Home » Discrimination against Women in the History of Roman Catholicism

Discrimination against Women in the Roman Catholic Church: A Far Too Long History

It has not been overcome to the present day and has had grave negative implications for the Roman Catholic Church!
The renunciation of patriarchy is urgently needed!

By Ida Raming, Doctor of Theology

In this outline exemplary developments based on text samples will be cited which enlighten the long history of discrimination against women.
It will be demonstrated that the consequences of that discrimination have not been overcome to the present day and continue to have harmful effects on the development of the human kind.
The still ongoing exclusion of women from being ordained (as deacons and priests) in the Roman-Catholic Church is a manifestation of that devaluation and degradation of women in their human existence.

Degradation of women in biblical texts
Certain biblical texts (from the Old and New Testaments) substantially contributed to the negative value judgement on women. These texts are deeply influenced by the patriarchal environment at that time, which, however, for a long time was and to some extent still is completely ignored when interpreting and handing them down.
So from the biblical narratives of the creation of Man and the Fall of the first human beings (Gen 2-3)  drawn grave negative conclusions were already drawn in the texts of the New Testament about the valuation and status of women in society and also in the Christian community.

(1 Tim 2: 8-15)
“I (the apostle) … also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety”. (New International Version)

Woman is depicted here as “secondary” in the “Order of Creation” – but as the initiator of sin. The author of the Epistle to Timothy (from the first half of the 2nd century AD) relies on extra-biblical, apocryphal writings, in order to depict the woman as the culprit and to adversely affect her position within the church. He uses the authority of the Apostle Paul to enforce his discriminating instructions. These are mainly directed against women as office bearers in early Christianity: Their influence and their importance were to be repressed by patriarchal methods.
The text has lead to two thousand years of negative reception history, which still continues to have at least a subliminal effect to the present day.
(cf.: Helen Schüngel-Straumann: Die Frau am Anfang. Eva und die Folgen, 2nd ed., Münster 1997, 26f; my evidence is partially based on this study in the following.)

Another text discriminating against women is (1 Cor 11:3-16). (A genuine Epistle of Paul):

” (I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.) But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head. (…).
A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (…) Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God …”.

Unambiguously Paul deduces here from the alleged “second-created woman” (cf. 1 Tim 2) a secondary role of women as well as a state of “the woman being referred to the man” (loc. cit. p.31).
Here Paul stands in the early Jewish-rabbinical interpretation and tradition, which in turn is determined by the Hellenistic spirit of his time. “In the descending order of hierarchy of 1 Cor 11 the top rank, which is the man, is the image of God in the full sense of the word.” (ibid. p.35).
The negative reception history “of exactly this passage has been … tremendous. Throughout the Middle Ages the question of women being the image of God was discussed, it was entirely or partially denied them” (ibid.).
Despite the self-correction, which Paul adds in verses 11-12, the above text in 1 Cor 11 has substantially shaped the negative image of women in Christianity. Furthermore, the theological system of symbols emphasized in this text, which accentuates the precedence of man, has also been transferred to the Divine dimension: The male-dominated symbolic language for God has prevailed to the present day, e.g. in liturgy (cf. ibid. p.35).

In further New Testament passages (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Tim 2:11-15; Tit 2:5) the subordination of woman to man is demanded. However, this decree has nothing to do with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. A counterbalance to the afore-mentioned bible passages which devalue women is provided by the liberating message of the Epistle to the Galatians:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…” (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians 3:26f).

However, this very precise and positive text hardly gets any attention in the Church’s tradition – it is still awaiting its realisation – with regard to women!

Recognition of the historical cultural context of the above-mentioned biblical passages which devalue women is urgently required! This is the only way to avoid false conclusions which contradict the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Discrimination against women by Fathers and Doctors of the Church

Numerous disparaging statements about women can also be found in the writings of the “Fathers” (Augustine, Hieronymus, Tertullian and others) and Doctors of the Church (Thomas Aquinas et al.), which are based on the above-mentioned statements of the New Testament.
An example of this way of thinking is the following text of the so-called Ambrosiaster (Church teacher, approx. 3rd to 4th century, for a long time mistaken for St. Ambrose or Augustine) and which was attributed to the Church Fathers Ambrose or Augustine and incorporated into the Corpus Iuris Canonici (which was also a basis for present-day Canon Law):

“A woman must cover her head as she is not made in God’s image. Since she is visible as a person needing to be kept under control and since sin began with her, she must wear this symbol and must keep her head covered in church out of deference toward the bishop; likewise she shall not have the right to speak as it is the bishop who embodies the person of Christ. As before Christ the judge, so should she conduct herself before the bishop as he is the representative of the Lord; because of original sin, she must show herself as submissive.”
(Corpus Iuris Canonici, ed. Friedberg, I 1255f). For the analysis of the text see I. Raming: Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt – Gottgewollte Tradition oder Diskriminierung? Köln/ Wien 1973, 61f).

