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The Blessing And Curse of the Virgin Mary

February 4, 2014

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.


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