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The Blessing And Curse of the Virgin Mary

In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne vividly portrays Hester Prynne standing on the scaffold with her illegitimate child. The crowd is horrified at this sight. For them, they see only her sin. Hawthorne, wistfully hypothesizes that, “had there been a Papist present,” he would have seen in the sight an image of the Madonna and Child and have been moved to pity.

Is this really true?

I do believe that, compared to Calvinist, Evangelical, and Fundamentalist traditions, there is a stronger appreciation of the feminine in Catholicism.

What do I mean by this? By feminine I mean an appreciation of traits that are primarily associated with women in our society; mercy, compassion, appreciation of beauty, nurturing, value of relationships, etc. I see this in my own family., and in the churches and religious movements of my adolescence. I uncles take great pleasure in the death of the wicked, and in the image of the wicked suffering eternal punishment in Hell. Feelings of sympathy are condemned and dismissed as signs of weakness. This same mindset existed in the church I attended as a teenager. Not only did the preacher have little patience for dissidents, but the church itself was masculine. It was a large auditorium, harsh, cold, and utilitarian. There was no place in the church, theologically, for art or anything frivolous. It was strictly non-liturgical, or rather, its order of service was completely bare.

There is a more extreme strain in some forms of evangelical Christianity in which Jesus is being re-imagined as the ultimate badass. They proclaim, “I don’t want to worship a God I could beat up.” (Mark Shea rightly points out that the Roman soldiers who flogged Jesus would agree.)

In comparison, the Catholic Church has a very deep respect for the feminine. Virtues, or qualities we associate with femininity (kindness, mercy, charity, contemplation, receptivity) are highly valued within Catholicism. Part of this is because the Church Herself is imagined as a woman. The Church is a Bride, the Church is a Mother. This characterization also applies to some extent to all the members of the Church. God is masculine, and all members of the Church must therefore be feminine in relationship to God. In a way, it is the antithesis of the Gospel of Thomas, which proclaimed that a woman must make herself a man to be worthy of the Kingdom of God. in modern Catholic understanding, a man must make himself a woman in order to be worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is even more heightened in certain conservative Catholic circles, where Theology of the Body (the personal reflections of Pope John Paul II) is preached heavily as a panacea. In these circles, the relationship between God and humans is not filial, but nuptial, with God as the husband and humans as wives.

Our Lady of Grace Statue

The Blessed Virgin Mary, of course, looms large in this experience. Where there is no prominent female figure in the evangelical community, Mary is a central figure in Catholicism. It is impossible to bifurcate Mary from Catholicism without drastically altering the faith. Mary is elevated as the first Christian, the greatest Christian, the greatest saint, the perfect Christian. Catholics, even men, are exhorted frequently to model their lives after The Blessed Virgin. Most devout Catholics pray the Rosary, which Pope John Paul II called The School of Mary. Whereas Evangelical men will frequently refuse to read a Christian book by a women, the Pope encouraged all Christians, including men, to learn about Christ from a woman. The images of the Virgin are everywhere in Catholicism, and regions identify themselves by the title they use for the Virgin. A statue of the Mother of God is practically a requirement for a Catholic parish. (Most Catholic houses in the US adorn their house with an image of Our Lady of Grace, at least in my area of the country. In Mexican areas, I would see Our Lady of Guadalupe.) In the United States, the bride and groom leave a flower before her statue on their wedding day as a prayer for a happy and healthy marriage.


The reverence for the Virgin elevates feminine characteristics in the minds of devout Catholics. The question is, does this reverence for the feminine lead Catholics to respect women? In many cases, no.

I have to clarify. I have actually never experienced sexism or misogyny from a priest. I have experienced a lack of patience, but never because I am a woman. Laymen are another story. Many devout Catholic laymen, especially those who spend a lot of time on the internet, do not have much respect for women. They seem to value the feminine, and they value women, as long as the women perfectly embody the feminine. I’ve heard at least one layman explicitly state about how he loves the Blessed Virgin and hate women who do not perfectly measure up to her standards. Most of the time laymen do not use those exact words, but they express this sentiment very clearly.

The clearest example of this is in clothing. They spend a lot of time telling women what kind of clothes she should wear and how much makeup she should wear. They also talk about how they will not respect women who do not follow these guidelines. In most circumstances, the Blessed Virgin is held up as a literal model. The Blessed Virgin never wore pants, therefore women today should not wear pants. I’ve heard Catholics call for women to wear hijabs, because the Blessed Virgin wore the hijab.

