Saturday, January 29, 2011

Women in the Catholic Reformation: Patricia Ranft and Teresa of Avila

As I read “A Key to the Counter Reformation Women,” I loved how Ranft took another author’s thesis and, while giving credit to the author, built upon it. I thought this was a perfect example of what we are trying to do—to build upon the current historiography and join in the conversation of European Women’s History. The author adds to the argument by claiming that women gained power because of their relationship to the patriarchal society of Catholicism. She explains that Women sought spiritual direction and appealed to their confessors, both actions were accomplished through “The Confessor-Spiritual Director.” In explaining the structure of the patriarchal society contained within the Catholic Church, Ranft shows the ability of such a society to flex and allow power over religious matters to be controlled by each individual woman, while still maintaining the power of the patriarchal society.

In reading the excerpts of the biography of Teresa of Avila, I found them to be rather intriguing. One selection in particular I found appealing was Chapter 10. In this chapter, Saint Teresa explains the ways in which she has found mercy in the Lord and the power of prayer. She also states her view of being a woman, as it pertains to the context of religion and her function within the church’s structure. She states “the very thought that I am a woman is enough to make my wings droop -- how much more, then, the thought that I am such a wicked one! ... it is seen that on so foul and malodorous a dunghill He [the Lord] has planted a garden of sweet flowers.” This statement bothered me when I read it, and still does. Though she was a very pious and wonderful saint, because she was a woman she felt as if she was worthless and could not achieve, except in the Lord. Though perhaps she is proclaiming her humility, I wonder at her thoughts concerning women’s role in religion and if their religious experiences were valid and useful enough to impart to others.

I chose to classify these sources under the themes of Religion and Gender because they both address the roles, or views, of women in Catholic society contrasted with that of men.


  1. Ranft really caught my attention because of the way she discusses how the switch from church authority giving spiritual direction to "spiritual advice" opened a door for women. With this switch came more active participation from the women in the advising process (12). I guess I had never previously contemplated the level of control a priest has if he knows the sins of all the members of the community. He can direct the lives of the repenters by controlling their clerical, marriage, military, and even homelife status (13). I definatlely better appreciate the way our church deals with the repentance process. There are appeal systems and past sins are not held over your head for the rest of your (rather the priest's) life. I think the sentence describes the situation perfectly: "External compliance, not internal repentance, was the emphasis" (14) However, with the Catholic Reformation, came small relief: women were able to choose the men they confessed too. Thus spreading the power held over their heads. So in essence, if women desired, they could confess to several different men so that one priest did not have the full, stifling power over that woman's life. Sorry, rambling a bit here, but I was suprised at how much this reading assignment got me thinking ;)

  2. Teresa's view of her womanhood in light of her faith, of course, echoes the beginning part of "The Book of the City of Ladies" in which Pizan curses her woman's body and weak mind, wishing that she was a man and therefore able to truly serve God. Of course, as we know, the visitation of the three ladies is the contrast to this view - and I think what Ranft somewhat hints toward here is that women's participation came at the expense of or perhaps because of their increased awareness that 1) they were women and 2) this was something of a subordinate position to be in. Maybe repression breeds rebellion?