Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542 – 1621 AD)
Cardinal Robert Bellarmine was, perhaps, the most influential Catholic theologian of his time. Under Popes Clement VIII and Paul V he was first consultor to, then Cardinal Prefect of, the Holy Office in Rome.
Bellarmine never wrote specifically on the question of the ordination of women. His views and theological arguments can be deduced, however, from many passages where the issue came up indirectly.
In an argumentation against the Protestant theologian Martin Chemnitz, Bellarmine states that women cannnot offer the sacrifice of Mass. He gives the following reasons:
- He quotes Tertullian (same text, § 4)
- and Epiphanius (same text, § 5) who stated that ‘Christ did not even permit his own mother to sacrifice’.
- He also quotes Augustine in another passage (same text, see § 10).
Bellarmine indicates that his main reason for rejecting the ordination of women was women’s subservient status.
‘Another kind [of prophesying] is specific to priests, and is not suitable for women, for it is the role of women to be subservient, not to be dominant. And it is this reason that blessed Paul adduces (in 1 Corinth.14): “Let women be silent in the Church, for they are not permitted to speak, but they must be subject…” .’
De Sacramentis in Genere, bk 1, ch 24, see § 5.
Women’s subservient status was, first of all, based on a woman’s presumed inferiority of nature. Bellarmine shared in this the general prejudices against women of his time, prejudices which directly affected his theological judgment.
“Which argument goes to show that woman is of a simpler nature, with less prudence and judgement than man, for (as Chrysostom notes in his commentary on this passage), the Apostle preferred to say, “man was not seduced, woman was seduced” rather than “Adam was not seduced, Eve was seduced.” He said this in order to show that what happened to Adam and Eve came about from the different nature of man and woman, and that men are naturally more prudent and of better and more mature judgement and temperament than women, and for this reason women, who are more easily seduced, are not suitable for teaching.”
De Amissione Gratiae, bk 3, ch 7, see § 6.
“Read: ‘God said: It is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a helper like himself.’ From which passage Augustine rightly concludes that woman was thus mostly established for this purpose: so that she might help her husband in the propagation of children. For there is no other work in which a man is not better aided by a man than by a woman. And especially in paradise, where no hard labor had to be undertaken, no poverty was feared, where there was no reason why a woman would be necessary to a man except for generation.”
De Amissione Gratiae, bk 3, ch 11, see § 11.
Woman’s subservient status was also based by Bellarmine on Eve’s role in orginal sin. This too was a general theological prejudice of the time. Bellarmine states clearly that women would have been subject to their husbands even without the Fall. But after the Fall, the subjection became a harsh slavery imposed as punishment.
“Wherefore the punishment of the sin is that women bear the fetus in the womb with disgust and labor, that they give birth with pain, that they are so subjected to their husbands, that even unwilling, they must obey them, and that they are forced not only to love them, but also to fear them. And it is this that God predicted to Eve when He said: ‘I shall multiply your hardships, etc.’.”
De Amissione Gratiae, bk 3, ch 11, see § 15.
“Further, what in describing the punishment of woman is said: ‘you will be under the power of your husband’, or–as the Greek translation has– ‘your turning will be towards your husband’: this can be construed in two ways because of the ambiguity of the Hebrew noun [teshuqathek], which sometimes is used to mean conversion and obedience, and sometimes desire and longing.”
* So the sense will be either that the woman ought to be turned towards her husband by serving and obeying, as if she should hang on the commands from his mouth;
or surely the meaning will be that woman even after the labor of bearing in her uterus, and the pain of delivering, will still desire her husband. And the punishment is not light, that she is not able to keep herself from that which brings her to such great labor and sadness.”
De Amissione Gratiae, bk 3, ch 11, see § 18.
“As for the second, I say that woman, as much before the sin as after, was both partner and subject to her husband: a partner in generation and subject in being ruled. But the phrase You will be under the power of your husband does not signify any kind of subjection, but rather an involuntary one, along with sadness and fear, of the kind that married women experience for the most part.”
De Membris Militantis Ecclesiae, bk 3, ch 7, see § 14.
Like Thomas Aquinas before him and all contemporary theologians, Bellarmine also based the subject status of women on a totally in adequate concept of a woman’s role in procreation. The idea was that the father contributes the seed, which contains the future human being, and that the mother only ‘provides matter’ — her womb being like the soil in which the seed has been planted.
“For we contract original sin because when Adam sinned, we were in him, as in the active principle. But we were not in Eve, as in an active principle, since the mother does not offer the active force, but contributes only matter for generating offspring.”
De Amissione Gratiae, bk 4, ch 13, see § 5.
“The Apostle said, “through one man”, that is, “Adam”, because he was the principal cause of original sin, and not Eve. This is so both because Adam’s sin, not Eve’s, is handed down to posterity; and because man is the active cause of regeneration, woman the passive. On this account if, with Eve sinning, Adam had remained in innocence, their children would not have carried original sin; and the opposite would hold if Adam had sinned, with Eve remaining in innocence.”
De Amissione Gratiae, bk 4, ch 8, see § 6.
However, women are useful because they are necessary for creation. That is why God created them.
Though I have found no explicit quotation from Bellarmine to prove this, he probably followed Thomas Aquinas in thinking that woman cannot represent Christ ‘because she is not a complete human being’.
Conclusion. Bellarmine’s arguments against women’s ordination, dispersed through his works as they are, are clearly based on prejudice and not a balance and well informed theological judgment.
Bellarmine was typical of the theologians of his time. They were so sure that women cannot be ordained priests that they did not even bother to consider the arguments explicitly.
Bellarmine’s lack of considered judgment is all the more apparent because of his miserable failing, as a theologian and a Church leader entrusted with the magisterium, to discern the true theological and doctrinal truth in the case of Galileo Galilei. Bellarmine was directly involved in Galileo’s condemnation, a misjudgment that has plagued the Church until our own day.
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