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John Duns Scotus on 'Why women cannot be ordained priests' A brief analysis of his arguments

John Duns Scotus

1266 - 1308 AD

John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan friar, was one of the most influential philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages. He lectured at Cambridge, Oxford and Paris. In the post-scholastic age (16th - 18th centuries) his followers among Catholic theologians outnumbered those following St. Thomas Aquinas.

Why women cannot be ordained priests

A brief analysis of his arguments

Our analysis will be based on a text from Scotus’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, printed in the Duns Scoti Opera Omnia, ed. Vives, Paris 1894, vol. 24, ‘Reportata Parisiensia’, Liber 4, Distinctio 25, Quaestio 2, pp. 367-371. Read the original Latin text or its translation into English. Paragraph numbers in this analysis refer to the translation.

Reasons why women cannnot be ordained:

  1. Christ himself has excluded women from Holy Orders. Main reason (see § 18, 20, 22, 24)
    Scotus does not provide a direct scriptural basis for it. He argues that neither the Apostles nor the later Church could have excluded women on their own authority. Therefore, it MUST have been Christ’s decision. (§18) That makes him say that women are excluded by divine law (§11). Since man and woman share the same human nature, the exclusion from Holy Orders must be based on a divine ruling (§24).
    Response. This is a very weak argument. (a) There is no scriptural basis. (b) We know that Jesus Christ left many such decisions to the later Church. By implication, if it was the later Church that kept women from ordination, the Church can change this ruling.
  2. Priests have to teach, but Paul forbids women to teach (§19).
    Response. 1 Timothy 2,11-15 is understood out of context. It may not be interpreted as implying a general rule, prohibiting women from teaching for all time to come. Modern Church Law allows women to teach in church.
  3. Women are inferior to men (§19, 22) Scotus enumerates the prejudices of his time: women have a weak intelligence and are emotionally unstable (§19). God has subjected women to men (§22). Wielding authority over men is contrary to women’s nature (§22).
    Response. This threefold prejudice underlies all medieval thinking and makes it impossible to imagine that women too could be priests. The theological reasons given are rationalizations to justify the prejudices.
  4. Church law forbids women to touch sacred vessels (§5) and women could not honourably receive the tonsure (§6).
    Response. The arguments are obviously invalid. They show the unfortunate influence of early local synods on medieval Church Law.

Scotus’s replies to objections:

  1. What about Galatians 3,27-28 (the equality between man and woman in Christ)? Scotus says the equality regards salvation. It does not extend to possessing an eminent position in the Church. (§1, 25) The argument is invalid, because Holy Orders are about salvation, and excluding women does affect the salvation of people.
  2. What about ‘presbyterae’ (women priests) and ‘diaconissae’ (women deacons) in tradition? Scotus dismisses these terms as not referring to women who were ordained to Holy Orders. (see §2, 26). However, today we know better. Women deacons were sacramentally ordained, as the ordination rituals of early centuries show. In some parts of Europe women were also ordained as priests.
  3. What about Mary Magdalene who was a preacher and an Apostle? Scotus replies that she was an exception (§21). But if there was an exception, it is not the female sex as such that excludes from ordination!
  4. Do men and women not have the same nature? Scotus struggles to answer here. All he can do is to say that the exclusion from Holy Orders is God’s own will (§24).

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