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Post-medieval Theologians and Women Priests

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Post-medieval Theologians and ‘Women Priests’

Rome says: ‘Since the Middle Ages and up to our own time, it can be said that the question [of the ordination of women] has not been raised again, for the practice has enjoyed peaceful and universal acceptance.’ Inter Insigniores § 7.

What may look like a ‘peaceful and universal acceptance’ has actually been massive suppression through an aggravated social and religious anti-feminine climate.

Issue ignored by the major theologians

For many of the major theologians in this period, the issue of the ordination of women seems so ‘obviously a closed chapter’ that it is hardly discussed at length. When the question is mentioned, the arguments against women’s ordination turn out to be the classic combination of misunderstood Scripture texts and crass theological prejudice.

A typical example of this is Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542 - 1621 AD). For him women cannot be ordained because they are inferior by nature and subject to men. That is why Paul forbade them to teach.

Hatred, and even persecution, of women

A good idea of the misogynist theology of post-medieval times may be had from ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’ by John Knox (1514 - 1572 AD). He was the best known protestant theologian during the time of the Reformation after Luther and Calvin. The main contention of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet’ is that the exercise of authority by women is contrary to both natural law and religion. The interest of this lengthy treatise for us is that Knox's arguments reflect the beliefs of the day, both among Catholics and Reformers. Here is just one excerpt:

“ . . . God has pronounced sentence in these words: "Thy will shall be subject to thy husband, and he shall bear dominion over thee" (Gen. 3:16). As [though] God should say, "Forasmuch as you have abused your former condition, and because your free will has brought yourself and mankind into the bondage of Satan, I therefore will bring you in bondage to man. For where before your obedience should have been voluntary, now it shall be by constraint and by necessity; and that because you have deceived your man, you shall therefore be no longer mistress over your own appetites, over your own will or desires. For in you there is neither reason nor discretion which are able to moderate your affections, and therefore they shall be subject to the desire of your man. He shall be lord and governor, not only over your body, but even over your appetites and will." This sentence, I say, did God pronounce against Eve and her daughters, as the rest of the scriptures do evidently witness. So that no woman can ever presume to reign above man.”

The hatred against women did not remain with words. The actual persecutions that followed are beyond belief. To demonstrate this, consider a ‘Catholic’ book, the Hammer of Witches, written by two theologians, Jakob Sprenger OP and Heinrich Kramer OP. The book was endorsed and recommended by Pope Innocent VIII in 1484 AD, and was used for centuries. It caused thousands of innocent women to be burnt at the stake. It is these publicly honoured, uncontradicted, widely quoted “theologians” who wrote:

“What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours.”
“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 man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives”.
“(When Eve answered the serpent) she showed that she doubted and had little faith in the word of God. All this is indicated by the etymology of the word; for Femina (Latin for "woman") comes from Fe (=faith) and Minus (=less) since she is ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith”.

The Malleus Maleficarum , p. 43. It continues for page after page of vitriolic hatred of women.

The classical theological handbooks and a large part of the ordinary “traditional” interpretation of Scripture against women was an inheritance of this kind of theology.

Cornelius a Lapide, for instance, comments on the prohibition against women speaking in church by giving six reasons:

  1. it follows from woman’s nature and God’s positive command in Gen 3, 16;
  2. silence is more suitable to woman’s humble status in the presence of men;
  3. man possesses better reason and judgement and more discretion than woman;
  4. by speaking woman may be tempted to lure man to sin;
  5. it is better that women remain ignorant of what is not necessary;
  6. by asking stupid questions in Church (1 Cor 14, 35) she would give scandal to others.

Institutional oppression of women by Church Law

Under the Corpus Iuris Canonici. 1234 - 1916 (!) AD.

The legal situation of women under the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD) was a systematic denial of rights, as in this summary by L'Abbé André, Droit Canon, Paris 1859, vol. 2, col. 75.

  • “By a principle of civil law, no woman can exercise a public office. By Church Law women are equally barred from all spiritual functions and offices.”
  • “A woman can, therefore, not receive any ecclesiastical ordination. If she receives one, the ordination will not imprint a sacramental character . . . .”
  • “No woman, however saintly she may be, may either preach or teach . . . .”
  • “A wife is under the power of her husband, the husband not under the power of the wife. The husband may punish her. A wife is obliged to follow her husband to wherever he decides to fix his residence.”
  • “A woman is bound to greater modesty than a man.”
  • “A woman is sooner excused on account of fear than a man. She is dispensed from going to Rome to obtain absolution from an excommunication.”

The ritual prohibitions against women under the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234 - 1916 AD) can be seen in the following examples:

The Codex Iuris Canonici. 1917 - 1983 (!).

The Codex Iuris Canonici, promulgated in 1917, contained the following canons based on a woman's presumed inferiority:

  • “A wife who is not legitimately separated from her husband, automatically retains her husband's domicile”, Canon 93, § 1.
  • “Only [male] clerics can hold the power of order or ecclesiastical jurisdiction, or obtain benefices and ecclesiastical pensions”, Canon 118.
  • “[With regard to confraternities or pious unions established to promote devotional or charitable works], women cannot be given membership in them, except for the purpose of gaining the indulgences and spiritual graces granted to the male members”, Canon 709, § 2.
  • “Only a baptized male can receive sacred ordination”, Canon 968, § 1.
  • “[In the canonization process] anyone of the faithful can request that a case be instigated . . . . Men can act through themselves or through a properly appointed procurator; women only through a procurator”, Canon 2004, § 1

The same Codex Iuris Canonici contained the following canons based on a woman's presumed ritual uncleanness:

Betrayal by theologians

During the last few centuries there have been few original theologians. Most just repeated the treatises of the past, quibbling with colleagues about details.

As to scriptural passages, a critical understanding of literary forms was lacking and commentaries were filled with standard social prejudice. Cornelius A Lapide, who wrote in the 17th century, but who remained very popular well into the 19th may serve as an example.

As to the ordination of women to the priesthood in dogmatic treatises, see the example of Francesco P. Solá, who devotes just two pages to the topic and whose arguments, both from Scripture and Tradition, are utterly pathetic.


Rome’s statement that the tradition of not-ordaining women to the priesthood ‘enjoyed peaceful and universal acceptance’ sounds cynical against this background.
During the post-medieval period women lay in a graveyard, as far as Church leaders and theologians were concerned.

John Wijngaards

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