Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Women and the Protestant Reformation

From Catholic World Report:
For much of the past 500 years, to the extent that anyone bothered to think or talk about women and the Reformation, the assumption was that since the Reformation improved everyone’s lives, then women’s lives were made far better as well. Luther and other Reformers had profound, deep, and violence-inducing differences, but since they all seemed to prioritize the “freedom of the Christian” in opposition to the rules-and-works mentality of the prison of medieval Catholicism, that must mean that everyone was better off (because they were more “free”) after 1517—and “everyone” includes women, does it not? No longer forced into convents against their will, no longer told that marriage was an inferior state, and now encouraged to read the Bible in their own languages, the lot of the post-Reformation woman must have been an improvement over what her grandmothers had suffered.

The first problem we run up against in this scenario is the Reformers’ definition of “Christian freedom” and our contemporary understanding of their understanding. Whether their understanding was an accurate, truly biblically-based one is a matter for theologians. Whether their sense of it was anything even close to what we think “freedom” is, even interior freedom, is doubtful: ask Anabaptist Felix Manz, executed by drowning for his beliefs by order of the Reform-controlled Zurich council in 1527, barely a decade after the movement began and just a few years after Luther published his On the Freedom of the Christian

Setting that aside, we can turn to the question of women’s actual lives. The impact of the Protestant Reformation on women was profound. In some senses nothing changed: nothing Luther or the other reformers said questioned basic, traditional, medieval Catholic assumptions about human anthropology or the roles of men and women in marriage. What did change was something else, but something quite simple, and with profound implications: Luther and the other Reformers went to war against the evangelical counsels as ideals, and especially as the core of a vowed way of life. This type of life and spirituality was no longer an ideal; marriage and domesticity—might we call it the domestic church?—was. 

The Reformation was, of course, a diverse and constantly evolving phenomenon. Common to the entire movement, however, was this conviction that vowed, celibate religious life as an ideal was non-scriptural, unnatural, harmful, led to sin and hypocrisy, 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 top priority, and the Gospel of domesticity was preached and enforced in their stead. Every woman, it was assumed, was meant for marriage, children, and homemaking. Gone was that space—as the convent was—for women to pursue intellectual and artistic pursuits, to provide institutionalized 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, now “useless” prayers. 

And so, 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 of the Reformation’s impact on women as beneficial. “The down side of the peculiarly Protestant ‘good news’ to women,” Lutheran historian Kirsi Stjerna notes, “was the exclusiveness of marriage as the basis for the holy vocation. No other options received a theological blessing. Thus, Reformation theology, generally speaking, enforced the domestication of women. … The domestication of women to the honorable callings of motherhood and marriage, advocated through theological argument, knitted with the Protestants’ valorization of family and marriage as the cornerstones of society, on the one hand, and their reiteration of the Pauline rejection of women teachers and ministers, on the other.” 

In other words, what we are left with in Reformation-dominated lands is a vision of a holy society in which worship is centered on preaching from a literally-interpreted Bible, from which female saints have disappeared, and in which women might no longer envision or live out their spiritual lives in ways unrelated to earthly marriage and family life. They must be connected to a human male in a legal, familial way in order to have social legitimacy, human worth, and a role in the spiritual landscape. (Read more.)
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1 comment:

Helen Davis said...

What is particularly evil is some sects of,Protestantism teqfh a womans highest calling is marriage and that she can only marry with her father's blessing, but then the fathers in these sects either actively or,passively ensure their daughters never find a husband. These women get older and older,,less and less nubile and less,able to lead the lives they're told,they must to be good Christians.