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The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation

The following are summaries and excerpts from the following resource: John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J.  Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.  The following is only a summary up to page 210.  I hope to post more soon, eventually encapsulating his entire article in about three brief posts.  


According to O’Malley, there are two extreme views of the Council of Trent among Catholics: “that the council wrought all the bad things that Vatican Council II saved them from, or that it set forth all the good things Vatical II robbed them of” (205).  Although Hubert Jedin left few stones unturned when he published the most comprehensive treatment of the Council in 1975 (four volumes long, only two of which were translated into English), “few English-language historians” have taken the time to read through them because “as the little girl said about the book on snakes, [Jedin’s work] tells people more about Trent than they could possibly want to know” (206).  

For example, it is now clear that “Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan (1564-82) and great implementer of Trent, in effect rewrote the decrees by giving them a specificity and sometimes a rigor they originally lacked, and by supplying what he thought the council ought to have done but had failed to do” (206).  “These interpretations were foisted onto the council and became Trent” (206).  Because many historians have tended to focus on the implementations of the councils decrees rather than the council itself, “this new scholarship, for all its merits, has contributed to the tradition of ignorance and misunderstanding of the council itself” (206).   

Obstacles to Trent

Obstacles to Trent were: 1) “The Vacillation of Pope Clement VII (1523-34), who feared that the council might depose him” (207), and 2) “The obstructive tactics of King Francis I of France (1515-47), who feared that a council, if successful, would strengthen the political hand of his great rival, Charles V, by eliminating in Germany the threat of civil war created by the volatile and often violent religious situation” (207).

Cooperation for Trent and the Double Agenda

“Two persons cooperated in bringing [the council] into being: Pope Paul III (1534-49) and Emperor Charles V (1519-55).  …. Charles V, and his entourage hoped, for the sake of the peace of ‘the empire,’ that is, of Germany, that [the rift] could” be healed between Protestants and Catholics (207).  “A practical man, he sincerely believed that the real problem was reform, and that the unreformed condition of the church had caused the Lutheran crisis.  A reform of the church was therefore the precondition, at least, for resolving it” (209). 

On the other hand, “The pope envisaged the council principally as a response to the doctrinal issues raised by Luther, issues that he and many others interpreted as just some old heresies in a new dress. … The condemnation would probably preclude any possibility of reconciliation with them, but Paul and many in his entourage thought that was a lost cause anyway” (208). 

Thus, all the enactments of the council can be gathered under these two headings: 1) uprooting heresies and 2) reform of clergy and members.  Charles V wanted reform to be dealt with first, while Paul III wanted to first deal with heresies, so the compromise was made: the bishops agreed to “deal with both doctrine and reform alternately: first a decree on doctrine and then a decree on some aspect of reform” (209).  

Simplicity of the Council of Trent: Doctrine and Reform

“The council was far from being as all-encompassing as Vatican Council II tried to be.  Under ‘doctrine,’ the council meant to treat only Protestant teachings. … In this regard Trent had Luther principally in mind” (209).  The reform of the church “meant essentially reform of three offices in the church: the papacy, the episcopacy, and the pastorate” (209).  In other words, the reform was aimed at “institutional church” (210). 

“The council dealt of course with the laity and directed its efforts to the ‘reform of the Christian people,’ but it did so almost exclusively through directives for pastors” (210).  The simplicity of the Tridentine doctrinal and reform agenda easily escapes students because the decrees and canons of the council are always published in chronological order,” thus the decrees seem like “an endless scattershot of rules, regulations, and prohibitions devoid of plan and vision” (210).  “Nonetheless, Trent has, in both its doctrinal and disciplinary enactments, a remarkable and consistently maintained focus”: denouncing protestant doctrine and reforming the “institutional church” (210).  

In our next post, we will continue to explore O’Malley’s understanding of the decrees of the council.


