Is Catholicism against feminism?
There are mixed reactions to this question. No theologian can deny that after the Second Vatican Council, the birth of feminist theology came to focus in the Catholic Church. Catholic women and feminists started interpreting the Bible and Church tradition and history from the feminist perspective. This was in the 1970s, which also marked the birth of the global Feminist Movement, which heralded the beginning of a worldwide movement that kept on growing right till our present decade. The Feminist Movement is currently having a tough time because of the rise of the right-wing in this post-truth era.
However, Feminists scholars claim that the Catholic Church has always been against feminism and the rights of women, especially the aspect of equality of the two binary genders, male and female. The strangest thing is, that while several lacunae can be found both in Catholicism and in the modern Feminist Movement, after analyzing the information available on the life of Saint Catherine of Siena, one realizes that she is someone in the Catholic Church who, way back in the fourteenth century, represented an unconventional side of the binary gender theory of the Church. Saint Catherine of Siena, in every way, was a woman who did things that generally women of her time never ventured to do or were never allowed to do. Saint Catherine of Siena is known as the Seraphic Virgin and is a Doctor of the Catholic Church. She was a woman who had a very colorful spiritual life. From living life in a small room for months to journeying to Rome, Avignon, and other far-off places to settle the papacy disputes, this saint did not do things according to the norms of society.
The norms of the society of her time dictated that a woman dedicating her life to the Lord Jesus should not interact with men other than priests. In contrast, in her life, we see Saint Catherine interacting with several men: married, unmarried, priests, friars, monks, sinners, you name it! According to several reliable testimonials, she did so not for the sake of her own glory but the glory of God and his holy Church. She was always in the company of men, considered by people of her town to be a motley group of very different individuals, along with several Catholic priests, friars, and monks who used to accompany her wherever she went. They did so because Saint Catherine’s charisma was such that the laity would immediately wish to make a confession or make a sincere act of contrition after hearing her speak.
She did not look upon any of the males in her motley group as anything other than her brothers or sons; in other words, to a certain extent, she conversed with them as equals. All her secretaries who worked for her were men she trusted implicitly. One would not be wrong to say that Saint Catherine seemed to prefer the company of men rather than women.
Saint Catherine, like Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, wanted to become a Catholic Dominican Friar or, simply put, a Catholic priest. This was another unconventional and otherwise very unusual wish that one would notice in a community of believers who mainly drilled it into children’s minds that only Catholic boys could have the right to receive the call to the vocation of the priesthood. Saint Catherine never made it a secret but informed all the men and women following her as well as her confessors and spiritual directors of her initial call to be a priest. Blessed Raymond of Capua, one of her dearest spiritual directors, tried to pass it off as an innocent joke in his biography of her life titled The Life of Saint Catherine of Siena, but we notice from the context of the words mentioned in the text that she was in earnest.
Saint Catherine was a woman who had visions of the Lord Jesus, Mother Mary, and the Saints every day of the year. It was on one occasion that Lord Jesus himself informed her that:
Am not I he who created the human race, and divided it into male and female? I spread the grace of my spirit where I will. In my eyes, there is neither male nor female, rich nor poor but all equal, for I can do all things with equal ease.
This was mentioned to her when Christ was commissioning her to go out into the world and save souls, especially with issues related to the Papacy. We notice Saint Catherine first had doubts about her being a convincing ambassador of Christ’s love, but that was mainly because of her gender and not because she did not feel the workings of the Holy Spirit within her. She would go on to bring peace in 1377 in the controversy regarding Pope Gregory XI and almost get martyred in the bargain! Because of her political actions and peace-making gestures, she had to live in hiding for one whole year, after which she returned to Siena only to be called back again to the main centers of Rome because of the schism in the Catholic Church of 1378. She worked out truces with kings, queens, Popes, and other political figures in Europe. Many times when we Google search who is the Patron Saint of Europe, we get the answer as Saint Benedict when actually, it should be Saint Catherine by right – because though being a woman, she managed to play a significant part in the proceedings of Europe during her time, the Age of Faith. We see her as an ambassador of peace, love, and mercy to a world gone mad. She went to such an extent to love the Catholic Church and safeguard the dignity of Saint Peter’s Chair that she took all the sins of the Schismatics of 1378 upon herself. This would ultimately lead her to be plagued by hideous visions and tortures of devils and demons for the remainder of her life on this plane of existence. She would not even be freed of these horrifying and painful visions at her death. Now which man would want to take the sins of such nature upon their own souls!