A special highlight – or rather: anticlimax of the devaluation of women is the teaching of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) about women.
Because he has been recognized as the leading theological authority far beyond his lifetime – until today, the negative consequences of his concept of the nature of woman are particularly grave and as a result have not been overcome even now.
Aquinas adopts the biological theory on the generation of human beings from Aristotle (Greek philosopher and natural scientist). Accordingly, Aquinas also regards man as the perfect, full-value representative of the human kind (perfectum) within the human species; the female is the imperfect, inferior (imperfectum) human being. He claims a threefold inferiority of women: inferiority in their generation (biogenetical inferiority), their nature (qualitative inferiority) and their activity (functional inferiority).

Man alone is the principle which efficiently causes generation: the aim is always the generation of a boy, which means a being that is coequal with the “progenitor” man. Through obstructing circumstances, adverse accidents (occasiones) a girl may be born  (= surrogate of nature: mas occasionatus ; a woman = a misbegotten, defective, therefore unintentional man); the qualitative inferiority of the women according to Aquinas consists in her inability to generate the (male) seed from menstrual blood.

Her functional inferiority, furthermore, consists in the man not only being the active principle in generation, but also in all other areas of life; the woman on the other hand is the passive principle: she is only able to provide the “material” (the menstrual blood) for the growth of the male seed. However, in the wake of Aristotle, Aquinas concedes, that the “malformed woman” is necessary for sexual reproduction and therefore ultimately intended according to the Creator’s plan.

According to Aquinas the woman needs the man for the generation of new human life as well as for her guidance and governance (regimen); the man on the other hand needs the woman only for generation; because all other actions are according to his words better carried out by men. (The same opinion is held by the Doctor of the Church Augustine!).

So a complete godlike nature is attributed to the man, which is not in the same measure due to the woman. Aquinas formulates: “The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman … But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature.”(S.Th. I q.93 a.4 ad1)
For these outrageous propositions Aquinas can quote 1 Cor 11:8f (cf. above) in support, as well as Eph 5:22f: “Wives submit themselves to their own husbands …”.

However, Thomas Aquinas’s perception of the generation of man is diametrically opposed to the discoveries of modern science! As recently as 1827 the female ovum was discovered by Dr. Karl E. v. Baer, so that women’s contribution of at least (!) equal value to the generation of new human life was proved

Nevertheless, this discovery attracted “only little attention“ according to Albert Mitterer. He rightly points out: It “could be shown what a revolution of biological concepts and perceptions has taken place since Aquinas. But I do not know which is more amazing, this revolution or what little attention is commonly paid to this revolution. Whereas Aquinas fully incorporated contemporary biology (cf. Aristotle) into philosophy and theology, it appears to me that we are still rather far away from that.” (A. Mitterer, “Mann und Weib nach dem biologischen Weltbild des hl. Thomas”, in: Zeitschrift kath. Theologie Jg. 57 (1933), 491-556, here: 506. In the year 1949 A. Mitterer was still sharply criticized for his unassailable analysis of Thomas Aquinas’s views!)

A. Mitterer’s very true assessment is particularly evident with regard to the Roman-Catholic institutional Church and her teachings concerning the rank and evaluation of women, for the conclusions from the new scientific findings concerning the sexes (in the process of generation and beyond) have not been drawn until today. So the contrasting pair (developed by Aquinas): active (= male); passive (= female), as well as the contrasting of the mind (male) – matter/ substance (female), served as a justification for the exclusion of women from priesthood – also in my own experiences in my theological studies in the 1950s and 1960s – until far into the 20th century .

Unsurprisingly, Thomas Aquinas also speaks firmly against priesthood for women: He argues:
„… the male sex is required for receiving Orders not only in the second, but also in the first way. Wherefore even though a woman were made the object of all that is done in conferring Orders, she would not receive Orders, for since a sacrament is a sign, not only the thing, but the signification of the thing, is required in all sacramental actions; thus … in Extreme Unction it is necessary to have a sick man, in order to signify the need of healing. Accordingly, 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.” (S.Th. III Suppl. Kap.39 art. 1b); cited in G. Heinzelmann, Wir schweigen nicht länger! Frauen äußern sich zum II. Vatikanischen Konzil, Zürich 1964, p. 40f).

