A result of our fallen nature, we all make mistakes. We sin and, when we do, our sins affect both ourselves and others. This brings us to what the Church calls fraternal correction; simply put, it means that our friends are supposed to tell us (charitably) when we mess up. Fraternal correction is not only for our sake, but also for the sake of others whom we might mislead through our sins.
I would like to apply this principle to our friends, the saints.
Canonized saints are people whom the Church recognizes as being in heaven after living lives of heroic virtue. We can look to them as models of holiness. Not only are they good examples for us to admire, but they also actively pray for us, that we may one day join them in heaven. The saints are a beautiful testament to the communal life of the Church.
So, what do we do when we read something awful that a saint said?
“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence. . .” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Vol. I, Q. 92, Art. 1, Reply to Objection 1)
“. . . the [female] sex is weak and fickle . . .” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 9 on First Timothy)
“. . .the woman together with her own husband is the image of God, so that that whole substance may be one image; but when she is referred separately to her quality of help-meet, which regards the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God as fully and completely as when the woman too is joined with him in one.” (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book XII)
Honestly, these statements make my blood boil. I knew there were quotes from saints that were - let’s say - less than complimentary of women. I have read them before. But digging into such statements and researching for this article made me want to cry in frustration, disappointment, and anger. How could God let this happen? How could He let these men go so far astray? These are holy Christians, intelligent philosophers and theologians, people we honor and model our lives after. How can they be so holy and so blind? How can the Church present these men as models of faith, hope, and charity?
These are holy Christians, intelligent philosophers and theologians, people we honor and model our lives after. How can they be so holy and so blind?
It starts with acknowledging that the saints were not only human, but sinners. (Actually, if we’re being honest, it starts with righteous indignation. Then we admit that the saints were sinners.) Not just sinners in a former life, but sinners until they died. No matter how holy they were during their lives on Earth, they had natural limitations and lacked a full understanding of God and Creation. It would be much easier to believe that they were perfect and had it all figured out. It is tempting to think that, even if they weren’t perfect, they must have been too holy to fall into the prejudices and sins that have plagued human societies since the Fall.
I firmly believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, despite my initial reaction. It is wise to take a step back, pause, and double check what was said and what was meant. It is only fair to ask a few questions before making accusations. Do I know the context in which this was said/written? Is it possible something was lost in translation? Are we sure that St. X actually said this?
It is wise to take a step back, pause, and double check what was said and what was meant.
Context, proper translation, and citation can often shed some light on the subject. Let's consider again the excerpt from the Summa Theologiae quoted above; this time, we'll continue past the initial quote's end and dive deeper:*
“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes. . . . On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature's intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Vol. I, Q. 92, Art. 1, Reply to Objection 1, emphasis added)
We might be tempted to stop at St. Thomas Aquinas' assertion that "woman is defective and misbegotten." However, when we take into account the context of both the quotation and the point in history at which it was made, we can more fully understand what St. Thomas. This quotation is but one small part of the massive, wise work that is the Summa; it is therefore understood most fully within the context of his entire work. At this point in the Summa, St. Thomas presents his treatise on man (meaning both man and woman). Regarding this particular question about woman, St. Thomas tries to make sense of the order of the universe and how God reveals that order in Scripture (in this example, specifically Genesis 1-2).
The purpose of St. Thomas' question is to account for the goodness and wisdom of God having created woman. He wants to know why it was necessary, how it came about, and how it reveals the wisdom of the Creator. Through the objections and answers provided by St. Thomas, he presents both theological/metaphysical and biological/physical arguments. This is where historical context comes in - the rage-inducing phrase, "woman is defective and misbegotten," reflects an issue with the Aristotelian biology that St. Thomas was working with during his time. St. Thomas wants to understand how a human being of a different sex could result from the seed of a man. The possible explanations he arrived at are that 1) something is deficiens (lacking, missing) in woman's material component, which man possessed in his material component; or 2) woman's material component was ocassionatum (often translated as "misbegotten," but better translated as "caused accidentally"), meaning that some circumstance or environmental factor changed something in man's seed that therefore informed the resulting human being in a different way.
All of this is to say that St. Thomas' unhappy statement is a product of the faulty understanding of biology that he and his contemporaries had at their time. Fortunately, we have come a long way in our biological knowledge since then. St. Thomas' main point is that woman is fully human (though somehow different from man), that she has the same vocation to know and love God, and that God did very wisely create her at the beginning. If you want to delve into this specific question more, you can find a good treatment of the subject here.
St. Thomas' main point is that woman is fully human. . ., that she has the same vocation to know and love God, and that God did very wisely create her at the beginning.
Moving on from our friend St. Thomas Aquinas, it is not always the case that proper context helps, but it is possible and therefore worth further investigation. If the answers to contextual questions reinforce our initial outrage, then we are not only permitted to object, but it becomes our responsibility to condemn that which is untrue. This does not give us free reign to attack the person. It is indeed possible to honor the gifts, legacy, and prayers of holy people without accepting everything they did and said.
We must be okay with seeing the humanity of the saints and others in our Church. In doing so, we should remember two crucial things. First, that the members of our Church are human and broken, and all good in us comes from God. Acknowledging this does not discredit the Church. Rather, it is a testament to God’s power and mercy that He can accomplish great things through flawed people, and that He chooses to do so every day. Second, we ought to remember that we do others a disservice when we excuse or cover up sin and human error. Otherwise, we turn away from the light and truth of the Holy Spirit and we create an impression that Truth does not matter to us unless it paints us in a good light.
[I]t is a testament to God’s power and mercy that He can accomplish great things through flawed people
So, yes, we have a duty to exercise fraternal correction. We have an obligation to share the truth and that sometimes means denouncing things that other Catholics (even saints) have said. Sometimes fraternal correction occurs posthumously, but it is still necessary.
Practically speaking, how do we respond when we encounter sexism from the saints?
We might humbly consider if there is any truth we can glean from what was said, without affirming the whole message. If that’s not the case, that’s okay. We need not ignore or excuse sinful and hurtful words.
We might remember that other saints (and sometimes, oddly enough, the same saints) have said good things about women. This doesn’t excuse any wrongdoing, but it does help us to see the saints more clearly: as complicated, inconsistent, imperfect people who were saved by the grace of God. As Pope Francis reminds us,
“To recognize the word that the Lord wishes to speak to us through one of his saints, we do not need to get caught up in details, for there we might also encounter mistakes and failures. Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (Gaudete et Exultate 22, emphasis added)
We might reflect on the virtues they did practice, how they contributed to the Church, and how they cooperated with God’s plan for our salvation.
Admittedly, sometimes I don’t have the energy to do this. It exhausts me to see so much injustice in the world and to feel powerless, and that’s before I try to defend my own dignity as a human being against awful statements from of the greatest saints in the Church. In that case, I try to brush it off, at least for the moment. I trust that the saints know the fullness of Truth in Heaven. And I hope that God will forgive me for the ways in which I am blind to Truth, and that He will make me a saint in spite of myself.
If a great saint could miss something that seems so simple to me, what might I fail to see? Will I allow God to work in my life, despite my blindness and failings? I hope so.
And I hope it’s okay if I ask these same saints to pray for me in that regard.
* We would like to thank Br. Josemaría Guzmán-Domínguez O.P. for sharing his understanding of this excerpt of the Summa Theologiae. You can find Br. Josemaría's writing at Dominicana, a publication of friars in formation at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.