Her education was elementary, yet through a miraculous grace from her bridegroom Christ, as she used to call Him lovingly, she managed to learn Latin and even to read her breviary. She had no tuition in theology, yet the doctrines of her faith that she mentioned in detail to her spiritual directors were rich in the writings, philosophies, and theologies of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Jerome of Stridon, and Saint Gregory the Great. Her understanding of topics such as the Triune God-head, the self-transcendence of the soul, the theory of the unmoved mover, etc., were all told to her apparently by the Saints themselves who visited her pathetic little cell; Saint Thomas Aquinas was a regular visitor to her cell. These aspects would not be available to a consecrated virgin of Christ in the time of Saint Catherine. Yet, Divine Providence so decreed that this information, knowledge, and wisdom should be passed onto her. We all know that knowledge is power, and Saint Catherine used the knowledge at her disposal to exorcise demons, cure the sick, serve the poor, forgive sinners, convert the outcasts, and much more. Notice that compared to a man, she used the knowledge given to her the way modern-day feminists claim they will use their education and knowledge: to serve others and uplift a fellow brother or sister and not to boast about or overpower another through subjugation.
Today, many books are being released globally that are dead against feminism and women’s equality vis-à-vis the men. These are Catholic books being referred to, recommended, and ratified most of the time by eminent Catholic scholars, canon law experts, Catholic theologians, Bishops, and Cardinals worldwide, especially in Rome. They contend that feminists tend to be too unorthodox, vulgar, anti-Catholic, and sexually promiscuous. However, if discerning readers glean some message from the extraordinary life of Saint Catherine of Siena, they will realize that feminism has always been there in the Catholic Church and that by her life, this saint has made a cutting edge statement. The statement is that virginity also contains power, the power of stubborn perseverance towards a more peaceful, loving, and harmonious co-existence with humanity, nature, the cosmos, and the Divine. It is not only by being sexually active or free that there is liberation, even being a virgin can speak about freedom which intones liberation. The iron determination of a consecrated virgin to maintain her hymen knot for eternity speaks about the many heartaches and severe separations that tear the heart apart every moment of the day. We also realize that where rapes are concerned, the torn hymen witness the fact that only the outer covering of virginity is sundered, not the inner kernel of tranquility of the unconquerable dignity of a virgin’s sacred vow. Saint Catherine of Siena was a remarkable woman who, in everything she did, seemed more feminist than anyone in her time could ever be. She proved to be a real burning Host in the hands of Christ, all aflame to save souls from damnation and the woes of purgatory.
Everything she did was not something a woman would normally do in her time. When Catholics term Feminists as vulgar and unorthodox women who don’t follow the status quo, it indicates that they have yet not read or heard about the tale of Saint Catherine, who cared for a dying breast cancer patient Andrea. Now, Andrea, had a terrible puss-filled wound on her breast that was killing her. Saint Catherine of Siena was the only consecrated virgin to attend to Andrea; the rest avoided the patient because of the terrible, stomach-churning, and nauseating smell that emitted from her wound along with bowls of pus, body fluids, and blood. One day Saint Catherine felt nausea after attending to Andrea. Saint Catherine was disgusted with herself for having felt faint with the smell of a fellow Christian’s ooze that to correct herself she drank the whole basin of the vile fluids she had collected from Andrea’s wound that day. Now was this orthodox behavior or not?
The testimony of the life and times of Saint Catherine of Siena prove to us that women have been doing things differently from men for a long time. It is just that people are like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time who stated they could see when actually they were blind and so had the greater sin.
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.John 9:41
©2022 Fiza Pathan
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