Misreadings of Ancient Church Writings on Women
Catholic Church and Women
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.
Abortion And Murder
The Irish Times - Friday, January 9, 1998
Sir, - Rev Peter O'Callaghan (January 6th) quotes the second century writer Tertullian in support of his claim that all abortion, without exception, is murder. Abortion is certainly killing human life, but the moral problem is to discern just when any act of killing can be labelled murder and therefore immoral. If it is sufficient to quote an ancient writer to back up the claim, the question remains: what criteria to use to discover whether or not the author is talking nonsense. With the deepest apologies to women, and with the utmost sense of shame for what the Christian Church allowed to be preached in its name, I recall the following examples (to remind us that not every word of popes, saints, mystics or theologians is a word of God):
1. St Clement of Alexandria (died 220): "A woman should cover her head with shame at the thought that she is a woman."
2. Tertullian (d. 220): "The judgment of God upon the female sex endures to this day, and with it inevitably endures their position of criminal at the bar of justice. Women are the gateway of the devil."
3. St John Chrysostom (d. 407): "Woman is a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil . . . Among all savage beasts none is found so harmful as woman."
4. St Jerome (d. 430): "Women are the gate of hell."
5. St Augustine (d. 420): "Women are not made in the image of God."
6. Pope St Gregory the Great (d. 604): "Woman is slow in understanding, and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her use is twofold: animal sex and motherhood."
7. St John Damascene (d. 750): "Woman is a sick she-ass . . . a hideous tape-worm . . .the advance post of hell."
8. St Bernard of Clairveaux (d. 1153): "There are two things which defile and ruin religious: familiarity with women and daintiness with food."
9. St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274): "Woman is an . . . incomplete being . . . a misbegotten male. It is unchallengeable that woman is destined to live under man's influence and has no authority . . ."
10. Pope John XII (d. 1334): "Woman is more bitter than death."
11. Constitutions of a male religious order, 1945: "What straw gains by fire is what a male religious gains by conversation with women."
Officially the Church still has not said "Sorry." -
(Fr) Sean Fagan S.M.,
Mount St Mary's,Milltown,Dublin 14.
Abortion And Murder
FROM REV PETER O'CALLAGHAN
Sir, - Father Sean Fagan (The Irish Times, December 15th) says: "The claim that abortion is murder is simply not true".
The pastoral letter "Human Life Is Sacred", issued by the late Cardinal Conway and Archbishops Ryan, Cunnane and Morris in May 1975, stated: "The earliest Christian writers had no hesitation in calling abortion murder, no matter at what stage of the pregnancy it was performed." (Par. 18).
They then went on to quote Tertullian (2nd century), who said: "To prevent birth is anticipated murder; it makes little difference whether one destroys a life already born or does away with it in its nascent stage. The one who is to become a man is already a man."
When Father Fagan urges us to assimilate and make our own the transcendental precepts - be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible - he forgets to tell us to be in love, first of all, with human life from the first moment of conception. No one can be attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible unless they are first permitted to be born. -
Inch, Killeagh, Co Cork.