PORTRAIT OF SOR JUANA INES DE LA CRUZ, A HIERONYMITE NUN OF NEW SPAIN AND A SELF-TAUGHT SCHOLAR, BY MIGUEL CABRERA, 1750. © ALFREDO DAGLI ORTI/THE ART ARCHIVE/CORBIS

Eternal Hope, Persistent Disappointment

Women and Catholicism

It is when sitting before a class full of bright, eager, even devout young university women that the jarring history and current realities of their relationship to Catholicism strike with full force. Honors students all, many among them theology majors, they see in their daily life on campus the work of women—scholars, campus ministers, counselors—whose talents and accomplishments can only inspire to greater heights. They demand every week to hear something of the “woman’s voice” in European history. Every week, I dutifully try to set something out. We talk about St. Teresa of Avila of course, and a host of intelligent, ardent women who led vital, active, and meaningful lives within the church. In return, the hierarchy has variously demanded the images, minds and bodies of these women without giving something in return except the promise of heavenly happiness. Whether women have created mystical music and visions or served uncomplainingly as servants and cooks for priests and monks, the Catholic hierarchy has viewed them as instruments, useful but second class. And yet women stay. They have always stayed.

The history of Catholicism’s relation to women is a long and tangled one, involving dazzling, beautiful myths based on female sanctity and a more depressing, mundane reality rooted in exploitative labor and exclusion from power. The contrast between the two explains much of the tension in Catholic life and culture, from the beginnings until today. The New Testament displays the tension. Women were among the first and most persistent disciples of Jesus—the last to remain at the cross and the very first to witness to the Resurrection of Christ.

In the culture of early Christianity, women as owners or managers of houses where Christians met were active in welcoming and fostering the community. Over time, wealthy women could have a profound influence in granting land and founding monasteries. This is not to say the early church was any kind of golden age for gender equality in Christianity. It was instead a time of continual crisis, in which Christianity grew at the -margins of society, always under threat of persecution and suppression, constantly forced to make concessions to its members in order to survive. The letters of St. Paul are full of greetings and -references to women’s activity, and at the same time they admonish women to silence and duty, forbidding them to preach.

Whatever the successes of women in the early church, though, when in the 2nd century the hierarchy began to differentiate itself into clerical offices—bishop, deacon, priest—women’s roles in the emerging power structure diminished considerably. Sacramental rituals and preaching were functions reserved to an emergent male clergy and forbidden to women. Increasingly, what women could perform as a ministry was to abstain from sex and die for their religion. The early church was full of heroic women martyrs and virgins whose extraordinary physical and moral sufferings witnessed to the truth of a sacred institution. In Mary the mother of Jesus, New Testament authors described a woman who expressed her strength and piety through abject resignation to God’s will and constant suffering. As Christianity grew powerful, women’s authority lay in their willingness to sacrifice themselves. The pattern for later centuries was already set by the end of the 4th century. Christian men would deliberate and rule, and Christian women would suffer and obey, usually in silence.

For women in medieval and early modern Christianity, this pattern became the norm. The structures of ecclesiastical power and administration coalesced into an exclusively male hierarchy. By the 13th century, intellectual authority lay increasingly in the hands of universities and trained theologians.

The hierarchy has variously demanded the images, minds and bodies of these women without giving something in return except the promise of heavenly happiness.

 While it would have been unheard of in any case for a woman to earn a doctorate, another development also worked to her exclusion: university theological faculties, many run by the new Mendicant orders (Franciscans and Dominicans), also required ordination. In an age of suppressing heresy and exacting conformity, the church would not entrust doctrine to those it could not directly control. Women, already excluded from power, found themselves outside the boundaries of learning as well. Misogyny may or may not be intrinsic to Christianity, but in an institution organized around male power, it was inevitable and eventually entrenched.

Even so, women did assert themselves. As men established monasteries or became Mendicants, women also organized into convents (as officially recognized orders of nuns) and other associations (unofficial associations, such as the Beguines) for prayer and for work. Just as quickly, the Latin church sought either to control or suppress them. While Mendicant men revolutionized pastoral care by living and working outside monasteries, often in strict poverty, the appearance of Mendicant women spurred the church to greater restrictions. Enclosure, common in Eastern Christianity, became a requirement for all women religious, according to “Periculoso,” a statute enacted by Boniface VII in 1298. Officially intended to regularize the diverse associations of women and nuns in Latin Christianity, Periculoso also tried to limit women’s religious work outside the convent. The indifferent success of these ecclesiastical efforts is demonstrated by the renewed, and more successful, effort at the Council of Trent to enforce claustration—banning all works of charity that seemed incompatible with enclosure. Henceforth women’s official religious orders had to preoccupy themselves with the education of young girls, a task for which the Ursulines became famous.

Even here, devout women found a way to organize and to act in a publicly meaningful way, sometimes begrudgingly acknowledged by the hierarchy. Whatever the official position of the church, the importance of women’s ministries to its function and identity forced ecclesiastics into accommodation. Frequently, this meant using mystical experience to overcome official obstacles. Teresa of Avila, the greatest mystic of the Catholic Reformation, became a renowned figure not only because of her writings on prayer, but because her deliberate emphasis on obedience to the hierarchy and her confessors made her the kind of model mystic the church could approve.

