July 15 - September 1, 2002
volume 13, no. 104

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The Protestant Reformation and Women

Protestant thinking has altered the landscape of God's rules for the roles of His creations - man and woman. The result has thrown the balance of the natural and supernatural off kilter. With the Revolutionists' intent to demasculate man in today's society, we would do well to realize why and when the balance of Nature, as God intended it, went wrong. The results we are faced with today are merely the decaying fruits of rebellion against God's Will.

    "It really comes as no surprise to me that several centuries later, the feminist revolution and emancipation movement found fertile ground for growth, and particularly in the Protestant countries. It was in part a reaction to a distorted view of women, quite different from the view of the Middle Ages, in a Catholic society where there were many outlets for a woman to exercise her influence and capacities."

    There was a French author, Robert Beauvais, who said, "We all wake up each morning a little more Protestant." The Protestant spirit has dominated the outlook of Western Civilization since the 1500s. It traveled to America with the Mayflower and became the dominant mentality of Early American life. So many social commentators, from Max Weber to Robert Nisbet, have written about how it has been transfused, like lifeblood, into the economic, social and political life of the West. It is natural then, that this revolution had a strong influence on women, and this is the topic I want to address here.

    Sometime ago, I spoke about how the natural and civil rights of women were respected in the Middle Ages [See audiocassette available from Tradition In Action, "The Middle Ages and Women"]. I told how under the influence and protection of the Holy Church and through the practice of virtue, Catholic queens and princesses converted their pagan husbands and gave birth to the Catholic nations of the West. I spoke about their role and impact on local and national affairs, in education and hospitals. Only in the Middle Ages could the simple daughter of a town cloth dyer, Catherine of Siena, exercise the authority to promote crusades, reconcile bandits and counsel her beloved Babbo - Pope Gregory XI. Christopher Dawson, a great 20th century English historian, noted that women at the end of the Middle Ages had a wider share in social life and a greater influence on civilization than at any time in history.

    The role of women changed significantly after the Protestant Reformation.
    How and why this was possible is what I want to examine here.

The Rudiments of Protestantism

    Allow me to first make a brief review of some essentials of Protestant doctrine so that we can look at their effects on women and society.

    From the beginning with Martin Luther and John Calvin, there have been some basic common principles of Protestantism:

    1. The famous sola Scripturae - the source of revelation would be to be found in Scripture alone, and not in tradition.

    2. Free interpretation - each man could interpret Scripture the way he wants, and work out his religious truth. Therefore, ultimately, there would be no one fixed rule. Protestantism at base is a religion without a fixed dogma.

    3. Sola Fides. Justification by faith alone. Works can be useful, but they would not be necessary. Why? Because the man who accepts Jesus Christ would be adorned with Christ's merits and so would appear before God not as a sinner but as a just man.

    4. The absence of any intermediary between God and the believer, hence, the rejection of the principle of authority in religious matters. The believer, as his own interpreter of the Bible, thinks he would have 'direct line to heaven.' Being in direct contact with God, he could do without the various mediators to whom the Catholic has recourse - the Blessed Virgin, the Saints, and the Church.

    Therefore, Protestantism, with a single blow, cut down all the devotions that provide model ideals for women: Our Lady, St. Anne, the virgins, the martyrs, and so on. Now, there would be only the individual and Jesus Christ.

Consequences: No Intermediaries

    Let's look first at this loss of any intermediary relationships - the Blessed Virgin, the Saints, and the Church.

    In my opinion, the greatest loss to the high status women had gained by the end of the Middle Ages was doing away with the cult and devotion to Our Lady. In the Catholic Church, there is the Kingship of Christ, and also the Queenship of Our Lady. In a Catholic nation, while the king was the father of families, in the household, the man was king of the family. As devotion to the Blessed Mother increased, the role of women likewise took on increasing dignity inside the home and family. Her queenship, similar to the Queenship of Our Lady, was emphasized. Subject to the head, the mother of a family was nonetheless imbued with the rights, dignity, and respect due a queen. This aspect of the mutual respect and dignity suffered a blow with the Protestant reformation.

    By closing the convents and insisting that women marry, Protestantism also stripped the high respect and honor the Catholic Church had always given to virgins. In fact, the religious life for women, like that for men, following the three counsels for perfection that Our Lord gave - obedience, chastity and poverty - was considered a higher state of life. The religious vocation was the higher state of life, because it involved a complete dedication to the true work of God, which in the Middle Ages was understood as the praying of the divine office, which never ceased to be said. Hence, the name laus perenne - uninterrupted praise and glory to God. No, this is not a practical work by today's standards, because it existed first and foremost for the glory of God.

    Further, as religious, they dedicated their lives to assist others, either through works of charity (teaching, nursing, etc) or prayer. These propitiatory prayers and sacrifices had the intermediary action of earning the salvation of others.

