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Voices Online Edition
VOICES - Vol. XX No. 1 - Eastertide 2005

Feminist Mythology vs. Catholic Reality

by Joanna Bogle

A leaflet was sent to me recently promoting a book on feminism. I found the publisher's blurb to be a gem of its kind, and it gave me pause for thought. The book said it was "a feminist engagement with women's Christian experience". The blurb enthused "this book is an attempt to illuminate, illustrate and make visible the diminished status of Christian women in their faith. Women occupy a subordinate position by virtue of the way Christian faith is understood and practiced".

Really? Subordinate? It's so useful to know that women have been subordinate in the Church for all these years. We must tell everyone at once that Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Sienna, Marguerite-Marie Alacoque and Bernadette of Lourdes, Joan of Arc and Margaret Clitheroe and Clare of Assisi and Bridget of Ireland and Helena the Empress and Catherine of Alexandria have always been absolutely ignored, and had absolutely no influence in the Church or in her mission and history. We must explain that the names Agnes, Cecilia, Agatha, Lucy, Anastasia are never heard at Mass, and learn anew that there have never been any women mystics or martyrs or intellectuals or founders of religious orders, that Mary Magdalene was ignored when she ran to tell the apostles of her meeting with the risen Lord, that queens like Margaret of Scotland and Elizabeth of Hungary were unknown to history, that no woman in a time of persecution arranged a place for Mass to be celebrated, or established a school or hospital or pioneered work with the poor. That Mother Teresa never really founded a religious order that changed the face of India, and that no Catholic mother or teacher or visionary ever made any impact on anyone?

It is going to be vital to explain to people that there are absolutely no memorials of any women in any Catholic churches anywhere, and all those statues of radiant young women before which men kneel in humble supplication are really non-existent, that the stained glass depicting the awesome glory of female saints in the ranks of the blessed is really a mirage. We must recognize that women have been absolutely diminished in the life of the Church -- that there are no churches named after them, no religious orders continuing their work, no feast-days honoring women saints or Mothering Sunday (Mother's Day in the US) honoring mothers. Must we explain that all those tales of the heroism of women martyrs, and the veneration in which they were held, are really just so much nonsense, that no Catholic girl ever thrilled to the tales of female heroines and saints or sought to emulate their virtues, that all the poems and prayers and pageants written in praise of the great women saints of history are really not there?

Alternatively we could just tell people to study the truth of Christian history and pay little attention to writers who boast of having a PhD in women's studies.

It is worrying that a whole generation of young women has been reared on the complaints of feminists, so that numbers of Catholic female students simply assume that the Church has been oppressing people for centuries and that they are rather noble and special in having been given the insights to see that this is so. Even quite devout and enthusiastic young Catholic women -- to be found, for example, in the pro-life movement -- feel they ought to assume that the Church has been hideously oppressive of women and that now that there is widespread recognition of this fact, ordination of women to the priesthood may follow. They may feel a bit uncertain about this -- may not even like the idea of women priests -- but they have absorbed a feminist version of Church history and have not been given the opportunity to view things from any other standpoint.

This is why it is crucial to challenge the distorted view of history promoted by books such as the one I have mentioned above, and to offer a wider, more accurate, and more inspiring vision, which will in turn enable and encourage today's young women to apply their minds to the question of the different roles of the sexes in God's plan. We need people who will look outside the comfort-zone of their own prejudices and limited experience, read widely, ponder deeply, explore history, meet the thinking and transcendent experiences of Christians in other centuries from their own.

Joanna Bogle, Voices contributing editor, lives in London, is active in Catholic movements in England, writes frequently for the Catholic press, and often appears on radio and television.

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