Mothers of Redemption
Christianity’s respect for women helped convert a pagan world
What’s the difference between Proba the Poet and Proba the Widow? Did St. Helena really find the True Cross? What was St. Monica’s prayer for Augustine?
These and other questions are addressed in a fascinating new book called Mothers of the Church (Our Sunday Visitor) by Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey. We all have heard of the Church Fathers, and now we hear from the Church Mothers. Although Catholicism is accused these days of discriminating against women by not ordaining them priests and by making them pay for their own contraception (see: HHS mandate controversy), the fact is that the Church practically invented the idea of equality between the sexes with St. Paul’s famous dictum that in Christ “there is neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Romans of the first century mocked Christians for speaking to and listening to weak women, but the Christian worldview prevailed.
To get the inside story on this insightful book, Fathers for Good contacted author Mike Aquilina, who notes that it may make a great Mother’s Day gift.
Fathers for Good: You did a book on the Fathers of the Church, and now on Mothers. Is there real substance to the lives of early Christian women?
Aquilina: The lives of early Christian women are more substantial than my life will ever be. And they were probably as responsible as any men for the rapid growth of the Church through the first three centuries. Their story has not been told because they tended to work in ways that have been ignored by standard histories. They were not warriors or preachers or lawmakers. But they didn’t feel the need to be. They lived heroic and prodigious Christianity on their own terms.
It’s as dangerous to make generalizations about early Christian women as it is to make generalizations about the Christian women who live in my house. (I have a wife and five daughters.) The women in our book are wonderfully diverse. There’s Thecla, who was St. Paul’s companion on his journeys. There’s Proba, who was a poet; and another woman named Proba, who was a business manager. Everyone knows and loves Sts. Monica and Perpetua, who were moms. Sts. Marcella, Paula, and Eustochium were scholars and contemplatives. Sts. Blandina and Felicity were domestic servants, but we know them best as martyrs. Macrina was spiritual guide and teacher to one (and perhaps two) of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
FFG: You say that Christianity esteemed women and set them free. How so?
Aquilina: The common phrase the Roman dramatists used for female offspring was the “odious daughter.” Pagan cultures had little respect for women and girls. They were considered a drain on the family economy, since girls required a dowry but would never contribute income and prestige to the family. Thus they were married off at the earliest possible age, usually 11 or 12, to a man chosen by their father. They were free to refuse his choice, but they rarely did, since a father was free to put to death a daughter who disobeyed him. And the possibility was not so farfetched. Many, if not most, daughters born to pagan families were killed at birth. Female infanticide was routine in Greco-Roman society. It was legal and even praised by philosophers.
In the pagan world, a woman’s value came from her relation to a man — first her father, then her husband, then her sons. Her accomplishments meant nothing. In fact, she was given little opportunity for accomplishments.
Christianity upended all of that. In fact, Christianity begins with the Blessed Virgin, who has been revered above all other human beings. Christians extolled women as heroes of their great epics, the Acts of the Martyrs. And the Church promoted the vocational freedom of women. Suddenly there arose a class of women, consecrated virgins and widows, who declared themselves independent of anything an earthly male had to offer. That was revolutionary. It made the Church what it is. It frightened the pagan world and sealed its demise.
FFG: Today the Church is accused of waging a "war on women" because it opposes contraception. Did women in the early Church demand contraception?
Aquilina: No! Greco-Roman women were oppressed by contraception, oppressed by abortion, oppressed by infanticide. Those three practices came as a package deal. Unless something radical changes in our society, we’ll soon have all three together again.
Most people don’t know that contraception was a common practice in the ancient world, and the methods were probably very effective. Nor were the methods all that different from what’s on offer in our supermarkets and pharmacies. There were barrier methods and abortifacients. They earliest Christian writings refer to these – and condemn them all.
Contraception, then as now, mutilates women. It makes them less than they are, so that that they can serve as bedtime playthings for men. In ancient Rome, birth control was an essential component in a pornographic culture that objectified women.
It was also a slow form of cultural suicide. Romans got used to an unmoored life style, untroubled by obligations like children or marital fidelity. So couples couldn’t be coaxed or even coerced to reproduce. This played demographic havoc on the empire, with dire consequences for the economy and homeland security. And what was bad for the empire was worse for its women. In a bad economy or a war, women often suffer first and worst.
Remember what a contraceptive culture did to its women. Remember that these women were pressured to watch one after another of their children drowned at birth. Women wanted out of that world. Christianity offered the only true way to women’s liberation.
FFG: Is there a Mother's Day message we can draw out of this book?
Aquilina: For women: Get to know these most ancient ancestors in the faith. They’re still models of womanhood. They’re still intercessors. With sisters like them, sisterhood is indeed powerful.
For men: Respect the women in your life. Let them be for you what Marcella was for Jerome, what Monica was for Augustine, what Macrina was for Gregory of Nyssa. In Christ, there is neither male nor female. None of these ancient women were priests. They didn’t need to be. They were mothers – even those who never bore children in their bodies. They’re still mothering us today.
Visit the Our Sunday Visitor website for more information on Mothers of the Church.