Tomorrow Christendom observes the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The woman from Magdala in Galilee was a financial supporter of Christ’s ministry, one of the last faithful to remain at the foot of the cross, and, according to St. John, the first witness of the Resurrection. The Church Fathers honored Mary with the title “Apostle to the Apostles,” as she first announced to the disciples that their Lord had risen from the dead—what they would then announce to all nations. And yet there are some today who believe Mary’s role as faithful evangelist is not enough to make her relevant to the modern female. Certain feminist voices would turn her into something else: a victim of stigmatization by a male-dominated church, and a prototype for all marginalized women who dare to work as equals among men.
“Mary Magdalene’s story is the story of modern women everywhere,” Petula Dvorak complained in a Washington Post editorial this Easter. According to Dvorak, Christianity’s tradition of considering Mary Magdalene a former prostitute who repented and received absolution from Christ—an interpretation that identifies her as the sinful woman of Luke 7:36–50 who washes Christ’s feet with her hair—is nothing more than a “2000-year-old slut-shaming,” the result of a bigoted male hierarchy that sexualizes and demeans women. To malign Mary as a former prostitute, Dvorak says, is to engage in an act of sexualization comparable to that of male Marines who circulate nude photos of their female colleagues.
“It’s a delicious story, Jesus being so cool that he even forgives a prostitute,” Dvorak writes in a particularly snide paragraph. “It’s ‘Pretty Woman’ in the tunics-and-sandal age.”
According to a similar article by Joanna Mercuri on the website of Fordham University, the defaming of Mary Magdalene began in 591, when in his Homily XXXIII Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary of Magdala with both Mary of Bethany and the sinful woman who washes Jesus’s feet. Gregory writes:
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. 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. . . . What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.
Mercuri deplores Gregory’s “mistaken” characterization of Mary as a repentant prostitute, which “has overshadowed all her important apostolic acts ever since.”
Dvorak and Mercuri have some basis for their revisionist arguments. Although some Protestants and Catholics continue to teach that Mary was a former prostitute, Pope Paul VI’s 1969 missal revised the Catholic Church’s historic position on Mary Magdalene, declaring that Mary was not a repentant prostitute and that there is little biblical evidence to suggest she and the sinful woman of Luke 7 are one and the same. Some claim the Eastern Church has never bought into this narrative at all.
Unfortunately, Mary Magdalene’s feminist advocates do not have an interest merely in exegetical accuracy. Even supposing the former prostitute of Luke 7 is not Mary Magdalene, it still is no small matter to dismiss Gregory the Great’s traditional narrative and two millennia of Christian tradition as artifacts of a misogynistic hierarchy. Feminist commentators on Mary Magdalene go out of their way to disparage the historic church as a mean-spirited patriarchy.
As Mark A. Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, puts it: “I always say it was the church hierarchy that drove Mary Magdalene to prostitution. Driving her to prostitution fits in the context of putting women in their place.” Elizabeth Norton, CSJ, distinguished professor of theology at Fordham, agrees: “For those who prefer a Church with an exclusively male hierarchy, it is easier to deal with her as a repentant sinner than as an apostolic woman who had a voice and used it.”
Mary’s feminist advocates go beyond railing against Christian tradition. Christine Schenk, CSJ acknowledges in an interview with U.S. Catholic that clearing Mary’s name has an agenda most orthodox Christians would consider unbiblical: the empowerment of women in church leadership and, ultimately, women’s ordination.
“People see this as a positive, constructive way to show they support women’s equality,” says Schenk, who believes reclaiming Mary Magdalene’s reputation as an early church leader will have implications for women’s leadership in the Church today, including the ordination of women.
Schenk is a director of FutureChurch, a liberal Catholic organization seeking “changes that will provide all Roman Catholics the opportunity to participate fully in Church life and leadership.” FutureChurch’s free 2017 Mary of Magdala Celebration offerings include “resources for women’s preaching,” and its website suggests using Mary Magdalene’s feast day as an opportunity to “advocate for opportunities for Catholics to hear the voices of women preaching today.” In short, the feminist defense of Mary Magdalene seems driven not by a concern for Christian truth, but by a politicized desire for women’s equality.
According to this narrative, if Mary Magdalene is a repentant sinner, she is worthless as a role model for modern women. Dvorak quotes nun and professor Barbara Bowe: “Women looking to the Bible for inspiration already have limited choices of female role models. When we suddenly cut Mary Magdalene off at the knees and turn her into some kind of evil sex pervert, we deprive men and women, but especially women, of a figure with whom they can identify.”
The feminist clearing of Mary’s name misses crucial realities of repentance, absolution, and the Christian life. The old story of Mary as a former prostitute who gave up a life of sin for a new life of righteousness did not make Mary an “evil sex pervert.” It helped Christians for millennia understand and rejoice in what it means to repent and receive Christ’s forgiveness.
Dvorak’s statement that Mary Magdalene’s story is the story of modern women everywhere is true—just not in the way she thinks it is. Bowe may think that the old Mary narrative left modern women without a New Testament woman to identify with; but as a repentant sinner, was she not already one of the most identifiable figures in the New Testament? All modern women suffer the consequences of the Fall and battle sin throughout their lives. All Christian women—all Christian women and men—are by definition “repentant sinners.” Regardless of its factual accuracy, Gregory’s interpretation of Mary’s story revealed truths about the Christian life that the new gender-driven agenda seems sadly unable to grasp.
What is certain is that Mary Magdalene, whether she was a repentant prostitute or purely an example of extraordinary faith, did not leave behind a legacy that encourages bashing male church leaders, criticizing church tradition, or lobbying for gender equality. She left an example of how to live a life of faith, relying on Christ’s mercy and rejoicing in his Gospel. So on Mary Magdalene’s feast day, let’s not turn the saint into a poster child for feminism or women’s ordination. Rather, let us give thanks to God for using her throughout church history to teach Christians the meaning of repentance and forgiveness and for raising her up as a faithful role model for all Christian women—and men.
Ramona V. Tausz is a junior fellow at First Things.