Part 9: The New Catholic Feminism

The following is part 9 of a 20-part series. Follow the series at

Throughout the Medieval period, but especially during the early Middle Ages, it was considered neither unusual nor offensive for a woman to reign and rule as Queen. For example, Queen Theodelinde ruled the Lombard Kingdom as her husband's representative, and collaborated with the Pope in suppressing the Arian heresy. Adelaide and Theophano both governed the gigantic Holy Roman Empire without being mere "trustees" on behalf of a young or absent male monarch. In the tenth and eleventh centuries numerous biographies document how highly queens and empresses were respected.

Father Francis Martin cites several more examples of the achievements of female royalty:

In tenth century England, Aethelflaed, a daughter of King Alfred, led warriors against the Vikings, built fortresses along the Mercian frontier, and conquered much of eastern England. Matilda, an abbess of Quedlinburg and sister of Emperor Otto II of Germany, ruled in his brother's name when he was occupied, and even presided over church councils. Matilda of Tuscany sometimes donned armor to lead her troops in support of the popes against the German emperors. ... In Byzantium too, empresses accompanied their husbands on campaigns, engaged in political intrigues, and even reigned in their own right. (The Feminist Question, p. 131)

Devout Catholic queens sometimes reformed whole kingdoms. For example St. Jadwiga, the first female monarch to reign over Poland (from 1384 until her death in 1399), actually took the throne at the age of ten upon the death of her father. She agreed to marry a man she did not love, the pagan King of Lithuania, in order to unite the two kingdoms, but her piety and virtue so impressed the King that he converted to Christianity, which ultimately led to the conversion of all of Lithuania to the Catholic faith. Jadwiga led two military campaigns in the east to recover territories previously lost to the Polish kingdom. In addition to her success in international affairs, she was also deeply devoted to Jesus Christ, attending Mass daily, and working for the spiritual renewal of her nation. Jadwiga dedicated much of her time and resources to charitable work, founding new churches, sponsoring hospitals, changing laws to assist the poor in her realm, promoting the use of the Polish language in church services and hymns, and opening a faculty of theology at the Kraków Academy.

Another impressive royal in this regard was St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland (1045-1093). One modern biographer says of her:

Margaret of Scotland entered no convent and took no vows. She was a mother, a wife, and queen who ran her realm, Scotland, like a talented headmistress of a turbulent boarding school. ... When she was a girl of not more than twelve, in 1057, she was sent to the English court of [King] Edward the Confessor to be reared and educated. After Edward died and the Normans reigned in England, Margaret took refuge in Scotland with Malcolm Cranmore, called "the Great Leader." Margaret was "as good as she was beautiful," and Malcolm fell in love with her. He was an exemplary soldier but not much of a courtier or scholar, and it took his pretty Queen some years to tame him.

He fought the wars but Margaret did the ruling .... [She] stirred herself to root out as many evils [from the kingdom] as one woman could manage in a lifetime. She insisted on education for both clergy and lay people. She built hostels for strangers, ransomed captives, funded almshouses and hospitals for the sick and the poor. She was a politician, statesman, and mother-confessor to the land. Like Hilda [of Whitby] she also presided over a great [Church] synod ....

She was also a pioneer in another sphere. Bands of women met together at her invitation to study, discuss the Scriptures, and embroider vestments and altar cloths for the churches. So we can call Margaret the inventor of the Women's Club.

She had a further capability, one perhaps rarer than her other gifts. She was a wise mother. "Her [royal] children surpassed in good behavior many who were their elders; they were always affectionate and peaceable among themselves" .... No wonder she was able to bequeath to her adopted country "the happiest two hundred years of its history." (Phyllis McGinley, Saint Watching. New York: Viking Press, p. 99-100)

Not all of the remarkable and saintly women of this age, however, were women of notable authority or social achievement. As in any age, plenty of the medieval, female saints are remembered primarily for the purity and integrity of their moral character, and their special intimacy with God. One thinks, for example, of St. Elizabeth, Princess of Hungry (1207-1231), who captured the imagination of Christians everywhere by the love she showed for her husband and children, and her compassion and generosity toward the poor; or St. Gertrude the Great, the mystic of Helfta in Germany (1256-1302), whose special revelations from the Heart of Jesus became the principal foundation for the initial spread of devotion to his Sacred Heart throughout the Church.

Of course, modern Feminists rightly will say that even if the Church generally improved the lot of women in the Middle Ages, and devout female religious and royalty especially accomplished extraordinary things, this never resulted in full social equality. After all, queens usually could only rule when the king was absent, away at war, or on behalf of their sons when their male children were too young to rule the kingdom themselves. Many female royals and religious may have attained a fine education at convent schools, but from 1231 the great medieval universities were restricted to the clergy, which removed women from direct participation in these centers of intellectual life. And of course, just as in ancient Israel and in the early Church, women were not permitted to lead the community of faith: they could not be ordained as priests or consecrated as bishops.

Indeed, all this was so. But restrictions on what women were permitted to do became much more severe during the Renaissance, Early Modern and Enlightenment eras (ca. 1400-1850 AD), when European civilization became enamored of ancient Greek wisdom, and captive to misinterpretations of biblical texts by the Protestant Reformers - all this tended to promote the attitude that a woman's place was solely in the home, nurturing and raising children, or in an enclosed convent. Catholic countries too largely caved in to this social decay.

Pope St. John Paul II addressed this failure by Catholics to resist regressive social trends in his Letter to Women of 1995:

Women's dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even to servitude. This has prevented women from being truly themselves, and it has resulted in a spiritual impoverishment of humanity. Certainly, it is no easy task to assign blame for this, considering the many kinds of cultural conditioning which down the centuries have shaped ways of thinking and acting. And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision. (section 3)

Next time, we will look at how some remarkable Catholic women broke through social boundaries by the power of the Holy Spirit during the period of history most infected with male chauvinism.

Next Time: The Amazing Female Missionaries and Reformers of the Early Modern and Modern Eras

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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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