Thomas Aquinas, Justice, and Women

As readers of this blog probably know, Thomistic philosophy is the foundation of Catholic theology and moral philosophy. If anyone wants to know why the Catholic church thinks a certain way on this or that issue, they have to reckon with the Thomistic elephant in the room. Upon reading about the Thomistic notion of justice, I thought about how Aquinas’ definition of the term tends to miss the mark, especially when the interests of women are involved.

Aquinas defines justice as, “the perpetual and constant will to render to each one his right,” also agreeing with Isidore that, “a man is said to be just because he respects the rights [jus] of others.” He considers justice to be the most important of the virtues, not only because justice for the common good is more important than “the good” for a single individual, but also because justice emanates from reason (as opposed to originating in the “lower passions” as Aquinas thinks the other moral virtues do) and because justice becomes a good shared among other people through interpersonal relationships.

The problem with Aquinas’ definition of justice is that there is an assumption that it should be apparent what exactly constitutes, “rendering to each one his right.” Implicit in this definition is that justice is inherently unequal, and what constitutes justice to a peasant may not be justice when the person in question is a “prince of the church.” While Aquinas does not take the Aristotelian view that women are “misbegotten males,” he does assume that women are inferior to men, in terms of bodily strength, reasoning power, and intellectual ability. God may have created man as male and female, but only the former is really the “image and mirror of God” (see Summa Theologica I, qu. 93, art. 4 ad 1.). Therefore, a particular culture could limit educational opportunities for girls and women, keep them sequestered in the home, and prohibit them from participating in public life, but still be considered a “just society” by Aquinas’ standards, because such a society would be rendering females what they are due according to the “inferior nature” of their sex.

It is not an unrealistic question to ask how Aquinas could have known that women have an inferior intellect compared to men. Aside from a brief period in his late teens when he tutored his sisters to pass the time, Aquinas had practically no contact with women in his entire life. The only “proofs” Aquinas gives in his works about the supposedly inferior nature of women come from the Bible, early church writers (who had “female problems” of their own), and Aristotle’s scientific ideas (which were almost completely wrong). Given the questionable foundation upon which Aquinas bases his assumptions about “the nature of women,” how can a society based on Thomistic lines truly provide its female inhabitants with what is their right?

Since the Catholic church is an “actually existing” society based on Thomistic philosophy, the inability for Aquinas’ view of justice to “render to each one her right” becomes apparent. Women are not allowed to become priests, supposedly because only men can be a true “alter Christus,” an argument that mirrors Aquinas’ view that only men could be the true image and mirror of God. Because the only individuals who are able to have any power in the Vatican are those with holy orders, not allowing women to be ordained means that female Catholics will never have any say in how their church is run. Yet, from a Thomistic perspective, it is completely just to exclude women from the Catholic priesthood, because such a lofty office is not what women are due, because of their “inferior nature.” Consequently, the Catholic hierarchy can engage in absurdist exercises, like the last February’s Assembly on Women’s Culture in which no actual women were allowed to participate, and pat themselves on the back that “justice” has been done towards Catholic women.