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Thomas International Center
June 2007


Ralph McInerny


Lord, That I Might See



I had finished speaking and found myself surrounded by hardy types with further questions when I noticed this woman hovering on the edge of the group. Finally she pressed forward, fixed me with a baleful eye, and informed me that Thomas Aquinas was a male chauvinist who thought of women as less than human, as failed males at best. How could I have spoken so favorably of him? I asked her what texts she had in mind. Of course she knew no texts, her attitude was not grounded in study, nor of course was Thomas Aquinas the main target. This woman seemed certain that whatever the Church had taught of men and women was obsolete and Neanderthal and must be corrected by the enlightened view of our own day.

Texts of St. Paul have been altered lest what the Apostle wrote offend the modern ear. The Gospels themselves have not escaped such aggiornamento.

It is of course easy to concede that late Roman Empire views of the sexes differed from those of the Middle Ages which in turn differ from our own. Regine Pernoud and others have pointed out how the estimate of woman and her position in society rose under the influence of Christianity. But whatever improvement may have come about, it is apparently now to be considered primitive in comparison with our contemporary view of woman and her role in society. The assumption is that progress in the matter has been made.

Surely one does not have to be a Jeremiah to question whether the moral and social views of the present time can stand in judgment on those of previous times, let alone the teaching of the Church. One must be far more selective in his defense of modernity than in his search for exempla horribilia in the past to adopt this position. As for Thomas, there is a recent book, Thomas d'Aquin feministe? by Catherine Capelle, to which one can go for a thoughtful discussion of such matters. But my wild-eyed interlocutor had no interest in that. The discussion was over. The Church's view of women was hopelessly indefensible.

How sadly common it has become for self-described Catholics to subject the Church's teaching to the fleeting criteria of our day. It is as if the Church must adapt Herself to these latter day outlooks or be set aside as irrelevant. What is the alternative to this procedure?

Lord, to whom shall we do? You have the words of eternal life. Perhaps the first move after noting a discrepancy between what the Church teaches and the ideology of the day should be to ask where we have gone wrong. Received opinion has no sanction of itself. The teaching and practices of the Church, on the other hand, respond to the Holy Spirit. So step one should be to think that the Church is right and we are wrong. That is only the first step, of course. Pondering the teaching of the Church will bring understanding and with it ease in seeing the flaws in contemporary ideology. Blind acceptance is not the terminal state. Lord, that I might see. That is the prayer of every believer and of every theologian.

It is true enough that the women the Church has set before us as models do not answer to dominant contemporary prejudices. But then one sometimes finds St. Edith Stein presented as a kind of feminist in the current sense and in an edition of the Obras Completas of Teresa of Avila I came upon a long footnote explaining the saint's discontent with the role of women in the Church. And the agitation for the ordination of women goes on despite the clear Magisterial treatments of the subject. The Magnificat itself has been read as a political manifesto.

The Act of Faith I was taught when I was a boy was short but comprehensive. O my God, I believe that thou are one God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost and that thy divine son became man, died for our sins, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the Holy Catholic Church teaches because thou has revealed them who canst neither deceive nor be deceived.

One can get a good night's sleep after reciting that. It is even more conducive to peace of mind in the daytime.


Ralph McInerny