The Catholic Church’s ‘Woman Priest’ Question: Thomas Aquinas and Giving Every Woman Her Due

Leah Mickens

In February 2015, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Culture held a conference to discuss pressing issues such as domestic violence, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the role of women in the contemporary Catholic Church. It was titled “Women’s Culture: Equality and Difference.” Of course, no actual women were invited to participate in the conference (that right was reserved to cardinals and other high-ranking “princes of the church”), although a handful of professional women were allowed to give presentations to the all-male audience, who held the sole authority to make decisions behind closed doors. The “Women’s Culture” conference experienced further controversy when an image of a Man Ray sculpture of a bound woman’s torso was used on the meeting’s home web page, which many skeptics interpreted as a not-so veiled metaphor for the Vatican’s dysfunctional view of women as submissive, baby-making objects. The offending image was eventually replaced with a traditional one of the Virgin Mary, which only solidified the Vatican’s inability to see women outside of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy in the minds of many progressive Catholics and interested outsiders.

The most obvious problem with the Vatican’s “Women’s Culture” conference was the inability of Catholic women to make decisions about or even discuss the issues that affected them at an event sanctioned by their own church. Instead, Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi declared that the token women presenters would be “directing the dance,” while the male participants making the decisions out of public view would be “leading the dance,” the implication being that the role of men is to pass judgment, while the role of women is to follow male-dictated directions. The second problem was that the all-male participants began their work with a handful of patriarchal and essentialist premises about women and proceeded to work backward to justify these views. For example, the “Outline Document for the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture” stated that:

Generativity turns, without doubt, on the bodies of women. It is the female universe that—due to a natural, spontaneous predisposition which could be called bio-physiological—has always looked after, conserved, nurtured, sustained, created attention, consent and care around the conceived child who must develop, be born, and grow. The physicality of women—which makes the world alive, long-living, able to extend itself—finds in the womb its greatest expression.

Essentially, this statement, written in flowery, mind-numbing “Vatican-ese,” says that the uterus is the defining feature of women. Not their brains—the organ that allows them to think, feel, and experience the world—but their uteruses. This, however, would explain why the photo of that Man Ray sculpture was used; if the uterus is the “greatest expression” of a woman, she clearly does not need a head or limbs.

The peculiar spectacle of a committee comprised solely of ostensibly celibate elderly men discussing women’s issues stems from the hierarchical governance structure of the Catholic Church, which allows only individuals who have received holy orders (that is, ordination) to make decisions. Since women are barred from holy orders, they are also unable to have any official input on church teachings, whether on women’s issues or anything else. Indeed, the question of women priests was dismissed at the end of the “Outline Document” with a curt sentence reading: “There is no discussion here of women priests, which according to statistics is not something that women want.” This statement is demonstrably false, as reliable statistics indicate that a sizable majority of Catholics, especially in the West, are in favor of women priests. For example, a 2014 poll commissioned by the Spanish-language television channel Univision conducted among twelve thousand Catholics in twelve countries indicated that a scant 30 percent of Catholics in Europe and only 36 percent of American Catholics agreed with the Vatican party line on the necessity of maintaining an all-male priesthood. Even the African nations examined revealed 20 percent support female ordination, a not-insignificant number given how deeply ingrained patriarchal attitudes are in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Since the “Women’s Culture” conference was presumably an inept attempt by the Catholic hierarchy to understand the concerns of disaffected Catholic women in developed nations, the casual dismissal of the women’s-ordination issue only illustrates how clueless church leaders are with regard to women’s issues.

The secular humanist reader may be compelled to ask at this point why the members of the Catholic hierarchy refuse to allow women to exercise power and authority in the Catholic Church or why Catholic women are unable to make decisions even at a conference that is specifically about women’s issues. There are two ways to answer this question: (1) refer to the quasi-official answer the Catholic hierarchy provides on why the Church supposedly cannot ordain women or (2) examine the real reason, which has not been discussed publicly.

Women’s Ordination and the Challenge to Catholic Orthodoxy

For most of the Catholic Church’s history, women’s ordination was a non-issue, presumably because it was taken for granted that men should be the leaders in society, whether at home, in the political sphere, or in the Church. This assumption meant that a detailed justification for the male priesthood never developed as it did for other key Catholic theological concepts such as the Eucharist, the Trinity, or the nature of Jesus Christ. An examination of the most important catechisms and textbooks of the pre-Vatican II era—The Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), The Catechism of Saint Pius X (1908), The Baltimore Catechism (1885), and Ludwig Ott’s magisterial Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (1955)—do not even specify that holy orders are limited to men. For example, in The Catechism of Saint Pius X, the response to the question “What is necessary to enter the ecclesiastical state?” is simply “To enter the ecclesiastical state a divine vocation is necessary before all else,” with no mention of the sex of the potential sacerdotal candidate. Hence, when the women’s ordination movement demanded that holy orders be opened to women starting in the late 1960s, Catholic hierarchs had no idea how to react to an issue they had previously never had to think about.