Let’s give thanks; but let’s also BE thankful

I remember when I was still a pre-teen, I used to get into fights with my older brother.  And, of course, I had good parents who, being the good parents they were, would always make my brother say he was sorry when he did something mean to me.  In a way, I guess you could say that was part of his “punishment.”  He had to apologize.  Sometimes we both had to apologize to each to each other at the same time in order to not get in trouble.  We would tell each other we were sorry and, as if that wasn’t punishment enough (we weren’t really sorry), we would be forced to hug each other!  For two kids who had been fighting all day and felt not an ounce of remorse for what we had done to each other, that was certainly an awkward moment.  There we were, saying what we didn’t mean and acting like we meant it (by giving each other a superficial, awkward feeling hug).

What does this have to do with Thanksgiving?  Well ….

Thanksgiving = the giving of thanks.  Giving of thanks to who you ask?  Who else could we thank for having family, friends, and lots of food (and so many other things above and beyond what we need)?  It would have to be God.  Who else would it make sense to thank?  No single person, not even both of my parents combined, are the sole source of all that is precious to me in my life.  I could only thank them for certain things.  But with one swift bow of my head, I can thank God for everything, knowing that if it wasn’t for his creative hand, I would not exist, much less have all the things I enjoy about life.  It just happens to be that I live in the most free (as far as I can tell) and richest nation in the world, and grew up in a middle class family (i.e. not “poor”).  If I was born, say, in northern China, I would probably not have been exposed to Christianity in the way I was here: maybe I would be a atheist.

So … what does this have to do with the story about me and my brother?  Well …

Giving thanks with your lips is one thing.  Giving thanks from your heart is another.  Just like you can say “I’m sorry” and not mean it, or hug someone even while you are hating their guts, so you can “give thanks” on Thanksgiving, and not really mean it.  You can go through all the motions with your family and still not feel very thankful.  Giving thanks to God without actually being grateful is something like telling your brother you are sorry for calling him a @#$*%, then as soon as you are out of the sight of your parents, calling him a @#$*% all over again and laughing about it.  When we are young, we give apologies when we don’t really feel sorry because it’s expected of us from our parents.  When we get older, we can give thanks when we don’t really feel very thankful (if at all) because it’s expected of us from our culture.

This Thanksgiving, I hope you don’t find that the corporate prayer moment where your family pauses to pray to God before the meal as the “awkward moment” of the holidays when everybody goes through the motions of thanking God even though they don’t really feel very thankful.  Thanksgiving, without a focus on God, is likely to have only a miniscule chance of engendering a heightened sense of gratitude in our hearts for all we have.  How thankful a person is always can be seen best in his or her actions.  Are we thankful for our life?  Then let’s not do things that destroy it.  Are we thankful for our salvation?  Then lets not do things that hinder our walk with Christ.  Are we thankful for our religious freedom?  Then let’s make the most of it for Christ and reach out to those who need the love of God.  Are we thankful for the abundance of food we have?  Then let’s not become gluttons and overeat.  Are we thankful for our wives and/or husbands?  Then lets treat our spouses with more patience and forgiveness.  Are we thankful for God’s grace?  Then let’s show lots of grace to others.

Utilitarianism: What is it? Why does it not work?

The following is a mixture of my own thoughts and thoughts from “The Moral Course of Thinking” in Gathered for the Journey: Moral Theology in Catholic Perspective, ed. David Matzko McCarthy and M. Therese Lysaught. Grand Rapids: Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. pp. 1-19.

Two of the most popular approaches to ethics in modern philosophy are utilitarianism and deontological ethics, both of which are normative theories.  Normative theories of ethics are those that offer a principle as the key criterion by which actions are determined to be good or bad.

The more common of these two approaches today is probably utilitarianism.  The strength of this view can be seen, for example, in the influence of ethicist Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.  As one of the leading ethicists of our day, his paradigm for ethics is thoroughly utilitarian.  It leads him to some very counter-intuitive opinions about what is right and what is wrong.  He argues, for example, that killing handicapped infants is the best thing to do if the parents will have a second infant who has the prospects for a happier life (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.  pp. 181-91).  How does he come to such a conclusion?  In order to understand this, you would have to have a basic understanding of the utilitarian philosophy of ethics.

