Few things get me really riled up.
But anti-Catholic propaganda masquerading as “women’s rights” is one of those things.
Today, I made the mistake of picking up a pamphlet about women in Islam. It was full of lies and dangerous half-truths. (I say that with all seriousness.) One particular lie, though, is a corker. Listen to this one:
The advent of Islam occurred 1400 years ago. At a time when Europe was discussing whether or not the female was a human and whether or not she had a soul, Islam unequivocally gave women rights which in the West have only been given in modern times.
They’re referring to the legend that Catholics debated whether women had souls in the 6th Century. It’s a calumnious myth but a surprisingly tenacious one.
The story can be traced back to one Johannes Leyser, a German Lutheran minister. In 1676, he wrote an argument for polygamy on the basis that women are inferior beings. To support his argument, he claimed that there was debate in the 6th Century over whether women had souls. He misquoted the decrees of the Council of Mâcon, a small provincial council in 585. He wrote,
Among the holy fathers [at the Council] there was one who insisted that women cannot, and should not, be called ‘human beings’ (homines). The matter was thought so important that it was discussed publicly and in the fear of God. Finally, after many arguments on this question, [the bishops] concluded that women are human after all. (Cited by Prof. Michael Nolan, The Myth of Soulless Women, First Things, 1997)
It’s all very scandalous… except that it’s simply untrue.
St Gregory of Tours, writing in the 6th Century, tells us what actually happened at the Council of Mâcon.
There came forward at this Council a certain bishop who maintained that woman could not be included under the term “man.” However, he accepted the reasoning of the other bishops and did not press his case for the holy book of the Old Testament tells us that in the beginning, when God created man, “Male and female he created them and called their name Adam,” which means earthly man; even so, he called the woman Eve, yet of both he used the word “man.” And our Lord Jesus Christ is called “Son of man”, but is the son of of virgin, who is a woman. (St Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Book VIII, §20)
There was no discussion of whether women are human beings or whether we have souls at the Council of Mâcon or any Church council.
There was only a discussion of linguistics. One bishop argued that, when the term ‘man’ (adam in Hebrew, homo in Latin) appeared in the Scriptures, it referred to males only. The bishops, to paraphrase slightly, were like, “Have you even read the Bible, mate?” They pointed out to Genesis 1:27, where the creation of humanity is described and adam clearly refers to both male and female. Thus, both male and female are created equally in the image of God.
So God created humankind [adam] in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
Or in the Latin Vulgate for you nerds,
Et creavit Deus hominem ad imaginem suam ad imaginem Dei creavit illum masculum et feminam creavit eos.
This is was a linguistics discussion. It’s the same discussion we’re still having about whether ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ are good terms to apply to both men and women. (This what happens when languages don’t have good gender neutral terms; sometimes they can be very useful!)
Leyser maliciously misquoted the decrees of the Council of Mâcon to further his pro-polygamy and anti-Catholic stance. But even if we didn’t know what actually happened at the Council of Mâcon, we could still know that the idea that women don’t have souls is crazy talk. The whole idea is ludicrous in the extreme and there is no evidence of any Catholic ever seriously suggesting it.
If women didn’t have souls, then no woman could be baptised. If women didn’t have souls, then no woman was ever a Christian. If women don’t have souls, then early Christian veneration of Our Lady and the many female saints and martyrs was utterly pointless. If women don’t have souls, then St Paul was talking nonsense when he said,
For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28)
In fact, I can go further. If women didn’t have souls then we’d all be dead because the soul is what gives life to the body. (Last I checked, I’m still alive so there’s that theory disproven.)
So far from denying or debating the existence of women’s souls, the Catholic Church has always regarded a woman’s soul as a sign of the Church Herself. The very word for soul in Latin is feminine, anima. Every day, at Vespers, the Church sings with Our Blessed Mother, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”
The myth that there was ever a debate over whether women had souls spread because it was a convenient lie. It fitted into the stereotype of the dark and oppressive Dark Ages where the Big, Bad Catholic Church made everyone lives miserable.
Centuries later, the lie is still being propagated. It was spread by the anti-Catholic Protestants, then the anti-Catholic secularists, and now, apparently, the anti-Catholic Muslims.
There is a certain irony here. The original inventor of the lie used this purported “debate” to support his case for polygamy. If women are less important and somehow less human than men, then why shouldn’t one man marry many women? Maybe one man is worth two, three or four women? (Maybe a woman’s testimony should be worth half a man’s testimony?)
But Christians know that the dignity of woman demands that her husband be only hers, exclusively and totally for life. In the same way, the dignity of man demands that his wife be only his, exclusively and totally for life. Men and women are equals. They each give themselves totally to the other as “joint heirs of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7) and equals before God. That’s equal rights: one man and one woman.
And which is the only major religion today that allows and even promotes polygamy?
Oh that’s right… Islam.
But then what would I know? I’m just a silly woman who might not even have a soul.