Celibatarian Repression of Women
by Uta Ranke-Heinemann
Chapter 9 from Eunuchs for Heaven, German publication Hoffmann and Campe Verlag, Hamburg 1988; English publication by André Deutsch, London 1990, pp. 108 -117. We have not been able to locate the author or publisher.
A biblical passage much beloved by churchmen (I Cor. 1-l: 24) states that women should ‘keep silence’ in church. Although the Bible is the word of God, the word of man sometimes intrudes, and this is clearly a case in point. While not attempting to soften St. Paul’s injunction. I would merely pose one counter-question: how do those who insist on feminine silence account for the fact in the same epistle (11: 5) Paul alludes to women preaching publicly in church, and that he does so as if speaking of something so commonplace that it requires no further explanation? Innumerable attempts- have been made to explain his demand for silence (it was inserted later by someone else or refers simply to ‘interruptions’, because men, too, are enjoined to silence a few verses earlier [14: 28 and 30], and so on and so forth). Whatever construction one places on the remark, it is not as straightforwardly or unreservedly hostile to women as many clerics choose to think.
This is not to deny that, unlike Jesus, women’s friend, Paul and other New Testament writers sometimes voice ‘male chauvinist’ sentiments. I Timothy (2: 12), for instance, categorically states: ‘But I suffer not a woman to teach.’ If I Corinthians (14: 24) is not enough, therefore, the epistles to Timothy can be cited, whether or not they were written by Paul. There it is in biblical black and white – or is it? The same passage from I Timothy occurs in close proximity to a demand that women should not adorn themselves ‘with braided hair, or gold, or pearls’ (2: 9). This is taken less literally today – at least, it is not standard practice for female churchgoers to surrender their earrings and brooches for safekeeping in the sacristy or submit their plaits – if any – for inspections.
The truth is, many people use the Bible like a supermarket and pick out whatever meets their current needs. In the case of another much loved verse – ‘Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands’ (Eph., 5: 22) – there is a regular tendency to omit Paul’s main injunction ‘Submitting yourselves one to another’ (5: 21) -which implies that men should also submit to their wives. This would leave men and women quits if it were not for a further demand, a few verses below, that women should be subject to their husbands ‘in everything’ (5: 24). It would not, therefore, be overstating the case to concede that the New Testament does lay more stress on woman’s subordination to man than man’s subordination to woman. This inequality is not only regrettable but at odds with woman’s status in the time of Jesus, for-the non Christian woman was in many ways better off. It was only as Christianity took hold that women lost the functions still accorded them in Paul’s epistles.
Women were initially active in propagating the Gospel. Paul states (I Cur. 11: 5) that they preached in church like men. The word used here, ‘prophesy’, is better translated as ‘preach’ because it signifies ‘forth-tell’ rather than ‘foretell’ and was an act of formal proclamation. Women like Phebe were deaconesses (Rom16: 1f.), and Paul refers to himself as a deacon or ‘minister’ (Col. l: 25), one of whose duties (according to Col. 1: 28) was to teach. Priscilla is called Paul’s ‘helper in Jesus Christ’: (Rom. 16: 3), a designation he always associates with official authority. Official service within the Christian community is described by I Corinthians 16: 16 as a form of ‘labour’, Romans 16: 12 alludes to three women who ‘labour in the Lord’, and I Thessalonians 5: 12, describes those who labour in this way as being- ‘over you [i.e. “supervisors”] in the Lord.’
Paul states that a woman named Junia was ‘of note among the apostles’ (Rom. 16: 7). Although she has since undergone a sex change and been transmogrified into a man, the early Church knew better. Jerome and Chrysostom, for example, took it for granted that Junia was a woman. Chrysostom writes: ‘How enlightened and capable a woman she must have been, to be esteemed worthy of the title apostle, nay more, to be pre-eminent among the apostles’ (‘In epistolam ad Romanos homilia’, 31, 12). Until the late Middle Ages, not a single interpreter of Romans 16: 7 construed Junia as a man’s name (v. B. Brooten in E. Moltmann-Wendel [ed.], ‘Frauenbefreiung. Biblische and Theologische Argumente’, pp. 148-51). Since then, it has been appropriated by men in the course of women’s persistent repression by the Church. The history of Christianity is also the history of women’s progressive silencing and incapacitation. If this development has been checked in the Christian West, it is in spite of the Church, not thanks to it and certainly not within it.
