Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why Women Are Inferior

Of course they aren't, but I just wanted to get your attention!!

As this birth control episode continues to unfold in this political season, I've searched for the deeper reasons behind it all.  It can't just be that Catholic hospitals don't want to pay for some prescriptions of birth control pills for non-Catholic women.  That's not worth the hassle or politico-religious fallout and backlash.  There has to be a deeper logic here, a fundamental worldview at stake that, while perhaps unspoken, is still active and operative.

Saint Thomas Aquinas
So as I've looked around, reading this and that about the older Conservative/Catholic views on such things, it's become clear to me that the views of Rick Santorum and the Catholic bishops (all men, of course) represent a very old and ancient attitude that's been around for centuries, even millenia.  We saw it manifest some days ago very clearly in the Republican hearing on the issue, chaired by Congressman Darrel Issa, where there were no women allowed to speak.  It was all male religious leaders, talking about how being forced to provide women the choice of securing birth control pills with their insurance coverage was an aggressive oppression of religious freedom!

Then I found a book at the library by one of my favorite writers, Garry Wills.  Wills is a Catholic historian and intellectual, who in his youth was a Catholic seminarian, then writer for William F. Buckley's National Review magazine, the fountainhead of the current Conservative movement in America.  Then he changed his mind.  The book I found is entitled Papal Sin and is a recent study (and critique) of the modern Catholic papacy.

After a long explanation of how the Catholic Church was poised to change the traditional position on birth control in the 60s (but then was prevented from doing so by a few ├╝bertraditional Vatican insiders), Professional Wills goes on to get to the heart of the matter in a discussion of women's ordination on pp. 107-108 (not birth control, but I think it covers both issues really).
There were, over the centuries, only two reasons given for excluding women from the priesthood--that they were inferior beings unworthy to hold that dignity, and that their ritual impurity kept them from the altar. The first argument came mainly from pagan antiquity, the second from Jewish temple practice....

Thomas Aquinas was not a lone voice but the articulator of a consensus, when he gave the primary motive for refusing ordination to women: "Since any supremacy of rank cannot be expressed in the female sex, which has the status of an inferior, that sex cannot receive ordination." Saint Bonaventure agreed: since only the male was made in the image of God, only the male can receive the godlike office of priest.

Why were these men so sure that women are inferior?  Aquinas had Aristotle's assurance:  'In terms of nature's own operation, a woman is inferior and a mistake.  The agent cause that is in the male seed tries to produce something complete in itself, a male in gender.  But when the female is produced, this is because the agent cause is thwarted, either because of the unsuitability of the receiving matter [of the mother] itself or bcause of deforming interference, as from south winds, that are too wet as we read in [Aristotle's] Animal Conception.'

In Aristotle's physiology, the male seed is the formal cause of conception; it is active, with the noble elements prevailing (fire and air).  Woman is only the material cause of conception, passive, with the lower elements prevailing (water and earth).  When the formal cause succeeds, it produces a male that looks like the father.  When it flounders in the passive receiving muck (which Aristotle associates with menstrual blood), it produces (in descending order) either a male looks like the mother, a female that looks like the father, or a female that looks like the mother.  Since the female, when she is conceived, is actually a failed male, a deformity, it takes longer for her to be formed in the womb, yet she emerges from this longer process smaller and weaker than the male....Her very makeup makes her less capable of reason and virtue and discipline than the male--in Aristotle's words, "more shamless, lying and deceptive"--leaving her unstable and inconstant, a prey to the passions, less able to control herself and others.  Saint John Chrysostom said women are just not smart enough to be priests.

Aristotle's was not the only classical form of misogynism that Christianity inherited, but was a pervasive one because it was so impressively argued.  It was based on scientific experiments like the dissection of pregnant animals.  This led to its being echoed, implicitly if not expressly, in part if not in whole, by a vast range of ancient authors.  It was passed to the Eastern church through Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) and to the Western church through Tertullian (c. 155-c. 220).   Clement wrote that "A woman, considered what her nature is, must be ashamed of it."  Tertullian said that women, continuing the role of Eve the temptress, are "the gateway through which the devil comes."
This is what we don't understand or remember these days: that the older view of women, which denied them cultural/political/legal/religious equality with men in all kinds of ways, and left them powerless and oppressed in their lives, existed because, a long time ago, Western civilization had become convinced that women were truly inferior.  (Though, as you can see if you read the gospels carefully, Jesus himself treated women in a powerfully equitable way.) And it is only the recent feminist movement of the last 150 years that has convinced us otherwise.

Except that some people aren't really convinced yet.

1 comment:

  1. Ok - I agree with the idea that down through history the predominate male-held view of women has been dysfunctional. And the Catholic church leadership -fallen and warped just like the rest of us - has gotten it wrong. But, I don't see that as the root of the modern issue at hand. I mean, if the church were willing to provide birth control for men, but not women, then this would make sense. Isn't the issue rooted much more in the value of life? Not the value of gender. I'm not saying that they haven't missed the target here - but I do think they are aiming at the preciousness of life. After all, life is good for business! The church seems to understand that better than the state...

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