This also seeps into their depictions of the family. Needless to say, most of them uphold the traditional family model, and women who deviate from this are scorned. I frequently hear Catholic men talk about how women ruined the traditional family. I read a comment from one Catholic man who said that the reason men no longer marry is because women now abandon their husbands and children on a whim, and the courts now conspire against poor, helpless men. Men of course, are the victims.

There are articles about how women should not go to college.

I’ve also seen comments about how married women routinely decide, after the fact, that their husbands raped them, just to cause trouble. I’ve read comments that it is probably a good thing if a woman cannot achieve orgasm, because Hell is populated with women who experienced sexual pleasure.

And then there are the names. Women who do not fit measure up to the standard of the Blessed Virgin are sometimes called “whores,” “filthy pigs,” and “bitches.”

Why is that? I think it is because many Catholic laymen use the Blessed Virgin the way some men use pornography. In the film Don Jon, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s character evaluates all the women he meets based on the standard of what he sees in pornography. They never measure up, he is constantly dissatisfied, and he returns again and again to pornography. In the same way, Catholics, men and women, are urged to cultivate devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Many Catholic laymen expect the women they meet to conform to this image (virginal, maternal, sinless, kind, compassionate, quiet, soft) and when they do not, they return again and again to the Virgin Mary, praising her and pouring their hearts out to her. The cycle is then reinforced.

Hawthorne is right that Catholics do see women as images of the Blessed Virgin. But he forgets that there is more than one type of religious image.

Virgin Dung painting

This painting caused a scandal when it was displayed in New York, because of its use of elephant dung and pornographic images. Some Catholic men, when they see college educated women wearing pants, react to her as they would a blasphemous image. Her very existence is a kind of blasphemy.

What does this mean for Hester Prynne? Well, it seems to me that, if Catholic laymen had seen her on the scaffold, they would indeed have been reminded of the image of the Madonna and Child. However, this image would not inspire sympathy. It would have seemed to them to be a blasphemous image; an image that cries out for destruction.

All respect to Nathaniel Hawthorne aside, I think that Hester is very lucky that there were no Papists present.


She Who Is Part 2: Inequality of the Sexes

It’s no secret that the impetus of She Who Is stems from the feminist movement. Sister Elizabeth Johnson seeks to raise the status and profile of women within the Catholic Church, and more generally Christianity.

Many conservative and traditional Catholics believe that women and men are both equally important to the Church, but that they are complimentary. For conservative and traditional Catholics, this means that women and men have different roles within the Church; equal roles, but different roles.

However, I do not agree that men and women are equally necessary to Christianity, or at least, to traditional, sacerdotal Christianity. (By this I mean Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians who have a sacramental, sacrificial priesthood and also restrict that priesthood to men.) It is clear to me that women in these churches have a far less essential role than men. We could remove women from Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the churches would continue much as they had before. However, if we were to remove all men from Catholic and Orthodox churches, then the churches as we know them to cease to exist.

Imagine, for just a moment, that we live in an apocalyptic society where all the women have died, including baby girls. The human race will soon be extinct. What would Catholic and Orthodox churches look like during these last years?

Well, it would look somewhat like a monastery. There would be Mass everyday, as well as confessions. Since the men would all be unmarried, there would be plenty of priests to go around. Indeed, it might be possible to ordain all the surviving men to the priesthood or even to the rank of bishop. The men would die with the Anointing of the Sick. The men would still have access to the sacraments.

True, they would not have the sacrament of matrimony, since there would be no women. But would that truly be a great loss for the Church? The Early Church Fathers wouldn’t think so. St. Augustine said that it would be a wonderful thing if everyone embraced celibacy since it would bring about the end of the world and the return of Christ. The Church has never taught that matrimony was essential to salvation, and most saints and theologians felt that matrimony was not even conducive to salvation (or at least perfection.) In short, the loss of women would not drastically change the Church. Because women cannot perform the sacraments, women are not essential for salvation.

However, consider the opposite. Imagine a world in which all men have died, including baby boys. What would the Catholic and Orthodox Churches look like during these last years?

In a world with no men, there would be no sacraments except baptism. Masses would cease to exist, as would confession. No doubt the women would encourage each other to pray the act of contrition regularly. Since Mass would cease to exist, the remaining hosts would likely be especially treasured, since each host lost could never be replaced. Communion would stop. When the women died, they would die without the Anointing of the Sick. The leadership in the Church would also have to change completely, since there would be no priests or bishops. In a sense, the Church would be pretty much indistinguishable from Evangelical churches, with a great emphasis on reading the Bible, praying, preaching, and caring for the poor, as well as fellowship. Perhaps praying before tabernacles would carry an even greater significance, because that would be the only access to the Eucharist.

