Jerome said, “Marriage is always a vice; all we can do is to excuse and cleanse it. ... In Paradise Eve was a virgin. Virginity is natural while wedlock only follows guilt."
Tertullian addressed women in these words: “Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age. ... You are the devil’s gateway. ... You destroy God’s image, Man."[35: Bk.1.]
Thus woman became degraded beyond all previous thought in the teaching of the early church. The child was looked upon as the result of an act of sin, and came into the world tainted through its mother with sin. At best marriage was a vice. All the church could do was to cleanse it as much as possible by sacred rites, an attempt which harked back to the origin of marriage as the ceremonial breaking of taboo. Peter Lombard’s Sentences affirmed marriage a sacrament. This was reaffirmed at Florence in 1439. In 1565, the Council of Trent made the final declaration. But not even this could wholly purify woman, and intercourse with her was still regarded as a necessary evil, a concession that had to be unwillingly made to the lusts of the flesh.
Such accounts as we have of the lives of holy women indicate that they shared in the beliefs of their times. In the account of the life of a saint known as the Blessed Eugenia preserved in an old palimpsest we read that she adopted the costume of a monk,—“Being a woman by nature in order that I might gain everlasting life.” The same account tells of another holy woman who passed as a eunuch, because she had been warned that it was easier for the devil to tempt a woman. In another collection of lives of saints is the story of a holy woman who never allowed herself to see the face of a man, even that of her own brother, lest through her he might go in among women. Another holy virgin shut herself up in a tomb because she did not wish to cause the spiritual downfall of a young man who loved her.
This long period of religious hatred of and contempt for woman included the Crusades, the Age of Chivalry, and lasted well into the Renaissance. Students of the first thousand years of the Christian era like Donaldson, McCabe, and Benecke argue that the social and intellectual position of women was probably lower than at any time since the creation of the world. It was while the position of woman as wife and mother was thus descending into the slough which has been termed the Dark Age of Woman that the Apotheosis of the Blessed Virgin was accomplished. The attitude toward human love, generation, the relation of the earthly mother to the human child because of Eve’s sin, all made the Immaculate Conception a logical necessity. The doctrine of the virgin birth disposed of sin through the paternal line. But if Mary was conceived in sin or was not purified from sin, even that of the first parent, how could she conceive in her body him who was without sin? The controversy