The Church's Legacy of Misogyny: Scholar Unearths Medieval Thought Behind Discrimination. (Analysis)

By Macy, Gary | National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Church's Legacy of Misogyny: Scholar Unearths Medieval Thought Behind Discrimination. (Analysis)


Macy, Gary, National Catholic Reporter


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, Raining 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 the 12th-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. …

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