The Church’s denigration of women is rooted in the idea that they are somehow impure and inconsistent with sanctity. In the clerical view, women were second-class men. Clement of Alexandria (d. before 215) said of woman that ‘the very awareness of her own nature must arouse a sense of shame’ (’Paidagogos’, 11, 33, 2). Although he did not explain the reason for her natural shame, he enlightened her on how she should dress: ‘The woman Should be completely veiled save when at home. By covering her face she will tempt no one; to sin. for it is the will of the Word that it befits her to be covered at prayer’ (ibid., III, 79, 4). The rule that women should be veiled applied primarily to the ecclesiastical domain. The Apostolic Constitutions (c. 380); also laid it down (II, 57) that women could communicate only when veiled. and the veiling of women in church was likewise demanded by Pope Nicholas I in his celebrated letter to the Bulgars in 866. In the sixth century, it was even insisted that women cover their hands: ‘A woman may not receive the Eucharist with bare hands’ (Mansi, ‘Sacr. conc. collectio’, 9, 915 ). Clerical injunctions to women to cover themselves up, which were frequent at that time, constituted only one of many repressive measures against the female sex.
But the covering-up rule was not confined to the ecclesiastical domain. Chrysostom, invoking St Paul (who was not, in fact, referring to the same subject at all), declared that a woman ‘should be veiled, not only while praying but at all times’ (Homily 26 on I Cor 11: 5). ‘Paul says not that she must be covered, but veiled, that is to say, most carefully enshrouded’ (ibid. on 11: 6). Chrysostom was not only exaggerating but mistranslating. Paul did not enjoin women to wear veils. He was alluding to a specific hairstyle affected by devout Jewish women and Pharisees in particular. ‘With her head uncovered’ was tantamount to saying ‘with her hair loose’ – the mark of a dissolute life. ‘Covering the head’ meant simply ‘doing one’s hair’, but Chrysostorn was not alone in misconstruing Paul here. In some countries, women may even today be compelled to borrow a hat or a veil before entering a church.
The heading ‘On the Veiling of Women’, a later addition found in many translations of I Corinthians 11, is equally erroneous. The passage refers to women’s coiffure. The respectable Jewish woman of Jesus’s day began by plaiting her hair and arranging the plaits atop a woolen cloth worn low over the eyes. Then came a headband and another small cloth over the plaits to hold them in place. Finally, the whole edifice was reinforced with a hair-net. The wife of the celebrated rabbi Akiba (d. 135) is reported to have sold her, plaits to finance her husband’s studies. This indicates that many women purchased a coiffure appropriate to their social status if not endowed by nature with sufficient hair of their own (v. H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, ‘Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch’, III, p. 427f.). The great sinner who dried Jesus’s feet with her hair was a woman whose loose hair betokened a loose way of life. By contrast, the Talmud mentions that a woman whose seven sons were high priests never went around, even at home, with her hair loose (ibid p. 430). If a woman could not dress her hair respectably, Paul argued, she might as well complete her disgrace by having her head shorn completely (I Cor 11: 6). At all events, he was referring to hair, not to veils or hats, and he was not the last to confuse fashions in dress with questions of respectability and morality.
Even if Paul was not speaking of veils or hats, it must nonetheless be conceded that his insistence on tidy hair in women implied ‘a wish to make them conform to patriarchal custom. He did not, however, go as far as his repressive celibatarian exegetists. It is noteworthy that he enjoined women to cover themselves (dress their, hair properly) while praying and preaching ìn public. Characteristically enough, Chrysostom omits this reference to preaching altogether: The process.. whereby women were muzzled and concealed as far as possible from the public gaze was already in full swing. The female preacher vanished from the ecclesiastical stage. From the Church’s point of view, the most meritorious woman became she who was least often mentioned, seen; -and heard. Paul’s ruling on hairstyles was transformed into a.celibatarian cloak of invisibility in which women could be completely enveloped. Of all the New Testament’s topical precepts, the Church has been most at pains to preserve and add to those that relate to woman’s inferior status. Where others are concerned, e.g. the ban on usury, it adopts a more broad-minded attitude. Papal banks have long been accustomed to charging interest.
