curiosity, it was always dismissed on the basis of obvious male superiority. However, the argument was then often strengthened with a scriptural ‘proof’. Men were superior because only the male had been created in God’s image!


            St. Bonaventure (1217-1274) for instance, makes the following assertion:

     “The male sex is required for the reception of Orders…for no one is capable of taking up Orders who does not bear the image of God, because in this sacrament a human being in a certain way becomes God, or divine, while he is made a participant in divine power. But it is the male who is, by reason of his sex ‘Imago Dei’, the image of God, just as it is said in the eleventh chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. Therefore in no way can a woman be ordained”.[122]

            St.Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) is a little more circumspect. Yes, women are also created in God’s image, but only to some extent. The real image of God is the male.


     “The image of God, in its principal signification, mainly the intellectual nature, is found both in man and woman. Hence after the word, ‘to the image of God he created him’, it is added, ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen 1,27). Moreover it is said ‘them’ in the plural, as Augustine remarks, lest it should be thought that both sexes were united in one individual. However, in a secondary sense the image of God is found in the male, and not in woman: for the male is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature. So when the apostle [Paul] had said that ‘man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man’, he adds his reason for saying this: ‘for man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man’. ”[123]

Hugucio, from Bologna in Italy, wrote in 1188 that men, and not women are the image of God for three reasons. The first is that God is the origin of everything, and the male is the origin of the whole human race. Secondly, that the Church arose from the side of Christ, just as the woman was taken from the side of Adam. And thirdly the male is the one who rules. “Just as Christ is head of the Church and governs the Church so the husband is head of his wife and rules and governs her. And through these three causes the male is stated to be the image of God and not the woman, and therefore the male must not be like the woman a sign of subjection, but a sign of freedom and pre-eminence”.[124]


To the medieval mind therefore, the picture was clear. Just observe the difference between men and women, they would say. A man automatically takes charge. He understands a situation. He is in control. The woman, on the other hand, is clearly his subordinate. She obeys her husband. She simply does what the man tells her to do. In this superior bearing of the male person, they would continue, we can see God himself in action. God is, after all, the omnipotent Lord who has charge of the whole world and rules everything by his powerful will. It is man, not woman, who reflects God in this manner. Therefore it is appropriate that it is only men, and not women, who are given the power to represent God through ordination.


          The influential law book of Gratian on which future church law was based (1140 AD), quotes Augustine and Scripture to prove that women are not made in the image of God.

“Women are in servile submission, on account of which they must be subject to men in everything. As Augustine says: ‘This is the likeness of God in the male that he is created as the only being from whom the others have come, and that he possesses, as it were, the dominion of God as his representative, since he bears in himself the image of the one God. So woman is not created in the image of God; this is what (Scripture) says: ‘and God created the male, according to the image of God he created him’. And therefore the apostle also says: ‘a man certainly must not cover his head, because he is the image and reflection of God, but woman must cover her head because she is neither the reflection nor the image of God’.[125]

What about the Fathers of the Church?

            Predictably, there is some difference here between the Greek and the Latin Fathers.


          Epiphanius (315-403), a Greek speaking bishop in Cyprus who was not particularly known for being friendly to women, stated quite clearly that both Adam and Eve were made in the image of God. God made Adam directly in his own image, he maintained, and Eve was, after all, made of one of Adam’s ribs, so that the children they produced were also made in God’s likeness and image.[126]


          The Latin speaking Tertullian in Carthage, North Africa (155-245), on the other hand attributed likeness to God to men alone. Men are more intimate to God than women are, because they are “Gods image”, he said. He accused women of trying to tempt men to sin, thereby destroying “him who is God’s image”.[127]


          Pseudo-Ambrose from Northern Italy (4th cent.) anticipated the medieval position when he asserted: “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  - - and certainly not exercise dominion”.[128] 


          It must be said in mitigation of what the Fathers thought that they based themselves on Scripture texts which could be interpreted as ascribing male dominion, and being the image of God, only to men. It is this, which we will now have to investigate.

