Document 3: Excerpts from Rosemary Lauer, "Women and the Church," Commonweal, 79, no. 13 (20 December 1963): 366-68.

Document 3: Excerpts from Rosemary Lauer, "Women and the Church," Commonweal, 79, no. 13 (20 December 1963): 366-68.


   This piece by the Catholic philosopher Rosemary Lauer was the first Catholic, explicitly feminist article to appear in the American Catholic press. In December 1963, when this article appeared, Catholics were focused on the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II"), a worldwide meeting of Catholic leaders designed to re-evaluate the church's place in the modern world. Lauer was heavily influenced by the open and optimistic spirit of the council, but also appalled by the open discrimination against women, none of whom were initially allowed to participate. In "Women and the Church," Lauer demanded that Catholics reconsider women's role in the church and the world, "in the light of the most recent findings of Scripture, scholars, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists and historians." Lauer also called for the ordination of women, an issue that would become a major focus of the Catholic feminist movement in the 1970s.

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AS DR. Heizelmann points out so clearly, it was Aristotle's rationalistic biology that made it possible for St. Thomas to make statements which appear so completely ridiculous to any Western contemporary who has not been indoctrinated with a scholastic anti-feminism.[A] Woman, according to Aristotle, was not completely developed as a human being; she was a "misbegotten," or defective, male. This was made evident in two ways. First of all, women were merely passive in human generation (the discovery of the ovum had to await the invention of the microscope); only men could truly pass on human nature to their offspring. Women, in fact, offered a resistance to the implantation of the human form; and if the father was not sufficiently virile to overcome this resistance completely, his offspring might resemble their mother, thus presenting all their lives a silent testimony to their father's inadequacy.

   The second piece of evidence that women were misbegotten was their inability to reason. Since the human species is characterized by rationality, women must not be fully human. The fiction of "feminine intuition" disposed of those instances in which women seemed to do something suspiciously resembling reasoning.

   From this defective Aristotelian biology, reinforced by an equally defective interpretation of Genesis, there followed for St. Thomas certain ethical principles: "Man is the principle and end of woman, as God is the principle and end of man." "Woman exists for the man, not man for the woman." Lest it be thought that these principles lie safely hidden away on obscure library shelves, it must be noted that these notions are taught currently in some Catholic schools. In one college, women students were told recently in their theology class that "the end of man is to know; the end of woman is to bear children." And, of course, according to Aristotle and St. Thomas, the only reason why nature would produce "misbegotten males" is that they are somehow, and unfortunately, necessary for the continuance of the human race….

   One may easily show that St. Thomas' metaphysical position absolutely demands that all differences between beings of the same species be regarded as "accidents." Consequently, to maintain scientifically — in St. Thomas' sense of this term — that women are such and such by nature requires that one show that a certain "accident" or set of "accidents" which belong to all women and to no men (the physical organs of generation, which are what they are by reason of "accidents," would fulfill this requirement) are the necessary cause of at least one other accident. Then this accident would be "natural" to women.

   To date, no one has ever produced this type of demonstration that any manner of acting, any particular degree of intellectual ability, or any special emotional makeup is "natural" to women. Indeed, such a demonstration is impossible, for women, as a matter of fact, differ markedly in these characteristics. The statement, frequently made, that women should act in accordance with nature is one of those pious platitudes which satisfy the thoughtless, but it has no possible meaning within an authentically Thomistic context; the only nature woman has is human nature.

   However, there are two other sources of a conception of woman's "nature": Scripture and social custom. Until the very recent past, the account of woman's creation in Genesis was almost universally interpreted as

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indicating woman's God-imposed inferiority and subjection. Today, however, it is the general opinion of biblical scholars that what Genesis was intended to teach was, in fact, the opposite notion; namely, that woman, being flesh of man's flesh and bone of his bone, was of the same nature as he, equal to him. It is significant that in one of the two accounts of creation in Genesis we are told simply, "God created man in his image. In the image of God he created him. Male and female he created them."

   But there seems to have been through the centuries a very understandable tendency to interpret Scripture in the light of what "everyone knew" to be true. Since "everyone knew" that women were inferior, it was easy to read this inferiority into Genesis, just as it was easy for centuries, to read into Scripture an approbation of slavery or a doctrine of papal temporal sovereignty. Inasmuch as there exists no official interpretation of St. Paul's passages concerning women — just as there exists no official interpretation of the pertinent passages in Genesis — one can at least hope that once "everybody knows" women are not inferior or naturally subject to men it will be seen that St. Paul did not intend to teach that they are.