Of course, the usual answer to this would be that women are essential to the Church, since the Church would not exist without the Blessed Virgin. The Blessed Virgin, a woman, gave birth to Christ, and plays a crucial role in the salvation of each Christian. True, but at the same time, so what? It is true that the Blessed Virgin, a woman, is essential to the Church. However, this significance does not transfer to the everyday woman of today.

The Early Church Fathers argued that marriage was the superior state of life before Christ because the Jewish patriarchs needed to produce the Messianic line. The birth of Christ did away with that need. In a sense, as far as women are concerned, the Virgin Mary’s divine maternity is like the snake that eats itself. Her motherhood eliminates the need for all other mothers.

In addition, while the Blessed Virgin does have an incredibly privileged role within the Church, this role does not transfer to ordinary women in the Church. Where Mary is concerned, Catholics and Orthodox Christians tend to have a Protestant attitude; anyone and everyone can have a personal relationship with Mary. Every Catholic and Orthodox can pray directly to Mary. It is true that Mary is seen as being, in traditional understandings, the Mediatrix of all graces. But do men in the Catholic and Orthodox churches believe that this role is somehow held in a special way by women? Do men seek out women as powerful advocates with Christ? Do men believe that women, because they are physically conformed to Mary, share in her intercessory power in a way that men do not? The answer is no. Christ’s divine priesthood empowers a small group of men to be priests, but Mary’s role as advocate does not empower women to intercede on behalf of others.

Some will argue, “But men do seek out women to pray for them!” True. Why do they ask those women to pray for them? What is the criteria? In most cases, it is the personal (perceived) holiness of the woman in question. It is not simply because she is a woman. Her being a woman is irrelevant. It is only on account of her holiness that he asks for her prayers, and since a man can be just as holy as a woman, there is no reason to specifically seek out a woman.

Of course, all of this assumes a utilitarian attitude towards people and things. Stephen Fry (no friend of Christianity) once stated that “The best things in life are useless.” I have a lot of affection for this quote.

Yes, ecclesiastically speaking, women are useless.

So is this.

And this.

And this.


The best things in life are useless. 🙂

The Limits of Words: Part one of She Who Is reflection

At Mass a few weeks ago, I was praying the Our Father at Mass. It suddenly occurred to me that the Romans had a very different understanding of fathers than we do in 21st century America. We think of fathers as being a stationary entity. Everyone has a biological father. And yet, the status, roles, and power of fathers in Roman society is vastly different than in the modern Western world. For a Roman, the word pater in the Pater Noster would have conjured up a very different image. Modern people have trouble with the idea of God as a Father who allows suffering. For Romans, who believed that a father had the right (and duty) to kill deformed offspring, the idea of God the Father wielding life and death over His children would have made perfect sense. The idea of obeying God the Father would have made sense as well, because Roman paters had the power to arrange marriages and even sell their children into slavery. For the ancient Romans, the Pater Noster would have conjured up a very different image of God than for modern Americans.

The mindset we have often affects the words that we use and the way we interpret images. I once heard a young traditional Catholic man say that the reason that the altar in St. Peter’s is covered by a baldachin is that it is representative of the covering over the marriage bed, because the Mass is where the union between heaven and earth is consummated. When I first heard that, I nodded my head and said, “Oh,” but I didn’t quite believe it. The emphasis of Mass as a sexual metaphor seemed positively Freudian, and I found it hard to believe that the constructors of the altar were influenced by marital and sexual imagery. True, they might have found sexual imagery in the personal relationship between the soul and God, but to argue that they saw the Mass in terms of marriage and sex seemed ridiculous.

So, I went to Wikipedia to look up baldachin. (Wikipedia can be problematic of course, and I would never use it in a scholarly paper. But for personal knowledge, a jumping off point, and as a refresher, it’s a good jumping off point. I also find the citations and external sources listed at the bottom of the pages very useful.)

Sure enough, the origin of the baldachin has nothing to do with sex. It’s about power.