Images of the Creator


            The first creation account, Genesis 1,1 – 2,4, narrates the origin of the universe as a building process by God the Architect. The world, as people knew it at the time, that is: in the 4th century BC, was thought of as a huge house. The floor of the house was made up of the flat earth. The sky was its ceiling. The sun, moon and stars were lights for day and night. The fish in the sea, the plants and animals on the land and the birds in the air were seen as furniture put in by God, and as sources of food.


          The climax of God’s building work was the creation of human beings. They were special because the world was built to be their home. They were also special because, like God, they could think logically and act with responsibility. They carried God’s own image. Here follows the crucial text in a literal translation from the original Hebrew:


“God said: ‘Let us make a human being (Adam) in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild beasts and the reptiles that crawl upon the earth’. And God created the human being (Adam) in the image of himself. In the image of God, he created him. Male and female he created them.”[129]


          Now this passage can be understood in different ways. There was a strong rabbinical tradition that interpreted the text as stating that only the man was created in God’s image. The word ‘Adam’ can be understood as ‘man, male’ or as ‘human being’; just as homo in Latin, homme in French or man in traditional English. Since the text says literally: “In the image of God he created him”, it could be interpreted as referring to the male person only. Many Rabbis favoured this interpretation because it agreed with the position of predominance which men enjoyed both in social and in religious life.[130] It was this Rabbinical understanding of the inferior position of women that explains a very common prayer among male Jews until recently. In the so-called eighteen blessings they would thank God three times a day with these words: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, for not having made me a Gentile, for not having made me a slave, for not having made me a woman”.


The original text should however, for many reasons, be read in a different way.

(a)    The word ‘Adam’ is obviously meant in its collective sense. This is clearly expressed by the following line: “male and female he created them”. 

(b)   That both male and female are included is also clear from the fact that giving dominion over the other creatures is explicitly given to both men and women. “God blessed them and said to them:  ‘Be fruitful.  .  .   and take charge of all living things  .  .  .  !” This is precisely the aspect in which human beings are reflecting God’s image as creator.

(c)    It can also be shown from this parallel passage in Genesis: “When God created the human being [= Adam], he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘human being’ [= Adam] when they were created”.[131]

(d)   Two other Old Testament texts that comment on God’s creating human beings according to his image, apply this to both men and women.[132]

A helper or an equal?

Also the second creation story influenced the thinking about man and woman. It  describes how God drew the woman from the man,  and is usually translated as follows:

“For the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman.”[133]


In the rabbinical tradition that downgraded women, this text was explained as clearly demonstrating women’s dependence on men. Man was created first. Woman came later, to be a helper to man. After all, woman was only a ‘rib’ of man’s.[134] It would lead to many snide observations, as this one from the Middle Ages: “A woman is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. It should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.”[135]


However, the original text is far more subtle and just to women’s status. The Hebrew word that was commonly translated as ‘rib’ (tsela) actually means, ‘side’. It stands for the side of a mountain, the side of the Tabernacle, the sides of the altar, the side wings of the temple gates, and the side or wings of the temple building.[136] In fact, in no other verse of Scripture is the word tsela translated as ‘rib’. The original text therefore says that God took one side, that is: one half of the human being and formed it into Eve.[137]


This corresponds well to the ancient conception according to which the original human being was male and female at the same time; which is technically known as him/her having been androgynous. From a description in Plato,[138]  we know that the original human being was imagined to carry two faces, looking in opposite directions. It had four arms and walked on four legs. To make the two sexes, the creator God cut the human being into two halves, giving each half one face, two arms and two legs. We find a similar tradition among the Rabbis.[139]


So this is a better translation of the passage in Genesis:

“The Lord God made the human being (Adam) fall into a deep sleep. While he was sleeping, God took a ‘side’ from it and closed the gap with flesh. Then the Lord God built a ‘wo-man’ from the side he had taken from the human being. And he introduced her to the human being. The human being exclaimed: ‘This at last is bones from my bones and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘wo-man’ because she was split off from a man.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his ‘wo-man’. And so they become (again) one body.”[140]


Whatever the details of this original concept, the scriptural text clearly states that woman is truly equal to man. She was not created separately, like the animals, after the human being had been created. She was truly ‘the other half’, ‘flesh of my flesh and bones of my bones’. Rather than teaching the subjection of woman to man, this text proclaims their basic equality as human beings.[141]

What about Pauline texts?


