Misreadings of ancient Church writings on women

Isolated quotations from ancient Christian writings are bound to be misunderstood if offered out-of-context, or mistranslated


The following 'Letters' appeared in the Irish Times, Jan 14 1998

Catholic Church and Women

Sir, - Father Sean Fagan (January 9th) gives 11 quotations from Church writings across the centuries, all of them apparently indicative of a persistent anti-woman complex in the church.

In the older Latin scholastic manuals, there often were sections headed: "Proofs from Tradition". There followed a series of "proof texts" from early Church writers on the point at issue. Even as students, we were warned to evaluate these quotations by checking the context, both in the work referred to and in the other writings of the author, the culture of his time, etc. Constraints of time may not have permitted Father Fagan to contextualise his quotations in this way. Constraints of space oblige me to limit myself to some only of his quotations.

1. Tertullian, who began his career as a brilliant apologist for Christian Catholic orthodoxy, developed increasingly rigorist attitudes and eventually became stridently anti-sexuality, anti- marriage and anti-woman. Condemned by Church authorities for these and other reasons, he broke away from the Catholic Church and joined the puritan Montanist sect, from which he later seems to have separated in order to found a still more rigorist sect of his own. In his anti-Catholic phase, he bitterly attacked Catholics, whom he calls "Sensualists", for their laxity. Father Fagan's quotation reflects this phase, and not the Catholic phase, of Tertullian's writing. In his Catholic phase, in the first of two letters to his wife, he wrote one of the most beautiful passages in Christian Latin literature about marriage and married love.

2. St Jerome had deep spiritual friendships with several women of his time: for example, with the "saintly Paula", for whom he expresses his "reverence, respect and veneration"; with Eustochium, to whom he wrote several letters, still extant, and to whom he dedicated several of his books; with Fabiola, of whom, after her death, he penned an eloquent eulogy. He quite clearly held that women can be "the gate of heaven", although in Father Fagan's quotation he says simply that "women are the gate of hell".

3. Regarding St Augustine, one need only read his wonderful Letter to Proba on prayer to know that he did indeed regard women as "made in the image of God" and as reflecting that image to males. Augustine and Jerome are among the Church fathers of the fourth century who invoked the law of God to protest against civil laws of the time which discriminated in various ways against women.

4. St Bernard's is another surprising inclusion in any list of alleged misogynists. He may indeed have felt that celibate monks should not cultivate excessive "familiarity with women"; but his own references to women in his writings and in the 23 letters to women which he wrote show that he had enormous respect for their intelligence and their spiritual insights, and indeed a quite exceptional appreciation of the gifts and qualities of women. Bernard defended the authenticity of the visions of Hildegarde of Bingen against some contemporary doubters, and it seems that it was his intervention which prevailed on Pope Eugene III to give approval for Hildegarde's mystical teaching. Indeed the Pope asked her to communicate to him "all that she learned from the Holy Spirit".

5. With reference to St Thomas Aquinas, Father Fagan may not be aware that Dr Michael Nolan has conclusively shown that the words which describe woman as an "incomplete being", a "misbegotten male", are a travesty of Aquinas's thought. "Misbegotten" is a misleading translation; "unintended" is closer to his meaning. The elementary biology of Aristotle, on which Aquinas was relying, held that the male seed "intended" to reproduce itself in a male child. But, St Thomas insists, nature and nature's God intended differently, and woman is willed by God for her own sake. She is not intended only for reproduction, but is designed, as the male is designed, for understanding and intelligence, and her role in marriage is not just the begetting of offspring but the companioning of her husband. Aquinas is by no means a misogynist.

6. Incidentally, and contrary to what Father Fagan claims, the Church has officially more than once "said sorry" for acts and words offensive to women emanating from male members of the Church. For example, in his letter to women in 1995, Pope John Paul said in this regard: "If objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry."

The history of women's place in the teaching and practice of the Church is much too vast and too complex to be disposed of in any collection of "wordbites". - Yours, etc.,

Cardinal CAHAL B. DALY, Rosetta Avenue, Belfast.



Sir, - Father S. Fagan writes (January 9th) that Thomas Aquinas says that woman is misbegotten. On the contrary, Aquinas denies it no fewer than six times, namely at In 2 Sent, 20, 1, ad 1; In 4 Sent, 44, 1, 3c, co; Summa Theologiae, 1, 92, 1, ad 1; Summa Theologiae, 1, 99, 2, ad 1; De Veritate, 5, 9, ad 9; Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 94, n. 10. - Yours, etc.,

Prof MICHAEL NOLAN, Harmony Ave, Dublin 4.


From the Irish Times, Letters, Jan 14 1998

Return to Catholic Perspectives: Women