In this interview, historian and author Bronwen McShea joins contributing editor Nathaniel Peters to discuss her new book, Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know, co-published by Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute.

Nathaniel Peters: St. John Paul II and other Christian leaders have written about a “feminine genius” that women bring to their lives and work. What is this, and how do you see it manifest in the lives of the women you studied?

Bronwen McShea: As an historian, I defer to what various popes and other Christian leaders have said, in a philosophical and theological way, on the subject of women’s special receptivity to God’s graces and to others and women’s special sensitivity toward, and ability to nurture, others. I also recommend the foreword that Patricia Snow wrote for Women of the Church. She has some good words on the feminine genius there. I’m grateful that she agreed to write the foreword for the book, as I admire her and have learned a lot from her, both as a writer and as a “woman of the Church,” over the years.

I will add, though, that the great variety of Catholic women and historical experiences and contributions that I cover in the book (and I barely scratch the surface of what is known by specialized scholars on different periods of Christianity’s history!) is sometimes inadequately reflected in what Catholic leaders say about women. For example, at a recent conference on the theme of “Women in the Church” in Rome, Pope Francis referred to the feminine genius exhibited by various saints who engaged in charitable, educational, and prayerful work “at times in history when women were largely excluded from social and ecclesial life.” Such words are well meaning. But they unintentionally erase vast amounts of historical female contributions to the life of the Church and wider societies over many centuries—centuries in which women were, at times, less excluded from positions of influence and power than various nineteenth and twentieth-century narratives that spotlighted activities and especially words by certain men (often clergymen) have led us to believe was the case.

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I’m hopeful, therefore, that not just ordinary readers, but also readers at the higher levels of ecclesial leadership, will learn some new things about women and Church history from my book. I also hope that some might reconsider and refine what they say in connection to the past and present role of women in Christian ecclesial and social life.

NP: How did the women you studied exercise power inside and outside the Church? What can women—and lay people more generally—learn from them?

BM: Some of the women I cover in Women of the Church exercised considerable power within the Church of their time and in their wider societies. For example, prominent abbesses of the medieval period, such as Saint Hildegard of Bingen, shared certain powers of territorial ecclesial governance with abbots and bishops in their day. Some elite laywomen, too, wielded power and influence within and for the Church in ways that would seem strange to Catholics today. Indeed, the extent to which some did so was one of my entry points into writing this book in the first place. The project grew, in part, out of my work for my last book, La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France. That book is about one of the most powerful and influential Catholic leaders of the seventeenth century—recognized as such in her day by secular and ecclesiastical princes alike, including Pope Alexander VII, and deferred to by various eventually famous churchmen and religious whose careers she helped to make, including Saint Vincent de Paul. Among other powers that Vignerot exercised was the selection of various bishops of the Church, both within her country and overseas in new missionary dioceses in Asia and North America.

Vignerot is just one of a number of laywomen covered in my book who contributed to the governance, disciplining, and reform of the Church in diverse ways going back to the earlier centuries of Christian history. An example that might startle some readers is that of Irene of Athens, the Byzantine empress who convoked the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 that settled the iconoclasm controversy that was tearing the Church violently apart at that time. Others include better-known figures such as the controversial Isabella of Castile and Maria Theresa of Austria, as well as lesser-known figures such as Saint Adelaide of the tenth century. Adelaide was the first papally consecrated Holy Roman Empress. Co-ruling with her husband, Emperor Otto I, she employed her power to protect ecclesiastical institutions in a time of chronic warfare. She also helped facilitate the famous Cluniac reform, which restored spiritual and moral rigor to many monasteries and ecclesiastical leadership more generally, while serving as regent for her grandson, Otto III. 

Readers of my book will also learn about some powerful women who helped to establish the Jesuit order and various other religious congregations in various parts of Europe and across the globe. These women exercised patronage powers within and for the Church in ways possible for lay elites for many centuries but which were phased out in favor of more strict governance of the Church by bishops and popes alone, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. I hope that lay readers, male and female, might, after considering some of this history, look at their own callings within and for the Church in a new light. They might question more the idea that it is somehow not traditionally Catholic, or somehow only a progressive or “democratic” concept, that laypeople and women might, and perhaps should, have some genuine co-responsibility with the clergy in the governance as well as the disciplining and reform of the Church today. (And the Church certainly has grave needs in this regard, given the way the clerical hierarchy has handled the sexual abuse scandals, and sometimes related financial corruption scandals, in recent decades.)

NP: Some of these women remained faithful through times of cultural and political turmoil. Others helped lead a revival or renaissance in a nation or religious community after a time of great conflict or change. What do those women have to teach us today?