Aquinas continues: “Publicly addressing oneself to the whole church is not permitted to women: 1) on account of the condition attaching to the female sex, whereby woman should be subject to man. Now teaching and persuading publicly in the church belong not to subjects but to the prelates; 2) lest men’s minds be enticed to lust (Aquinas quotes a Bible passage from the Old Testament as proof for that); 3) because as a rule women are not perfected in wisdom, and therefore unfit to be entrusted with public teaching.” (S.Th. III q.67 a. 4 ad 3; II, cap. 177 a. 2b; Heinzelmann. ibid.).
This view was taken by Aquinas in his day (13th century!), when women were still excluded from school education and academic studies!

And today?
Praise and flattering speeches by popes for women – but still no equal rights!

For us present-day people it is therefore incomprehensible that the office bearers in charge in the Vatican, who (are supposed to) interpret and proclaim the teachings of the Roman-Catholic Church, have, ultimately, not got beyond Thomas of Aquinas’s conception concerning the exclusion of women from priesthood to this day!

The popes (John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and also Pope Francis) have repeatedly emphasized the “equal dignity” of women, their high value in flowery, exuberant words; but they no way deduce “equal rights“, i.e. their access to all ecclesiastical offices and ministries!

In his Letter to Women (29 June 1995) Pope John Paul II promises the United Nations: „The Church desires for her part to contribute to upholding the dignity, role and rights of women” (….). “The Church desires to give thanks to the Most Holy Trinity for the ‘mystery of the woman’ … for all that constitutes the eternal measure of her feminine dignity.” Repeatedly the Pope praises the “genius of women”. However, he does concede: “Unfortunately, we are heirs to a history which has conditioned us to a remarkable extent. In every time and place, this conditioning has been an obstacle to the progress of women. Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged … they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude.” The Pope is “truly” sorry, “if objective blame … has belonged to not just a few members of the Church”.

However, he unalterably adheres to the exclusion of women from priesthood, with the following threadbare, untenable argumentation: “…one can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity … is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female… If Christ … entrusted only to men the task of being an “icon” of his countenance as “shepherd” and “bridegroom” of the Church through the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, this in no way detracts from the role of women… “.

Pope Francis to a great extent adopts the argumentation of his predecessors, particularly of John Paul II. He, too, praises the “genius of women”. He speaks of a “new paradigm”: “Reciprocity in equality and in diversity”; but “priesthood reserved for men” is “not open to discussion” for this pope, either. His consolation for women: Mary, Mother of God, a woman, is “more eminent than the bishops…”.

So the result is still the same today:

Under cover of the so-called “otherness” of women, their feminine and allegedly so “different” nature, the subordinate, underprivileged, less entitled status of women is being perpetuated until today, just as Thomas Aquinas and other Doctors of the Church deduced it from their ideas of a genetic and moral inferiority of women.That Church authorities regularly emphasize that this exclusion of women does not constitute any discrimination or disadvantage of women, is revealing!

That is what rulers say in order to placate those oppressed by them – to disguise the injustice committed by them! However, true is: Only those afflicted by this injustice and exclusion – women – can express what they conceive as discrimination, but not the rulers (men)!

Therefore, although the argumentation in favour of the ongoing exclusion of women from priesthood has changed, the result remains the same: Exclusion of women from diaconate and priesthood because of their gender! That is scandalous, a grave injustice towards women!
The just accusation brought against the responsible Church officials is: Until today the long history of grave discrimination against women has not been honestly reappraised and therefore has not been overcome. That is a disgrace!

God’s commandment of justice calls for overcoming this grave intellectually suffocating injustice which has been done to women in the Church to this day, – which does not give them room to develop the gifts of grace which have been given to women by God’s holy spiritual power (cf. 1 Cor 12:10f), to the detriment of the parishes and the church as a whole!

God’s spirit of truth and freedom calls for the persons in authority to change back resolutely, to turn away from the inauspicious patriarchy which is directed against the Spirit of Jesus.
At the same time God’s spiritual power also calls those women who are affected by the prolonged exclusion to resistance against their continuous suppression which is being disguised by obscuring words!
They are thereby called upon to commit themselves to the acknowledgement of Human Rights for Women – even in the Church!

Ida Raming, Doctor of Theology –

English translation: Ysabel Geiger, dipl theol.