Do Women Have Souls? Catholicism, Feminism & the Council of Macon

Article excerpt

"Woman has always been unfairly discriminated against by man," commencement speaker Henry Edmunds told the Philadelphia High School for Girls class of 1905. Edmunds was president of the city's Board of Public Education and a booster of progessive education initiatives such as Girls' High. His point was uncontroversial, but he caused a stir when he added, by way of illustration: "Even as late as the fifteenth century there was held in the south of France a council of learned prelates who for two days discussed the question of whether woman had a soul or not."

That was news to the Catholics in the audience, who demanded that Edmunds name the council and produce a source for the story. After some equivocation, he cited a recent book by the artist A. H. Hallam Murray. Murray actually claimed the debate had taken place in the sixth century, during the Council of Macon. He wrote, "The question before the council was whether women had souls ... and since [then] it has been quite possible to remain a good Catholic and yet to doubt ... that women are practically of the same species as ourselves."

No such debate ever took place. "Good Catholics" were not and are not free to doubt that women are humans with souls. But the myth of the Council of Macon became a favorite canard for those who wished to portray the church as an enemy of feminism. Today many Americans take it for granted that Catholicism and feminism are irreconcilable, each bent on thwarting the other's goals. It's an antagonism with deep historical roots--as demonstrated by the strange history of the Macon myth.

I consider myself both a Catholic and a feminist, and I have spent a lot of time wondering what causes these two camps to perceive each other as enemies. Many of my Catholic friends seem to regard my feminism as an endearing yet potentially destructive personality quirk: it should always be tolerated and occasionally indulged, but never permitted to go too far. Most of them are simply relieved that, as one young priest recently told me, I am not one of those "angry" feminists. In contrast, I get the distinct sense my feminist friends and colleagues believe that, by allying myself with an institution whose power structures are unrelentingly and unapologetically dominated by men, I am complicit in my own oppression. Belonging to two groups whose members are reflexively inclined to believe the worst about each other can be uncomfortable at the best of times. When the divide is brought into particularly sharp relief--say, during an election season, a staging of The Vagina Monologues, or an impending visit of a controversial commencement speaker--it can be downright painful.

My students at Notre Dame, almost of all whom fall on the "Catholic" side, attribute the divide between Catholics and feminists to the debate over legalized abortion. Without a doubt, that issue has progressively widened the breach between the church and organized feminism for the past four decades. But the relationship between American Catholics and feminists has been characterized by rancor and mutual suspicion since at least the late nineteenth century. The women's suffrage movement found few allies among Catholics. Suffragists, meanwhile, often harbored anti-Catholic prejudices that led them to assume the worst about the church. In this atmosphere, the myth of Macon flourished and became both a stimulus and a symptom of the divide that still separates Catholics and feminists.

For the record, church bishops actually gathered twice at Macon, a city in east central France, first in 581 and again in 585. The canons issued by both councils were disciplinary rather than theological, and largely unremarkable. Women's souls were never called into question. So where did the story come from? After Edmunds's speech at Girls' High, the superintendent of Philadelphia's Catholic schools, Fr. Philip McDevitt, launched his own investigation. He scrutinized the official decrees of Macon and found no evidence of a discussion of women's souls. …