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WOMEN AND THE EARLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH

Meanwhile a new world force, destined to overthrow the old order of things, was growing slowly to maturity and spreading out its might until eventually it fought its way to preeminence. I have traced the rights of women under the regime of pagan Rome; I shall inquire next into the position of women under Christianity. We must first note the attitude of the early Christians towards women in general; for that attitude will naturally be reflected in any laws made after the Church has become supreme and is combined with and directs the State. That will demand a special chapter on Canon Law; but in the present chapter I propose to show how women were regarded by the Christians in the centuries which were the formative period of the Church.

The direct words of Christ so far as they relate to women and as we have them in the Gospels concern themselves wholly to bring about purity in the relation of the sexes. “Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery; but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." His commands on the subject of divorce are positive and unequivocal: “It was said also, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement; but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adultress; and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away, committeth adultery." Christ was content to lay down great ethical principles, not minute regulations. Of any inferiority on the part of women he says nothing, nor does be concern himself with giving any directions about their social or legal rights. He blessed the marriage at Cana; and to the woman taken in adultery he showed his usual clemency. For the rest, his relations with women have an atmosphere of rare sympathy, gentleness, and charm.

But as soon as we leave the Gospels and read the Apostles we are in a different sphere. The Apostles were for the most part men of humble position, and their whole lives were directed by inherited beliefs which were distinctly Jewish and Oriental or Greek; not Western. In the Orient woman has from the dawn of history to the present day occupied a position exceedingly low. Indeed, in Mohammedan countries she is regarded merely as a tool for the man’s sensual passions and she is not allowed to have even a soul. In Greece women were confined to their houses, were uneducated, and had few public rights and less moral latitude; their husbands had unlimited license. The Jewish ideal is by no means a lofty one and cannot for a moment compare with the honour accorded the Roman matron under the Empire. According to Genesis a woman is the cause of all the woes of mankind. Ecclesiasticus declares that the badness of men is better than the goodness of women. In Leviticus we read that the period of purification customary after the birth of a child is to be twice as long in the case of a female as in a male. The inferiority of women was strongly felt; and this conception would be doubly operative on men of humble station who never travelled, who had received little education, and whose ideas were naturally bounded by the horizon of their native localities. We are to remember also that the East is the home of asceticism, a conviction alien to the Western mind. There is no parallel in Western Europe to St. Simeon Stylites.

We would, therefore, expect to find in the teachings of the Apostles an expression of Jewish, i.e., Eastern ideals on the subject of women; and we do so find them. Following the express commands of Christ, they exhorted to sexual purity and reiterated his injunctions on the matter of divorce. They went much farther and began to legislate on more minute details. Paul allows second marriages to women; but thinks it better for a widow to remain as she is. It is better to marry than to burn; yet would he prefer that men and women should remain in celibacy. The power of the father to arrange a marriage for his daughter was, under Roman law, limited by her consent; but the words of Paul make it clear that it was now to be a Christian precept that a father could determine on his own responsibility whether his daughter should remain a virgin. Wives are to be in subjection to their husbands, and “let the wife see that she fear her husband." Woman is the weaker vessel; she is to be silent in church; if she desires to learn anything, she should ask her husband at home. Furthermore: “I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, but to be in quietness. For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not beguiled, but the woman being beguiled hath fallen into transgression; but she shall be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith and love and sanctification with sobriety." The apparel of women also evoked legislation from the Apostles. Women were to pray with their heads veiled “for the man is not of the woman, but the woman for the man." Jewels, precious metal, and costly garments were unbecoming the modest woman.

In this early stage of Christianity we may already distinguish three conceptions that were quite foreign to the Roman jurist: I. The inferiority and weakness of women was evident from the time of Eve and it was an act of God that punished all womankind for Eve’s transgression. Woman had been man’s evil genius. II. She was to be submissive to father or husband and not bring her will in opposition to theirs. III. She must not be prominent in public, she must consider her conduct and apparel minutely, and she was exhorted to remain a virgin, as being thus in a more exalted position. At the same time insistence was placed on the fact that a virgin, wife, and widow must be given due honour and respect, must be provided for, and allowed her share in taking part in those interests of the community which were considered her sphere.

If, now, we examine the writings of the Church Fathers, we shall see these ideas elaborated with all the vehemence of religious zeal.

