Aquinas on Women
If only he knew what we know . . .
by John Wijngaards
from the National Catholic Reporter January 14, 2000, p. 20.
Read also: St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274 AD).

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Traditionalists like to present St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274 AD) as the bulwark of unquestioning orthodoxy. He is the model for all theologians, ‘able to overturn the dangerous principles of the new order’, to quote Pope Leo XIII. Was that not why Thomas was declared patron of Catholic universities, colleges and schools? The message is: if we could only absorb Thomas’s mental discipline, we would not be caught up in the woolly thinking of our modern age, like imagining women may one day preside over the Eucharist . . . But does this do justice to Thomas the mystic, the seeker, the revolutionary champion of truth?

Thomas studied theology at the university of Naples where the study of the natural sciences and secular scholars was encouraged. Thomas read Aristotle at a time when Aristotle’s complete philosophy was a forbidden topic at most other European universities. It is conveniently forgotten that, throughout his life but especially when teaching in Paris, Thomas was discredited and attacked for depending on secular authors and for rigorously applying the principle of truth to every aspect of faith.

This loyalty to truth is relevant when we consider how Thomas assessed the question of admitting women to the priesthood. Thomas held that a theologian’s opinion is as valid as his arguments. What then were his reasons for stating that the female sex is an impediment to receiving Holy Orders? Thomas enumerated three: Scripture forbids women to teach in Church or exercise authority over men. The women deacons in the Early Church were not sacramentally ordained. The female sex cannot represent Christ because women are incomplete human beings (S.Th. III Supp. 39, 1). How do his arguments hold up to scrutiny?

To prove that women may not teach, Thomas quoted 1 Corinthians 11,1-11 and 1 Timothy 2,12. However, these passages refer to restrictions imposed on women because of specific circumstances in local communities. It is invalid to draw general principles from them. In fact, the Church itself acknowledges this today. Canon Law allows women to be deputed as readers, servers, cantors, preachers, leaders of prayer services, ministers of baptism and communion (Can 230 § 2 and 3), and so ‘to teach in Church and have authority over men’. Thus the first argument goes by the board.

As to the women deacons of the Early Church, Thomas dismissed them as ‘women who merely shared in some action of a deacon, namely perform readings in Church’. If he had known, as we do now, that women deacons were given a full sacramental ordination through the same ritual that ordained the men, it would have stopped him in his tracks. For being the great theologian of the sacraments he was, he would have recognised in the diaconate received by women, the full matter and form that constitute Holy Orders. It would have been enough to make him change his mind; or would it?

Inadequate biological notions

Like his contemporaries, St. Thomas lacked good information on what constitutes the difference between men and women. According to the Greco-Roman view of procreation, a view that predominated until the 18th century, there exists only one sex, but in two forms. A female person is a watered down variant of the male. The act of generation is accompanied by ‘heat’, by the ‘vital spirit’, which is the element that causes the difference between men and women. Only men have enough heat to produce seed which they cast into their partner’s womb as seed is cast into the earth.

Foetuses develop their full potential, their maleness, if they amass a decisive surplus of ‘heat’ or ‘vital spirit’ in the early stages in the womb. Females are the result of insufficient heat being absorbed by the foetus. What could have been a full man, then turns out to be a woman. Thomas himself says: “A female is deficient and unintentionally caused. For the active power of the semen always seeks to produce a thing completely like itself, something male. So if a female is produced, this must be because the semen is weak or because the material [provided by the mother] is unsuitable, or because of the action of some external factor such as the winds from the south which make the atmosphere humid” (St. Th. I, q. 92, 1, 1). Thomas saw woman’s deficiency confirmed in her inferior intellectual powers. Living in a state of subjection to man, woman is not fully an image of God, as every man is.

Read about the ancient biology here.

It is precisely for this reason, because a woman is only an incomplete male, that Thomas believed that a woman cannot represent Christ. For at the Eucharist the priest is a sign of Christ. “Since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Holy Orders.” Would St. Thomas have been able to keep to this line of argument if he had known, as we do, that male and female lie on a level, that they are two biologically distinct and complementary sexes, equally responsible for procreation? Would he not have conceded that the woman too can signify eminence of degree?

Read about Thomas’s view that ‘The female sex cannot signify eminence of degree’.

The texts of St. Thomas, and of the other medieval scholars whom Rome quotes in support of its ban on women priests, have been fully published and analysed in None of them provides reasons that hold up to scrutiny today. And St. Thomas would have been the first to admit it. Sacred doctrine is a matter of argument, he taught, in the sense that theology must prove what it teaches. And what about learning from biology? ‘Truth wherever found is ever the truth of God’.

Accepting women priests would have been a big step for St. Thomas. But does he not say in his beautiful hymn Sacris Solemniis, a hymn we still sing on Maunday Thursday: “Recedant vetera, nova sint omnia — let what is outdated recede, let everything be new!”

John Wijngaards

Read also: St. Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274 AD).