"Do Women Have Souls?"
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly September 21, 2009 - 5:33pm
Have you heard about the sixth-century Church council where bishops took a vote on whether women have souls? No, that didn't actually happen, but it has been a popular anecdote for decades -- handy for anyone who wants to paint the Catholic Church (or religion in general) as anti-women and isn't too picky about their facts.The September 11 "Laity Issue" of Commonweal has a feature article by Kathleen Sprows Cummings on how the myth of the Council of Mcon figured prominently in American discourse in the early twentieth century, and what that reveals of the historical roots of the divide between Catholics and feminists that persists to this day. (The article -- "Do Women Have Souls? Catholicism, Feminism & the Council of Mcon" -- is available online only to subscribers, which may be the excuse you've been looking for to subscribe now.)Looking at how easily bad information spread one hundred years ago makes me wish I could say we've come a long way. The Internet makes fact-checking easier than ever -- but it takes skill to use it to find the truth, and far less skill to use it to spread or validate bad information. Here's hoping this post will stop someone, somewhere, from telling the story of the Council of Mcon as if it were true. For more background on how the Mcon story got started in the first place, check out "The Myth of Soulless Women", an article by Michael Nolan from the April 1997 First Things. And if it's the American history angle that interests you, check out Professor Cummings's recently published book, New Women of the Old Faith.In related news: in July, Notre Dame's Web site featured a response from Professor Cummings to the news of the "visitation" of American women religious. It seems quite careful and rather mild to my eyes, but it drew the ire of the Cardinal Newman Society, who called it "a radical feminist commentary that is disrespectful of the Vatican." You'll have to decide for yourself.