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Some thoughts on women and Catholic history

One of the best-kept secrets in modern culture is the enormous role that women played in the formation and development of Christianity.

Since Eve was the mother of all living and Mary was the mother of the Living One, woman are indispensable to the Catholic faith. It’s simple:No woman,no life. In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son born of a woman.

  • That woman, Mary of Nazareth, donated out of her own life substance, the body of the Savior, the Son of God.
  • Mary of Nazareth is depicted, especially in Luke’s gospel, as the ideal disciple, who hears the Word of God and keeps it in her heart.
  • Mary is the first human being to receive a glorified body in the Assumption.
  • Women provided vital financial resources for Jesus’ ministry.
  • Women gathered at the foot of Christ’s cross after the apostles (with the exception of John) fled.
  • Women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection.
  • Women were central to St. Paul’s network of building churches. In his letter to the Christians in Rome he sent personal greetings to 18 men and 15 women who were helpers within the Roman Congregation.
  • The high role of women in the church continued in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, the Shepherd of Hermas and Clement of Rome.
  • Women (Philip’s four daughters) appear in Acts 21:9 as prophetesses. Ammia was a 1st century prophetess in Philadelphia and was received in reverence throughout Asia Minor.
  • Women are pivotal in Catholic history by forming religious orders, operating and staffing hospitals, orphanages, a variety of social service agencies and schools, colleges and universities.

Church historian Henry Chadwick observed that “Christianity seems to have been especially successful among women. It was often through the wives that it penetrated the upper classes of society in the first instance.”

Women were so influential in the early Church that her critics used their predominance as an argument against the gospel. Celsus, a 2nd century detractor of the faith, once taunted that the church attracted only “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.” Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, acknowledged in his Testimonia that “Christian maidens were very numerous” and that it was difficult to find Christian husbands for all of them. The early Church seems to have been disproportionately populated by women.

Why? One reason might have been the practice of exposing unwanted female infants- abandoning them to certain death. Christians, of course, repudiated this practice, and thus had more living females.

Women were attracted to Christianity because Christian men were known for chastity compared to their pagan counterparts and ideally regarded female believers as “sisters in the Lord” not sexual objects. St. Paul taught that in marriage the husbands body was not his own but the wife’s and vice versa. That kind of reciprocity had been unheard of in pagan marriages. Chadwick points out that “Christians regarded unchastity in a husband as no less serious a breach of loyalty and trust than the unfaithfulness in a wife.”  Christian men were commanded to be monogamous and faithful in marriage. Pagan husbands forced their wives to have abortions. Christian men abhorred abortion.

In stark contrast to Roman Society, Christians in the Church regarded women on an equal basis with men. A study of Christian burials in the catacombs under Rome, looked at 3,733 cases, found that Christian women were nearly as likely as Christian men to be commemorated with lengthy inscriptions.

The Medieval period is often caricatured as a time of female oppression within the Church. Take a look below at this timeline of women in Medieval Christianity and note their significance during the era in which the Church has been accused of “not listening” to women’s concerns or giving women opportunity to express their spirituality.  The Medieval period was no “golden age.” But looking at the stature and number of these women should help correct the deliberate neglect of these women by secular feminist scholars.

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