Part 10: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 10 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

The darkest period of European history for women was doubtless the era from 1400 to about 1850 AD. It was marked by a drive to restrict women to the home and the enclosed convent, and also (up until the early 1700s, at any rate) by the witch hunts that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

The fear that some women had formed a pact with the devil and had gained the supernatural power from him to raise storms, destroy crops, bring plagues, and curse the endeavors of the godly was, in part, an expression of superstition, but also a byproduct of extreme social anxiety in response to the spread of the Black Death and all the social and economic upheavals of the time.

Nevertheless, even though about 25 percent of all the witches executed were actually men accused of practicing sorcery, still, the whole sad course of events also reflected an underlying misogyny that afflicted the western world, a spiritual sickness that the Gospel message had never fully succeeded in curing. To be sure, witch-hunting was far more prevalent in Protestant than in Catholic lands. (In fact, in areas where the Inquisition was in force, it hardly happened at all, because the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions generally saw the whole witch-hunting craze as an expression of popular superstition.)

Still, the Catholic Church has the dubious distinction of being the source of the most notorious witch-hunting manual of the time, the Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches), written by a Catholic priest, although condemned by the Catholic theology faculty of the University at Cologne for recommending unethical and illegal procedures, as well as being inconsistent with Catholic teaching on demonology.

In the midst of this general cultural denigration of women, we find some raised up and empowered by the Holy Spirit to counteract all the "bad press," so to speak, by making vital contributions to Christian civilization.

Saint Theresa of Avila (1515-1582), reformer of the Carmelite order and author of some of the greatest works of spirituality of all time, is perhaps the most famous of these. She had lived 20 years as a lax, "don't-push-me-too-hard" nun before experiencing an adult conversion that set her heart on fire for Christ and kindled a passion in her to restore the spiritual radiance of Carmel. To do so she had to overcome stubborn nuns in her own order, a suspicious Spanish Inquisition, and even an irate papal nuncio who once called her "a restless gadabout," and who complained: "She is ambitious, and teaches theology as though she were a Doctor of the Church." The joke is on him now, of course, for St. Theresa was later officially declared a Doctor of the Church by the Holy See.

Less well known would be St. Anne Marie Javouhey (1779-1851), the daughter of a Burgundian farmer. She spent part of her childhood carrying secret messages for the Catholic resistance against the French revolutionaries, and along with her family, hiding the hunted from the secret police and getting some of them safely away to exile in England.

All this providentially prepared her for a life of danger and adventure, for after she founded her own women's religious order, she was called upon by the governors of several French colonies in Africa and South America to come and address the problems of ignorance, immorality, and squalor pervasive among settlers and natives alike.

Mother Javouhey subsequently discovered that the native populations in these colonies "had learned nothing from the French except their bad habits." So she set to work establishing hospitals, leper colonies, and schools, even in the most remote jungle locations, teaching the natives better agricultural practices (which she had learned from her father as a young girl), and even buying up runaway slaves to save them from the lash. Her efforts were so successful that she was later asked to supervise in Mana, Guiana, the first French government "pilot project" for the liberation of the slaves.

One biographer writes:

She selected six hundred natives, to whom she taught reading, writing, religion, and mechanical and agricultural arts. When in 1838 they were solemnly freed, a sum of money, a piece of land, and a cottage were waiting for each family - arranged for by Anne Marie. Eventually all of Mana became a free colony under her supervision and the Negroes gained the right to elect their delegate to the French Parliament. To a man they cast their votes for Mother Javouhey. When it was explained that a woman could not sit for them, they refused to cast a ballot at all. (McGinley, Saint Watching, p. 107)

In the United States we have our own special heroine from the end of this era: a person whose life we explored in the "Parish Renewal Program" of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy:

Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy in 1850, the thirteenth child of a farming family. From her youngest days she dreamed of becoming a missionary. She used to make paper boats, fill them with violets, and set them floating down a canal, pretending that they were filled with missionaries journeying to the far corners of the globe. She wanted to become a nun, but several convents refused her entry, ostensibly because of her fragile health. Frances resigned herself, therefore to becoming a teacher and gave up her missionary daydreams, entrusting the course of her life into the hands of Jesus Christ.

It turned out that Frances had repeatedly been refused entrance to convents because of a scheming priest named Monsignor Serrati, who wanted to put Frances to work on his own projects. He convinced Frances to go to an orphanage run by a new religious institute that was under his oversight, to help reform its management practices; he promised her that she did not need to stay there more than a few weeks. In the end, he refused to permit her to leave, and she spent six years in charge of the orphanage. Frances did such a splendid job in running this institution in the face of great obstacles that other sisters came to join her in the religious community there, and she successfully applied to Rome to turn the institute in to a full religious congregation with a worldwide mission. She took as the congregation's motto the words of St. Paul: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."

Frances would often need the Lord to do "all things" on her behalf, for numerous times the orphanages and schools run by her congregation ran short of money. Whenever this occurred, she would simply tell the sisters to pray and have faith, and the money would be found to carry on. Sometimes it was even found, miraculously, in a particular drawer or a cupboard where Frances told the sisters to look for it.

Meanwhile, Bishop Scalabrini of Piacenza made known to Mother Frances the terrible plight of the Italian immigrants in America. Shamelessly exploited as laborers, they suffered also due to their limited knowledge of English, and many of them lived in dire poverty. Sisters were badly needed in America to educate the children of these immigrants - especially in English and in the Catholic faith - to care for their orphans, and to provide them with affordable hospitals. Mother Frances was sympathetic, but she had already set her heart on sending her sisters to work in China. However, when she went to the Pope and knelt for his blessing on her work in the Far East, he replied, "No, not the East, but the West." Thus commissioned by the Holy Father himself, she made her way to America with seven sisters in 1889. Starting out with almost no money at all, they began to establish orphanages, schools, and hospitals in New York and Chicago, later branching out to New Orleans and even farther south: to Nicaragua and Grenada. She started her first hospital, Columbus Hospital in New York City, with just four gifts of $50 each. She even did missionary work among the Italian miners in Colorado, going down mine shafts and tunnels to teach them English and the Catholic faith. Ultimately, Mother Frances became a U.S. citizen herself.

Finally, full of joy yet worn out by her labors, Mother Frances made a visit to Rome in 1910 and asked the prefect of her congregation, Cardinal Vives y Tuto, to relieve her of her responsibilities as head of her religious order so she could spend her final years in contemplation. But the Cardinal had secretly conspired with the sisters of the order unanimously to re-elect her to another term in office. When he received her request for retirement in person, therefore, the Cardinal replied, "Mother Cabrini, as up to now you have governed your institute so badly, I have decided to give you another chance, in the hope that you will do a better job in the future. You are to remain the Superior-General."

Seven years later she still held the post. Her last day on earth was spent wrapping Christmas presents for her friends and filling bags of candy for the schoolchildren. Her Christmas card that year read, "Send forth Thy light and Thy truth; they shall lead me into Thy holy Mountain and into Thy tabernacles." When her sisters objected that this was a strange sentiment for a Christmas card, she replied, "Leave it as it is."

Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini died quietly in her room on Dec. 22, 1917, and was canonized in 1946. She was the first citizen of the United States to be named a saint.

Next Time: The Natural Complementarity of Men and Women

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Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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