The following article is the third of a special symposium on the legacy of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in the month of its quincentennial. The first article can be found here, the second here.
The standard narrative concerning theological understanding of women’s capacity and even right to serve as a ruler is, not without reason, generally that theologians opposed women’s political authority based on a malignant synthesis of Augustinian and Pauline political theology, compounded with Aristolian biology, as expounded by Thomas Aquinas. If women were permitted to rule, they were seen as notable exceptions, or not real women.
This rejection of the capacity of women to hold political authority transcended even the Protestant/Catholic theological divide. It was only with the dawning of the Enlightenment, and the rejection of theological tradition, that the possibility that women could be equally as qualified to rule as men began to be considered, and even then with strict limitations.
In this essay I seek to nuance this perspective by considering the expansive claims for female authority advanced by baroque scholastic Francisco Suárez, SJ (1548 – 1617). Suárez claimed, at length in his legal textbook de Legibus and more briefly in an earlier work of theological anthropology, de Animus, that women were as capable of holding political authority as men, due to their equal capacity for reason and intellect.
Although less well known today, Suárez was an incredibly influential philosopher, jurist, and theologian of the early modern period. His vast text-book on law, de Legibus was studied in both Protestants and Catholics. John Locke, Richard Hooker, Hugo Grotius, and Leibniz, for example, all were influenced by his legal theory. Suárez’ ecumenical prestige, as well as his reputation as a champion of Roman Catholic orthodoxy (he received the title Doctor doctor eximius from Pope Paul V) makes the fact that his claims that women are as fully capable of holding political authority as men has occasioned little comment perhaps even more surprising.
I will briefly consider here the three key theological points which ground Suárez’ claims which I develop in my article, and one important piece of biographical context which must be considered in understanding the forcefulness of his argument.
First, as a Spanish citizen, Suárez grew up in a country in which at least some women held political and even spiritual authority. Suárez was born only one generation after the reign of Isabella of Castile, and grew up in the Granada, the final city which she and her husband had successfully conquered. During his lifetime, the tradition of women holding political power would continue among Hapsburg royal women.
Additionally, in Spain, Suárez was exposed to not only to a tradition of strong and successful female exercise of sovereignty, but of female theological reflection and even teaching. Although not without its own controversy, Spain had a significant tradition of women engaging in theological reflection, as Ronald Surtz points out, culminating in the mystical theology developed by Suárez’s contemporary, Teresa of Avila.(127-41) Therefore, when writing of women rulers, Suárez was not considering simply a theoretical question, but a reality which informed much of his personal life.
Secondly, Suárez was trained as a canon lawyer as well as a theologian. When considering his argument in more detail, we will see the significance of the advancements in canon law regarding women had for his arguments, and the weight which he gives them. Suárez find significant support for his claims in canon law court decisions which seem to uphold the sovereignty of women rulers in various specific contexts.
His reliance upon canon law to uphold a broader vision of equality, specifically in de Legibus, is consistent with other recent studies of canon law which indicate that it often served as a more consistent supporter of various forms of equality than civil law.
Third, Suárez, in de animus, grounds his claim for women’s political authority upon the Christian understanding of the imago dei. He begins by explicating Genesis 1:27, which in declaring that man in created in God’s own image, explicitly identifies man (hominbus) as meaning men and women.
Suárez draws also in De Animus on Augustine to argue that “be renewed in the knowledge of God is common to men and women: but renewal happens at the level of the image; therefore, the nature of the image is also common [to both]; For this renewal, as Augustine says, happens in the spirit of the mind, where there is no [difference of] sex.” This is according to Paul’s claim that Ephesians 4 and Galatians 3:28 – “in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek; nor is there servant nor free; nor is there male nor female.” Suárez concludes “therefore each one [men and women] a slave made new in Christ, and each one is in the image of God.”(III.viii.21; 223)
In making this argument for fundamental equality as image bearer, Suárez reference Augustine and Aquinas. However, his conclusion is his own. Since women, by being image bearers, possess reason, they are “capable of dominion (dominii), and of ruling (principatus).”((III.viii.21; 223) Being an image bearer therefore grounds the fundamental equality of men and women in the political realm.
Finally, Suárez also argues for the rights of female rulers by closely limiting the authority a husband possesses over his wife to only areas closely aligned with the domestic sphere. A husband in the public realm is a subject of the ruler, and must submit to that ruler, regardless of whether or not the ruler is his wife, just like any other citizen under her jurisdiction. (III.ix.15; 124) The husband is obligated by her laws in the same way that the other members of the state are. This means that the wife can exercise her sphere of autonomy and even authority, not completely subject to her husband’s discretion.
This combination of arguments justifies what Suarez describes as an undeniable theologically grounded truth: that women can, in fact, hold political authority in the same way as men, because they possess equal capacities of reason and intelligence, a claim which was innovative for his own day, and, at times, seems innovative for our own as well.
Elisabeth Kincaid is a PhD candidate in Moral Theology and Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. Her dissertation is entitled “‘In a Prudent Way and Without Rashness:’ Reclaiming Francisco Suárez’ Theories of Legal Interpretation and Resistance”.