What is utilitarianism?

“Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our actions” (9).  By this criterion, actions considered by themselves are morally neutral—it all depends on their consequences as to whether they are good or bad.  Apart from consideration of such consequences, actions are neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy.

Because of this criterion, it is often the burden of utilitarian thinkers to convince their readers—against their better intuitions—that the reason we call certain desires or actions “good” or “bad” is not because they are bad in themselves but because we associate good or bad consequences with such actions.  Thus, we come to think of them as good or bad actions, when in reality, the actions are not good or bad, but are widely believed to have good or bad consequences.  (NOTE: In a previous post, I showed how one utilitarian took on the ambitious task of convincing his readers that the desire to torture other human beings is not wrong).

At this point, I need to make a qualification.  Many people (myself included) would probably incorporate some degree of utilitarianism in their criterion for ethics.  For example, although I personally believe that certain actions are inherently wrong (apart from evaluation of their consequences), I would still allow for the degree of wickedness to increase or decrease depending on its consequences.

For example, it’s a bad thing for a man to rape and beat a woman (regardless of consequences), but it’s even worse if as a result of the brutality, her unborn daughter is killed and the rape victim who survives gets AIDS.  This makes the crime much, much worse.

I also believe that consequences are built into the very logic of why we label actions as inherently right or wrong in the first place.  For example, adultery is wrong because it hurts the person who gets cheated on, creates the risk of irresponsible baby-making, introduces the risk of STD’s into an otherwise risk-free marriage (if both entered into that marriage without any STD’s).  Adultery is always an injustice, and it is wrong in itself.  Yet, at least a great part of the reason that it is always wrong (regardless of context) is due to its destructive consequences.  I happen to think the dichotomy between actions as inherently right or wrong verses their being right or wrong based on consequences is a bit overdone.

With this caveat on the table, then, let me proceed to distinguish what I call the utilitarian factor (incorporation of consequences into one’s ethical thinking) from utilitarianism.  While some might consider it a good thing to keep consequences in mind when making moral choices, utilitarianism has the burden of claiming that such criterion be the exclusive grounds for judging the merit of all ethical action.  On the basis of this distinction, then, I will sometimes refer to utilitarianism as exclusive utilitarianism.

What’s wrong with utilitarianism?

McCarthy and Lysaught rehearse some of the standard criticisms of utilitarianism, for which I have given my own articulation and creative names.  They run as follows:

1) The Inevitability of Arbitrariness—It has no way to objectively determine the nature, importance, and value of consequences.  To put it another way: How do we know what are “good” and “bad” consequences?  What consequences count most?  Whose opinion of what are “good” consequences and what are “bad” consequences counts most?  Failure to give coherent and rational criterion for answering such questions spells decisive defeat for the whole theory of exclusive utilitarianism.  It seems to need something else to help it out.  That is why I personally think that the utilitarian factor is legitimate when considered as part of the picture, but exclusive utilitarianism always leads to arbitrary judgment of consequences, and therefore arbitrary ethics.

2) The Contrary Intuition—It often undermines our common sense and moral intuitions, often demanding certain actions that rub our conscience the wrong way.  For example, what if I knew I could cheat on my wife with my female boss without her ever finding out in order to get a raise, which would have “good” consequences for my family (less financial stress, my wife could cut back to part time to spend more time with the kids, the kids could benefit from more parental care, I could save more money for the kids for college, etc.)?  My gut tells me: Don’t do this, it is wrong, wrong, wrong.  But utilitarianism tells me it’s like a math problem (good consequences = good action).