    Neither this intrinsic good of prayer for the greater glory of God, nor this intermediary action for the salvation of others was considered "necessary" in Protestantism. Note I stress this word necessary - because one of the characteristics of the mentality that came from the Protestant Revolution is this tendency to reduce everything to the status of a useful good, the bonum utile, and the blindness to the reality of things that can be classified as bona honesta, intrinsic goods. An intrinsic good is something desirable for its own sake and not merely desirable for its ability to help us attain something else. A cloistered convent of Poor Clares, whose life centered around the praying of the Divine Office to give glory to God was the kind of bona honesta rejected by Protestantism. According to Luther and Calvin and all the reformers, convents and monasteries were places for idleness and sin, and the women in convents were either lazy or coerced to be there.

    For man cannot be pure, according to Calvin and Luther's doctrine of depraved man. Of course, we know that the Catholic Church teaches that perfect chastity, in imitation of Our Lord and Our Lady, is possible with the supernatural life. The rejection of the supernatural life led Luther to say something very naturalistic, that most modern man raised with Freudian notions, would agree with: "A Christian body must generate, multiply and behave like those of birds and all animals. He was created by God for that. Thus, where God performs no miracle, man must unite with woman and woman with man."

    So the convents were closed and the women were "liberated." A woman, who as the Bible said, should be governed by a man, no longer had any right to any vocation but marriage. The Church as the Bride of Christ was eliminated. From this came a new tragedy for a woman: that is, the tragedy of not being married. You can see how deeply entrenched this Protestant notion is in our own society with the negative connotations of the "old maid."

Utilitarian views of Luther and Calvin

    So, what should women do? What they were built for, according to founders of Protestantism. Let's go straight to the words of the major Reformers, or rather, Revolutionaries.

    I will quote Luther, the self-proclaimed authority on family, for he said of himself: "Before my day nothing was known, not even what parents or children were, or what wife and maid." Until him, "not one of the Fathers wrote anything notable or particularly good concerning the married state."

    What were these wonderful things he said?

    This: "The saintly women desire nothing else than the natural fruit of their bodies. For by nature woman has been created for the purpose of bearing children. Therefore she has breasts. She has arms for the purpose of nourishing, cherishing and carrying her offspring." Again, the purely natural view of woman. Nothing of the supernatural.

    Or this: "Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die. That is what they are there for."

    Calvin said many similar things. In Protestant Geneva, motherhood became a sign, even a precondition, of a woman's moral and physical health. It was impossible for a woman to be good Christian except through marriage and motherhood.

    John Knox, Scottish reformer: "To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion or empire above any realm, nation, or cities is repugnant to Nature; contumely to God, a thing contrary to His revealed will and approved ordinance. Finally, it is the subversion of good order, or all equity and justice." Good bye then to the women who were heads of orders and communities, who exercised such considerable influence in the Middle Ages through the ownership of property and privileges.

    It really comes as no surprise to me that several centuries later, the feminist revolution and emancipation movement found fertile ground for growth, and particularly in the Protestant countries. It was in part a reaction to a distorted view of women, quite different from the view of the Middle Ages, in a Catholic society where there were many outlets for a woman to exercise her influence and capacities.

An exaggerated obedience ultimately leads to revolt

    In Protestantism, what replaced virginity and poverty as the essential female virtue that signal holiness? For surely it couldn't be poverty anymore - a beggar woman like St. Fina or Margaret of Costello could never be held up as holy with the Protestant notion that the predestined souls can be identified by success in this life. Nor could it be charity like that practiced by St. Elizabeth of Hungary, because good works are no longer necessary, but "faith alone" saves.

    Rather, the essential virtue for women became obedience, but it was an exaggerated obedience with no rule or intermediary, the Catholic Church, to govern its practice.

Patient Griselda

    I'd like to tell a story that illustrates well a change in mentality that took place from the time of the Middle Ages to the era of the Protestant Revolution.

        Griselda was a pretty and virtuous peasant girl, and the Marquis was the local noble looking for the perfectly obedient wife. He was swept off his feet by the beautiful and patient Griselda. They wed, but not before he warned her that he would test her obedience.

        This he soon did in a particularly harsh way. Griselda had her first baby, a girl. But instead of rejoicing, the Marquis became cold and difficult, and complained that Griselda had become arrogant and coy because of her popularity with the people and had forgotten her low birth. He sent a servant to Griselda to demand her first child so that she might be killed. Patient Griselda obeyed without a murmur, and continued to show nothing but love and sweetness to her husband. A few years later, she had a son, and the same scene was repeated.

        There's more. After some years, the Marquis pretended that he had fallen in love with some young princess and had asked for an annulment from the Pope. He told Griselda to return to her father's humble home. The long forbearing Griselda obeyed, thanked him for his past kindness and asked only for a humble smock to cover her body.

        Then the final test. Some days later, the Marquis called for Griselda to arrange the house and festivities for his coming wedding. Of course she obeyed. But her patience and obedience were finally rewarded. To her joy and surprise, she learned that the young woman, the supposed new bride, and the girl's brother who had accompanied her, were none other than Griselda's daughter and son, whom she thought dead. The Marquis, in fact, had sent them to a home of noble to be properly raised.

        And now, the Marquis, who was finally convinced of Griselda's obedience, reinstated her as his wife, certain that "no man living hath the like wife as he has."