The general opinions of the Fathers regarding women present a curious mixture. They are fond of descanting on the fact that woman is responsible for all the woes of mankind and that her very presence is dangerous. At the same time they pay glowing tribute to women in particular. St. Jerome held that women were naturally weaker, physically and morally, than men. The same saint proves that all evils spring from women; and in another passage he opines that marriage is indeed a lottery and the vices of women are too great to make it worth while. “The sex is practiced in deceiving,” observes St. Maximus. St. Augustine disputes subtly whether woman is the image of God as well as man. He says no, and proves it thus: The Apostle commands that a man should not veil his head, because he is the image of God; but the woman must veil hers, according to the same Apostle; therefore the woman is not the image of God. “For this reason, again,” continues the Saint, “the Apostle says ’A woman is not permitted to teach, nor to have dominion over her husband.’” Bishop Marbodius calls woman a “pleasant evil, at once a honeycomb and a poison” and indicts the sex, something on the order of Juvenal or Jonathan Swift, by citing the cases of Eve, the daughters of Lot, Delilah, Herodias, Clytemnestra, and Progne. The way in which women were regarded as at once a blessing and a curse is well illustrated also in a distich of Sedulius: “A woman alone has been responsible for opening the gates of death; a woman alone has been the cause of a return to life."

That women should be in subjection, in accordance with the dictum of Paul, the Church Fathers assert emphatically. “How can it be said of a woman that she is the image of God,” exclaims St. Augustine, “when it is evident that she is subject to the rule of her husband and has no authority! Why, she can not teach, nor be a witness, nor give security, nor act in court; how much the more can she not govern!” Women are commanded again and again not to perform any of the functions of men and to yield a ready and unquestioning obedience to their husbands. The Fathers also insist that marriage without a paternal parent’s consent is fornication.

Marriage was looked upon as a necessary evil, permitted, indeed, as a concession to the weakness of mankind, but to be avoided if possible. “Celibacy is to be preferred to marriage,” says St. Augustine. “Celibacy is the life of the angels,” remarks St. Ambrose. “Celibacy is a spiritual kind of marriage,” according to St. Optatus. “Happy he,” says Tertullia “who lives like Paul!” The same saint paints a lugubrious picture of marriage and the “bitter pleasure of children” (liberorum amarissima voluptate) who are burdens and just as likely as not will turn out criminals. “Why did the Lord cry woe unto those that are pregnant and give suck, unless it was to call attention to the fact that children will be a hindrance on the day of judgment?" When such views were entertained of marriage, it need not seem remarkable that Tertullian and St. Paul of Nolan, like Tolstoy to-day, discovered the blessings of a celibate life after they were married and ran away from their wives. Jerome finds marriage useful chiefly because it produces virgins.

As for second marriages, the Montanist and the Novatian sects condemned them absolutely, on the ground that if God has removed a wife or husband he has thereby signified his will to end the marrying of the parties; Tertullian calls second marriage a species of prostitution.Jerome expresses the more tolerant and orthodox view: “What then? Do we condemn second marriages? Not at all; but we praise single ones. Do we cast the twice-married from the Church? Far from it; but we exhort the once-married to continence. In Noah’s ark there were not only clean, but also unclean animals."

As the Fathers were very well aware of the subtle influence of dress on the sexual passions, we have a vast number of minute regulations directing virgins, matrons, and widows to be clothed simply and without ornament; virgins were to be veiled. Tertullian, with that keen logic of which the Church has always been proud in her sons, argues that inasmuch as God has not made crimson or green sheep it does not behoove women to wear colours that He has not produced in animals naturally. St. Augustine forbids nuns to bathe more than once a month, unless under extreme necessity.

As soon as the Church begins to exercise an influence upon law, we shall expect to see the legal position of women changed in accordance with certain general principles outlined above, viz: I. That inasmuch as Adam was formed before Eve and as women are the weaker vessels, they should confine themselves to those duties only which society has, from time immemorial, assigned them as their peculiar sphere. II. They should be meek, and not oppose father or husband; and to these they should go for advice on all matters. III. All license, such as the Roman woman’s right of taking the initiative in a divorce, must never be tolerated. IV. They should never transgress the bounds of strictest decorum in conduct and dress, lest they seduce men; and they must never be conspicuous in public or attempt to perform public functions. V. They are to be given due honour and are to be cared for properly.

The legal rights of women would be affected, moreover, by a difference in the spirit of the law. The Roman jurist derived his whole sanction from reason and never allowed religious considerations, as such, to influence him when legislating on women. He recognised that laws are not immutable, but must be changed to fit the growth of equity and tolerance. No previous authority was valid to him if reason suggested that the authority’s dictum had outlived its usefulness and must be adapted to larger ideas. It never occurred to him to make the inferiority of woman an act of God. On the other hand, the Church referred everything to one unchanging authoritative source, the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles; faith and authority took the place of reason; and any attempt to question the injunctions of the Bible was regarded as an act of impiety, to be punished accordingly. And as the various regulations about women had now a divine sanction, the permanence of these convictions was doubly assured.