3) The Omniscience Requirement—Sometimes it is impossible to know the totality of the potential (much less the actual) consequences of one’s actions.  Sometimes what looks to us to be a disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise.  We get fired only to later realize that the new job we attain as a consequence pays better and is more enjoyable.  On the flip side, sometimes we think something is going to turn out great, but in the end is a big let down.  If these small scale experiences in the lives of ordinary people demonstrate how difficult it is to know the consequences of certain actions—how much more difficult must it be for people whose decisions effect an entire nation (e.g. the President) to judge the full weight of the consequences of their decisions?


I agree with McCarthy and Lysaught that these criticisms are decisive and that the wide variety of contrary opinions to the same ethical questions among exclusive utilitarians “makes clear that the theories are not doing a good job accounting for what actually shapes moral judgments” (12).

Since The Enlightenment, unaided reason so often attempts to bypass the God question and arrive at “neutral” criterion for judging right from wrong through autonomous reason (without trying to bring “religion” into the question).  In my opinion, The New Enlightenment is this: The Old Enlightenment has proven to be bankrupt for ethical foundations.  Maybe the God question is relevant after all.

The God Debates: An Alternative to Doug Wilson’s Debate with Christopher Hitchens

If you’re an atheist and you thought Doug Wilson’s arguments for Christianity were weak, or found yourself disappointed with degree of substance portrayed in the Collision Documentary, or you’re a Christian and likewise were disappointed, I suggest that you will find much more satisfaction listening to a more sophisticated/academic debate between atheist Gordon Stein and Christian scholar Greg Bahnsen.  It’s not as flashy and entertaining as The Collision, but if you are a true intellectual and can carefully follow arguments, you will find it much more satisfying of a debate.  In fact, this debate has since been often referred to simply as “The Great Debate,” without any further qualification.      

For a more recent alternative, try listening Daniel Dennett (renowned militant atheist) argue with Alvin Plantinga (retired head of the philosophy department at Notre Dame).

The Making of Mary Magdalen in Medieval Legends ::: Katherine Ludwig Jansen

The following is a book review of Katherine L. Jansen’s renown scholarly contribution to medieval studies that focuses on how so many legends developed during the Medieval period about Mary Magdalen to the point that she became second only to Mary (the mother of Jesus) in veneration.  She doesn’t just tell us how these stories developed, but what they say about medieval notions of godliness/sanctity/piety.  She shows how the supply and demand principle can also be applied to preaching during the medieval period (and probably to preaching in every age).  That is, she shows how Mary Magdalen was shaped into all sorts of colorful legendary images to fit the needs of the day as perceived by the preachers of the day.  The friars couldn’t help but let their imaginations run wild with the Magdalen stories in order to use her as the “model” alternative to whatever they perceived as the corruption of society.  The legends developed because they were practical for preaching.  

Katherine Ludwig Jansen, The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in Later Middle Ages.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000.  

Jansen’s Aims and Concerns 

Jansen’s overall concern is to give a complete picture of the cult of the Magdalen in medieval times, its symbolic meaning, and how it reflects changing views of sanctity at that time (14).  She interprets the process of gender reversal as an aid for the mendicants in opposing “the [masculine] institutional church” of Peter (15).  Emphasis on the invention of a Magdalen that went beyond historical accuracy is intended to underscore how the image of the Magdalen reflects medieval philosophical and social exigencies about women—the dignity of women, whether they are permitted to preach and have authority, the problem of prostitution, etc. (15).  The author is concerned to show just how the Magdalen of legend became so many different things to medieval laity—the penitential symbol, the exemplar of the active and contemplative life, the symbol of hope for all sinners, the apostle of the apostles, etc.  Finally, she is concerned to expose the audience response to the preaching of the Magdalen (16).             

The author believes that preachers were prone to bend the truth about Mary Magdalen and invent all sorts of fanciful things about her in order to have better fuel for their fiery preaching.  For example, she says wittingly: “The subject of the Magdalen’s vanities itself became a vanity, as it were, inasmuch as besotted medieval writers spent endless hours lingering on detailed descriptions of them” (156).  She also believes that men used the symbolism of the Magdalen to reinforce medieval gender ideology.  For example, she says: “Vanity, lust, prostitution: how did these things pertain to the sketchy facts of Mary Magdalen’s life as recorded in the gospels?  In a word: they did not.  … Preachers made them conform to the rather vague biographical facts of her life in order to address exigent questions about the nature of Woman, women’s place in society, the need for female protection, and the problem of prostitution” (146).    