Like Chrysostom, Ambrose urged women to walk the streets veiled: ‘Let the women veil her head, that she see her chastity and modesty assured, even in public. Her countenance must not readily present itself to a young man’s gaze, wherefore she must be covered with the nuptial veil’ (‘De poenitentia’, I. 16). The Apostolic Constitutions likewise prescribed that women be veiled in public.
The Church took still other steps to lower women’s status. The Synod of Elvira (early fourth century) decreed in Canon 81 that women should neither write nor receive letters in their own name. The Synod of Gangra (also fourth century) forbade women to cut their hair, a prohibition aimed at the female followers of Eustathius of Sebaste (d.c. 380), who had founded a rigorously ascetic sect. ‘In I Corinthians (11: 10) the Apostle Paul considers women’s long hair, which is given them as a natural veil, to be a token of their subjection to man. Since many female Eustathians were throwing off the yoke and leaving their husbands, as we learn from the Synod of Gangra, they also discarded that token of subjection, their long hair’ (Hefele, ‘Konziliengeschichte’, 1, p. 760).
Celibatarian regimentation of women extended to their private lives as well. The Apostolic Constitutions adjured than not to wash too often: ‘Furthermore, she [woman] shall not wash herself with undue frequency, neither at midday, nor, as far as possible, daily. As the proper time for a bath, however, let the tenth hour be assigned her’ (1, 9). Clement of Alexandria addressed himself to the subject of sport for women. Having recommended athletics for young men – ‘Men should either engage in wrestling stripped or play ball’ (‘Paidagogos’, III 50, 1) – he goes on: ‘Even women should be permitted some form of physical exercise, not on the wrestling-mat or the running track, but in spinning and weaving and, if need arise, supervising the cooking. Moreover, they are to fetch whatever we need from the larder with their own hand’ (ibid., 49, 2f.).
Chrysostom (d. 407) heaved a pious sigh over women in general ‘The whole sex is frail and frivolous’ (Homily 9 on I Tim., 2: 15) – but had an answer to their problem: ‘What, then? Is there no hope for them? indeed there is! What form does it take? Salvation through children’ (ibid.). Ambrose (d.397), on the other hand, considered children and their attendant responsibilities, as well as their manifest evidence that the mother had known carnal pleasure, to be definite grounds for rejecting motherhood and recommending virginity instead: However much a noble woman may pride herself on a numerous brood of children, her burdens increase in proportion to their number. However much she may count the consolations her children bring her, she may also count her tribulations. She becomes a mother, but tribulations are not long in coming: before ever she can press her child to her heart, she must cry out in her birth-pangs . . . The daughters of this world are married and marry; the daughter of the kingdom of heaven abstains from all carnal pleasure’ (‘De virginibus’, I, 6).
Thanks to theologians of this type, women were ousted from the ecclesiastical domain at an early stage. It is not surprising that they were forbidden to hold ecclesiastical office. This was laid down by the Apostolic Constitutions, the most extensive canonical and liturgical compilation of the fourth century century which claimed to have been written by the Apostles and wielded great influence on that account. (It was largely incorporated in the Decretum Gratiani [c. 1140], of which more will be said in due course, and has thus retained its importance to this day.)
