FROM next month, St Mary Magdalene is to get a proper feast day in the Roman Catholic Church, as distinct from a minor “memorial” date, the Pope has decreed (her day is already a festival, like those of the apostles, in the Church of England).
It is part of the long rehabilitation of the saint whom St Thomas Aquinas described as the apostolorum apostola — apostle of the apostles — but who, in practice, has exemplified the deep-rooted ambivalence towards women in Western culture.
”We need a new theology of women,” Pope Francis has said repeatedly since his elevation to the papacy. But, brought up amid Latin American machismo and schooled in a patriarchal theology, the 79-year-old Pope has struggled to see a way forward on what he has recognised as his Church’s “problem with women”.
Women must have a ministry in the Roman Catholic Church which is wider and deeper than teaching, doing the flowers, and making the coffee. Francis understands that. But he has said no to women priests, no to women cardinals, and no to female heads of crucial Vatican departments. Even his appointment of five women to the International Theological Commission was accompanied by a Freudian slip, when he described them as “the strawberries on the cake”.
Despite that, he said last month that he would set up a Vatican commission to look into the question of women deacons. And now comes this highly symbolic move on Mary Magdalene.
Received tradition sees the Magdalene as a repentant prostitute. But that stems from only the sixth century, when Pope Gregory I conflated Mary of Magdala with the sinful woman who anointed Christ’s feet with perfume, and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
For 500 years before that, Mary Magdalene was seen as a leading disciple. But Gregory’s penitent whore carried the powerful message that even the most fallen could be redeemed. It became fixed in the ecclesial imagination. Theologians delighted in dualistic contrasts with the untainted Virgin. Only in 1969 did Rome declare that Mary was not a reformed harlot, but by then the tradition was firmly in place. It is not hard to detect in it the subliminal patriarchal defensiveness that is present in the apocryphal Gospel of Philip, when the rest of the disciples ask Jesus: “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
Why? It was Mary who stayed to support Jesus in his final moments on the cross, when the men had fled. It was she who discovered the empty tomb, and was the first witness to the resurrection. Her testimony was not believed by the men — who rushed to the tomb to check, and then left without a backward glance at Mary. But she was then the one to whom Jesus chose to appear.
Mary was the first person to grasp that Christ’s death had turned from tragic failure into the glorious triumph on which the entire Christian edifice is constructed.
Small wonder that the Vatican, announcing the Pope’s decision, set it in the context of a call for “a deeper reflection on the dignity of women”. Mary Magdalene, it said, “is an example and model for every woman in the Church”. More than just women, you might think. But Rome moves very slowly. And yet it does move.
Paul Vallely’s biography, Pope Francis: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism, is published by Bloomsbury.