Catholic Feminist: Oxymoron?

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Although the Catholic Church places much focus on the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus, known as the Queen of Heaven, in many minds the role in which she plays is still limited to that of a mother. Despite the acknowledgment that Jesus himself ministered to women of the day, the Catholic Church points out that although that may be true, he only selected male Apostles to go forth with his message. This trend of women as devoted mothers and men as the foundation of the message and its passage through time. Centuries later the Catholic Church still functions much the same way, but within the last few decades, roles and opinions have begun to change as the religious community becomes more vocal. The men of the Vatican will take on the role of the navigator through this period of growth and change, but it is the women within the history of the Catholic religion who have set continuously pushed the envelope in the name of their faith. An exploration of some of the most famous women within the Catholic Church will reveal the path which has led to the Pope’s monumental decision to increase the official capacity in which women can serve within the organization. 

Saint Brigid of Kildaire

A patron saint, Brigid of Ireland was a Catholic nun in the late fifth century. She was one of the most famous women to hold the position of abbess during her time, opening several monasteries. The Kildaire, a monastery in Ireland, was founded by Brigid and known as one of the most powerful organizations of the period. As an abbess, Brigid reigned over the monasteries, in charge of both nuns and monks. Until the twelfth century, abbesses were given extensive power over regions in France, Spain, and Rome with some having rights beyond those of men and equal to the abbots and bishops of the age (Schulenburg). They were, on occasion allowed to give the homily or read the Gospel during Mass. However, their powers outside of administration were limited, banned from administering sacraments, officiating or witnessing marriage rites, giving penance, or pursue ordination within the Catholic Church. Although there are still nearly 200 abbesses in the world today, their duties are widely restricted after an appeal of several members of the Catholic clergy petitioned Rome for the changes in 1750 (Schulenburg).

Pope John Angelicus

Although dismissed by the Catholic Church as pure fable, the legend of Pope John Angelicus’ reign as pontiff in the mid-800s is believed by many. Better known as Pope Joan to believers, she would be the first and only female Pope. The story of Pope Joan begins with a young girl in Germany who disguised herself as a boy in order to study Greek and Latin taught by monks at a local monastery developed by missionaries from abroad. Martin Poionus, a monk from the monastery chronicled the story of a brilliant young woman who studied there while disguised as a boy. Poionus was a close adviser to the Pope of the time and a well-respected writer of Catholic history, chronicling hundreds of years of the religion. In his account, the girl followed a lover to Rome still disguised as a man. 

Joan, known then as English John, worked her way through the ranks, first as a secretary to a curia, then moving on to becoming a cardinal. When the position of the Pope became available, Joan was the unanimous choice for the position.  However, Pope Joan’s reign would be short lived. Two and a half years into her time as Pope she was traveling in a procession to a neighboring church in Rome when she suddenly became ill. It quickly became apparent that the unimaginable was about to take place, the Pope pregnant and in active labor.

According to Donna Cross, who has spent nearly ten years researching the subject, there are over 500 independent sources from the time which had recorded similar accounts ("Looking For Pope Joan").  In addition, for hundreds of years after, the intersection was named ‘Vicus Papissa’ translated as the Street of the Female Pope. There are other famous accounts of Pope Joan’s existence, with Renaissance poet Giovanni Boccaccio chronicling the 100 most famous women of the time, with Pope Joan being umber 51 (Boccaccio and Guarino). There is speculation that upon the St. Peter’s Baldachin, artist Gian Bernini, depicts eight images of the seventh Pope, showing a progression of childbirth (Wittkower et al.). Bernini was the most famous sculptor of the time, responsible for the St. Peter’s Piazza which is widely regarded as the most successful architectural work known to man in consideration of the limitations present in the 17th century (Wallace). Despite this, and many other pieces of historical evidence, there is still significant doubt as to whether or not Pope Joan existed, but it is certain that the issue of a female pontiff, fictitious or not, is enough to spark massive debate. 

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Born in 1651, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was a nun known for her extreme intelligence, writing, and devotion to women’s rights in the 17th century. Taking her vows as a nun because it was the only way to study freely as a woman during the time, her poem Hombres Necios, translated as ‘foolish men’, explained the illogical nature of criticism towards women, especially by men (Juana Inés de la Cruz). She became known national hero, represented on currency in Mexico and being named the New World’s original and first feminist to be published ("Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz"). Her most famous piece was not published until after her death and was unusual in its composition as she never intended to write it but was instead compelled due to the actions of a man, upset with her vocalization and passion for women’s rights both within and outside of the church. 

In her private display of dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church, de la Cruz penned a critique of a sermon given by Antonio de Vieyra, a Portuguese Jesuit, delivered forty years early. Although she did not publish the critique, it was stolen and published without her permission by Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, the bishop of Puebla. In the publication, Fernández de Santa Cruz chastised de la Cruz for her meddling in secular studies, suggesting she should focus on religious studies instead ("Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz").  In her letter of self-defense, possibly her most famous of her writing, de la Cruz she wrote Respuesta a Sor Filotea, one of the most influential pieces on educational rights for women (Juana Inés de la Cruz, Arenal and Powell). In her response, de la Cruz’s work translates to say, “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper” ("Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz").  