We do not permit women to exercise the office of teacher within the Church; they are only to pray and listen to the teachers- For our teacher and Lord Jesus Himself sent us only the Twelve to instruct the people and the heathen, but never women, although there was no lack of the same. For here were were with us the mother of the Lord, and her sister, and Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus, and Salome, and sundry others. Thus, had it been proper for women, He would Himself have appointed them. But, if a man be the head of a woman, it is unfitting that the rest of the body rule the head
(‘Apostolic Constitutions’, III, 6)
Women had to keep as silent in church as their pastors ordained – so silent that they were only permitted to move their lips. ‘Maidens shall silently pray or silently read the Psalms, moving their lips alone so that no one hears; “for I suffer not a woman to speak in church”. Women shall do likewise. When they pray, their lips shall move, but no one may hear their voice.’ Thus Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386; . ‘Introductory Catechesis’, 14).
Mary did not baptise Jesus. This, so the Apostolic Constitutions claimed proved that women were unqualified. to perform baptisms or other priestly functions. ‘If we have previously not permitted women to preach, how should anyone unnaturally accord them priestly office?. To make priestesses of women is an error of heathen godlessness, not a commandment of Christ. [Heathen priests we’ re evidently less hostile to ‘women than their Christian counterparts] But if women, too, were permitted to baptise, the Lord would surely have been baptised by His ‘own mother, and not by John.(Apostolic Constitutions’, III, 9). Tertullian (d.c. 220) was equally insistent that women should not be allowed to baptise or teach. While emphasising that baptism could be performed could be performed by all’, he strictly excluded women: Let us hope that the wild presumption of women, which has dared to wish to teach will not also arrogate the right to baptise’ (‘De baptismo’,17)
Women wee a also forbidden to officiate at the altar. The Synod of Laedicea (fourth century; Canon 44) state, that women may not approach the altar’. The Synod of Nimes (394) debarred women from ‘priestly office’ in opposition to the Priscillianists a Christian sect that admitted women priests. Pope Gelasius. writing to the bishops of Lucania in 494, likewise regarded ministration by women as an abuse: ‘We have learned to our annoyance that even women, so it is said, are ministering at holy altars, and that all that is entrusted exclusively to the ministration of men is being performed by the sex not entitled thereto.’ A similar complaint was made at the Synod of Nantes (658). In the East, too, at a Persian synod in Nisibis (485). Metropolitan Barsumas and his bishops forbade women to enter the baptistery and witness baptisms on the ground that sins of impurity and impermissible marriages had resulted from their presence. The Synod of Aachen (789) decreed that women should not set foot in the sanctuary, the synodal statutes of St Boniface (d. 754) forbade women to sing in church, and the reformist Synod of Paris (829) bemoaned the following deplorable state of affairs ‘It occurs in some provinces that women cluster about the altar, touch the sacred vessels, hand the priests their priestly robes – indeed, even dispense the body and blood of Our Lord to the people. This is disgraceful and must not occur . . . It has doubtless arisen owing to the carelessness and negligence of many bishops.’
The Second Pseudo-Isidorian Decretal, a forgery (probably c. 850) attributed to Pope Soter (168 – 77) but entirely consistent with the repression of women preached by leaders of the Church, stated that ‘It has been reported to the Apostolic See that female persons consecrated to God or nuns touch your sacred vessels and consecrated linen. That all this merits strong disapproval and reproof cannot be doubted by any who know what is proper. We therefore declare by the authority of this Holy See that you are to do away with all this and thus prevent this plague from spreading to every province.’ Cited as papal authority by Gratian c. 1140, this forgery still wields considerable influence (v. Raming ‘Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt’, p. 9). It has helped to ensure that women in general, and not just the ‘plague’ of nuns, have been excluded from the altar down the centuries to the present day.
The ban has been maintained in the twentieth century, too. In 1917 it was firmly entrenched in the ecclesiastical legal code (Codex Iuris Canonici, , or CIC for short): ‘A female person may not minister. An exception is permitted only when no male Person is available and just cause is present. The female person may not, however, approach the altar under any circumstances, and may only respond from afar’ ‘ (Canon 813/2). Celebration (Mass) with a nun as ministrant is permitted in a convent chapel, but: ‘Were a male ministrant readily available, a venial sin would be committed. It is, however. forbidden on pain of grave sin. for the female ministrant to approach the altar’ Heribert Jone, ‘Katholische Moraltheologie’ . 444) Canon 906 of the revised CIC which has been in force since 1983 is only an apparent advance in that it calls for ‘the participation of a believer’ in celebrating Mass and thus seems to remove the ban on women ministrants. Canon 230/1 makes it clear, however, that the office of acolyte – which covers that of ministrant = may be entrusted to men alone. Besides, Pope John Paul II had already stipulated in an instruction prettily entitled ‘The Inestimable Gift’ 1980) that ‘women are not permitted the functions of a ministrant ’. And that, for the moment, is that.
