National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

Analysis: The church’s legacy of misogyny

Scholar unearths medieval thought behind discrimination


Dr. Ida Raming is perhaps best known in the United States as one of the seven women illicitly ordained to priesthood on June 29, 2002, and then soon after excommunicated by the Catholic church for refusing to recant that ordination. In Europe, Raming (see related story) has long been recognized as a pioneer of the women’s ordination movement.

Fewer people are aware of Raming’s groundbreaking study of the exclusion of women from ordination based on the canonical literature of Middle Ages. The study has been available to scholars in the original German and then in an English translation published by Scarecrow Press in 1976. Both editions left the quotations from the Latin sources untranslated and so not readily accessible to the ordinary reader. Recently Raming published a second edition of her study in Germany. Bernard Cooke and I took this opportunity to provide an English translation of the second edition, again for Scarecrow Press, but this time we translated all the Latin sources.

In her work, Raming documents a shocking tradition of misogyny -- a misogyny that she has rightly insisted underlies the arguments used in canon law to justify gender discrimination in the church.

The following summary of this teaching comes from both actual laws and the commentaries on those laws as taught in the medieval universities. They represent only a brief summary of what is contained in Raming’s study:

• According to the medieval canonists, women are inferior from the very moment of creation. The most complete explanation for this occurs in the work of the12th-century scholar, Huguccio, which became the model for later writers on this point.

“A male and not a female is said to be the glory of God for three reasons. First, because God appeared more powerful and more glorious in the creation of males than of females, for the glory of God was manifested principally through man since God made him per se and from the slime of the earth against nature, but the female was made from the man. Second because man was made by God with nothing mediating, which is not the case for the female. Third, because a man principally glorifies God, that is with nothing mediating, but a female glorifies God through the mediation of a male since a male teaches and instructs the female for the glorification of God.”

Thomas Aquinas would later put it more simply, “A male is the beginning and end of woman, as God is the beginning and end of every creature.”

• The very word for women in Latin, mulier, was said to come from mollicie mentis (softness of mind) while the word for male, vir comes from animi virtute (strength or virtue of soul). Women then are unable to be a reliable witness, or judge or administrator since they are by nature inferior.

The late 14th-century canonist, Aegidius de Bellamera, put it bluntly: “But why are women removed from civil and public offices? The reason is because they are fragile and usually less discerning.” And further, “The reason for the difference [between the roles of men and women] is on account of the fragility, imbecility and less natural constancy and discernment of women.”

• The female judges of the Old Testament, according to the 12th-century Summa Parisiensis, were “miracles … more to be admired than to be considered as an example for human action.”

• Commenting on the ability of women to offer testimony in court cases, the standard commentary on canon law (Glossa ordinaria) written in the 13th century, snidely remarked, “What is lighter that smoke? A breeze. What is lighter than a breeze? The wind. What is lighter than the wind? A woman. What is lighter than a woman? Nothing.”

• Not only were women naturally weaker in will and mind than men, but also in body. Following Pope Gregory the Great, the canonists called menstruation a defect of women’s nature that carried severe consequences. Balsamon, the 12th-century Orthodox authority on canon law, explained that menstruation was the reason for the disbanding of the office of deaconess. “Once when the orders of canons of deaconesses were recognized, they had their own status at the altar. However, the defilement of the ministry by those menstruating expelled them from the divine and holy altar.” The Western canonists followed Isidore of Seville in describing the horrible effects of menstruation: “And in fact this blood is so detestable and unclean that … through contact with it, fruits do not produce, wine turns sour, plants die, trees lack fruit, the air darkens; if dogs eat [the blood], they are then made wild with madness.”

• The famous 13th-century canonist and cardinal Hostiensis copied Plato to make this point, “The sex of women is naturally worse, hence commonly she lives less long since she also has less natural heat and therefore as she is more quickly ended, so she naturally ought to come to completion more quickly. ... Plato truly said that therefore this is so since weeds grow more quickly than good plants.”

• Women are also responsible for introducing sin into the world. Quoting Ambrose, a law contained in the 12th-century Decretum explained, “Adam was deceived by Eve, and not Eve by Adam. The woman summoned him to sin; it is just that he takes on the guidance of her, lest he be ruined again by female recklessness.” The 13th-century canonist Guido de Baysio explained that this is why a woman cannot receive orders: “A woman was the effective cause of damnation since she was the origin of lying and Adam was deceived through her, and therefore she was not able to be the effective cause of salvation since Orders effects grace in another and thus salvation.” William of Rennes in the 13th century put it crudely: “A woman taught one time and the whole world was overthrown.”

• Women then need to be completely subject to men. According to the Decretum, “It is the natural order in humans that females serve males and children parents, since in this is justice that the lesser serve the greater.” Huguccio puts it succinctly, “A female yields to a man like a reed in the wind.”

• Men, of course, must correct and even punish females. The Glossa ordinaria explained: “A husband is able to judge a wife, correcting her ... But not beating her ... but he is able to chastise with moderation since she is of his family ... as lord his servant ... and likewise his hired hand.” For wives of the clerics, however, the Glossa ordinaria insists, there should be some “kindness” shown: “It is stated here that if the wives of clerics should sin, they should not kill them, but guard them lest they have the opportunity of sinning in something else, weakening them by beatings and hunger, but not to death.”

• Women, of course, may not hold positions of authority in the church. Huguccio explains that women “are forbidden to teach men, lest they think they should be held in esteem.” Guido de Baysio makes the status of women perfectly clear: “Orders is for the more perfect members of the church since it is given for the distribution of grace to another. A woman however is not a perfect member of the church, but a male is.”

• Pope Innocent III, writing in 1202, was appalled to hear that abbesses were blessing their nuns, hearing their confessions, reading the gospel and presuming to preach publicly. He completely forbade this “absurdity” since “even though the most blessed virgin Mary was more worthy and more excellent than all of the apostles, yet not to her, but to them the Lord handed over the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Based on this teaching of Innocent, canonists consistently forbade women to perform any role that might belong to the power of the keys. Writing in the 13th century, the Domincan Raymund of Peñaforte summarizes, “Hence even an abbess, however learned, holy or religious, is not able to preach, nor to bless, nor to excommunicate, nor to absolve, nor to give penance, nor to judge, nor to exercise the office of any order.”

• In fact, as Glossa ordinaria put it, “nor is a woman able to be a witness against a cleric in a criminal case since she is not able to be what they are.” It would appear that in the eyes of the canonists, women and clerics were almost separate species, the one completely incapable of becoming the other. In fact, according to Huguccio, ordination would not “take” even if a woman undertook the ritual.

The material uncovered by Raming leaves little doubt that the picture of women presented in Christianity has often been deeply misogynist. This is a sin that has still not been adequately addressed, or in some cases even admitted, in either official or unofficial church circles. Thanks to Raming, it will now be ever more difficult to avoid acknowledging this horrifying legacy.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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