Canon Law

The code of Canon Law is a group of regulations which govern the behavior of the Catholic Church as an organization. Currently, there are two versions of Canon Law, one for the Western Catholic Church, which was most recently revised in 1983 and one for the Eastern Catholic Church, published in 1990. The Western Code of Canons is made up of eighty-nine canons that guide the legislation of Catholic Churches worldwide.  Based on c. 266 § 1: 

Installation on a permanent or stable basis in these two ministries is limited to men and to those who have reached the age specified by the conference of bishops. In the United States that age is eighteen. A special liturgical rite is to be followed. Installation, however, is not an order. Episcopal orders are not required to install lay-men validly in these ministries; this is to be done by the bishop or the major superior of a religious order. By installation a minister does not acquire any claim to financial support in the Church; he does not become a cleric. (Coriden, Green and Heintschel 167)

Although Canon Law has been updated and revised through the years by the reigning pontiff, the Pope is not omnipotent in this regard. There are limitations to his ability to update or change existing Canons. The distinction between what can and cannot be changed is theoretically simple, however much more difficult in practice. Cannons regarded as divine law, or those handed down by Christ cannot be changed by anyone but Christ himself. Canons such as restrictions on violence or theft are said to be divine law, those obvious in their creation by the Christ as a doctrine of living a Christian life. 

Other Canons have been put into place by rulers throughout history and would have the potential to be changed. The question is whether or not the regulations regarding females ascending into power through ordination are a result of divine law. The resolution to that is unclear, as there are no scriptures that indicate such. However, the Pope has the right to make decisions and end all debate on religious matters. In 1994 Pope John Paul II declared, through his Ordinato Sacerdotalis, the Canons regarding women in the priesthood were laws that the Church itself has no ability to change, indicating his belief that they are indeed divine law 

Catholic Feminism

In her article, Catholic and Feminist: Can One Be Both? Elizabeth Fox-Genovese tries to answer the question by evaluating the history of women within the Catholic Church. A researcher and speaker for the Catholic Education Resource Center, Fox-Genovese has followed the controversy closely. In her observances, as both a Catholic woman and an academic, have found continuous contradictions that complicate the issue. During a conference in the United States, the Pope addressed the issue of women’s rights, saying: 

Unfortunately, even today there are situations in which women live, de facto if not legally, in a condition of inferiority… urgently necessary to cultivate everywhere a culture of equality, which will be lasting and constructive to the extent that it reflects God's plan. (Paul II “Ordinatio” 22)

Statements like this show Pope John Paul II feelings about women’s rights and the fight for equality, however, opponents point to his inaction in changing the regulations disallowing women from serving the Catholic Church in a capacity similar to men. Fox-Genovese isn’t able to come to a conclusive decision based on the obvious commitment of the Catholic Church’s commitment to cultural equality for women, yet the overwhelming position of control over the female body and rank within the organization.

However, in May of 2016, Pope Francis agreed to begin a study into the potential of allowing female deacons within the Catholic Church, giving them the ability to preach at mass, perform baptisms, and like activities (Goodstein).  The study came about after Pope Francis indicated that he had once spoken with a professor who had researched the early centuries of the Catholic religion and found evidence of female deacons (McElwee “Francis”). The Pope was unsure of and responsibilities of these women and openly agreed when if it was worth looking into with a commission. This revelation came during a question and answer session with the International Union of Superiors General about women within the church. Attendees were reportedly elated with the Pope’s notation that “the consecrated woman is an icon of the church, an icon of Mary. The priest is not an icon of the church; he is not an icon of Mary. He is an icon of the apostles, of the disciples, but no of the church of Mary” (McElwee “Full Text”). This is surely a positive step in the direction of giving women the ability to participate in the leadership of the Catholic Church, even if it is just a study, it is further than any pontiff has been willing to go historically.

Works Cited

Boccaccio, Giovanni and Guido A Guarino. On Famous Women. New York: Italica Press, 2011. Print.

"Canon Law". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

Coriden, James A., Thomas Green, and Donald Heintschel. "The Code Of Canon Law: A Text And Commentary.". Journal of Church and State (1985): 1-1117. Print.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. "Catholic And Feminist: Can One Be Both?". Catholic Education. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

Goodstein, Elisabetta. "Pope Francis Says Panel Will Study Whether Women May Serve As Deacons".New York Times. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Electa Arenal, and Amanda Powell. The Answer. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2009. Print.

Juana Inés de la Cruz, Sor. "Hombres Necios". Gavilan University. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

"Looking For Pope Joan". ABC News. N.p., 2005. Web. 13 June 2016.

McElwee, Joshua. "Francis To Create Commission To Study Female Deacons In Catholic Church | National Catholic Reporter". National Catholic Register. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

McElwee, Joshua. "Full Text Of Questions To Francis From Women Religious | National Catholic Reporter". National Catholic Register. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

Paul II, John. "Angelus Reflections". United States Catholic Conference. 1995. 22. Print.

Paul II, John. "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis". Vatican. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. Forgetful Of Their Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

"Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz". Biography. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 June 2016.

Wallace, Robert. The World Of Bernini, 1598-1680. New York: Time-Life Books, 1970. Print.

Wittkower, Rudolf et al. Bernini. London: Phaidon Press, 1997. Print.