From left, Sisters Josephine Villoonnickal, Alphy Pallasseril and Anupama Kelamangalathu, who have supported the accusation of rape against Bishop Franco Mulakkal, in November at the St. Francis Mission Home in Kuravilangad, India. (Manish Swarup/AP)
Lila Rice Goldenberg is a doctoral student in history at the University of Pennsylvania studying gender and book history in 15th and 16th century England, France and the Low Countries.
On March 26, the eight editors of Women Church World, the monthly Vatican women’s magazine, resigned. They left in protest over the church’s attempts to silence the all-female staff’s reports of clerical abuse of nuns.
The controversy began in February, when the magazine’s writers claim that they were told not to discuss Pope Francis’s revelations about rampant clerical misconduct toward nuns. The authors refused to give in to Vatican pressure. In response, the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, started to run articles that contradicted stories in Women Church World. In a statement to the Associated Press, founder Lucetta Scaraffia said, “After the attempts to put us under control, came the indirect attempts to delegitimize us.”
In the #MeToo era, the Vatican’s attempts to discredit those women who speak out against sexual abuse and harassment by members of the clergy may seem like a desperate ploy to preserve its own fast-eroding moral authority. But this pattern of behavior has been the standard for the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages. For more than a thousand years, the church has denigrated religious women when they challenged clerical abusers.
Historically, the church has opposed groups of religious women who have acted against or outside church control, even if they were acting out of religious conviction. In the Middle Ages, the church used similar tactics with the Beguines, a lay religious movement for women popular throughout medieval cities in the Low Countries, France and Germany.
These women lived semi-monastic lives of prayer and work. Inside their houses, called “beguinages,” they prayed and meditated. They also maintained ties with the outside world. They cared for the sick, taught school for girls and young women, and made textiles and other handicrafts to support themselves. They were prayerful, chaste, charitable and industrious.
In other words, beguines were paradigms of female religiosity.
Despite the beguines’ piety, however, the church targeted them because of their independence. Unlike nuns, beguines often lived without male oversight. And so clerics labeled them as heretics, prostitutes, beggars and lesbians. Many who refused to recant their beliefs were executed.
Independent thinking was also seen as a threat. In the early 14th century, French Beguine Marguerite Porete wrote “The Mirror of Simple Souls,” a work asserting that oneness with God could be achieved through love. The church perceived this work as an attempt to undermine its credibility, as it promoted salvation through faith rather than through the church and its sacraments. When she refused to retract the book and recant, she was placed on trial and burned at the stake. Accounts of the trial note that her composure and convictions brought those in the courtroom to tears.
At the Council of Vienne in 1311, the church ordered the closure of all beguinages and told the movement’s members to enter convents, which would put them under the direct control of the church. Many Beguines refused to acquiesce and continued to live independently as they had for hundreds of years. In a masterful public relations move, many groups changed their names to epithets such as “feminae castae” (chaste women) or “sorores bonae” (good women) to circumvent the ban on the movement.
The church’s pattern of denigrating religious women who questioned its authority has continued for over 700 years. The church has been particularly antagonistic toward female detractors who have spoken out about clerical sex abuse. In 1872, Mary MacKillop, an Australian nun and founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph, was excommunicated when she uncovered that a priest had been molesting children. The priest was not defrocked, yet McKillop was punished for insubordination. McKillop’s excommunication was later lifted, and she was ultimately canonized, yet the church never admitted the priest’s or its own culpability.
Why has the church taken issue with religious women such as the Beguines, nuns and the writers of Women Church World when they otherwise represent devotion and religious commitment? In part, such women are an affront to the church’s male hegemony, operating outside the realm of men’s authority. They also challenge the church’s hierarchy, showing that it is possible to live a Christ-like life while disobeying the Catholic Church.
The piety of these religious women has long stood in stark contrast to the failings of the Catholic clergy. The Beguines lived prayerful, charitable lives, even as medieval popes fathered children in secret and killed countless people during the Crusades. The writers of Women Church World wrote about members of the clergy alleged to have raped nuns, forced them into having abortions, kept them as sex slaves and denied them humane working conditions.
And yet there is an important difference today. Centuries ago, the plight of the Beguines was largely ignored by the medieval world. After the Council of Vienne, many were forced into formal convents or executed as heretics. Now, on the heels of the stories of sex abuse of minors by members of the clergy, the exploitation of nuns has garnered attention from the news media and the public. Their stories have been reported by the New York Times, NPR and other international news outlets. The hashtag #NunsToo, a homage to the #MeToo movement, has gained traction on Twitter, pushing back against the church attempts to silence them.
The church’s position on the righteous anger of women may not have evolved much since the Middle Ages. But society’s has. How the Catholic Church navigates that divide will determine its future course.