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St Thomas Aquinas Views on Women

(Follow Up To "Cardinal Daly and Traditional Church Teaching Concerning Women")


Catholic Church And Women
The Irish Times - Friday, January 23, 1998


Sir, - I appreciated Cardinal Daly's gentle and careful presentation of a wide context for understanding the strange-sounding statements of some classical Church writers on the subject of women (January 15th). I was not at all unaware of that context. In fact, I am sure the writers quoted would certainly not see their mothers or sisters in the light of those statements. I was simply making the point that one cannot quote the authority of a writer to prove a point until one has evaluated his or her reasoning, since we are dealing with reason, not faith.

The more important point is the need to be aware of cultural conditioning - or religion, faith, the Bible, theology, Church teaching and legislation, indeed of all human experience. Hence the need for interpretation of documents in all of these areas. This does not justify us in making fun of earlier statements judged in the light of our own present culture, but is does suggest that we be careful in our use of them. We may also find that, in spite of cultural change, some former attitudes may still have at least a subconscious influence on current behaviour. This is what many women claim that they experience in a maledominated society and Church. They feel that the Pope was halfapologising when he said. "If objective blame has belonged to ... members of the Church ... I am truly sorry." I assure Cardinal Daly that one of my special joys, as a lifelong Thomist, is the thrill of reaching up to the mind of Aquinas, one of the Church's most outstanding theologians. But Aquinas reflects the culture of his time and Aristotle's biology when he explains (S.T. Ia, q.92.1) that "Only as regards nature in the individual is the female something defective and manque [deficiens et occasionatum, and this last word is translated as manque in the Blackfriars edition of the Summa Theologiae]. For the active power in the seed of the male tends to produce something like itself, perfect in masculinity; but the procreation of a female is the result either of debility of the active power, of some unsuitability of the material, or of some change effected by external influences, like the south wind, for example, which is damp, as we are told by Aristotle. But with reference to nature in the species as a whole, the female is not something manque, but is according to the tendency of nature, and is directed to the work of procreation."

In response to the question of whether woman is subject to man, he continued: "In domestic or civil subjection, the ruler manages his subjects for their advantage and benefit. And this sort of subjection would have obtained even before sin. For the human group would have lacked the benefit of order had some of its members not been governed by others who were wiser. Such is the subjection in which women is by nature subordinate to man, because the power of rational discernment is stronger in man. Nor is inequality among people incompatible with the state of innocence" (i.e. before original sin).

Not a few women claim that this attitude of male superiority is still alive in their experience. The point remains that we need to be aware of cultural conditioning. Even the Bible cannot be a meaningful, living word unless it becomes incarnate, takes flesh in each new culture. -

Yours, etc.,

Mount St Mary's, Milltown, Dublin 14.

The Church And Women
The Irish Times - Monday, January 26, 1998


Sir, - May I suggest that perhaps both Fr Sean Fagan (January 9th) and Cardinal Cahal B. Daly (January 15th) in their letters about the Church's attitude to women, see as lying within the Church something (i.e. anti-feminism or pro-feminism) that belongs properly within a wider matrix in the ancient world? The Church, inevitably, was not immune from the social perspectives current in the world in which it came into being.

On the negative side, in classical literature, is the famous lyric poem of Semonides (circa 630 BC) in which the "various natures of women" are exemplified in the sow, the vixen, the dog, the earth, the sea; but, importantly, this largely negative catalogue ends with the positive bee: "in her . . . blame finds no resting place". And the celibate Hippolytus, in his blistering excursus on women in Euripides's play of that name, written in 429 BC, comes to the conclusion that women "are ever uniformly wicked . . . worst of evils". Less negatively, but negatively nonetheless, Virgil observed (Aeneid 4,569-70) that "woman is a thing always variable and changeable".

But the positive emphasis was also there in classical literature. Apart from Semonides's bee, there is the touching recognition scene between Penelope and Odysseus in Book 23 of Homer's Odyssey, where the virtues of the "dear and faithful wife" are extolled; the funeral epigram of Heraclitus of Halicarnassus, circa 250 BC, on Aretemias wife of Euphron (imitated, in respect of other "good wives", by Catullus in his 96th poem and Propertius in poem II of his Elegies Book 4); and above all Ovid in his Heroides, circa 15 BC, the single repeated emphasis of which is that women, not men, are the true heroes.

It seems to me undeniable, on the evidence, but unsurprising, that elements in the Church inherited and absorbed the negative view existent in the ancient world. In the Berlin Papyrus fragments surviving from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Peter is recorded as saying, in answer to Mary's claim to have received revelations from the risen Jesus (compare John 20.16-18), "Did the Saviour speak privily with a woman rather than with us? Shall we turn about and all hearken unto her? Has he preferred her over against us?" And in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, Peter declares: "Let Mary Magdalene go out from amongst us, for women are not worthy of the Life."