From ancient rimes until very recently, women were forbidden to sing in, church choirs. Even in our own century, Pius X re-emphasised this prohibition on the ground that women were not permitted to fulfil any liturgical function (‘Motu proprio de musica sacra’, 1903). Ph. Hartman’s ‘Repertorium Rituum’ of 1912 stated: ‘Only men of known piety and probity, who show themselves worthy of that sacred office, shall be admitted to membership of a church choir. Since singers in church occupy a liturgical office, women’s voices may not be employed in church singing. Thus, if it is required to employ high soprano and alto voices, boys must be enlisted’ (p. 360). The tide did not turn until a few decades ago. Johannes Kley’s edition of the ‘Repertorium Rituum’ 1940 reproduces the above passage verbatim but adds: ‘though women, too, are now generally admitted’ (p. 403). Pius XII cautiously sanctioned female choristers, though only ‘outside the presbytery or the altar precincts’ (‘Instructio de musica sacra’, AAS 48  658). It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, however, that reformers like the present Pope will some day purge church choirs of female interlopers.
In the past, castrated choristers provided a means of resisting any invasion by the female sex. The ‘Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche’ informs us that
The castration of boys in order to preserve their soprano or alto voices was practised in Italy, in particular, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. There, in contrast to Germany and France, the earliest castrati quickly gained admission to church choirs; under Clement VIII (1592-1605) they took the place of falsetto sopranos in the Sistine Chapel, though they failed to establish themselves as altos. They disappeared from secular music at the beginning of the 19th century, but castrati were still singing in the Sistine Chapel at the beginning of the 20th.
(VI, 1961, p- 16)
If things develop in tine with papal notions of the sanctity of divine service, they may even raise their voices once more.
To anyone taking an overall view of the repression and suppression of women, their denigration and disparagement, the whole of ecclesiastical history seems one long series of narrow-minded, arbitrary male impositions upon the opposite sex. This tyranny still endures. The subjection of woman to man has remained a theologian’s postulate throughout, and the male-dominated Church of today continues to regard that subjection as a God-given dogma. It has never grasped that the reality of the Church is founded on the common humanity and fellowship of man and woman. The apartheid practised against women by the rules of the Church is as much of an affront to justice as political apartheid. Far from improving matters, their invocation of divine authority merely imparts a blasphemous flavour to an unjust mode of conduct. Above all, though, a purely masculine Church has long ceased to be a church in the full sense, however it may style itself, because masculine arrogance has prompted it to dispense with one vital aspect of the catholicity – the universality – of which it should be a living example. It has long since exchanged its universality for arrogant
The masculine Church has reduced Christianity to a shrunken relic of its original self, a desiccated celibatarians’ credo. That is why the clergy have so largely lost sight of the true nature of the Christian faith. Cardinal Hengsbach of Essen typified this at a recent service of ordination. According to the ‘Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung’ of 24 May 1988, he described ‘the current sensational demand for the abolition of the bond between celibacy and the priesthood’ as ‘a crisis of faith’. Worse still, he declared this to be ‘the true religious crisis of the present time.’ Worse still, he declared this to be ‘the true crisis of the present time.’ In other words, to question obligatory celibacy constitutes a crisis of faith, whereas blind adherence to that obligation is true faith. If such prelatic pronouncements prove anything, it is that their authors are blind to the real exigencies of the present age. If they wished to broaden their pastoral horizons sufficiently to gain sight of true human needs and the true crisis of faith, women – is so permitted – could be of assistance to them.
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