So you want to be a member of the Christian church? Better not be a woman . . . at least not in the 15th century. That is how long sex discrimination has been around.
To their credit, some denominations, particularly liberal Protestant ones, have greatly changed their thinking in the past 50 years or so. But even in those churches, despite campaigns for greater gender inclusivity, there are still inequities and unspoken attitudes that contribute to feelings of alienation, frustration, and even anger on the part of women who have been denied clergy positions, restricted to administrative or support roles, or worse.
Where did it all begin?
One of the most embarrassing examples of Christian hostility toward the opposite sex occurred in 1486. Kramer and Sprenger, two German Dominicans, took a quite arrogant stand in their Malleus maleficarum (“Hammer Against The Witches”), an article attributing witchcraft to the female gender. They claimed that a woman “…is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations…what else is a woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colors.”
With confrontational language like this, it’s no wonder that the early church made priestly celibacy such an rigid, incontestible requirement . . . and why, to this day, the Catholic church refuses to budge an inch on ordination of women (to its great loss).
Dartmouth College’s Charles Wood, in a 1981 article, explains that medieval attitudes concerning women were ambivalent, at best. Many believed women were not the intellectual or physical equals of men; sexuality was linked to sin; and few were bold enough to even consider that sexual relations were part of God’s plan. Other experts, such as Ludwig Feuerbach (in 1904), interpreted the Medieval theologians’ worldview as a denial of the need for earthly love: “…the true Christian is convinced that by believing in God, man becomes totally self-sufficient and thus needs no counterpart of the opposite sex.”
One wonders whether any of these so-called religious authorities ever stopped to consider that without the “counterpart of the opposite sex,” humanity would have died out long ago, simply as the result of a lack of biological means for propagating the species?
Even earlier than that
But “Hammer Against the Witches” wasn’t even the earliest example. Charles Wood says that the Bible’s Book of Leviticus is the source of most Judeo-Christian sexual taboos, such as commandments about incest, sodomy, and other practices, along with key concepts such as the “unclean” nature of women following menstrual discharge.
Wood also mentions Pope Gregory the Great’s interpretation (in the 6th century) of menstruation as both a mark of original sin and an essential condition of fertility. To his credit, Gregory does also say “fruitfulness of the body is no sin in the eyes of Almighty God,” since it is his opinion that this fertility is God’s gift to man to replace the immortality lost in Eden.
Martin Luther to the rescue
It wasn’t until around 1521 that the tide began to turn, when a Catholic priest named Martin Luther began planting the seeds for another, more enlightened point of view. We’ll talk more about that in our next installment.