For self-described orthodox Catholics, the discussion about women’s ordination is closed, as they believe that John Paul II spoke definitively, if not ex cathedra, on the issue in his 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In it, the late pontiff declared:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

John Paul II’s primary argument against women’s ordination was the circular insistence that because the Catholic Church had never ordained women in the past, it was unable to do so in the future. His condemnation of women priests was also rooted in a uniquely Catholic reading of the Last Supper, which is interpreted as an ordination ceremony in which Jesus gave his twelve male disciples—but not the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalen, or any of Jesus’s other female followers—the sacrament of holy orders. The late pontiff and his conservative supporters have used this reading to indicate that if Jesus had wanted women priests, then surely he would have ordained his mother, considered to be the most blessed, holy, and favored of women according to Catholic theology. But Jesus didn’t, which means that women have not and can never be ordained. Yet, this reasoning is also suspect, since if one accepts the Catholic position that Jesus’s actions during the Last Supper indicated that he wanted only male priests, then one must also assume that Jesus intended to have only Palestinian Jewish men as priests—not Poles, Germans, Argentinians, Americans, Nigerians, or any of the other myriad nationalities of men who staff Catholic churches, cathedrals, and missions around the world. Yet, not being a Palestinian Jewish male is not considered to be a deterrent against receiving holy orders.

This kind of circular reasoning is unsatisfying for many Catholics, which explains why the conversation around women priests continues among the laity, even if the hierarchy insists that the matter is not up for debate. To understand the real reason behind the Catholic Church’s ban on women priests, one must examine the Aristotelian and Thomistic foundation of Catholic dogma, particularly certain assumptions that have been de-emphasized but not forgotten in the modern era.

Aristotle, Aquinas, and ‘Misbegotten Males’

Within the Catholic Church, the thought of Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), known as “Thomism,” is considered the “perennial philosophy,” the philosophical basis of Catholic dogma and theology, even into the present day. Thomism is a medieval synthesis of ancient philosophy, particularly Aristotelianism, and Christian theology into a single unified worldview. During the lifetime of Aquinas, the works of Aristotle were considered cutting-edge knowledge; after all, they had been lost to Western Europe for more than six hundred years and had only recently begun to trickle back into Western intellectual life via Latin translations of Arabic translations obtained from Islamic Spain. The first major Christian synthesizer of Aristotelianism was Albertus Magnus of Cologne (1206–1280), a fellow Dominican and bishop, who attempted to combine all known information from the Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and pagan worlds in his voluminous writings, which would span over thirty-eight volumes. Aquinas continued with the synthesizing project that Magnus started, and his Summa Theologica is the end result.

Because Aristotelianism was a departure from the Platonic and Neo-Platonic–inspired theology that had dominated Christian theology since the time of Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE), the Catholic Church initially regarded this new body of knowledge with suspicion, but then wholeheartedly accepted it as the definitive account of the way heaven and earth operated. While Aristotle’s concepts were more rational than those of the more mystically oriented Plato, most of his observations about biology, physics, astronomy were incorrect; the long-standing assumption that Aristotle had figured out how the world worked back in the fourth century BCE would retard scientific inquiry for centuries. Aquinas uncritically accepted Aristotle’s findings on biology and physics as an accurate description of the way the universe worked, and therein lies the root of the Catholic Church’s “woman problem.”

Generation of Animals laid out Aristotle’s theories regarding human and animal reproduction—views that we now know are incorrect but were accepted as true for hundreds of years by many leading intellectuals, including Aquinas. Aristotle believed that “heat,” or the masculine principle, was the key to anatomical development and that the more heat a particular animal produced, the more complex it would be. He attributed the physiological and psychological differences between men and women to the supposedly “cooler” nature of women, differences that were interpreted as weaknesses and flaws in the female constitution. For example, Aristotle observed that menstrual blood and semen were similar in that both substances began production during puberty and declined as people grew older. He correctly guessed that both were related to reproduction but incorrectly assumed that the former was the female equivalent of the latter. Aristotle believed that the “cold nature” of women made their bodies unable to properly “cook” their “semen,” leading to the discharge of seemingly large quantities of blood-like fluid and “heat” during menstruation and also accounted for the smaller stature of the female body. However, Aristotle assumed that the “natural” and normative form of the human body was male, meaning that the appearance of a female baby was a sign that the fetus had not received enough “heat” in utero and, therefore, developed in a less-than-optimal manner. Therefore, he famously concluded that “the female is as it were a deformed male,” the imperfect result of nature trying to make the most perfect being (that is, the human male) and tragically falling short of its intended mark.

