Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tradition and "the Devil's Gateway"

Some well-meaning traditionalists seem at times to come close to denying any development of doctrine---not mutation, but development from seed, as it were, to the fullness of understanding over time as new questions were put to the Church through the centuries. One prominent traditionalist thinker, the late Rama P. Coomaraswamy, M.D., (1929 - 2006) once told me (in the 1990's) that Cardinal John Henry Newman's famous essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine was a fountainhead of error and directly responsible for the "heresies" of Vatican II. Coomaraswamy ultimately went on to reject communion with the Church altogether proving that a little error in the beginning can often become a great error in the end. He went beyond constructive, legitimate criticism into extremism.

An Example

One example may help to illustrate the problem. Had the otherwise good doctor, and not Newman, been correct, the Church would have had to disfigure its theology of women, freezing it in earlier ages of thought, coloring women as something less than the full image of God. The Church would be teaching the following from some prominent Church fathers---who in accidental ways were conditioned by their times---regarding women:

The famous Church father Tertullian (160-220 AD) wrote,

"By every garb of penitence woman might the more fully expiate that which she (sic) derives from Eve – the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium of human perdition...Do you not know that you are each an Eve?...You (sic) are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law...You destroyed God’s image, man. On account of your (sic) desert – that is, death – even the son of God had to die."---On the Apparel of Women

That statement can still be understood in a strict chronological sense but to say it is colored by dimness is an understatement. In the brief selections that follow we have far less than a fully positive Christian understanding of women in any final theological sense, such as was seen in the way Jesus broke taboos about women who were among his most ardent and appreciated followers from first to last.

Understanding came slowly at times. St. Augustine, for instance, had such a dim view of women in general as the temptress that after his conversion he had almost no contact with them and, theologians point out, refused to even mention his sister in his Confessions, though she was head of a Convent in Hippo. For Augustine even marital sex, it is hard to deny, was seen as something of a necessary evil. One could multiply references, even as one strains to find more balanced statements, which do exist but not independently of his suspicion of women and sex, more than men. He also legalistically thought that unbaptized babies went straightway to Hell which, needless to say, the Church did not adopt as her own view, thankfully, but clarified in time. Not every aspect of Augustine's old Manichean pessimism was apparently converted. And his theology is a long way from the fullness of a theology of marriage found developing (again, not mutating) for centuries and culminating in John Paul II's Theology of the Body. It is true that one can find this disfigurement in Protestantism also and in other religions, but here the Church is our concern and how the Spirit guides her into all truth (Jn chs 14-16).

Gratian, the great 12th century theologian, wrote,

"The image of God is in man (sic) and it is one. Women were drawn from man, who has God’s jurisdiction as if he were God’s vicar, because he (sic) has the image of the one God. Therefore Woman is not made in God’s image. Adam was beguiled by Eve, not she by him. It is right that he whom woman led into wrongdoing should have her under his direction, so that he may not fail a second time through female levity"--- Decretum

From this one must only marvel to observe that it is surely men more than women who have always shown themselves to be the "weaker" sex (and more cunning) relative to sins of the flesh, while women generally tend to be pressured by men and sometimes economic hardship (which men exploit) into public transgressions and perversions. Almost everyone knows that the largest consumers of pornography are men, far, far more than women even in our easy access technological day.

More: The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century), carrying over some aspects of Aristotle's anthropology into his theological reflections, wrote,

"As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten (sic), for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even some external influence, like the south wind, for example, which is damp.

"The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman…But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman; as God is the beginning and end of every creature."---Summa Theologicae

One could go on and on quoting such statements from some of the fathers, statements which the Church has not affirmed as her own. And for good reason. Because it is the living magisterium (click) which judges and determines what is of lasting value in particular statements and assessments from the fathers and mothers of the Church, separating the wheat from the chaff, and not vice versa in terms of private judgment of their writings. Again, this is not to say one cannot attempt to balance such statements with others in the same or other fathers---that is precisely what the work of the Ressourcement movement did in theology as it sought a greater balance from the Church's Tradition, from other somewhat neglected fathers in the direction of a more decisive theological assessment. Dr. Coomaraswamy got it wrong as do those few who are like him today. Thankfully most who call themselves traditionalists do not follow these few. Tradition is far larger in breadth than the extremists who freeze it in particular moments in time allow. And that is good news.

The Image of God: "So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them"---Gen 1:27

Among the early radical, schismatic "traditionalists," the Donatists: E,g. "Donatists celebrated December 25th as the birth of Christ, but the schismatics refused to celebrate Epiphany on January 6 since they regarded Epiphany as a new feast without a basis in Apostolic Tradition. The Donatist schism originated in A.D. 311" (quoted from Dr. Taylor Marshall)

"No man ought to sever himself from the unity of the Church before the time of the final separation of the just and the unjust merely because of the admixture of evil men in the Church." – St. Augustine, On Baptism


  1. Oh, there's always been an effective argument: What did Jesus (Who came to fulfill all the Law) say of women, and how did He treat them?

    The one time I encountered anti-woman in the Church, it was during a group confession after a penitential service, in which many priests were in certain stations throughout the church building -- one in the Reconciliation room, one in the chapel, one in the Sacristy, two on both sides of the Table, two on both sides of the altar. My turn in line sent me to the priest on the right of the Main altar. I could see he was distraught that a woman had come forth, but when he moved further over on his chair and crossed his arms and legs and didn't look at me directly, I figured we were both trapped right where we didn't want to be. Nonetheless, I decided to confess the one thing I didn't want to, at which he gasped, blinked and then shouted, "But that's a SIN!" Many heads turned our way. By then, he had me so riled, I inadvertently reached over and touched his knee as I jokingly asked, "Oh, sorry--were you expecting the weather report instead?" I think he may've left the building after my absolution. And I will never risk that malarkey again. If I should make any priest faint, he'll be fainting only IN the box.

    How I thanked God for JP II, who reStated and restored it all.

  2. Such a reaction from a priest is freakish. In all my years I can think of nothing that even remotely comes close to ot. Confession for me has always been a gentle, renewing and nourishing experience.

  3. Usually for me, too. It's so nice to run straight from confession to the Tabernacle or the altar while still in a state of grace and hope and peace and newness, before the spirit of the world notices such an affront, lol. Such as I have to run there, because if the world doesn't blow it out of the water, I will, before long. As for the freakishness, oh, a good word indeed; if that moment had to happen, I'm rather glad it happened to me instead of to someone who was on the fence about remaining. I've met his opposite, too, and all things considered, to be afraid of women is much safer than not --for all. However, there IS a happy medium. Most priests are within that range.