The baldachin originally arose in Baghdad and were originally used by kings and bishops, as well as other people of great importance, as a sign of their importance and their authority. Eventually, as kings began to receive important visitors in bed, they placed baldachins over state beds where they received visitors. This was also the place where queens would labor and deliver the heirs to the dynasty. Poor Marie Antoinette labored in front of the entire court, because the birth of a son, a Dauphin, was an act of state. Louis XIV had introduced the great stately ceremonies surrounding the rising and retiring of the King. Interestingly enough, they did not necessarily sleep in those beds. They were largely ceremonial.

I understand why the young man said what he said. We are living 100 years since the writings of Freud revolutionized the way people see the world and the way people see humans. He, like many other young or middle aged Catholics, are desperate to reimagine and market Catholicism as a religion that is fundamentally pro-sex. This leads them to make statements about the Church that seem downright prurient, rather than prudish.

I bring all of this up to say that I agree completely with a fundamental assertion of Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is. There is a limit to what we can express with words. As a person who loves history, our understanding and our lived realities shape the way we understand language and culture, and the theology behind them.

Elizabeth Johnson points out that we can, in a sense, idolize words and concepts, when they are, in a sense, shadows of something else. Even understanding God as a Father varies to the degree that a person or society views fathers. In a few matriarchal societies, fathers are unimportant. Children are raised by maternal uncles. In ancient Rome, a father had the right to marry children to people they did not love and sell them into slavery. In ancient Greece, and through the Middle Ages, people believed that sperm were essentially “little men,” and that the woman contributed no genetic material to her children, only nutrition and a safe place to gestate. (It was for this reasons that St. Thomas Aquinas writes that women cannot fully represent the image and likeness of God.) People in these societies will pray the “Our Father” vastly differently than 21st century Americans.

I read an article by a priest who said, to the effect, “We do not have metaphors for God. We have analogies.” I laughed. “My mom does not have a cat, she has a feline!” It’s a distinction without a difference.

I’m not a fan of ancient Greek philosophy, but even so, in this sense, Plato’s cave is helpful. Fathers may be shadows of God, but God is not a giant human father. Kings may be shadows of God, but God is not a giant king. The union of a husband and wife may be shadows of the union of Christ and the Church, but Christ and the Church are not earthly husbands and wives. Dark glass and all…

In short, I offer this cartoon.

She Who Is: A Series of Thoughts on Elizabeth Johnson’s Book

About a month ago I read, for the first time, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth Johnson.

This is the kind of book I would have been afraid to read even 5 years ago.

It was an incredibly thought provoking and challenging book, as well as inspiring.  Over the next few weeks I’ll talk about what I thought of the book, its merits and its shortcomings, as far as I can see.

The Night of the Long Knives: A Christian Fantasy

I will never forget the moment after the election last November.  A man with whom I was friends on Facebook, called me a “so called Catholic” because he believed that I had voted for Obama.  (I hadn’t, but I saw no reason to correct him.)  He then announced that he was unfriending every person, especially every Catholic, who had voted for Obama.  He proceeded to do so.

It was not the first time I had experienced this kind of thinking.  As a young person growing up, I was tangentially related to the Evangelical Christian community.  My mother was (and is) devout, but she was never unreasonable or judgmental about it.  I have other relatives who are not.  I remember the night I was fervently reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  I stayed up late in the night reading it but not simply because I was engrossed by the story.  I was also going to my uncle’s house, who believed that Harry Potter was demonic and would have suggested that I burn the book.  When I was at my uncle’s house, I was a closeted Harry Potter fan.  I would have been seen as unchristian.

My uncle believes in a strict evangelical fundamentalist streak of Christianity.  It goes beyond simply believing in accepting Christ as one’s personal savior.  It also means accepting the literal meaning of everything in the Bible, including a literal reading of the book of Genesis.  (My uncle believes that the world is about 6,000 years old.)  His brand of Christianity also blends a severe individualistic, conservative beliefs of the United States government and economy.  For him, to favor limitations on gun ownership is tantamount to believing in a mother goddess figure.  (Needless to say, I still haven’t told them that I accept the scientific evidence in evolution. 🙂  )

Catholics are also by no means immune to this impulse.  I read a comment on National Catholic Register a few months ago where a Catholic woman bragged about how she had convinced a friend to refrain from joining the Catholic Church.  Her reason?  Her friend found it difficult to accept the prohibition on contraception.

I cannot help but think about how different the history of the Western Hemisphere would be if Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans had adopted this tactic in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.  Never mind contraception, or even gay marriage, some of the indigenous Catholics still practice witchcraft!  Yet, when the scores West African slaves arrived on the shores of Haiti, the priests did not hesitate to baptize them.

