Pope Francis has taken a big step, by elevating the commemoration of Mary Magdalene to a liturgical Feast. He should take the greater step of clearing her of criminal charges.
In a letter announcing the change, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Arthur Roche, writes the decision means one “should reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the New Evangelization, and the greatness of the mystery of Divine Mercy.”
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“The Holy Father Francis took this decision precisely in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy to signify the importance of this woman who showed a great love for Christ and was much loved by Christ,” writes Archbishop Roche.
He also notes Saint Magdalene was referred to as the "Apostle of the Apostles" (Apostolorum Apostola) by Thomas Aquinas, since she announced to them the Resurrection, and they, in turn, announced it to the whole world.
“Therefore it is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same grade of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the General Roman Calendar, and shines a light on the special mission of this woman, who is an example and model for every woman in the Church.”
What Pope Francis has not said: that Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute and that her depiction as one has enshrined attitudes about female sexuality that have been more damaging to women than her lack of recognition as an apostle ever could.
By defining Mary Magdalene as a "fallen woman," juxtaposed against the Virgin Mary, the Vatican enshrined a schismatic conception of women. Women are either sexual or pure beings and this irreconcilable paradox of women, this Madonna-whore complex, permeates Western culture. This is not to say that this kind of misogyny is not a global phenomenon, but this specific construction originates in the Catholic Church and was passed down (minus the redeeming Goddess symbolism of the Madonna) through the Protestant faiths. Anyone who was raised with any cognizance of the Western Christian tradition learned this idea that Christ hung out with a prostitute, out of the goodness of his sacred heart.
Only the Western church has said that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. The Eastern church has always honored her as an apostle, noting her as the “apostle to the apostles,” based on the account of the Gospel of John which has Jesus calling her by name and telling her to give the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.
So, how did Mary Magdalene come to be depicted as this polarizing symbol of Christ's forgiveness?
The short answer is that Mary Magdalene has been confused with several other women in the Bible, most significantly—and ultimately problematically—with the unnamed sinner in Chapter 7 of Luke. In that story, a woman bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints them with ointment from her alabaster jar, and dries them with her hair. When the Pharisees object, noting that she is a known sinner, Jesus admonishes them and forgives her “because she has shown great love” (Luke 7:47). Nowhere does it say that this woman was a prostitute, and nowhere is she identified as Mary of Magdala.
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Some believe the conflation of Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala results not just from their shared name but also from the presence of the alabaster jar of perfumed oil. It’s easy to see why the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is confused with Mary of Bethany, who does the same. It’s possible that the shared symbols of incense and tears have historically united these women with Mary of Magdala, who was among the women who brought jars of perfumed oil to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.
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Although the decline of Mary of Magdala’s reputation as apostle and leader most likely began shortly after her death, the transformation to penitent prostitute was sealed on Sept. 14, 1591, when Pope Gregory the Great gave a homily in Rome that pronounced that Mary Magdalene, Luke’s unnamed sinner, and Mary of Bethany were, indeed, the same person.
“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark,” Gregory said in his 23rd homily. “And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? . . . It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts . . .”
So, let's unpack that shall we. Not only was Magdalene conflated with a nameless woman, this nameless woman's "sin" was just assumed to be prostitution. Well, what else would it be? What value did women have other than their bodies?
Yes, it makes for a lovely homily, the idea that by forgiveness through Christ, even the lowest of sinners can be forgiven. But, why is the sexual woman the most debased of creatures, and so in need of redemption that she becomes the model penitent?
Redemption, while lovely, only seems to be available for women who keep our sexuality within very specific strictures. Those who color outside the lines have been subject to horrible social (and criminal) penalties. The sexual sins of men are typically blamed on the women who lead them astray... if they face any penalty at all. Promiscuous women are "sluts" and "whores." Promiscuous men are "lucky with the ladies." Prostitutes face criminal penalty in vastly higher proportion to their customers, something that has only recently even begun to change. Women who are raped are routinely disregarded and not believed, while even men who are caught in the act are able to avoid justice.
To really understand how the Catholic Church has framed female sexuality, look no further than the travesty of the Magdalene Laundries. The horror of this centuries old institution only came to light in 1993 when a mass grave of 155 female bodies was discovered.
Named after the Bible’s redeemed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, the laundries were first used to reform so-called ‘fallen women’.
But, they then expanded. Justice for Magdalenes says the laundries took in girls who were considered ‘promiscuous’, those who were unmarried mothers or were considered a burden on their families.
