by Giorgia Salatiello
Saint Thomas Aquinas is often accused of misogyny, particularly in circles of radical feminism, and if we consider his enormous influence on Catholic thought (we remember numbers 43 and 44 of the encyclical Fides et ratio by John Paul II), this accusation is reinforced as it implicates the entire Magisterium and practice of the Church.
For this reason, it would be good to take his writings in hand and to read them carefully. We should aim for an interpretation free of prejudice that can draw out the basic themes of Saint Thomas’s reflection and the different levels on which they are expressed.
The accusation of misogyny is a reaction that refers in particular to Question 92 of the First Part of the Summa Theologica, the section in which Saint Thomas deals explicitly with the theme of the origin of woman. It presents a general perception that is clearly very far from full recognition of the equal value of the two sexes.
We should point out, however, that as far as scientific reasoning is concerned, the biology that was familiar to Saint Thomas was still Aristotelian and based upon simple naked-eye observation and upon qualitative notions.
Besides, his assertions regarding relations between man and woman and their respective roles should be seen in a social-cultural context that was based on masculine superiority. Its influence could also be felt in the reading of sacred texts.
This means that the accusation directed against Saint Thomas should, in fact, take the form of recognition of the slow and difficult climb throughout history towards an inclusive anthropology that is attentive to the equal dignity of man and woman and that adheres to the clear words of Genesis 1:27.
However, if we wish to correctly evaluate Saint Thomas’s thought, we cannot overlook what we find in the text immediately following the much-discussed Question 92, that is, Question 93. It asks about the presence of the image of God in human beings. From this perspective, theological and philosophical reflection can open out towards new perspectives, which could prove to be fruitful even today.
First of all, it distinctly states that “Therefore things without intellect are not made to God's image” (Q. 93, a. 2, ans.). This places the image of God in the possession of that human nature that is characterised by intellectual capacity and free will, that is, by spirituality.
Further on in the same section (Q. 93, a. 4, ad 1), there is a declaration that is of utmost importance in which it is explicitly stated: “The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman.”.
This certainty is repeated immediately afterwards (Q. 93, a. 6, ad 2) when Saint Thomas, in continuing his study on the image of God, emphasises that “the image of God belongs to both sexes, since it is in the mind, wherein there is no sexual distinction.”
We can readily observe that this is the heart of thomistic anthropology, both theological, which is evident, and philosophical because it is the reference to intellectual nature that allows for a distinction to be made between human beings and all other beings.
It is therefore very significant that it is precisely on this level, and not on that of declarations conditioned historically and culturally, that the equality of man and woman is indicated in their identical spiritual nature that reflects in both him and her the image of the Creator.
In Saint Thomas the reference to sexual difference is, as we have seen, extremely succinct. However, it touches on the essential point on which, even today, it is necessary to draw attention if we wish to base the equal value of man and woman, not on historically contingent factors, but on the truth of their spiritual nature that makes them images of God and therefore persons of dignity and absolute value.