I titled my post Night of the Long Knives because this is a reference to the systematic murder of conservative Nazis and enemies of the Nazi party in 1934.  It was done to eliminate political enemies and consolidate political power.  Many Christians today in America share this fantasy, even if they don’t want to use violence to achieve it.  Many Christians talk about the possibility of persecution.  Rather than dreading this possibility, many Christians actually fantasize about this possibility.   They talk about a smaller, purer church, and for them this is a good thing.  It means driving out the Christians who don’t measure up to their standards.  It means getting rid of people they do not like.  Then all Christians will be like them.


A goddess of war?

I recently learned, to my surprise, that the ancient Egyptians worshiped a goddess of war.


Her name was Sekhmet, and she was depicted with the head of a lioness.

I am fascinated that the ancient Egyptians would use a female deity to represent war.

Any thoughts?


Kissing Courtship Goodbye

I have been planning on writing this post for a long time, but personal events have made this post much more necessary.  I am posting this without names, and I am altering some of the details ever so slightly.  I am doing this because I do not want anyone mentioned in my post to be identified and humiliated.  That is not my intent.  

When I was a teenager, the courtship hit the Evangelical churches with a vengeance.  Specifically, it was through a book called I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris.  That book was everywhere.  I was a part of the Evangelical Christian community, although not totally integrated into it, and even for me it seemed as though this book was inescapable.  If I opened a Christian magazine, it was there.  If I went to a youth group meeting, it was there.  There was no escape from it!

I was planning on doing a focus on everything that is wrong with this book ,but I discovered this review from gortexgrrl on Amazon. com

Excellent Review of I Kissed Dating Goodbye

This review is fantastic.  It’s so fantastic, that I find I have little to add.

But I would like to add a few things.

1 The legalistic virgin reward

One thing that this book, and others like it imply, is that “If you follow the rules, God will reward you with the person of your dreams!”  For many conservative evangelical Christians, this means “If you stay a virgin until marriage, God will give you a virgin!”  This is simply bad theology.  Very bad theology.  And it leads to a lot of bad feelings.  I have spent time lurking on message boards where I have seen young men shouting, “I want a virgin, damn it!”  Nice guys.  But at the same time, it’s not entirely their fault that they feel the way they do.  They were told by religious leaders that God had promised each of them a virgin, and if they stayed chaste, then they would receive a virgin as payment.  These men feel defrauded.

2 The guilt for boy crazy women

The teaching about “guarding your heart” really translates into “suppress your interest in guys.”  I’m not just talking about sexual interests, I’m talking about romantic interest in general.  Many teenage girls who bought into this idea tried to cover up romantic interest in the men around them, and looked down on the flirts who were “boy crazy.”  These teenage girls ended up shocked and dismayed in their 20’s when they discovered that lo and behold, the boy crazy girls were the ones who ended up married!  Not only have these girls been subjected to unneeded guilt, they sabotaged their efforts to get what they wanted.

3 Hurt cannot be avoided

Joshua Harris admits that he was prompted to write this book after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend.  In his book, he looks at the pain of broken relationships and decides that this pain must be avoided at all costs.  He also promises that his courtship method prevents this pain.

Does this really happen?

A few days ago, I discovered that a high school friend of mine has become engaged.  Again.  He was engaged about a year ago, after meeting a woman only a few times.  She was a good friend’s sister.  They conversed online, and met a few times in person.  They became engaged in a mere matter of months.  A couple of months later, their engagement ended.  Now, they did not date for an extended period of time and then break up; rather, they became engaged very quickly and then ended their engagement.  Following the courtship model did not save them from emotional pain of a relationship ending.  Rather, it added public embarrassment to their emotional pain.

In the same way, I had a friend whose brother married last year after a very short courtship and a very short engagement.  After marriage, he discovered that they had very different attitudes about marriage, gender roles, and birth control, among other issues.  He expressed his frustration and confusion to his sister that he had no idea that she felt the way she did about key issues.  Time will tell whether their marriage will survive and be happy.

It turns out that following a courtship model does not save a person from hurt.  This becomes more obvious as a person grows older, and I am not simply talking about romantic attachments.  The older a person gets, the more opportunity they have to lose friends and family members, either through moving away or through death.

In a way, I am glad that I read this book and saw the hype around it.  It was the hype around it, and the promotion of it, that helped me to realize that Evangelicalism was not merely wrong, but most likely irreparably wrong.

But even so, for the sake of my friends, it is time, past time, to kiss courtship goodbye.