Jesus Meets the Holy Women: Has the Church Truly Oppressed Women?
Well, we're getting there, to the end of The Da Vinci Code series! Our title comes from the 8th Station of the Cross, where Jesus encounters the weeping women of Jerusalem on His way to be Crucified. Notably, Jesus meets several people on His way to the Crucifixion: His Mother, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the group of women. Only one of those people is a man. All the other men in the stations are beating on Jesus except for station 14, where Joseph of Arimathea puts Him in his tomb. This devotion seems typical of the respect the Church has always had for women.
The bulk of the information in this post is not my own, but the research of Fr. William Slattery, whom I had the opportunity to hear speak on this the February before last. He graciously emailed me his notes, which I slightly adapted for this post. Thank you, Fr. Slattery!
Did the Church crush the ancient feminist religions destroying "the sacred feminine" and has it oppressed womanhood ever since? This is the claim of Dan Brown throughout the book.
However, the reverse is true: The Church established the veneration of "the sacred feminine" in the respect for The Blessed Virgin Mary. In fact, I find it highly ironic that a 454 page book that claims to be discussing the Catholic Church only ever mentions Mary once, and then, just as a passing thing, discussing ancient Christian iconography, and alleging that it's a rip-off of pagan iconography! That's the only time she's mentioned by name (p. 232)! Now, anyone who's anyone realises that Catholicism has a huge place for the Blessed Virgin Mary! In fact, she's in the highest position the Church can give to a human being! So how can a book make the claim that the Church that exalts and honours Mary as chief of all the saints, and most blessed of all women, oppresses those same women? Logic apparently isn't Brown's forté, and he tries to cover that up by omitting mention to the Mother of God!
The Church also liberated women from the oppression of paganism and set standards which contemporary feminism is still trying to equal.
Firstly a few facts on the so-called "sacred feminine" in ancient pagan religions: The Church did not destroy "the sacred feminine" because it never existed. There was no Female Goddess: pagan religions were polytheistic, and among those religions' many gods, the chief one was always a male, like Odin or Zeus. There has never been a matriarchal society: for example, Catalhoyuk, the 9,000 year old Stone Age settlement, according to the analysis of the human bones found there, had a division based on sex of work and implicitly of responsibilities and was not a strictly egalitarian society. Devotees of Wicca--sometimes known as the Goddess Movement--have laid claim to an ancient heritage. Historians now believe that not a single element of the Wiccan story is true.
On the contrary, Christianity brought about the liberation of woman: The Bible proclaimed the equal dignity of woman with man: Galatians 3:28, "There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female--for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
God's revelation freed woman from being obliged to physical motherhood as the only way of self-fulfillment when Christianity declared virginal consecration as a vocation for woman: 1 Cor 7:35. Up until that point in history, pagan cultures, and even ancient Judaism, valued women based upon how many children they could have! But the Church changed that when they said, "You aren't valuable based on how many children you can have, but based on the fact that you are created in Christ's image, and He loves you! You don't have to have children to have value. You don't even have to be married if you don't want to!"
What has the Church done for womanhood? The answer is that the status of women before and after the arrival of Catholicism was like night and day because Catholicism proclaimed an unheard of belief in the ancient world: the total equality of male and female: Woman is the equal to man in origin, nature and destiny. Before that, women were regarded as chattel, as property, not as people!
As regards the difference between the status of women in Christianity and in pagan religions in general, the Church changed the general attitude to women prevalent in some ancient religions as simply being a sex object. For example, if a man wanted to worship at the ancient temples of Diana or Aphrodite, he could do so by hiring a "ritual prostitute"!
In Ancient Rome because of Catholicism the infanticide of girls was eliminated: in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, in which males outnumbered females by thirty per cent or more, many families refused to raise a second girl. As one husband's letter put it: "If a girl, discard it." The Church stopped this!
The Church abolished polygamy.
Women were far less likely to be forced to have an abortion: a frequent cause of death for women of the time. Notably, it's still a frequent cause of death, or at least complications, even today!
Women from Christian families were three times less likely than women from pagan families to be married before thirteen years of age. That's like, marrying someone in their 30s or older, while you're still in grade 7 or 8! Yay Catholic Church!