Paul endorsed the new position of women as equal to men which had come about through baptism in Christ. He states it explicitly: “There is no longer man or woman … we are all one in Christ”.[142]  However, at times, as a former rabbi, he could not help but fall back on some of the ancient reasoning.


When Paul wrote to the new community in Corinth, he was upset about the fact that some women had stopped wearing a veil, as was the Jewish custom. Scholars do not agree about why Paul considered this such an important point. Could it be that by praying with their hair loosened, the Christian women of Corinth were giving the impression of imitating a Hellenistic cult?[143] Whatever his reason, Paul argues at length. He gives all kinds of reasons, among them the old rabbinical interpretation of Genesis:

“For a man should not cover his head for he is the image of God and reflects God’s glory. But a wife reflects her husband’s glory. For man was not created from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man”.[144]

These words of Paul were picked up in later tradition as a confirmation of the Genesis reading according to which, it was thought, only a man is created in God’s image, and not a woman.  However, are we allowed to give such weight to these words of Paul?


To assess the doctrinal weight of this text we have to consider it in its context. Paul had heard from some Christians who visited him  in Ephesus, that there were uncontrolled  scenes of trance  and  speaking  in  tongues during  their prayer  meetings.[145]  It  would  seem that,  as  an  expression  of  ecstatic  frenzy, some women   were tempted to take off their veils  and loosen their hair. Perhaps,   they  prayed  with   their arms  raised  high and  their  heads  thrown back as was the custom in certain oriental cults.[146] This   must   have   upset   other   members   of   the   community.    Paul    worried    about   it   because  it   threatened  to  destroy  order and  peace.


In a typically rabbinical fashion Paul begins to argue.  He presents many reasons:[147]

·        “The head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is her husband, etc. ” (verse 3)

·        “A woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonours her head - it is as if she were shaven bald, etc.” (verses 4-6).

·        “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man” (verse 7).

·        “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (verse 8).

·        “Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (verse 9).

·        “That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels” (verse 10).[148]

·        [Pauline correction:] “Nevertheless,  in the Lord woman  is not  different  from  man,  nor man from  woman.[149] Woman  may  come from  man, but  man  is  born  from woman. And all come from God” (verses 11-12).

·        “Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray with her head unveiled? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading, but if a woman has long hair it is her pride . . . etc.” (verses 13-15).

·        “If anyone is disposed to be contentious, we recognise no other practice, nor do the churches of God!” (verse 16).


Remember, Paul’s main point is that he wants women to cover their hair with a veil when they attend the Christian assembly.  It is clear that he is just piling reasons on top of each other which he himself realises are ‘rationalisations’. That is: they are not statements in their own right, but remarks that serve a limited purpose. He indicates this by correcting himself and by admitting that one could disagree with his arguments.


We can compare this to some other passages in Paul:

“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ’.

·        Is Christ divided?

·        Was Paul crucified for you?

·        Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?

·        I am thankful that I baptised none of you except Crispus and Gaius; lest anyone should say that you were baptised in my name.

·        I did baptise also the household of Stephanus.

·        Beyond that, I do not remember whether I baptised anyone else. For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel”.[150]


Now if we analyse this passage we see that Paul is mainly concerned about stopping the Corinthians from forming parties within the community. He rationalises to argue his point, but in doing so he utters some absurd statements which would not make any sense in themselves. Is he really grateful for not having baptised anyone? He also corrects himself a couple of times: “I baptised no one else   .  .   Of course, there was Stephanas  .  .  I remember no one else!” -  - even though he was speaking under inspiration! Finally, he says that he did not come to baptise, in spite of Jesus’ command for his disciples to go out and baptise all nations! It is clear that this passage of Paul teems with rationalisations, which may not be interpreted as a list of dogmatic statements.


          And what about this passage in the Letter to Titus?

