For many years, the narrative on the Reformation and women has maintained that it must have been all good news. How could it not be? After all, Martin Luther and others had emphasised the freedom of the individual Christian believer, encouraged Bible reading and, therefore, literacy for all and, of course, had elevated and celebrated marriage. This, we are assured, was progress.
Perhaps not. As has been the case with many historical narratives and assumptions, the certainty that the Reformation produced net gains for women has been upended in recent decades. A survey of the large and continually growing body of research reveals wide agreement that is, in fact, 180 degrees away from the former view.
As Lutheran historian Kirsi Stjerna writes, “With the fading of the nuns and other related, traditionally important religious roles for women (such as the mystics and visionaries), which coincided with the theologically argued women’s domestication, women’s spiritual presence and theological voice in the church at large seemed to radically diminish.”
The Reformation was, of course, a diverse and constantly evolving phenomenon. Common to the entire movement, however, was the conviction that vowed, celibate religious life as an ideal was non-Scriptural, harmful and must be eliminated, supplanted by another model of ideal Christian life: the individual, saved by faith alone, dwelling productively in the community as believer, spouse and parent.
The strongest symbol of this “non-biblical” ideal of virginity was, of course, the monastery, so in Reformed lands the closing of male and female religious houses was a priority, and the Gospel of domesticity was preached and enforced in their stead. Every woman, it was assumed, was meant for marriage, children and the home. Gone was that space – as the convent was – for women to pursue intellectual and artistic pursuits, to provide institutionalised charity, to interact with religious, political and business interests as leaders of their communities, and – very importantly – to support the community and serve the living and the dead through their once highly valued but now “useless” prayers.
She also points out how the elimination of the commemoration of saints meant that holy women like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena, even the Beguine mystics, were forgotten and of course, that devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was questioned and reduced. Shutting off that avenue of vocation diminished feminine influence in the Church, not increased it.
Read the rest there.
And think about England: Henry VIII wiped out the religious vocations of his subjects, thwarting God's call to them when he dissolved the monasteries, convents, and friaries. English women, like Venerable Mary Ward, had to exile themselves from their native home to make their religious vows.
Of course, we can't know what might have been, but think of the contributions English women religious might have made to the reform and renewals efforts of the Catholic Church--England could have its own St. Teresa of Avila or St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, influencing prayer and spirituality for centuries.
As it is, the Catholic women saints--except for Mary Ward--of the post English Reformation era are the martyrs, St. Margaret Clitherow, St. Margaret Ward, and St. Anne Line.
Since All Saints Day is dedicated to ALL the saints, officially canonized or not, I'd like to think of all the women who remained in England, trying to remain also true to their Catholic faith, assisting priests, attending Mass and availing themselves of the other Sacraments whenever they could, teaching their children the Catechism, praying the Rosary and maintaining other devotions, celebrating the saints and feast days in the traditional way, always in hiding, sometimes in danger--and always praying that a missionary priest might be close by when they were pregnant or when they were dying, so that their babies could be baptized or they finally would receive Extreme Unction and Viaticum. Those are saints! Great confessors of the Faith!
And the exiled English sisters and nuns, far from home, praying for the conversion of England, praying for their families at home, probably particularly for their mothers, trying to live a Catholic life when it had been proscribed by the State.
All holy men and women, pray for us!!
Image Credit: St. Julian of Norwich. Mary Ward image is in the public domain.