Prod Mary; The Church Does Not Hate Women

I’m not a subscriber to TIME magazine, but a reader named Jake gave me a head’s up on this week’s cover story, re the increasing willingness of Protestants to regard Mary as a peculiarly outstanding sort of disciple.

I know that a lot of Protestants have difficulty with Mariology – there are so many misconceptions out there about what Catholics actually believe; this is new interest in her is really promising. The Catholic Church has a treasure chest of writing and thinking regarding this woman and Protestants who dig into it, with their vast energy and knowledge of scripture, will be able to bring new perspectives. Perhaps we can enlighten and educate each other.

This must be happy news for the pope, a staunch ecumenist who credits Our Lady of Fatima with sparing his life when an assassin struck.

I am glad to read this, also, because it creates a happy sort of synchronicity for me. Not only does it allow me to give you a new link to JPII’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily untaught or misunderstood) writing about “the genius of the feminine” – it allows me to think a little bit about how the Catholic church, more than any other institutional body in history, has uplifted women and encouraged them to live to their highest potential.

Yes…I really, really DID write those words. Yes. I really, really do think the church has been the means of freeing women, and not – as many unthinkingly charge – the means of their oppression.

While we live in an age where we are accustomed to thinking of women as educated and accomplished, this is a phenomenon of (really) the last 100 + years. Prior to that the great majority of educated and accomplished women in history were Catholic Religious who conceived completely original ideas and RAN with them.

Think of Elizabeth Bailey Seton, a widow with 5 children, cut off from her own family’s fortune due to her conversion, conceiving of Catholic Education, and essentially inventing a means for the children of poor immigrants to become educated and competitive in the “new world.” Think of Theresa of Avila, who not only reformed a corrupt order, but then went on to build 16 monasteries, both for men and women, while often in paralyzing pain.

Think of Henriette Delille, the daughter of freed slaves, and Katharine Drexel, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, both founding individual orders of women who spent their time and energy building schools and hospitals for Native Americans and blacks in the deep south. Think of the nuns of Stanbrook Abbey, in England who – threatened with bodily harm during the Reformation – ventured to France to continue their lives of prayer, only to be threatened with the guillotine. They returned to England after many years underground, unable to wear their habits or openly practice their offices and yet they continued, eventually working together to build one of the outstanding monasteries (and printing presses) in the history of Europe.

The fact is, for all of the talk about how oppressive the church has been for women, there has been no other institution in history which has given women such free reign to create, explore, discover, serve, manage, build, expand, usually with very little help from the coffers of the diocese in which they worked, and often with little to no intrusion on the part of the male hierarchy.

And these have not been mealy mouthed “sheeplike” women, but educated, accomplished women who have chosen their lives because they could do nothing greater with their gifts. Rose Hawthorne, daughter of Nathanial Hawthorne, founded the Hawthorne Dominicans, an order of nuns who take care of cancer patients – free of charge – and who subsist entirely on donations. The Grand Duchess, Elizabeth left her royal privilege behind to serve the poorest of the poor and suffered a 20th century martyrdom. The daughter of General Patton joined forces with a nun, Mother Benedicta, in France after WWII to come to America and form the Abbey of Regina Laudis, an abbey that is still attracting educated women, sculptors, writers, linguists, musicians – creative women – to use their gifts in the praise of God and for the good of us all. Did I mention that Mother Benedicta, before she became a nun, was a medical doctor who helped to hide and treat Jews who were being hunted by the Nazis?

I can go on…Mother Theresa built an international order of women which thrives, doing work no one wants to do, wouldn’t do in a million years. For that matter, she might seem quite mad – she probably is – but there is in Alabama an extraordinary and strange woman named Mother Angelica, the media-mogul you never heard of, who founded a Franciscan monastery and church in (of all places) the hottest bible belt in the deep South, and then – with two hundred dollars ($200.00) and no help from her bish
op – was inspired to build a
television station (and a radio station), which has become EWTN, a global Catholic network – also founding an order of friars – while hobbling around on crutches, yet.

Extraordinary, mad women, all of them! And I cannot think of a single institution on the face of the earth other than the Catholic Church which would have allowed them to run with their madness, BE who they were and accomplish great things.

The church gets a bad rap in this area. She has fostered literally thousands of great, great women, whose accomplishments are unjustly overlooked because they were done in a habit and a wimple. Compare them with the ‘ideal’ of today’s “smart, educated, successful” woman, like Hillary Clinton or Maureen Dowd, who only yesterday was whimpering about how difficult it is to be a celebrated woman in a position of prestige and power because – you know – men are so mean! The contrast could not be more stark.

Some will argue that prior to the formation of the Catholic church, Roman women had been liberated from enslaving fetters of the old legal forms, and they enjoyed the freedom of intercourse in society, dining in the company of men, studying literature and philosophy, defending their own legal cases. If they wished, they were able to help their husbands in the governance of provinces and the writing of books.