Christian women exercised greater freedom to choose their spouse because of the economic support available from the Church. Women could therefore flee to the Church to escape an unwanted marriage, because the Church would take care of them until they chose to get married, or chose to consecrate themselves to virginity as a nun.
The Church demanded that husbands be faithful (quite a contrast with pagan Rome).
The Church elevated women as men to the highest rank in the church: models of Christ-likeness--the Saints. For example, Mary Magdalene, who is called the Apostle to the Apostles, since she was the first person to see the Empty Tomb and tell Jesus' disciples! Ironically, her feast day was on the same day that the DVC movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and her most famous shrine is just a hop-skip-and-jump away from the Festival! So much for trying to cover her up, Dan Brown. As the writer Flannery O Connor said: "The Church would just as soon canonize a woman as a man, and I suppose has done more than any other force in history to free women."
Partly as a result of this, women of all ranks were conspicuous in the new religion and there was a notable presence in some churches of women of important social status.
In the Middle Ages (yes, those terrible Middle Ages!), the social importance, power and influence of women rose to such heights that we still haven't recovered the same level:
Politically, Between the 1000s and the 1200s almost every throne in Europe was occupied by or powerfully influenced by a woman such as the Queen of France, Blanche de Castille.
Some women were the equivalent of provincial governors and mayors and exercised power that many men today would envy. They were feudal lords and as powerful as men of the same rank in virtue of their role as abbesses of monasteries, often administering vast territories with villages, parishes. One example is Heloise, abbess of the Paraclete monastery in France.
Politically, women had the right to vote: there is the example of a woman Gaillardine de Frechou who, during a vote in her area of the Pyrenees Mountains, was the only one in the population to vote No to a certain agreement.
Career-wise, women exercised different professions: in the survey ordered by St. King Louis IX and others there are accounts of a woman teacher, doctor, pharmacist, plasterer, dyer, copyist, salt merchant, a woman Crusader, a woman hairdresser, a woman miller and so on.
In education, women were educated as well as men through the convents. The abbess Hroswitha in Germany, a writer, influenced the development of both the theatre and the German language; the abbess Herrad of Landsberg wrote the best-known encyclopedia, Hortus Deliciarum of the 1100s. Not to mention the talented musician Hildegarde of Bingen. There were even dual monasteries on different parts of a property where men and women lived separately but were ruled over by women, as occurred in the famous abbey of Fontevrault.
In the home the woman ruled alongside her husband over both family and property and retained power over what belonged to her from before marriage.
In the armed forces, we still have not had a female commander in chief since Joan of Arc was promoted to the position by the Catholic Church.
If you had said to Queen Isabella of Spain, to Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena or any of the aforementioned women that the Church subjected women, they would all have been very indignant and most of them would have flown into a towering passion. They would have asked in various ways where the whole sense of medieval respect for womanhood came from, where their ability to study and rule and govern came from?
This is the bright and shining truth of Christianity, that women as well as men are of equal worth in Christ's eyes. We are all able to attain to the highest position in the Catholic Church: that of Saint. And truly, that is our calling, and that is what we should be striving for! God calls us all to it with open arms; let's accept His invitation!
Below, I've posted the Concluding Footnote from Fr. Slattery's notes:
Concluding footnote: UNRELIABLE SOURCES OF INFORMATION:God bless!
Brown actually cites his principal sources within the text of his novel. One is a specimen of academic feminist scholarship: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. The others are popular esoteric histories: The Templar Revelation: Secret Guardians of the True Identity of Christ by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince; Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln; The Goddess in the Gospels: Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine and The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail, both by Margaret Starbird. (Starbird, a self-identified Catholic, has her books published by Matthew Fox's outfit, Bear & Co.) Another influence, at least at second remove, is The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets by Barbara G. Walker.
The use of such unreliable sources belies Brown's pretensions to intellectuality. But the act has apparently fooled at least some of his readers--the New York Daily News book reviewer trumpeted, "His research is impeccable."
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
Jesus Meets the Holy Women: Has the Church Truly Oppressed Women?
Posted by Gregory at 9:35 pm