On 26/9/97, someone who went by the alias "Belial" left the following message in my guestbook:
"Until the seventeenth century your church and its 'founding fathers' taught that women have no souls perhaps you should become better acquainted with Aquinas before you include him on your page!"
The following is a response to that message.
I am posting a response to your recent entry in my guestbook for two reasons. First, because you left no email address where I could address you privately, and second because the Mystical Rose Catholic Page is dedicated to correcting false conceptions about the Catholic Faith, and this is one which I have, till now, forgotten to tackle. So I wish to thank you for raising this important issue :-).
The belief that the Church once taught that women had no souls is a common one. Even I believed it once! While I was in college, I read a book which claimed that the bishops at the Council of Nicea in 323 AD had a heated debate on this very issue. They took a vote on it, and the "pro-souls" side won - by one vote! I later found that this is but one version of a rumor which has made the rounds for centuries and taken many different forms in the process (like the form you cited, which claims that the "soulless women" idea was a Catholic doctrine up until the seventeenth century).
But when one traces the rumor back to its source, one finds that someone, somewhere, made a very big mistake. The actual historical event which became the basis for this rumor did not happen at the Council of Nicea or any other ecumenical council in Church history, but in a local Synod in France in 585 AD. The account can be found in the book The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours (which I have read; you can probably get it from an academic library or through Interloan at a public library).
This is what really happened:
During a break between sessions at the Synod, one of the bishops there expressed to his fellow bishops his personal belief that the Latin word homo (mankind) does not include women. Immediately every other bishop present objected to his statement, pointing out that the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Scriptures used at that time) uses the word homo to refer to both Adam and Eve in Genesis 5:2.
That verse reads: "(God) created them male and female; and blessed them: and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created" (Douay Version, emphasis mine). Adam, besides being the proper name applied to the father of our race, is the Hebrew word for "mankind" or "humanity" (as opposed to iysh, which refers to a male human being). When Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin he rendered Adam here with the Latin equivalent Homo. And the bishops at the French Synod used his Vulgate translation to prove their fellow bishop wrong in stating that women are not included in the word homo.
Having sufficiently refuted that notion, the discussion ended.
This whole debate - which was not part of the actual Synod itself - still came out in favor of the humanity of women. Not only that, but nowhere in this entire episode does anyone mention the question of whether or not women have souls! This was a later misrepresentation of the proceedings which, unfortunately, has been widely disseminated and believed by many who do not have the time to trace the rumor back to its source.
You see, no Church council ever discussed, debated or ruled on the question of women having souls, because the question was never in doubt. The Church has always believed that women have souls, which is why she has always baptized women! The Sacrament of Baptism infuses the human soul with grace. If women have no souls, why baptize them? They would be unable to receive grace or become members of the Church. The very fact that Mother Church has always baptized women shows that the Church has always believed that they have souls!
And what about the Saints? Throughout the centuries, the Catholic Church has canonized both men and women as saints. If women have no souls, then they cannot go to heaven after death, since it is the soul that goes to heaven. How could there be female saints in heaven if women have no souls? So the fact that the Church has always - even in the earliest centuries of her existence - recognized female saints also shows that Catholicism has always believed that women have souls.
And what about the greatest Saint of all: the holy Mother of God and ever-Virgin Mary? The one who sings in Scripture "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior" (Luke 1:46-47)! If the Church once believed that women were soulless, then she would have to have taught that Mary was also soulless. But she has never taught that, for Scripture clearly teaches that Mary has a soul (Luke 1:46; 2:35)! (And contrary to a popular misconception, the Catholic Church knows Scripture very well; after all, her bishops finalized the New Testament canon in the fifth century.)
"Belial", somewhere along the line someone told you an untruth about the Catholic Faith. I don't blame you for believing it, since you had no other information to counter it. The person who told you that may have been totally sincere, but he or she was still wrong. Now that their error has been corrected, I urge you to embrace the truth that the Church has always taught the existence of women's souls.
Oh, by the way, it's interesting that you mentioned Saint Thomas Aquinas, since he himself believed that women have souls! Aquinas thought that God infuses a soul into a baby girl on the eightieth day after conception. Now, that "eightieth day" part was his personal opinion, not official Catholic dogma. Now that we know more about conception, the Church today believes that God infuses a soul into every child, male or female, at the moment of conception. Though he was wrong about the timing, Aquinas still believed - along with all his medieval contemporaries - that women have souls.
Having read a lot of feminist literature in college, I know that Aquinas is a favorite whipping boy of theirs. But having read his works extensively (I am very well acquainted with Aquinas' writings, thank you!), I am also aware that some extreme feminists have completely misrepresented him, even as they often misrepresent the Church Fathers, the present pope, and just about anyone who does not embrace their political views. I regret that I cannot give in the present article a complete refutation of every charge brought against him, but I will see if I can find anything about this on the Internet written by scholars more knowledgable than myself. Then perhaps I can put a few links on this page.
My friend, if you have any more questions or objections in the future, I would ask you to please email me. I would be happy to answer them.
2008 Update! - Here's some more Bible verses which show women have souls/spirits:
The Myth of Soulless Women. This article gives background information on how this false belief got started. An excellent companion to the present article.
The Soul of Woman. A response to that article by letter which also contains good information. (Warning: may take a while to load).
Did Aquinas say a baby has no soul until forty days (for a boy) or eighty days (for a girl) after conception?
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