She also has confidence that the laity’s voice can be discerned in the preaching when one listens carefully.  In fact, she believes that the preaching of the medieval period (and probably preaching in general) can easily mirror audience values and devotion.  For example, after giving an excerpt from a Franciscan preacher’s sermon in which he represents the Virgin Mary as “the more powerful light” in the heavens (the sun) and Mary Magdalen as “the less powerful light” (the moon) “leading sinners lest they despair,” Jansen says the lights correspond to two paths of salvation.  Then she says: “The friar’s audiences, often for very personal reasons, were eager to find the confluence of the two paths.  That is, it shows how members of the preachers’ audiences interpreted the symbol of the holy sinner in the light of his or her own desires” (286).

These assumptions shape Jansen’s historical account decisively.  She is constantly filling the reader in on how the assumptions of medieval preachers are based on legends that developed through imaginative embellishments as well as political events.  Her careful detail in tracing the “making” of the Magdalen from the sketchy biblical figure to the hagiographic sources show that the mendicant sermons (that drew heavily from them but added even more imaginative detail) were structured by the interests of their audiences (and therefore, medieval society as a whole).  The figure of the Magdalen that preachers and hagiographers were “making” was one that would fit the needs of medieval times and values.  Her chronological “tracing” of this “making” is intended to underscore this point.      

The Vita Mixta [the mixed life]

Through Gregory the Great’s sermons, he associated Mary Magdalen with the women “whom John calls Mary,” then interprets the Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet (while Martha became anxious with work) as mystically representing the contemplative life (34).  Mary had chosen the better life.  This was also furthered by the vita eremitica [life of a hermit] which “assimilates Mary Magdalen’s biography to the vita of Saint Mary of Egypt,” who fled to solitude in the Egyptian desert and lived as a hermit. 

The identification of Mary Magdalen with Mary of Egypt in the vita eremitica was a crucial step toward the making of another Magdalen image, the vita apostolica [life of an apostle].  Once the Magdalen was associated with Mary of Egypt and Abbot Geoffrey’s inventio in Burgundy, the vita apostolica incorporated the popular explanation of how the relics of the Magdalen came to be in Burgendy through the “holy theft” of Badilus, who supposedly stole them from Provence.  The vita apostolica, building on this legend, goes further in explaining, then, how Mary Magdalen’s relics came to be in Provence before the “holy theft”—during the first wave of persecution, she and her family members fled from Egypt by sea, landing in southern Gaul and evangelizing the people there before retiring back to solitude (39).  Combined with the embellishments based on the biblical depiction of Mary Magdalen as having the privilege of announcing the resurrection of Christ to the rest of the apostles (Christ having appeared to her first and given her this directive), the title apostolorum apostola [apostle of the apostles] became a powerful symbol of the vita apostolica.  This inspired the laity and in turn raised questions about women’s ability or authority to preach.

With both the image of Mary as apostolorum apostola and as representing the contemplative life of a Hermit, the Magdalen came to be seen as representing the vita mixta—the mixed life of active works of mercy and mystical contemplation.

