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Gender, sanctity and sainthood : official and alternative saints as females exemplars in Roman Catholicism, 1939-1978 May, Laura J.


Aside from studies on the Virgin Mary, of which there are many, little research has been done on the range of women the Roman Catholic church has promoted as exemplars--female saints, for example, in particular modern female saints. I have studied the women canonized by the Roman Catholic church from 1939 to 1978 through three types of sources: papal canonization speeches, official hagiographies, and varied writings by lay Catholic women. Saints mean very different things to each of these groups of people. To popes, canonization speeches provide an opportunity to comment on politics and society--from Pope Pius XII’s antifeminist remarks to Pope Paul V1s attempts to reconcile feminism and Catholicism. To hagiographers, female saints represented everything from a new Virgin Mary to a new imitation of Christ. Hagiographers did not establish a dual system of sanctity for men and for women: they did not describe all women as imitators of Mary and exemplars for other women. But they presented all female saints as, above all, obedient--and, in particular, obedient to the male hierarchy. Several lay Catholic women understood saints lives not as examples of obedience but as examples of autonomy. Overall, I show that saints lives are religious symbols; like other religious symbols, as Paul Ricoeur argues, their lives are polysemic--that is, subject to various interpretations.

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