Aquinas uncritically adopted the “woman as misbegotten man” view in his Summa Theologica, saying:

As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher [Aristotle] observes. On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation.

The influence of Aristotle is obvious here, as Aquinas not only referenced and recycled the misinformation found in Generation of Animals but used it to back up the Christian belief in divine patriarchy. Although Aquinas believed that God intended for males and females to exist even in the pre-lapsarian (that is, before the mythical “fall of man”), he agreed with Aristotle that men modeled the fullness of humanity in a way that women could not, which is why the first person of the Trinity had to be God the father, why Jesus had become a man and not a woman, and why only men could adequately become “other Christs” during the mass. Furthermore, Aquinas said that because women are in a “state of subjection” vis à vis men and lack “the eminence of degree” that men possess in mirroring the image of God, it would not be fitting or possible for them to exercise authority in the church or to signify Christ through the sacrament of holy order.

As mentioned earlier, when Aquinas wrote his Summa and other works, he assumed that Aristotle’s scientific findings were an accurate picture of the way the universe worked. Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston summed up the relationship between Thomism and Aristotelianism by saying:

If St. Thomas adopted Aristotelianism, he adopted it primarily because he thought it true, not simply because Aristotle was a great name or because an “unbaptized” Aristotle might constitute a grave danger to orthodoxy: a man of St. Thomas’s serious mind, devoted to truth, would certainly not have adopted the system of a pagan philosopher, had he not considered it to be in the main a true system, especially when some of the ideas he put forth ran contrary to tradition and created some scandal and lively opposition.

As long as the religious and secular world agreed that Aristotelian science was the best (and only) explanation for the workings of the universe, the Thomist synthesis could remain unchallenged. However, once the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution cast doubt on scholastic philosophy and Aristotelian science, the seemingly rational and empirical basis for Catholic moral and dogmatic theology faltered. Indeed, the crux of the Galileo affair was less about the relative merits of geocentrism vs. heliocentrism than it was about the fact that Galileo’s findings suggested that the Catholic Church’s entire epistemological system was wrong.

Of course, the Catholic hierarchy of 2017 cannot state publicly that the real reason female ordination is forbidden is because women are “misbegotten men” who are but an imperfect image of the god that men can perfectly mirror. But neither can the hierarchy admit that much of the “Angelic Doctor”’s teachings are based on dubious scientific concepts that were debunked several hundred years ago—not without causing the entire philosophical and theological basis of Catholicism to collapse. Instead, problematic teachings from the past are de-emphasized without being entirely disavowed, and newer teachings are promulgated authoritatively as if they were always there. The Catholic Church’s shifting views on usury, liberal democracy, and the status of Jewish people are instructive in this regard. The claims by recent popes that the Catholic Church cannot ordain women because it has never done so in the past is simply an ineffective dodge. The real reason is too embarrassing to air in public.


If the Catholic Church’s refusal to admit women priests seems unjust from a secular humanist perspective, it is worth considering exactly what justice means in the Thomistic worldview, which is “the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right.” Implicit in this definition is that justice is inherently unequal, and what constitutes justice to a peasant or slave may not be justice when the person in question is a “prince of the church.” Because the only individuals who are able to have any power in the Vatican are those with holy orders, not allowing women to be ordained means that female Catholics will never have any say in how their church is run. Yet, from a Thomistic perspective, it is completely just to exclude women from the Catholic priesthood, because such a lofty office is not what women are due because of their “inferior nature.” Consequently, the Catholic hierarchy can engage in absurdist exercises such as February 2015’s assembly on “Women’s Culture” and pat themselves on the back that “justice” has been done toward Catholic women.

Further Reading

Leah Mickens

Leah Mickens is an independent scholarly researcher who is currently a PhD student at Boston University in the Graduate Division of Religion. She has previously conducted archival work at major repositories of southern U.S. history. Mickens is a frequent contributer to Free Inquiry.

“To understand the real reason behind the Catholic Church’s ban on women priests, one must examine the Aristotelian and Thomistic foundation of Catholic dogma.”

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