These are undoubtedly true and accurate reflections of Peter's misogyny. And Jesus himself severely reprimands Peter for the latter remark and himself declares elsewhere in the same Gospel of Thomas: "When you make male and female a single one, so that male is not male and female not female, then shall you enter the kingdom." In other words, perpetuation of prejudices based on gender renders the perpetuators unready for the Kingdom. -

Yours, etc.,

Department of Ancient Classics, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Co Kildare.

Aquinas On Women
The Irish Times - Friday, February 6, 1998

Sir, - Fr Sean Fagan cites Aquinas as saying that "only as regards nature in the individual is the female something defective and manque" and "with reference to nature in the species as a whole the female is not something manque". This is unintelligible. If with reference to nature in the species as a whole the female is not something manque, why should it be that as regards nature in the individual she is something defective and manque? It is also a gross mistranslation. The Latin reads per respectum ad naturam particularem femina est aliquid deficiens et occasionatum .. . sed per comparationem ad naturam universalem femina non est aliquid occasionatum (Summa Theologiae 1, 92, ad 1).

Fr Fagan translates natura particularis as "nature in the individual" and natura universalis as "nature in the species as a whole". But in the language of Aquinas natura particularis does not mean "nature in the individual" and natura universalis does not mean "nature in the species as a whole". At Summa Theologiae, 1-2, 85, 6, co he explains that natura particularis means "the active and conserving power that is proper to each individual thing" (propria virtus activa et conservativa uniuscuiusque rei) and that natura universalis is "the active power found in a universal principle of nature" (natura vero universalis est virtus activa in aliquo universali principio naturae). A heavenly body, he says, might be such a power and, he goes on, "God is said by some people to be the power of nature" (Deus a quibusdam dicitur natura naturans).

In simpler words: natura particularis means the power of a particular bulb to grow to be a tulip, or the power of a particular sapling to grow to be an oak: natura universalis means much what we mean when we talk of the workings of nature or of the workings of God.

In the translation of Aristotle's De Generatione Animalium available to Aquinas, the male semen is supposed to "intend" (that is, naturally produce) male offspring, and if it does not, this is because of a weakness in the semen, or because the female reproductive material "conquers" (vincit) the male semen. The female offspring is therefore taken to be defective and occasionatum. Occasionatum means "not intended in itself but arising from some corruption or defect", as Aquinas says explicitly at In 2 Sent, 20, 2, 1, obj 1 (Illud occasionatum dicitur, quod non est per se intentum, sed ex aliqua corruptione vel defectu proveniens). It does not mean manque, as Fr Fagan translates it. What arises from corruption or defect need not itself be corrupt or defective. Wine arises from the corruption of grape sugar. It is occasionatum, but it is not itself corrupt, it is not defective, and it is not manque.

Faced with the Aristotelean text, Aquinas accepts, for the purpose of argument, that "with respect to the particular nature the female is deficient and occasionatum". With respect to what particuar nature? At Summa Contra Gentiles, 3, 94, n 10 he tells us explicitly that the particular nature is the power of the male semen. So the female is occasionatum with respect to the power of the semen, that is, it is not intended by this power. But, Aquinas argues, with respect to the general power of nature, the female is intended, intended indeed for the work of procreation. (Accordingly she is not unintended, she is not occasionatum, and hence she is not defective.) He goes on to point out that the "intention" of the general power of nature depends on God, who is the author of universal nature, that is, of this general power.

In other words, the female may be unintended and defective so far as the workings of the male semen is concerned. But she is intended by nature, and so she is not a defective part of the natural world. And God is the author of nature. Hence she is not defective so far as God is concerned. To a theologian such as Aquinas, it is this last that matters. Pity about the failure of the male semen.

May I add two things: (1) When Aquinas says that the female is "intended for the work of procreation", he is not saying that the female is solely or even principally intended for the work of procreation. In the immediately preceding paragraph he has explained that the principal work of both men and women is not to procreate, but to understand the world in which they live. (2) Aquinas is often mocked because he says that sex-differentiation could be affected by humidity. But there is abundant evidence that environmental factors can affect sex-differentiation. (Cf. S. T. H. Chan and Wai-Sum: Environmental and Non-genetic Mechanisms in Sex Determination, in C. R. Austin and R. G. Edwards: Mechanisms of Sex Differentiation in Animals and Men: New York, Academic Press, 1981.)

I published an article on these topics in New Blackfriars, May 1994. If anyone would like a copy of a revised version, perhaps they would write to me at Arts B102, University College, Dublin 4. - Yours, etc.,

From Michael Nolan

Harmony Ave,

Dublin 4.