Monday, June 14, 2010

Women Move Forward Through History

The early Roman Catholic Church had clear, established roles for men and women. Although some formal leadership positions were open only to men, the Roman Catholic system actually gave women higher status than they had in previous systems (in Roman, Greek, or Norse polytheism, for example, the full humanity of women was denied). Although in some folk versions of Roman Catholicism women were considered inferior to men and easily coaxed by the devil, in the large culture of the faith, they were seen as able to take positions of spiritual authority. Although women spoke less in church, and did less in terms of teaching, and had less to do with the administration of the sacraments, they nonetheless made themselves heard and understood in high-level discussions about both abstract theology and the concrete practices of the church. While there was a popular attitude that women were not to participate in conversations about religious issues or leadership in the church, they did in fact do so, and with the blessing of the hierarchy and even the pope.

Specifically, women had some routes in which to express their religious zeal in the Middle Ages, including joining a monastery. In fact, medieval nunneries flourished. Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict, started a monastery. Other nuns in Europe like Brigid of Ireland and Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, were prominent in areas of teaching and learning. There are many examples of women who were able to exercise their talents in a multitude of areas. Why is there this contradiction between the official thought and practice of the church, which acknowledged women's full humanity and embraced their participation, and the harshly anti-woman attitude in some of the local folk cultures? Was this a hangover from a pre-Christian paganism which saw women as less than fully human? As Christianity progressively rooted out the subtle traces of polytheistic mythologies from European culture, we see the forward movement of women toward equality, not only in the church structure, but in civil rights as well: ultimately, women would be allowed to vote, own property, etc., as a result of the eradication of pre-Christian paganism.

There are plenty of examples of Christian women who were able to rise above these pagan cultures and contribute in amazing ways to Western Civilization. Was Christianity actually liberating to early Christian women?

One of the clearest examples is Hildegard of Bingen. She was not only acknowledged by the pope as an official teacher of theology for the church, but she was also empowered to advise, council, and even rebuke royalty when she determined that the kings and princes had failed to act ethically. This was amazing leadership for anybody in the 1100's, man or woman.