“There are many insubordinate men who must be silenced  .  .   One of them, a prophet among them, has witnessed: ‘Cretans are always liars, beasts, and gluttons’. And this statement expresses the truth. So correct them with severity!”[151]

          The main point of the author is to make Titus, the Bishop of Crete, stand firm against some troublesome Jewish converts. However, what about the terrible condemnation of Cretans followed by the ominous words: “and this statement expresses the truth”? Does this mean that, under inspiration, we are told that Cretans are always liars, beasts and gluttons?  Cretans were considered cheats in the Greek world. To ‘crete’ about something [Greek = krêtizein] meant as much as ‘to tell lies’ about that subject. Plutarch mentions a saying ‘to crete to the Cretan’ meaning: ‘to cheat a cheat, to pay  a charlatan with the same coin’.[152]  Is it not clear that we are dealing here with a rationalisation, a thing said in the heat of an argument, which is not to be taken as a dogmatic statement?


The same applies to Paul’s statement regarding the man being in the image of God and not the woman. He is falling back on rabbinical argumentation in the heat of the discussion. His true intention in this is made clear when finally he says: “Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered?”  What Paul is saying about only man being in God's image is clearly a rationalisation, and not a formal theological assertion.


Moreover, Paul, who was too much a true Christian rather than just an Old Testament rabbi, immediately saw the weakness of his own argument. It needed correcting. In Paul’s days it was not possible to erase text, as we do on the computer today, or even to scratch out passages, which could be read afterwards anyway. So after the offending passage he adds: “but remember, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman, for as woman was made from man, so man is born of woman. And all things are from God”.[153]  In other words: as Paul so often does in his letters, he corrects himself and now states that ‘in the Lord’, that is: in Christ, man and woman are truly equal. They depend on each other and each in his or her own way derives his or her existence from the other. Paul hereby amends the old rabbinical tradition, but unfortunately, this correction was not picked up by tradition. People quoted the earlier lines, not the later ones!


No Catholic theologian today would support the belief that women are not created in God’s image, or are less created in God’s image than men are. With this admission, the whole medieval scheme of higher and lower status tumbles down. If women too carry God’s image, women too are capable of leadership -- and exercising priestly authority  .  .  .  But had women not been forbidden to teach?

Readings from Women Priests web site


John Wijngaards

The creation accounts in Genesis and women

Discussion of 1 Corinthians 11,2-16


Explaining rationalizations


John Duns Scotus (1266 - 1308)

Actual text

Analysis of his arguments












[122] Commentariun in IV Libros Sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi; Division 25, Article 2, question 1, § d; Opera Omnia, Quaracchi 1882-1902.

[123]  Summa Theologica I, qu.93, art.4, ad 1.

[124] Hugucio, Summa, Causa 33, qu.5, ch.13; Ida Raming, The exclusion of Women from the priesthood, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen 1976, pp. 61-64.

[125] Decretum Gratiani, Causa 33, qu.5, ch.11.13. Corpus Juris Canonici, ed. By A.Friedberg, Leipzig 1879-1881: Reprint Graz 1955: vol.1, col.1254-1256.

[126]  Epiphanius, Letter to John, Bishop of Jerusalem § 6.

[127]  De Cultu Feminarum, book 1, ch.1; De Virginibus Velandis, ch.10.

[128]  On 1 Corinthians 14,34.

[129]  Genesis 1,26-27.

[130] J.Jervell, Imago Dei. Gen 1,26f.  in Spätjudentum, in der Gnosis und in den Paulinischen Briefen, Göttingen 1960.

[131] Genesis 5,1-2.

[132] Wisdom 2, 23; Sirach 17, 1-14. See also: Th. Vriezen, ‘La création de l’homme d’après l’image de Dieu’, Oudtestamentische Studiën 2 (1943) pp. 86 - 100; L.Köhler, ‘Die Grundstelle der Imago-Dei-Lehre’, Theologisches Zeitschrift 4 (1948) pp. 16-22;  H.G.Wood, ‘Man Created in the Image of God’, Evangelical Theology 68/69 (1957) pp. 165-168.