To that I respond…so…you’re saying that the successful and idealized women of today sound like the women of pre-Christian Rome…

Hmmm… Did ALL of the women of pre-Christian Rome enjoy this “equality”, or just the elite women? There is no doubt that anyone who is interested in doing so could cite sources laying out and enumerating all the ways in which women outside of the protected class (a class similar to that class inhabited by the Hillarys and Maureens of this world) were discounted, abused and disrespected – how many were kept in abject servitude and given no opportunity to become educated or to even ponder their God-given potential, much less pursue it?

I’m not interested in reading those books and finding those citations, but you and I both know they exist. Go to Rome and look around; you will find evidence of something like equality, and something like misogyny. Which leads me to ask the big So What: If evidence of “equality” can be so easily matched by evidence of something less than equality, then I say pheh – we need more evidence!

If any of the great statues that grace Rome, or the buildings or the paintings were by female artists or architects, we certainly don’t know that. If any great philosophers of that age were women, we don’t know that, because only the voices of their male counterparts have survived. And I don’t recall ever reading about female Roman senator, either, and so I give a big shrug to the citations of pre-Christian “equality,” because in the end, they mean very little. Show me something solid, show me something I can point to today, and say, “a woman, designed it, a woman composed it, a woman painted it, a woman declared it, a woman argued it, a woman built it, a woman conceived it…” the fact is -utside of the things designed, composed, argued, built and conceived by the women of the church – there are very few examples, and none which roll off the tongue. Can you think of any?

Is that because women were incapable or uneducated? No. Very likely it’s because the ancient women were not quite as “equally regarded” as the men of their time. Had they been, their names would be as easy to bring to our lips as Socrates, Plato, Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, Archimedes and the rest.

Actually, we know of very few women of the ancient times…Cleopatra? :-)

But those we do know of, we know because of their faith, their conversions, their own preaching, and their theological insights. I’m thinking of Mary of Egypt, St. Paula who basically FUNDED and kept St. Jerome in bread and meat while he did his curmudgeonly translations. I’m thinking of St. Thecla who nearly outpreached St. Paul, St. Felicity (a nursing mother) who, before being fed to the lions with St. Perpetua left the first recorded diary written by a woman, one which detailed her trial (at which she defended herself, arguing for the Christians).

I’m thinking of all the virgin martyrs Agnes, Agatha, Lucy, Philomena and so many others, who have been so badly remembered by the Italians in the church. They emphasized their hymens when the real premium, the REAL reason to laud their virginal state was because their decisions to consecrate themselves to the Lord meant taking a stand – a dangerous stand – against the idea of being chattel which could be married off to increase a holding, assure an alliance or even pay off a debt. Their virginity was not evidence of a gooey sentiment but of their own strength, courage and even, dare I say it, self-actualization; the Holy Grail of modern feminism. These Christian women were the ones to say, “tough nuggies, baby, I’m NOT doing this married-off as-chattel thing; I’m going to do something else with my life, and it’s my choice!”

St. Barbara, St. Dymphna…I could go on and on.

The myth of the free and equal woman…well, I don’t know if women will ever be completely free or “equal.” It seems to me that women can never be free as long as they believe that their freedom lies in the negation of their femininity and the embrasure of all that is masculine. I don’t see any freedom in putting on the male, or believing that what is traditionally “male” is therefore empowering and desirable. I don’t see freedom in the teeth-grinding frustration that exists in women who believe that they cannot be fu
lly women unless they be “exactly” like men (who aren’t all that free, either.)

I don’t see freedom in believing that one’s gender is a mere accident of birth rather than a gift to be explored and embraced and fulfilled. The Creator God does not accidentally Create us. He loves us into being, and “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans of fullness, not of harm, to give you a future and a hope…” (Jeremiah 29:11)

The shrinking violet from MIT, who nearly lost it because Lawrence Summers suggested men and women might be different in nature – she didn’t seem particularly FREE to me. Indeed, such women seem completely bound and caged in by their ideologies and their feminist sensibilities. They’re not free, because they can only behave a certain way, or they don’t belong to the club.

Is “equality with men” the pinnacle of feminine empowerment? That’s a completely subjective question. I know that is a politically incorrect thing to say, and that we’re taught that there is nothing SUBJECTIVE about it. But it really is subjective. And maybe it’s time to look at the feminists “truths” of the last 50 years, and look at them subjectively.

Interestingly, after 2000 years society has nearly become what it was. We are entering into a vast, post-Christian era, but I’m looking around at the world, and gosh, the post-Christian era doesn’t look all that swell and enlightened to me. In fact, it looks intolerant, socialistic, intellectually dishonest, prejudiced and weighted toward the elite, protected class over the common people.

Some might snark that, if that’s the case, then the post-Christian era is not a whole lot different than the Christian era. We’ll see.

In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that it was the Catholic church, before anything else, which looked at the women who surrounded the most Important Being delivered upon the earth and saw them as women-in-full, worthy of honor and exclamation and respect. While Sarah and Rebecca and Esther and Ruth had their roles, and were honored, that respect – that willingness to look at women as more than footnotes but as essential members of the whole great pageant of Salvation, that began with Mary.

UPDATE: Some nice writing and reasoning from the Paragraph Farmer.

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About Elizabeth Scalia