The Symbol of Vanity

Mary Magdalen was used by medieval preachers as a symbol of vanity to address what they thought of as female specific sins.  How did Mary come to be thought of as a symbol of vanity in the first place?  The first step was to identify the unnamed sinner in Luke’s gospel (Lk 7:36-50) as Mary Magdalene according to the “famous Gregorian conflation” (147).  Gregory also allegorized the Magdalen’s seven demons as the seven deadly sins, which transformed the pre-Christian Magdalen’s demonic possession into “a disease of the soul caused by sin” (147).  The second step was to use the medieval imagination to fill in the gaps in Luke’s story—namely, to answer this question: What was the sin of this unnamed sinner (i.e. Mary Magdalen)?  The medieval preachers—for pragmatic reasons—identified the sin as a sexual sin.  This identification was reinforced by association, since this was also the nature of sin attributed to the unnamed female sinner of John’s gospel (Jn 8:3-11).  Preachers could not help themselves in indulging their imaginations where scripture was silent in order to make good preaching material to condemn what they thought were gender specific sins of the Women of their day. 

The third step was to assume the need to explain how it was that the unnamed sinner (assumed to be Mary Magdalen) came to be caught in the snares of sinful vices.  Since it was thought that Mary had been named after a castle (the castellum of Magdala) preachers began to tell a very creative story about how she was stripe regia (royal stock) and therefore fell into the vices were thought to attend riches: luxuria [lust], idleness, sinful autonomy (i.e. not under the rule of a man).  Because it was already believed that Mary Magdalen was a beautiful women, preachers exploited the relationship between vigorous and youthful beauty with vanity and sexual sins.  Furthermore, these warnings of the medieval preachers were attended by all sorts of gender assumptions of the medieval period.  Since one’s physical appearance represents the constitution of their souls, women were weak and easily seduced.  Thus, by a combination of imaginative embellishment of a story in the Bible of an unnamed sinner combined with gender assumptions of the middle ages, medieval preachers depicted Mary as the perfect example of vanity—she was a young women easily deceived, susceptible to vanity for so many reasons—her beauty, her gender, her riches, her idle time, her autonomy, etc.  “Heaven help the fragile woman, her powers of ratiocination and moral scruple enfeebled by her sex, when cursed by the quadruple threat of wealth, freedom, beauty, and fooloshness”! (154).

By using Mary Magdalen—who was also the perfect example of penitence—the preachers gave themselves the opportunity to exhort the women in their audience to repent of their vanities according to typical medieval “anti-vanity discourse” (155) that condemned makeup, jewelry, dancing, costly clothes, superfluous hair, lack of subordination to men, etc.  Jansen claims that in spite of such imaginative vanity (pun intended) of medieval preachers, “they never wandered too far from the parameters that Gregory the Great had established for them” (158).             

The Exemplar of Perfect Penance

When Pope Innocent III assembled patriarchs, bishops, priors and abbots for the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, among other things, they set out to reformulate penitential theology.  Medieval theologians had already paved the way with their distinctions between culpa (guilt) and pena (temporal consequences/punishment for sin)—the pena being something that could be remitted by the proper performance of satisfaction.  Canon twenty-one of the council, omnis utriusque sexus (“everyone of both sexes”), demanded that no one participate in holy communion unless they have an annual confession of his or her sins and made satisfaction according to their priest.  Although contrition, satisfaction, and absolution were already a part of official church teaching, confession itself was not (that is, it was never required by the authority of the church although it was widely practiced before the Fourth Lateran Council).  Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 C.E.) would go on to defend this decree (along with Scotists) by maintaining that remission of the culpa was contigent on two things: 1) perfect contrition, and 2) the priests absolution. 

The combination of this decree with the fresh emergence of mendicant preaching created an irresistible diffusion of the new demands of penance by the usage of the symbol of Mary Magdalen—even thought she never actually makes a confession in the gospels!  Although preachers were quick to draw on other examples of contrition in the Bible—David, Peter, Matthew—the example of choice for such mendicants was, of course, Mary Magdalen.  As we have already seen, according to so many legends that developed in the Middle Ages, she was seen as having gone from being the perfect example of sinful vanity and sexual sin to becoming a woman who was one of Christ’s most faithful followers, having completely abandoned the world to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert after announcing Christ’s resurrection to the disciples, then by fleeing persecution evangelized Southern Gaul!  According to the Magdalen lore, she went from one extreme to the other.   Therefore, with the new demands of the Fourth Lateran Council, she became something else—the exemplum perfecte penitentie (the example of perfect penance) according to the fourfold obligation spelled out by omnis utriusque sexus.  Her seven vices were all transformed into seven virtues through penance.  Her tears became a powerful symbol of her perfect contrition—signifying an archetypal emblem gendered female, and simultaneously symbolizing baptism and rebirth because her tears (representing perfect contrition) washed away her sin.  In this case the gender associations of medieval times predisposed women to “more inclined to enter the salvific state of contrition” (210) because the physiology of the female body made women more disposed to cry. 