[133]  Genesis 2,20-22.

[134]  Genesis Rabba 158, 163-164; Midrash Abkir 133, 135; Abot di Rabbi Nathan 24;  B.Sanhedrin 39a; R. Graves and R. Patai, Hebrew Myths, the Book of Genesis, London 1964, pp. 65-69.

[135] H.Kramer and J. Sprenger, The Hammer of Witches, Cologne 1486, part 1, question 6. Translated by M. Summers, London 1928, pp.43-47.

[136]  2 Samuel 16, 13; Exodus 26,20-35; 27,7; 1 Kings, 6,34; Ezekiel 41, 5-26.

[137] See also Ph.Trible, ‘Eve and Adam:   Genesis   2-3’,   in  Womanspirit Rising, New York 1979, pp. 74-83; F.Ferder and  J.Heagle,  Partnership,  Notre Dame 1989, pp. 31-46.

[138]  Plato, Symposion, ch. 14-15.

[139] Genesis Rabba 55; Leviticus Rabba 14.1; Abot di Rabbi Nathan 1.8; B. Berakhot 61a; B. Erubin 18a; Tanhuma Tazri’a 1; Yalqut Genesis 20; Tanhuma Buber iii.33; Midrash Tehillim 139, 529.

[140] Genesis 2, 21-24.

[141]  The punishment “he shall rule over you” will be discussed in chapter 11.

[142]  Galatians 3,28.

[143] K.Kröger, “An Enquiry into Evidence of Maenadism in the Corinthian Congregation”, SBL Seminar papers 14 (1978) volume 2, pp. 331-346.

[144]  1 Corinthians 11, 7-9.

[145]  Read 1 Corinthians 14,1-33.

[146]  R.E.Witt, Isis in the Greco-Roman World, Ithaca 1971; see also J.Z.Smith, ‘Native Cults in the Hellenistic Period’,   History   of   Religions   11  (1971/72)  pp.   236-249

[147]  1 Corinthians 11,2-16; see  J.B.Hurley,   ‘Did   Paul   require   Veils   of  the  Silence   of   Women?’,   Westminster   Theological Journal 35 (1972/73) pp. 190-220;  J. Murphy-O’Connor,   ‘Sex  and  Logic  in  1  Corinthians   11,2-16’,   Catholic  Biblical  Quarterly 42 (1980) pp.  482-500;  ‘St.Paul:   Promoter   of  the  Ministry  of  Women’,  Priests &    People   6   (1992)   pp.   307-311;   E. Schüssler Fiorenza,    In   Memory of Her, London 1983, pp. 227-230; G. Dautzenberg, et al. (ed.), Die Frau im Urchristentum, Frankfurt 1983, pp. 213-215; R. Schnackenburg, Die sittliche Botschaft des Neuen  Testaments, vol. I, Freiburg 1986, pp. 246-250; etc.

[148]  Meaning uncertain. Possible explanations offered by J.A. Fitzmyer, ‘A Feature of Qumran  Angelology  and   the   Angels  of  1  Cor  11:10’,  New  Testament   Studies   4   (1957/58)   pp.  48-58;  M.D. Hooker,  ‘Authority  on   her   Head: an Examination of I Cor xi.10’, New Testament Studies   10   (1964/65)  pp.  410-416;  A.Feuillet,  ‘Le  signe   de   puissance  sur  la  tête de la femme’ (I  Cor  ix.10),  Nouvelle Revue Théologique 55 (1973) pp. 945-954.

[149]  ‘Different from’ is a better translation of the Greek  chôris   than  ‘independent  from’;  see  J.Kürzinger,  ‘Frau   und   Mann nach 1 Kor 11.11f’, Biblische Zeitschrift 22 (1978)  pp. 270-275; E. Schüssler-Fiorenza, l.c.; R. Schnackenburg, l.c.

[150]  1 Corinthians 1, 11-17.

[151]  Titus 1, 10-13.

[152]  M. Dibelius and H. Conzelmann, Die Pastoralbriefe, Tübingen 1966, pp. 102-103.

[153]  1 Corinthians 11, 11-12.

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