Upon reading ‘Virgins and Jezebels’

As a naïve nineteen-year-old in 1976, I converted to Catholicism, enchanted by the beauty and depth of ritual, the mysticism of the sacraments and the welcoming embrace of the Catholic community. I was part of the Charismatic movement, enjoying the spirit filled life, centred on the person of Jesus and inspired by the witness of the young people living their life and faith to the full in this Charismatic community.  Not being a cradle Catholic, I was ignorant of the ways of clericalism. The few priests I knew were holy, insightful and educated men whose humility amazed me. Becoming a member of the Catholic Church was a privilege and one I embraced with the robust devotion only converts can attest to.

This same naïve nineteen-year-old was also being exposed to the strident voices of feminism, attacking patriarchy and institutions which effectively created binary identities for women – as Anne Summers identified in her seminal work Damned Whores and God’s Police (1974). Anne Summers’ argued that the colonisation of Australia had created a patriarchal gender order that reduced 19th-century women to the roles of virtuous wives and mothers, dubbed “God’s police”, and the transgressive “damned whores”.

When I was given Chris Geraghty’s book Virgins and Jezebels to review, I gritted my teeth and wailed to myself yet again. Why do we need another religious male voice published by religious publishers being given pre-eminence in the scholarly domain of misogyny in early Christian communities and onwards?  Wouldn’t a woman’s voice be more convincing? Do we really need one more scholarly male telling women the historical account of their subjugation and disempowerment in the Catholic Church?  I wondered how many women’s manuscripts on a similar topic had been rejected in favour of this one.  How many other women’s voices have been silenced by powerful patriarchal forces. How many voices have we not heard because their stories were not regarded as important enough to record, or because they were not educated in the ways of communicating effectively for the times?

While I was engaged with Geraghty’s book, I was also reading Aileen Moreton Robinson’s book “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman’, an indigenous critique of white feminism.  Like the women in post Apostolic communities and in the Europe ruled by Christianity, she argues that indigenous women had their lives written about and were subject to the colonial gaze, but they were not given power to voice their own experiences or world views.  Likewise, Kate Grenville’s new book “A Room Made of Leaves” about Elizabeth MacArthur attempts to give voice to MacArthur’s authentic views and experiences by reading between the lines of her correspondence and coupling  them with what we know to be the experiences of her husband and community.  We need more women advocating for women in the Church today. We need to cast aside the burden and power of history and contemplate an inclusive Church of the future, where each member can participate according to their gifts and calling, not their biological bits. Beth Doherty well known author and blogger, has recently released her book examining this theme. It is voices like hers that we need to celebrate and enact a vision of full participation of women in the life of the Catholic Catholic Church.

Until we declericalise and put Jesus before Christianity, as the Dominican Albert Nolan advocated in his eponymous book published in 1976, we will not dismantle the scourge of misogyny in the Church.  I recommend you read other Nolan works, and reviews of his works – you will find them easily with Google.

Donald Rumsfeld US Secretary for Defense in 2002 said “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. We don’t know what we don’t know”

I would argue that the conservative theologians who uphold the views of exclusive masculine privilege in Church leadership and governance need to ask themselves what it is they don’t know they don’t know about the teachings of Jesus and the inclusiveness of early Christian communities. How is it they can embrace the theology of St Paul and conveniently ignore his teaching that “For as many of you were baptised into Christ have put on Christ, there is neither slave nor freeman, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal2:27 -28)

The irony of publishing such a text at this time seems to reinforce a view that only men have the secret knowledge that is inaccessible and inexpressible by women in the Church. I do not need an ex priest, insider, speaking for me, on behalf of me. In doing so, he is reinforcing the power of the institution of the Church to limit women’s voices and participation. He is also denying me agency in advocating my own position. While the book is a scholarly, very well researched account of the histories of Post Apostolic communities, I would have been much happier if it had a different title such as The developing institution of the Church in Post Apostolic Communities.

REFERENCES

Doherty, Beth. All The Beautiful Things: Finding Truth, Beauty and Goodness in a Fractured Church. Melbourne, Garratt Publishing, 2020

Geraughty, Chris. Virgins and Jezebels: The Origins of Christian Misogyny. Melbourne, Garratt Publishing, 2020

Grenville, Kate.  A Room Made of Leaves. Text Publishing, Melbourne 2020

Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talking up to the White Women – Indigenous Women and Feminism. University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, 2020

Albert Nolan Jesus Before Christianity, New York, Orbis Books, 2001

Summers, Anne. Damned Whores and God’s Police : the Colonization of Women in Australia. London :Allen Lane, 1975

Author

  • Anne Armstong

    Anne Armstrong Religious Education Curriculum Coordinator at St Francis Xavier College in Canberra.

    annearmstrong7234@gmail.com Armstong Anne