Since it was common for medieval preachers to teach that Magdalen’s tears of contrition “washed away her sins” (that is, removed her culpa and pena), once confession was demanded by the Fourth Lateran Council, preachers were in a sticky situation.  Where was a place for confession the Magdalen’s example?  Many continued to preach that perfect contrition alone was salvific, in spite of the demands of the Fourth Lateran Council.  Others argued that for Mary Magdalen it was salvific, but that after Christ ascended, sacramental confession was established (216).  For others, however, it was just the right occasion to embellish the story of the Magdalen once more by adding something not in the text of the gospels—her long and well articulated confession to Christ!  This was the solution of Innocent III.  In his sermons, he completely reconstructed a confession that ended up making its place in literary history, for “in both Cavalca’s vita,” “the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ,’” and a text dating in 1474 that has a seventeen-verse confession written in first person, “Mary Magdalen makes long, lachrymose confessions” about everything under the “fifteenth-century sun”! (217-18).  Other aspects of penance were easily added to this: her whole life of service and contemplation was her works of satisfaction and her kisses (or her alabaster according to the culinary motif) signified her absolution (229-30).  By following her example—who was once the peccatrix—average Christians could have true hope of absolution—the speculum spei (“mirror of hope,” 232-33)!      

Examples of the Magdalen Cult’s Influence 

The Lollardy who followed Wycliffe’s teachings was in theory committed to the idea of lay preaching—both men and women.  Walter Brut—an educated lay Lollard even believed women could have the authority to grant absolution.  He defends his view of bi-gender preaching by recourse to Mary Magdalen when on trial in 1381.  He said: “It is confirmed, for we read that blessed Mary Magdalen preached publicly in Marcilia and in the area around about, which through her preaching she converted to Christ.  Because of this she is called the ‘Apostle of Apostles’” (273).  He was not alone in defending women’s right to preach by recourse to the Magdalen.  Other heretical groups such as the Waldensians and even “semi-orthodox” groups also used her in a like manner.     

Margaret of Cortona, when perplexed about her loss of virginity (based on the assumption that virgins had a better change at heavenly reward) found her conscience somewhat appeased when, supposedly, the Lord spoke to her in a vision and told her that Mary Magdalen was among the chorus of virgins in heaven (288).  Since by the late Middle Ages, the Magdalen was seen considered a virgin on account of her “vigilantly maintaining her chastity after her conversion,” she became a hope to people like Margaret that she too could still have the chance of achieving a similar status in heaven.

Charles II spent thirty years of his life erecting physical signs of his devotion to the Magdalen (308).  Charles believed she would protect his kingdom so long as she was honored properly (309).  He founded churches in her name and “desired that the Magdalen’s praises be sung” (312).  Charles also commissioned many works of art that depicted her and founded convents in her name (312).  The Dominican Order was the primary beneficiary of his devotion, so in return, the Dominicans became “the principal publicists of [Charles’] singular relationship with the saint” (313).  Charles even had the supposed skull of the Magdalen “transferred to a golden head fitted with a crystal face through which the faithful could view the rather macabre relic” (313).  The house of Anjou would continue this sort of devotion long after Charles was gone.  The Magdalen cult indeed became a royal cult, to the point that “there was no better way to show loyalty to the king than to show reverence for his heavenly protector” (315).

The Battle of Thermopylae :: 300 Spartans & Their “Last Stand”

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