BM: My book covers numerous women who persisted in their faith and particular Christian callings, sometimes at the expense of their lives or at least their livelihoods and basic personal security, in the face of all manner of persecutions. Englishwomen such as Saint Margaret Clitherow, executed for protecting Catholic priests in the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s persecutions, and French nuns such as the Carmelites of Compiègne, who were guillotined during the revolutionary Reign of Terror, stand out in this regard. Some of the Church’s most honored, famous saints, such as Teresa of Avila who was declared a Doctor of the Church, faced fierce opposition at times from Catholic authorities when attempting to fulfill callings by God to reform their lax religious congregations or communicate important messages to the Church, sometimes in writings that were suppressed in their lifetimes. It’s tempting for Catholics today, accustomed to how much the Church has elevated such saints, to assume that their paths to sanctity and recognition by the Church were straightforward and even easy in some regards. But the study of such figures in historical context helps to shake us out of that false assumption. Hopefully, it can also help us to examine our own present-day struggles, confusions, and moments of being misunderstood or unjustly treated—both within and beyond our communities of faith—with new eyes, and with new determination to stay true to what the Lord asks of us. 

NP: George Eliot wrote that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The director Terrence Malick took this as the title and epigraph for his biography of Bl. Franz Jägerstätter, A Hidden Life. What “hidden lives” did you uncover in the course of your work?

BM: Well, insofar as each woman I cover in the book made it, one way or another, into written historical records, she engaged in “historical” acts, memorialized both by me and by scholars I depended upon for my own awareness of them. That said, there are some women in my book—including Native American and Asian women in past centuries, who worked alongside well-remembered missionaries and saints—whose names went unrecorded, whose stories are mostly hidden or misrepresented in existing written records. 

I also try to cover in the book a bit of what’s known in each period of Church history about ordinary women devoted to their families, local parishes, and wider communities who left behind legacies of service even though their names and fuller stories are mostly lost. Such women, indeed, can be said to have contributed—more than we can ever quantify, but in ways that do not have to be completely lost to memory—to “the growing good of the world.”

NP: Public Discourse has hosted numerous articles debating the nature of contemporary feminism: Is feminism inherently harmful to the dignity of women and society as a whole, or does modern feminism need correction from previous generations of feminists? Do the figures you studied shed light on this debate and the project of cultivating alternative forms of feminism?

BM: There indeed have been important discussions in this vein in recent years. I hope that my book will offer people on all sides of these debates some new data to work with, with respect to the sorts of experiences many women had, and the sorts of contributions many were able to make to the Church and their societies, both before and after modern feminism emerged. Some readers may learn from my book for the first time, for instance (although I’m not the first historian to bring it up), that various Catholic authors, who lived long before Mary Wollstonecraft and other Enlightenment-era feminists, argued in favor of the complete moral and intellectual equality of women and men.

As for whether feminism is inherently harmful to the dignity of women and society, there is plenty of evidence that certain kinds of feminism have been. As an historian, I’m reticent about wading into this subject in generalizing terms. But my book offers examples of how Christianity contributed over time to maturing understandings of the equal dignity of man and woman—sometimes radically, and in ways that were put into practice only in fits and starts. It shows how, too, forces outside the Church, such as revolutionary radicalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, violated the inherent dignity of spiritual gifts of women, sometimes in vicious ways. An example was when contemplative religious congregations were suppressed—with the prayers and sacrifices offered by veiled, consecrated virgins and widows treated as economically and socially “useless”—by centralizing, industrializing, and socially and politically democratizing nation states that explicitly excluded women from voting and holding public offices. Sadly, some Catholic leaders in Europe, not just post-Christian revolutionaries, contributed to that devastation where the once vibrant contemplative tradition of the Church was concerned. It may not be a coincidence that, as our Church has lost, more and more, her deeper sense of the complementarity between cloistered contemplatives and our more active, “secular” clergy, consecrated people, and laypeople, our societies increasingly have fallen prey to visions of gender equality that seek to erase, rather than safeguard and celebrate, deeper, complementary differences between men and women. 

Such women, indeed, can be said to have contributed—more than we can ever quantify, but in ways that do not have to be completely lost to memory—to “the growing good of the world.”


NP: Did any of the figures you studied emerge as new favorites for you, or as especially compelling models of living a heroic life for Christ?

BM: I really can’t narrow things down to a few new favorites! I learned about so many women I had only vague ideas about before taking on this project, and I learned new things about figures that had been well known to me and already among my favorites. The latter include Saint Louise de Marillac and the first Daughters of Charity; the first women ever to venture across great seas and oceans to found charitable hospitals and schools; saints such as Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein who contributed great writings to the Church’s spiritual and intellectual treasury. As a laywoman and scholar, I’m drawn more to some of the women in my book than to others. But I’ll say that I appreciate to a new extent how critical to the Church’s development, and to the building up of more humane societies, consecrated women have been over so many centuries—cloistered and more active; saints, blesseds, and (in the case, for example, of several pioneering African-American religious sisters such as Mary Lange, Henriette de Lille, and Thea Bowman) not yet raised to the honors of the altar. 

Growing up long after Vatican II and the steep decline in women’s religious life that ensued, I’ve rarely encountered habited sisters over the years. When I started Women of the Church, I didn’t expect to fill as many pages as I did with remarkable stories about women vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience. But the legacy of such women jumped out from the pages of the specialized histories I consulted—a legacy that I hope my book will help more people appreciate.   

Image by Dave and licensed via Adobe Stock.