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Augustine on Women:
Misogynist, Apologist or Simply a Mixed Bag?

Maureen McKew

For many modern theologians examining the role of women in the Catholic Church, Augustine has been a standard target for criticism. Some have blamed him for 1,000 years of sexism in the Catholic Church. Others caution that it is not fair to judge a man of the fifth century by the evolving standards of the late twentieth and very early twenty-first. More maintain that he was actually more advanced than any other church father of his time.

The woman together with the man is the image of God, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned as a helpmate, which pertains to her alone, she is not the image of God: however, in what pertains to man alone, is the image of God just as fully and completely as he is joined with the woman into one (De Trinitate, 12, 7, 10)

Oops. Did St. Augustine of Hippo write this little bombshell? Was this what the greatest philosophers of Western Christianity and the spiritual light of Villanova University really thought of women?

The answer to the first question is yes, he did write that comment in his treatise on the Trinity. The answer to the second question, however, is not so simple. This should not surprise anyone familiar with the life and times of Augustine, including the Villanova students who encounter his philosophy in their first year studies.

Many modern feminist theologians have taken Augustine to task for his comment in De Trinitate and other statements.

University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor E. Ann Matter listed many of the charges in an article titled "Christ, God and Women," in Augustine and His Critics (Routledge, London and New York, 2000), edited by the Rev. Robert Dodaro, O.S.A,. ’77, and the Rev. George Lawless, O.S.A., ‘52, of the Patristic Institute, the Augustinianum, in Rome.

For example, Matter writes of Elaine Pagels who, in her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent (New York, Random House, 1988), blames Augustine for a thousand years of sexism in the Catholic Church. Manner also cites Rosemary Radford Reuther, author of Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston, Beacon Press, 1983), who pronounced Augustine the source of western Christian patriarchal anthropology.

However, other feminist theologians take a more moderate view. Australian theologian Kim E. Power, author of In Veiled Desire, Augustine on Women (New York, Continuum, 1996), cautioned that any criticism of Augustine must take into consideration his cosmos, that is, the age and the culture in which he lived, studied and wrote prolifically. Just like every other theologian, Augustine’s views were colored by his cosmos.

Matter agrees with Power. "Augustine’s context is not our own," she writes. When it comes to the humanity of women, "perhaps he cannot help us there."

Perhaps. However, two Villanova theologians are not so sure.

The Rev. Thomas Martin, O.S.A., associate professor of theology and religious studies, faces the issue of Augustine and his alleged sexism on a regular basis in Villanova classrooms. . "To criticize Augustine for being a product of his time is like criticizing a fifth century doctor for failing to use penicillin," he points out. "If you are going to do a critical evaluation, you have to start with Augustine’s peers, such as Ambrose or Jerome. Then you have to examine what the culture is thinking."

As an example of how the culture informed Augustine, Father Martin cites Letter 13 which the bishop wrote to his best friend, Nebridius, on the nature of the relationship between body and soul. "These were conversations you had with men in Augustine’s time," Father Martin says. "It was presupposed that if you were going to talk philosophy, you were going to talk with men. This and other social biases did exist and frequently they came out in Augustine’s preaching. In his world, the worst you could say to a man was that the woman was running the household. There was a clear sense of hierarchy in the sense of domesticity."

So there was a cultural bias against women as intellectual peers, but, as Father Martin points out, this was largely a product of education or, in the case of women, the lack of it. When Augustine did encounter women who were educated and who were his intellectual peers, he treated them as equals. Sometime after 395, he wrote to a young woman named Florentina, who had dedicated her life to God. In Letter 266, he responded to her wish that he become her spiritual director. His letter is filled with humility and contains no trace of male condescension or superiority.

As further evidence, Father Martin’s colleague, the Rev. Daniel Doyle, O.S.A. ‘75, assistant professor of theology and religious studies, cites the Rule of St. Augustine, which is used by many religious orders, both male and female. "If you look at Augustine’s rule for men and for men, the only difference between the two is in the pronouns, Father Doyle says.

The Women In His Life

Augustine’s relationship with his mother and the woman who was for many years his common-law wife has long been the subject of scholarly and not-so-scholarly speculation. A common assertion is that Monica was a pushy, domineering mother and that the other woman, whose name Augustine did not share with history, was some sort of concubine. This is considerably off the mark, according to serious Augustine scholars.

Monica, while not an educated women, was a good mother and a religious one. Her boy Augustine, on the other hand, was something of an intellectual wunderkind, who thought religion was superstition for the uneducated masses. This he admitted in his Confessions. Augustine also made several unsuccessful attempts to detach himself from her as he moved from his native North Africa to Italy before his conversion.

After his conversion, of course, his opinions about mother and religion did a 180 degree turn. With his eyes opened by faith, he realized that he had been wasting his time on false beliefs and, that his mother was not empty-headed after all.

"Mother," he said in dialogue shortly after his conversion, "you have attained the top of philosophy."