   THE OTHER source of a conception of woman's "nature" — social custom — must also be examined in the light of reason. The fact that "we have always done things this way" can be regarded only by the uncritical as sufficient reason for our continuing to do things this way. The fact that women have "always" been restricted to hearth and home is no reason why Valentina Tereshkovna should not go barreling about our globe in a spaceship, even though this did cause considerable embarrassment to our American male astronauuts. The fact that we have never had a woman President in the United States is no reason why Margaret Chase Smith should not aspire to that office. Women's having always been excluded from the rabbinate provides no valid evidence that the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods was foolish in asking at its convention in November that Reform Judaism consider ordaining women as rabbis. In fact, in 1922 the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared that "women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination."

   Nor is "it has never been done" a sufficient argument against ordaining women to the catholic priesthood. As Dr. Heinzelmann, drawing upon St. Thomas' psychology and metaphysics, pointed out in her Frau und Konzil, woman's soul does not differ from man's and therefore can receive the sacramental character of ordination as well as his. Acting on this premise, St. Joan's International Alliance, founded in 1931, resolved at its annual meeting in Fribourg this year "that diaconal duties be entrusted to women as well as men if the diaconate is restored as a permanent ministry" and "that women would be willing and eager to respond if the Church extends the priesthood to them."

   And we must ask in all seriousness, why should the Church not do so? The cultural and historical reasons for which women have been excluded no longer justify such an exclusion. Moreover, there is undoubtedly much that women could contribute to the Church through the priesthood. And those who, in the past, have been sure that they could never adjust to having a woman in this or that position in society have always managed to adjust when it became necessary. Those Russian men, for example, who would have died rather than go to a woman physician doubtlessly by now have done so — died or gone.

   If we do not take a long, cold look at our images of femininity and masculinity — imposed by social custom — we may find ourselves pushed into many undesirable situations, some of them much more detrimental to men than to women. Take the problem of homosexuality for example. It has been stated seriously that women, by wearing slacks, have made it difficult for men to distinguish clearly between man and woman' and, in their confusion, some men have formed homosexual relationships. Well, anyone unable to tell whether slacks are being filled out by a masculine or feminine physique is either myopic or seriously deficient in some of the fundamentals of ornithology and apiology.

   What seems more likely is this: our society requires of a man that he be bigger, braver, and more intelligent than the woman with whom he becomes linked, and that he be capable of dominating her and asserting his superiority over her. As women become more and more self-sufficient, more and more capable, and less and less afraid of mice — or space travel — it becomes more and more difficult for many men to conform to the accepted image of masculinity. Thos who tend to unthinking conformity find themselves facing a most frustrating experience, the frustration being increased by the fact that it operates on the level of the unconscious. For those who cannot endure the pressure, and for the non-conformists, homosexuality is a way out.

   Of course, the healthy "way out" would be to recognize the pressures which are operative and to acknowledge the absurdity of the images which give rise to them. For women, the whole problem is much easier; it takes no genius to pretend to be weak, timid, and stupid. But it is rather difficult for some women to admire men who make such pretense expedient.

   Perhaps this difficulty of pretending explains this phenomenon that, while many women are ready and anxious for cultural changes, others cling emotional and tenaciously to the old notions of feminine inferiority and dependence. If a woman wishes to please men in our culture she must ordinarily either genuinely think that she conforms to the traditional image or she must

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pretend to. And our society exerts tremendous pressure on women to please men; in fact, it exerts tremendous pressure on little girls to please little boys.

   To one who thinks seriously about these things, it seems very clear that the entire question of woman's position in society and in the Church needs desperately to be reconsidered in the light of the most recent findings of Scripture scholars, biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians. Great strides have been made in all these areas, but it remains to synthesize the results and present a quite new picture of women and a corresponding program of action.

   And for the theory, Pope John, in his Pacem in Terris, laid the cornerstone: "It is obvious to everyone that women are now taking a part in public life. This is happening more rapidly, perhaps, in nations of Christian civilization, and more slowly but broadly, among peoples who have inherited other traditions or cultures. Since women are becoming even more conscious of their human dignity they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life." "Human beings have the right to choose freely the state of life which they prefer, and therefore the right to set up a family, with equal rights and duties for man and woman."

   As for the program of action, perhaps the present Council will pay some attention to the resolutions of the St. Joan's Alliance and to Dr. Heinzelmann's Frau und Konsil. Indeed, there is every reason why it should.



A. Dr. Gertrud Heinzelmann was a prominent Catholic feminist in Europe, and one of the first to petition the Second Vatican Council concerning women's rights in the church.

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