The exclusion of women from the priesthood, according to Thomas Aquinas

The exclusion of women from the priesthood according to Thomas Aquinas

by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, well-known writer, in a little book entitled "Belief in what?" (Rivages Poche/Petite bibliothèque, 1998), takes a "prince" of the Church, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, bishop of Milan, to task and quotes Thomas Aquinas’ discussions on a priesthood exclusively reserved for men.

Translated for Women’s Ordination / Catholic Internet Library from the French by Joanna Waller (see credits).

I have never been able to find, in doctrine, any convincing reasons for excluding women from the priesthood (…). I have never found any reason in Scripture (…). The argument from symbols is unsatisfactory. So too is the archaic argument according to which a woman, at particular times in her life, generates impurity (…). When I feel lost in doctrinal questions, I turn to the only person I trust, that is, Thomas Aquinas. Now Thomas, who before ever he was the evangelical doctor was a man of extraordinary good sense, several times considered the question of whether the priesthood is an exclusively masculine privilege. Just looking at the Summa Theologicae, this matter is discussed in II, 11, 2, and he deals with the Pauline statement (even the saints are not perfect) in which he says that in the church assembly, women must remain silent, and may not teach. But in Proverbs, Thomas finds the words "Unigenitus fui coram matrem meam, ea docebat me". How can this be resolved? Accepting the anthropology of his time (he could not do otherwise): the female sex must be subject to the male sex, and women are not perfect in wisdom.

In III, 31, 4, Thomas wonders whether the matter of the body of Christ could be taken by a female body (there were, of course, gnostic theories current according to which the Christ passed through the body of Mary, like water through a pipe, purely as a conduit, without being affected by her, without being soiled by any immunditia relating to the physiology of childbirth). Thomas recalls that the Christ must be a human being convenientissimum tamen fuit ut de foemina carnem acciperet because, Saint Augustine notes, "humanity’s redemption must appear in both sexes". He does not, however, succeed in overcoming his contemporary anthropology, and he maintains that the Christ must be a man because the male sex is the most noble.

But Thomas does manage to reach beyond the inevitable anthropology of his own era. He cannot deny that men are superior to women, and more inclined to wisdom, but several times he struggles to understand why, in this case, women were given the right to prophesy, and abbesses the direction of souls as well as teaching, and he extricates himself by means of neat, matter of fact arguments. He does not seem convinced, however, and with his usual shrewdness, answers indirectly, pretending to forget that he had already answered this point in 1, 99, 2: if the male sex is better, why did God allow women to be born in the primitive state before the fall? Because, he says, it was right for men and women to appear in the primitive state. Not to guarantee continuity of the species - since humanity at that time was immortal, there was no need to create two sexes for the sake of survival of the species. It was because (cf. Supplementum 39.1, the text is not in his hand, but he uses the same argument elsewhere) "sex does not reside in the soul": for Thomas, sex was actually an accident, happening at a late state in gestation. It was necessary and right to create two sexes because (this is clarified in III,4, respondeo) there is a pattern to the generation of human beings: the first man was conceived without male or female, Eve was born from the male without the contribution of a woman, the Christ was born from a woman without the contribution of a man, but all other human beings are born from a man and a woman. Apart from these three admirable exceptions, this is the rule, and this is the divine plan.

In III, 67,4, Thomas wonders whether woman can baptise, and he easily settles the objections offered by tradition: it is the Christ who baptises, but since "in Christo non est masculus neque foemina" (Thomas is inspired by Paul’s letter to the Colossians 3:11, but this is stated more clearly in the letter to the Galatians 3:28), if a man can baptise, then a woman can also baptise.

He then concedes (the power of public opinion!) that if men are present, the woman may not baptise, since "caput mulieris est vir". However, in the first place he establishes a clear distinction between what is not "permitted" (in terms of custom) to a woman, and what she "may" do (in terms of law). In the third place, he states that, if it is true that, in the earthly order, woman is the passive principle, and only man is the active principle, on the other hand in the spiritual order, since both man and woman act by virtue of the Christ, this hierarchical distinction is no longer valid.

However in Supplementum 39.1 (though I know it is not in his hand) questioning whether woman can receive priestly orders, he replies in terms of the symbolic argument: the sacrament is also a sign and, to be valid, the "thing" alone is not enough, there must also be "the sign of the thing", and as in the female sex, no distinction is ever signified, since woman lives in a state of subjection, orders therefore cannot be conferred on a woman.

It is true that, in a question I do not remember, Thomas also uses the propter libidinem argument: in other words, if the priest were a woman, the faithful (men!) would become aroused on seeing her. But since the faithful are also women, what about the young girls who may be disturbed at the sight of a "handsome priest" (remember the account by Stendhal in the Charterhouse of Parma on the unrestrained passions aroused by the preaching of Fabrice del Dongo)? The history of the university of Bologna contains the story of a certain Novella d’Andrea, who occupied a chair in the XIVth century, and was obliged to teach behind a veil in order not to distract the male students by her beauty. I tend to think that Novella was not necessarily so intolerably charming, but that the young people were inclined to be indisciplined, as students are. It was therefore a question of educating the students, or of educating women in gratia sermonis.

It is my impression, ultimately, that Saint Thomas himself could not say precisely why the priesthood should have been a male prerogative, except by allowing (as he did, and could not do otherwise, given the ideas of his time) that men were superior to women in intelligence and dignity. This is not, as I well know, the present opinion of the Church. It is rather the view of Chinese society, which as we have learnt recently with horror, prefers to eliminate girl babies and keep boy babies alive.

These are my concerns. What are the doctrinal reasons for forbidding women the priesthood? If it is simply a question of history, of the appropriate symbols, because the faithful are used to a man as priest, there is no reason for disrupting the Church, which has all the time in the world (that said, I would like to have a date, nonetheless, before the Resurrection of the Body).

Of course, it is not my problem. I am only being curious. But the other half of Heaven (as the Chinese say) is perhaps more impatient to know.

Umberto ECO

For related online Libraries see:

Equality for Women
The ORDINATION OF WOMEN in the Catholic Church

Natural Law and Conscience

Catholics and Contraception


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