Outside the cloister, however, women found other avenues, even in the official religious life. In 1633, for example, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac founded the Daughters of Charity. Members took and renewed their vows annually, rather than take solemn lifetime vows. Doing so allowed the order to avoid the strictures of the cloister, while the name “Daughters” distanced them from more traditional nuns, or “Sisters.” In the 19th century, John Carroll and Elizabeth Anne Seton founded a similar order, the “Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph,” but these women took solemn vows, though they worked outside the cloister. The success of the Daughters of Charity made clear just how necessary women active in the world were to the church’s mission, and so by the end of the 18th century, the papacy was backing away from the demand that all women religious be cloistered. The French Revolution, which dissolved and secularized religious establishments, made claustration impossible and hastened the transformation.

It might be tempting to distinguish at some point between women committed to the church as a vocation—professionally as it were—and those whose lives focused on “worldly” matters, such as family and reproduction. Surprisingly, though, medieval Catholicism had little room for them, intellectually or practically. Once virginity or martyrdom became the defining roles for women, then even married women not seeking a life “in” the church were forced to approximate those roles in some fashion, physically or spiritually. Of course, the model woman in Catholicism’s history, the Blessed Virgin Mary, had managed to be both Virgin and mother. Mary was not only the mother of God, she actually did have it all—the ultimate multitasker.

As modern mothers have discovered, however, the price of “having it all” is high. For devout Catholic women in the Latin West, marriage and childbearing clashed awkwardly with the demand for chastity. What resulted in medieval Catholicism was a double standard in which committed virgins were, in theory, esteemed over their secular counterparts. In the emerging ideology, a woman’s body, no matter how chaste and honored for its offspring, was contaminated. Pious married women could not celebrate their sexuality as a gift but were forced to see it as a curse and a duty, and their offspring as a chore. The exalted iconographic roles of the Virgin Mary as either Madonna (with child) or Queen of Heaven continued, but in the 16th and 17th centuries Mary appeared more frequently as part of the Holy Family. The tension in such a portrayal is obvious. The ever-virgin mother of God was wedded to earthly Joseph as a sign of submission to God’s will that she bear and raise a child, while her true spouse was a spiritual one. In these circumstances, a woman’s ambition could resemble that of Marie de l’Incarnation, who founded the first and most enduring school for indigenous women in 17th century New France. Married against her will at 16, she thought herself spiritually “engaged” to Christ. The fortuitous death of her husband when she was 18 would have freed her to devote her life to Jesus but for the unfortunate son she had borne, then only six months old. By forgoing breastfeeding (to prevent maternal bonds from forming) and later by abandoning him to relatives, she was able to heed her “true” spouse’s call, become an Ursuline nun, and head off to New France.

Stories like Marie’s, buttressed by male saints like Francis de Sales, who urged widows to commit themselves to celibacy, suggest the problems for women in this system. If they could not be virgins in perpetuity, they should sacrifice themselves to childbirth in marriage. Unlucky women who bore children outside wedlock in Catholic lands were outcasts. In France, but especially Italy, the church demanded they give their newborns up to orphanages. The system of forced abandonment lasted through the 19th century at least. A companion institution sought to separate unwed mothers from the general population, essentially incarcerating them as a way to preserve their honor but also to prevent them from polluting the image of the Catholic family they nurtured so carefully. Elsewhere, in Ireland, the United States and other English-speaking counties, the Magdalene Asylum incarcerated supposedly wayward women in workhouses. Though not exclusively Catholic, in Ireland and elsewhere, the Magdalene Laundries were run by nuns and supported by the state. The last one closed in 1996.

The church in recent decades has sought mightily to affirm the sexuality of married women, but the blanket condemnation of “artificial contraception” in 1968 (Humanae Vitae) and continued emphasis on sex as a means to reproduction rather than a celebration of love make it difficult to envision a change in roles. Since power has continued to reside not only in males, but celibate males, and since whatever authority or office the institution grants women belongs to “consecrated virgins,” the secular active woman, married or not, can only feel the tension in the church’s demands and restrictions. In modern Catholicism, the standards for sanctity are extraordinarily high, except for popes. What married woman could devote herself so single-mindedly to sanctity? And what saintly woman could dedicate herself to motherhood? Motherhood might be sacrosanct, but saintliness itself was another matter.

In the post Vatican II world, particularly in Europe and the United States, the ecclesiastical and theological attempt to come to grips with the facts of women’s lives and sexuality has not kept pace with women’s unwillingness to submit to the church’s judgment on such matters. Humanae Vitae was met by mass abandonment of confession and priestly guidance. Pastoral care has never recovered. A 2014 poll conducted by the Spanish language network Univision found that 78 percent of Catholics worldwide are untroubled by contraception, while other recent surveys have found that 82 percent of American Catholics find contraception morally acceptable and 63 percent continue to support Roe v. Wade. On questions of contraception and sexuality, women (and men) have decided to go their own way, ignoring the institutional church entirely.

For professionally religious women, it was in the 19th and 20th centuries that the indispensability of women’s religious work became apparent. Whether caring for orphans in Philadelphia, working among the poor in Chicago or teaching schoolchildren in El Paso, the service of women provided the backbone of church work as Catholicism built an infrastructure in the United States. It is simple to say that there would be no widespread Catholic education or catechism in America without the presence of women religious orders. The prominence of nuns in popular movies from the 1940s to the 1960s suggests their recognition among the Catholic population.

And yet, though nuns were in the classroom, leading parish education, working tirelessly among the poor and even earning advanced degrees, their authority depended on the good will of male bishops and priests. The sister who spent her year teaching second graders their catechism had to defer when “Father” decided to visit for a day to test them. For all their work, efforts and education, nuns were absent from the altar when the sacraments—the center of religious and sacral power in Catholicism—were administered.

David Myers is a professor of history at Fordham University. He holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Religious studies at Yale.

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