In the comments section to my previous post “The Church that Changes,” Megan says something really key that I wanted to highlight and use as a jumping off point for a brief reflection on the meaning of St. Wilgefortis. She says,
“those who claim a hermeneutic of suspicion are actually rooting themselves in the Tradition. So while we may be working with a hermeneutic of suspicion, the suspicion is of those voices historically privileged by the Tradition, seeking to bring forward other voices, perspectives, images, etc. With this in mind, I want to emphasize that the Church is not only the theological developments that have historically been privileged nor the hierarchical magisterium, but also the entire community of believers, the sacramental Body of Christ. I think it is important to keep this broader view of Tradition and Church in mind in order to keep open the possibility of the Holy Spirit, yes working in the Church, potentially working through the Church in those voices that are critical of those elements of the Tradition which have been brought to the fore to the neglect of others. Thus, feminist and liberationist theologies are in some ways, seeking to call the Tradition back to itself. As M. Catherine Hilkert said in class once, the titles “progressive” and “conservative” do not really work if we are all trying to CONSERVE the Tradition.”
I think the popularity of St. Wilgefortis offers a perfect example of the approach to tradition that many of us on this blog are using, which is one of critical retrieval or perhaps I should call it “a hermeneuntics of suspicion out of loyalty to Christ.”
I encourage you all to watch this video Megan posted if you already haven’t. But just in case you haven’t or can’t, I will offer a brief summary of the cult of St. Wilgefortis, popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. The story goes that she was bethrothed to marry a pagan king. She did not want to. Her father grew very angry and threw her in jail. While in jail, she prayed to somehow be freed from her bondage. The next morning, she woke up and had grown a beard. Her suitor found her unappealing and called off the marriage. Her father was very displeased and had her crucified. As a part of this cult, statues of a bearded, bodily female Christa appeared throughout Europe. Apparently, she was popular among women seeking to be “disencumbered” from abusive husbands.
The popularity of this cult tells us that, even though this story was not historically true, it nonetheless seemed feasible to the people of that time. That the jailing and then crucifying of a woman by her own father seemed something that could have really happened says quite a lot about the violence of that day’s patriarchy. It also tells us something about the faith of a segment of the faithful. The story of Wilgefortis relativizes the definitions imposed upon humanity by the powerful (in this case, a woman is a person with a certain type of body, who, because this body is desirable to men, sexually, reproductively, and as a token of male power, will therefore be subject to the will of men.) In contrast to the status quo of the day, the cult of St. Wilgefortis suggests that at least some believed that this status of subjection was not after all inescapable. Instead, this cult reflects a belief that God, not male power, is the ultimate definer of reality and that God not only could but wants to liberate women from marital tyranny.
It seems to me that we have yet to discover the full extent of this counter-cultural undercurrent of Catholic/Christian piety that has always existed but was either ignored, rejected, or violently suppressed by the authorities. I think we often forget that it is not just in matters of statecraft that the victorious get to write history. While we must continue to critique “official” theologies both past and present, we must not stop looking for the unofficial and silently subversive theologies, which are proof that the memory of Christ’s liberating powers was never completely forgotten, but kept alive in the hidden “underground” of the church and history.