All told, over 30,000 women and girls of ill repute, or simply ill fortune, disappeared into the Kafkaesque nightmare that was the Magdalene asylum. They worked as slave labor in a system with complex ties to the Irish Government. From 1922 forward, the Magdalene Laundries was a kind of catch-all women's prison, where petty criminals remanded by the courts labored alongside teen girls who'd gotten pregnant out of wedlock and been hidden away by their families.
Reasons include: referrals by courts, mostly for minor or petty offences; by social services; from industrial and reformatory schools; rejection by foster parents; girls orphaned or in abusive homes; women with mental or physical disabilities; poor and homeless women and girls placed by their families for reasons including socio-moral attitudes.
Women and girls referred from industrial schools and non-State agencies would not have known why they were being sent or how long they had to stay in the laundries, the report finds. Those referred by officials in criminal justice and social services would have been told reason and duration.
“None of us can begin to imagine the confusion and fear experienced by these young girls, in many cases little more than children,” Dr McAleese writes. “Not knowing why they were there, feeling abandoned, wondering whether they had done something wrong and not knowing when, if ever, they would get out to and see their families again”.
Compare that, if you will, to how sexually abusive priests have been handled by the church: shuffled quietly from parish to parish, given therapy, sent on prayer retreats, protected from prosecution, and the harshest punishment administered by the Church has been to defrock them and turn them loose on an unsuspecting public. Even now, Catholic Dioceses are shelling about millions of dollars to lobby against legal consequences for their failure to protect children from molesting priests for decades.
One of the worst, and most high profile, abusive priests lived out his days in the ghastly exile of a gated community in Florida, with a staff of priests and visits from a mistress. In one of the most gross indignities to ever be heaped upon the memory of Mary Magdalene, an attempt was made by his extant organization to build a hotel in the Holy Land commemorating the two "sinners," as if a life of rape, child abuse, financial misconduct, and con artistry, could compare with being a penitent woman of "ill repute."
While this recent action, by this very surprising pope, does shift the status of women in the Catholic Church, it does not go nearly far enough. Pope Francis has taken some other small steps toward restoring the dignity of women, such as washing female feet and even going so far as to officially decree the practice. There has even been recent speculation that he is inching toward female clergy, despite having repeatedly repudiated the idea of women priests. That he recently entertained the idea of women deacons has raised a question as to whether his position may be softening.
During a conference attended by religious women, the Holy Father announced that he “might” convene a commission to decide whether or not women could be Church deacons. As observers remarked, this is a big deal and could signal the Pope’s thinking that perhaps it is time for women to become priests. A Roman Catholic deacon is disallowed from consecrating the Holy Eucharist (communion), but they are allowed to preside over baptisms, weddings, funerals, teach and preach.
A Vatican press release following the conference may offer a clue to how the Pope is thinking, and how he may be intending to go farther than just “reinstating women as deacons.” The press release said in part,
“Up to the 5th century, the Diaconate flourished in the western Church, but in the following centuries it experienced a slow decline, surviving only as an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination. Following the Second Vatican Council, the Church restored the role of permanent deacon, which is open to single and married men. Many experts believe that women should also be able to serve in this role, since there is ample evidence of female deacons in the first centuries, including one named Phoebe who is cited by Saint Paul.”
If Pope Francis would restore Mary Magdalene to her proper place, it would go a long way toward a more egalitarian Church. There is an alternate narrative, here, one in which she held an esteemed position among Christ's inner circle, and was even possibly his wife.
Earlier this week, William Henry wrote with great enthusiasm about the pope's decision. Henry has done a great deal of research into the deeper mythology of Mary Magdalene. I previously posted his fantastic conversation with Whitley Strieber, about Magdalene as the "illuminator," which goes into some depth about her Gnostic and Alchemical significance. Writes Henry, about this latest development:
Mary Magdalene was the beloved of Jesus, probably his wife. She was his supreme initiate. This is why she was the first to the tomb in which his crucified body laid on a stone awaiting Resurrection.
Having spent the past 30 years studying the Resurrection of Jesus, I can say there is no more important participant than Mary Magdalene.
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As the ‘illuminata’, the enlightened, Jacobus upholds, the Magdalene was illumined with the light of perfect knowledge in her mind and illumined with the light of glory in her body. In this case, says Jacobus, glory describes the splendor and bliss of heaven.