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Women among Catholics and Protestants

· ​A look back at history ·

Throughout the Christian tradition it was thought that it was easier to enmesh women in heresy than men and for this very reason many Catholics sought to discredit the Protestant cause, linking it to the weakness of women. However, did the Reformation really attract Catholic women rather than men? And did women really find in the Protestant confessions the possibility of participating more actively in the religious life of their communities and even of having access to better living conditions too? Today, faced with the blatant openness of the ministry to women in all the reformed denominations, we are led to give a positive answer to some of these questions, for the Protestant world seems more open to and respectful of women than the Catholic world. But is this really true? And, above all, has it always been so?

Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Katharina von Bora”

In a famous essay – City Women and Religious Change – the Jewish historian Natalie Zemon Davis seeks to respond to these questions through her careful research into 16th-century Huguenot France. Before the Reformation almost all women took part in the city’s financial activities in various ways, even though their lives were largely absorbed by the biological function of procreation. Their participation in public life, however, was little or non-existent and their level of literacy was on the whole low, although during this period – thanks to the dissemination of printed works – literacy in men was increasing. On the eve of the Reformation women’s participation in religious life was less organized than that of men: there were fewer female confraternities and the search for new female community experiences of life, apart from the few monasteries, showed minimal results. However, the relationship of women with religion and with the saints was generally of a private nature or was expressed within a family context. Then it is necessary to remember that presence at religious functions – for both women and men – was sporadic, and the fulfilment of the Easter precept was also rare. In this framework the Reformation intervened as a new and disruptive element, because it put the Bible into the hands of women: “They are all semi-theologians”, the Franciscan preachers said with contempt; rather, with their passionate preaching, they asked of women tears of repentance.

The humanist Erasmus was one of the few men of the time who grasped the resentment that was accumulating in women, whose efforts to deepen their doctrinal knowledge were discouraged and derided by the clergy. In one of his Colloquia a learned woman who was ridiculed by an abbot bursts out with these words: “If you continue as you have begun, even geese will start preaching rather than put up with the silence of you pastors. The world scene is now upside down. Either you withdraw or each one must do his part”.

Jean Perrissin, “Le Temple de Lyon nommé Paradis” (1565)

Popular Calvinist literature was in fact proposing a new image of the good Christian woman: she must be simple and pure but she should also know the Bible so that she could hold her own in a confrontation with priests. In the Protestant propaganda of the first decades, in fact, the Christian woman was identified by her relationship with Scripture. “Even in reality”, Zemon Davis writes, “Protestant woman were setting their souls free from the domination of priests and doctors of theology”. She cites the example of Marie Becaudelle, a servant girl at La Rochelle, who learned the Gospel from her master so well that she succeeded in triumphing in a public dispute with a Franciscan, while the wife of a bookseller discussed doctrine with the Bishop of Paris and with doctors in theology from prison. The Huguenot Queen of Navarre, the King’s sister, proclaimed: “Those who say that it is not the task of women to look at the Sacred Scriptures are wicked men and ungodly seducers and antichrists”.

In those same years, however, Catholics preached that for women domestic work, sewing and weaving sufficed for their salvation: “They will place in Paradise even spiders who can spin to perfection”, wrote the author of an anti-Catholic booklet. It is unwise, moreover, wrote a well-known Jesuit preacher, to leave the Bible to the discretion “of what is whipped up in a woman’s brain”.

The Protestant movement thus offered a new perspective for which literacy was essential, just as it was for men. In the first moments of rebellion against the Church women welcomed this possibility with enthusiasm: they read the Bible publicly and commented on it. The new liturgy, which adopted the Vulgate, introduced the Psalms sung together by both women and men – all lay people, men and women at the same level, at least in appearance, and attracted, as Max Weber wrote, by a religion which called on intellectual activity and self-control. But in exchange women were deprived of saints, of prayers, of images and of invocations. This loss did not in fact affect the two sexes equally: while men retained in prayer a reference to their sexual identity – they addressed the Father and the Son – the loss of Mary deprived women of a female image to turn to. Thus the effects of this loss were deeper for women’s sense of identity, especially at critical moments such as when they were suffering the pains of labour, when they no longer had female devotions to call upon.

This was the very reason – according to Zemon Davis – why male clergy adhered to the movement of reform far more than women religious. The sisters resisted, even in the face of promises of dowries and retirement benefits, partly because they preferred to live in their celibate condition in a separate female organization. Indeed, in Protestant society a woman could at most be the wife of a minister of God in a marriage based on the principle of friendship and solidarity and supposed to be a faithful one: in Protestant communities prostitutes were immediately ostracized. Nevertheless women were also always subordinate to their husbands.

Overall the founders of the new reformed confessions and pastors in general had not taken a positive view of this unheard of female protagonism: for them, reform must be limited to replacing the clergy with well-trained and solid pastors, not causing an upheaval in society. A woman, and here the usual Pauline citation returns, could not speak at a Christian assembly. One pastor wrote to Calvin: “Our consistory will be the laughing stock of Papists and Anabaptists. They will say that we are ordered about by women”. Women who had been incited to disobey their priests were now tamed by pastors with a certain ease: forced to return to silence, many of them once again opted for the Catholic Church, where at least they found their women saints and the Madonna. And it was here, perhaps, that in the end they were better off. In fact, Zemon Davis writes, “No Calvinist woman demonstrated (or was enabled to demonstrate) the organizational creativity of the great women protagonists of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.... In addition, no woman of the Reformation outside noble circles published as many works as Catholic women of the same milieu”.

The abolition of women saints as religious models for both sexes constituted a serious affective and symbolic loss. And if de facto, from the end of the 16th to the end of the 18th centuries, women in both Catholic and Protestant countries suffered from the tightening up of matrimonial law, from the decline of the female corporations and from the difficulties in acquiring a role which educated women encountered, the Reformation – history concludes – “by eliminating from the religious sphere every independent female identity and form of organization rendered women slightly more vulnerable to submission in every field”.

We still see traces of this history today: if the Protestant Churches can boast of women pastors, Anglican women priests and women bishops, the Catholic Church is based on the work and dedication of a great mass of women – women account for more than 80 per cent of religious, and more than 60 per cent if priests are included – and without any doubt this fact gives a female stamp to the daily apostolate, whereas in Protestant societies there are few female organizations and those that exist are small.

This long historical process which has led to a different presence and role of women in the various confessions has profoundly shaped both Catholic and Protestant religious life, as we need to acknowledge. This is also in order to create a new awareness which suggests that we should look at the differences between Catholicism and the reformed confessions with different eyes, less inclined to make hasty judgements on the modernity of some and the backwardness of others. And above all it suggests that the possibilities of collaboration and of an exchange of experiences is necessary and very useful for everyone.

     Lucetta Scaraffia

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