As for the unnamed lady, whom he refers to as "the one," Father Martin noted that there was no possibility that she and Augustine could engage in a formal marriage. She was of a lower caste and it was forbidden for Roman citizens to marry out of their class. Ironically, the reason Monica was so eager to break up that relationship was that she wanted her son to have a Christian marriage. However, she was recognized as a common-law spouse and, by his own account, he was faithful to "the one."

Why did Augustine not name this woman, whom he loved so much, in the Confessions?’ Father Martin suggests that Augustine made many enemies as he tilted with various heretical leaders and may have chosen to protect her by keeping her anonymous.

He loved her deeply and was shattered when he broke off their common-law marriage and sent her back to North Africa.

He was a devoted father to their son, Adeodatus, who remained with him throughout his conversion period and returned to North Africa with him to live a life in religion. The boy died at 18 years of age; it is entirely possibly that both his parents were with him at the end.

Augustine’s relationships with these three - mother, wife and son – gave him an insight on women, family life and human sexuality that neither Jerome nor Ambrose nor any other early church fathers could match.

As Father Martin points out, Augustine believed that the purpose of marital sex was the procreation of children, of course, but also for a couple to console each other. Sex without love was no better than mindless slavery to passion. No doubt his own experience as a husband and father helped to foster this view. Adultery was abhorrent to Augustine and when he encountered it, he was vehement in expressing his displeasure.

In one of Father Martin’s favorite Sermons, Augustine addressed husbandly philandering and also took the opportunity to tweak the noses of men, who were acknowledged in his time to be stronger than their wives, not just physically (as Augustine agreed) but also mentally.

There was something of an epidemic of adultery on the part of the husbands in his diocese, Hippo Regius, and typically he faced it head-on in his basilica, at Sunday Mass.

How is it, he asked the men, that you claim you are so strong and your wives are so weak, and yet, when it comes to adultery, you suddenly own up to weakness? And how is it, he went on, that your wives, who are the weaker sex, are so strong in their fidelity to you?

One can imagine the squirming among the men and the nudges, knowing glances and giggles among the women.

Prolific Output Produces Conflicting Statements

Augustine was one of the most prolific writers in history. He authored 93 books; some 300 of his letters exist today. Of the more than 8,000 sermons it is reckoned he delivered, 600+ have survived. With an output like this, it is not surprising that he provided ammunition to back up – or refute - almost every theological and philosophical viewpoint expressed in the past 1,600 years of Christianity.

Indeed some of his views seem to contradict one another. The quote from De Trinitate at the beginning of this article even appears to contradict the Book of Genesis, which states that male and female were created in the image of God. More

radical feminist theologians often use the De Trinitate statement to support their view that Augustine was a misogynist. A more moderate interpretation is this: that women participate in the image of God as human beings, not specifically as women.

Father Doyle suspects that few of his supporters or critics actually have read Augustine in toto. Father Martin is currently working his way through the entire collection and estimates that given his teaching, researching and preaching responsibilities, it should take him a lifetime to complete his task.

Another Augustinian who has examined Augustine minutely is the Rev. T. J. van Bavel, O.S.A., a theologian and Augustinian scholar at the University of Leuven in Belgium. In an article titled "Augustine’s View on Women," published in 1989 in the journal, Augustiniana, Father van Bavel catalogues many of the charges against and defenses of Augustine’s attitudes about women – all by Augustine himself.

Father van Bavel writes that in his early writings Augustine compared a husband’s treatment of his wife to that of a parent and a child. In his letters and sermons, however, Augustine clearly considered women intellectually equal to men. His theological works were directed to both men and women. Among the 19 letters he wrote to women were a request to a woman named Fabiola for assistance on a thorny issue and an offer to Maxima to have his works copied for her reading.

Hierarchically, Augustine – a man of the late fourth and early fifth century - took his Book of Genesis literally, hence the quote from De Trinitate at the beginning of this article. By virtue of being created second, woman were physically and socially inferior to men. It never occurred to him to argue with the order of creation.

Even within this order, though, Father van Bavel notes, Augustine distinguished between the male-female relationship before and after the Fall of Adam and Eve. He explains Augustine’s distinction: "Before the Fall, the woman was oriented toward the man but this was an act of love and love leaves no room for domination, which is a burden to others.

Burdensome domination is a consequence of the Fall.

On the other hand, Augustine believed women to be spiritually and morally superior to men. He frequently spoke out against the discrimination of women by Roman law and his views on conjugal love were unprecedented in the Christian world.

So what does one conclude? Augustine might be considered sexist in light of twenty-first century thinking. However, he was considerably more advanced, some might even say radically so, in his views on women and their role in marriage than those to whom he should in fairness be compared: his own contemporaries.

One final thought: for most of Christianity, Augustine has been interpreted by male theologians. However, more women are joining the ranks of Catholic theologians, examining Augustine’s entire record for themselves, and bringing their own female insights to bear. It is entirely possible some of them might well become his most eloquent apologists.

Surely this man, who loved and valued women more than almost any other Christian leader of the early church, would be delighted.


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Last Modified: Wed Jul 30 13:49:08 GMT-05:00 2003
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