Thomas Aquinas’ major contribution was the setting out of a consistent theological description of Christianity, which integrated the philosophy of Aristotle and of the leading Arabic scholars of the time.
Aquinas has long been considered, not only the most prominent theologian of the Middle Ages, but a model for theologians of all times. He was canonised a saint in 1323, declared a doctor of the Church in 1567 and proclaimed the protagonist of orthodoxy by Pope Leo XIII.
Thomas Aquinas himself gives three reasons why women cannot be ordained priests.
- ‘The female sex cannot signify eminence of degree’.
- ‘Women are forbidden to teach in Church or to have authority over men’.
- ‘Deaconesses’ of the past had no part in the sacrament of Holy Orders.
Reply. This theological argument is based on a presumed, threefold inferiority of women.
- Women are biologically inferior. Following Aristotle’s view of procreation, Aquinas believed that a woman is born by some defect in the generative process. A woman is a ‘defective male’. The biologically secondary status is also clear from the belief that the male seed contains the generative power. The mother only provides a womb that gives nourishment to the seed/foetus. This view was common among the Fathers. See also the article by Kim Power, “Of godly men and medicine: ancient biology and the Christian Fathers on the nature of woman”.
- Women are socially inferior. A woman is subject to man by nature, because human reason, though common to both men and women to some extent, predominates in the male.
- Women are created as dependent on men. Man was created first. Though both men and women are the image of God as to our intellectual nature, man is the image of God in a special sense.
Aquinas argues that, on account of these inherent defects, woman cannnot signify eminence of degree and can, therefore, not represent Christ as an ordained minister.
Conclusion: Since women are absolutely equal to men, both biologically, socially and in the order of creation, the argument is invalid. In fact, the argument rests on the social and cultural prejudices of the time.
Reply. 1 Timothy 2,11-15 and 1 Corinthians 14,34-35 only mean a temporary exclusion of women from speaking in the assembly, or having another function. Extending Paul’s sayings to a fixing of the status of women goes beyond the inspired sense.
Aquinas will also have been influenced by the fact that this text had been quoted by the Didascalia Apostolorum and the Apostolic Constitutions, both of which were wrongly attributed to the Apostles themselves.
Conclusion: this scriptural argument is not a valid reason to exclude women from the priesthood. If it were, why does present Church Law allow women to teach in and preside over liturgical functions?
Because of historical ignorance, Aquinas dismisses the deaconess as ‘a woman who shares in some act of a deacon, namely who reads the homilies in the Church’.
We know, however, that deaconesses were validly ordained as ministers of the sacramental diaconate.
Conclusion: If Aquinas had known what we know, he would have admitted the capacity of women for sacramental ordination.
It is clear that Thomas Aquinas’s reasons for rejecting the ordination of women rested on ignorance and on the social and cultural prejudices of the time. Surely his reasonings do not reflect valid Tradition. In this matter he is no valid witness to Christ’s revealed will.
Rome says: ‘The same conviction [that women cannot be ordained] animates mediaeval theology, even if the Scholastic doctors, in their desire to clarify by reason the data of faith, often present arguments on this point that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject.’ Inter Insigniores, § 7.
Reply: It is obvious from Aquinas’s arguments that none of his scriptural or theological reasons are valid. This undermines their authority and even their ‘witness’ to a socalled ‘tradition’. The truth of the matter is that the real reasons for excluding women, as reflected in the ‘arguments’ themselves, were the enduring social and cultural prejudices against women.
- Read also: The exclusion of women from the priesthood according to Thomas Aquinas, by Umberto Eco;
- Aquinas on Women. If only he knew what we know . . .
|Documents on St. Thomas Aquinas|
|Women and procreation||Inferiority of women||Arguments||Overview||The priest as sign||Women and holy orders||If Thomas had known|
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