    The tale of Patient Griselda is related by two famous 14th century authors: the still medieval Chaucer recounts it in his "The Clerk's Tale" from Canterbury Tales, and the early Renaissance writer Boccaccio makes it the tenth tale of The Decameron.

    With Chaucer, it is clear that Griselda is a playful allegory of the virtue of Patience, and is not in any way an attempt to discuss everyday behavior. And just in case someone might be taking the story too seriously, Chaucer says at the end: (permit me to make a loose translation) 'This story is told not for wives to imitate Griselda's actions, for it would be insupportable if they should.'

    However, by time Boccacio repeats the same story in the Decameron, he leaves off this warning at the end. This story actually became popular and was taken seriously as an ideal of perfect obedience the wife owed to the husband in the age of Protestant Revolution.

    It is interesting to see that Protestant fundamentalists still stress this kind of unthinking obedience, ungoverned by any higher law of a Church, in the submission a woman owes a man. This point is driven home in a popular Protestant book, Me, Obey Him? by Elizabeth Rice Handford (more than a half million in print a few years ago). Several years ago, a Catholic woman gave me this book and asked my opinion. And in fact, it has many good points on the hierarchical structure of marriage established by Christ and the submission owed by the wife to the husband. Many Catholic women have also looked to it for "Biblical" guidance, because of a certain vacuum in recent Church guidance on the matter of obedience. Since the Council there has been much talk of complementarity and different but equal roles, but nothing about submission and obedience a wife owes her husband.

    However, there are essential Protestant errors in Handford's book, such as her false reading of the Esau and Jacob story. Further, without sound direction, today's Catholics can become confused over the insistence that Handford placed upon obedience -- to the point that if a wife's husband does not want her to go to Church, she should not go.

    What if the husband asks her to have an abortion? According to Mrs. Handford, you ask God to change your husband's heart on the matter. But if his heart doesn't change, the woman can have the abortion and kill her child, provided she obeys lovingly from the heart every command of her husband (like the patient Griselda). With this kind of fundamentalist interpretation, it is no wonder to me there should be a woman's liberation movement. I don't condone it. I only understand its existence.

    In a Catholic society, the family, for all its importance, does not control the whole existence of its members. There remains a spiritual side of life that belongs to a spiritual society. In it, authority is reserved to a celibate class. A child must be obedient, but has a right to choose his or her vocation.

    In a marriage, marriage is an "order of Love," as St. Augustine says, an order that calls for the primacy of the husband and the willing obedience and ready subjection of the wife. However, as Pius XI says in Casti Connubi, the husband may not command his wife to disobey God's law. And how does the wife know when her husband may be asking her to act contrary to God's will? A well-formed conscience should be her guide. He also distinguishes the subjection of the wife from the obedience that children owe parents.

    The limits to the Catholic wife's submission are established by the Magisterium of the Church. Without this authority, early Protestantism sought for a new point of authority, and found it in an exaggerated authority of the husband and father, more reminiscent of the Old Testament Law than the New.

    Of course, this Puritanical patriarchal power conflicts with the Protestant principle of equality. Therefore, while first movement of the Protestant revolution would uphold a strict family structure with an exaggerated authority given to the husband and father, the seeds of the revolt would eventually produce a different kind of family structure. It would be the feminist revolution that would demand absolute equality not only in matters of religion and private interpretation, but in every social institution, including marriage.

Another Contradiction

    Here is another contradiction. While this first Protestant prototype of family emphasized the male and made the family the religious and social base of society, at the same time it struck a powerful Herculean blow to the stability of the institution of marriage itself with the introduction of divorce.

    In the Catholic Church, The Church seals the sacrament of Marriage as an inviolable union. A union so sacred that St. Paul makes it the symbol of the union between Christ and his Church. As St. Frances de Sales said: "God joins the husband to the wife in a union so strong that the soul must sooner separate from the body of the other, than the husband from the wife."

    However, this was not the way Luther and the Protestant revolutionaries interpreted St. Paul's words. Luther was clear about this: Marriage was a civil affair, "something to be ruled by local traditions, without any kind of Christian standard." "A material thing, like any other secular business." It shows how far free judgment may go in dealing with the most sacral of things.

    Was this a good for the woman? Remember, her sole function in society now is marriage and childbearing. Now, further, with the introduction of divorce, she is denied the security and benefits - both psychological and economic - which come from an indissoluble marriage that affords her the security to raise her children without going to work and have a stable home.

    Even Protestant historians agree that divorce, even though it was rare at the beginning, tended to favor the husband, not the wife. Further, divorce has been a major factor contributing to the present crisis in the family. Today more and more sociologists are agreeing that divorce is detrimental to the children, and has contributed to a narcissist, egocentric society we have been reduced to today.

    I am sorry to say that the Protestant "reformers" are the remote cause for the sin and disorder that have followed in the wake of divorce in our day. Thus one modern feminist professor can teach: "Beginning with Henry VIII's attempts to divorce Anne Boleyn, the Protestant Reformation in England was from the start a reformation of gender and sexual politics."

Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.

For past columns by Dr. Horvat in archives, see www.DailyCatholic.org/2002tru.htm

Mid-Summer Hiatus Issue
July 15 - September 1, 2002
volume 13, no. 104
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