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Holy History and its Problems

Holy History and its Problems

When Catholics of devout inclination write the history of their Church, the result is often unsatisfactory. Their competence at scholarly research is less a problem than their inclination to avoid episodes from the past that portray the Church in an unfavorable light. And if these episodes are unavoidable, they are either minimized in significance or excused as a product of the mentality of the time. Small wonder, then, that in the United States Catholic historians segregate themselves from the mainstream of the profession into the American Catholic Historical Association. There are secular historians – such as those in the American Historical Association – who specialize in the history of the Catholic Church, but in doing so have no interest in turning out propaganda masquerading as scholarship. They bring a healthy skepticism to their work, seek explanations in natural phenomena, and eschew miracles and other manifestations of the divine. The two solitudes that divide the historical profession into Catholic and secular are not unique to the United States; a similar divide exists in Canada and in parts of Europe.

The problematic nature of Catholic history – or holy history, if you like – becomes all the more pronounced when women religious or nuns are the subject matter. The writing in this genre tends to take the form of great nun biographies or heroic institution-building narratives or a blend of both. The practitioners form an exclusive club of mutual support and self-congratulation. In the United States they gather together every three years at the Conference on the History of Women Religious, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. Nuns themselves are prominent among those presenting papers whose purpose is to “celebrate," “commemorate," “remember," or “document" the achievements of their own congregations. A similar gathering takes place annually on the other side of the Atlantic: The conference of the History of Women Religious in Great Britain and Ireland. It could well be said that those so engaged are not really historians, but professional Catholics who pen Church propaganda in the guise of history.

The problem with these kind of “histories," whether the work of nuns or lay Catholics, is that they blend together myths, miracles, and distortions of evidence to craft pleasing and affirmative narratives that assiduously screen out matters considered unspoken or taboo. The biggest taboo of all is anything to do with sexuality. An unfailing assumption in convent “history" in the Catholic mode is that when novice nuns take the vow of chastity their sexuality is eliminated with a few Latin incantations and sprinklings of holy water. Not so, it turns out, but we have to turn to secular historians to enlighten us. I will now present synopses of two books by eminent historians who take the secular approach and explore the hidden and less-than-holy world of the convent.

Brown, Judith C. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. In 1613 Benedetta Carlini, a 23-year-old nun in the Theatine Convent of the Mother of God in Pescia, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, began to experience mystical visions. The visions being sometimes frightening, the young Sister Bartolomea Crivelli was asked to share her cell. In time Sister Benedetta was accepted as a true mystic and received the stigmata or holy wounds of Jesus. In 1619 she was elected abbess. But some Church officials remained skeptical. Fake mystics were not uncommon and, besides, visions, even if genuine, might be demonic in origin. In 1622 the newly-appointed papal nuncio in the duchy sent a number of clerics to examine Benedetta and her claims. The testimony of Sister Bartolomea, her cellmate, shocked the investigators. The young nun provided graphic descriptions of sexual activities between the two of them, including mutual masturbation, the forceful kissing of genitals, and intercourse: “And she would stir on top of her so that both of them corrupted themselves." All of this was initiated by Benedetta who claimed it was not her but her guardian angel, Splenditello, who was responsible. Bartolomea had always felt guilty about the sinful nature of the encounters but acquiesced for fear of the formidable abbess. When questioned by the investigators, Benedetta denied all knowledge of sex but evidently was not very convincing. St. Teresa of Avila, herself given to mystical raptures, had recommended life imprisonment for nuns guilty of the “sin of sensuality," and that was Sister Benedetta's fate. She died in 1661 having spent more than three decades imprisoned in the convent.

Wolf, Hubert. The Nuns of Sant'Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal (translated by Ruth Martin). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Childless, twice widowed, and in poor health, German aristocrat Katherine von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen moved to Rome in 1858 where she entered the convent of Sant'Ambrogio. At first she was impressed with her novice mistress, Sister Maria Luisa (born Maria Ridolfi) – beautiful, charming and only 27 years old at the time. But her suspicions were aroused when she learned that Maria Luisa experienced frequent visions, received letters from the Virgin Mary that appeared in a locked casket, made prophesies, performed exorcisms, and invited novices to share her cell at night. Shortly after she challenged the novice mistress about her practices and claims, Katherine fell ill and believed she was being poisoned. Rescued from the convent by a German archbishop whom she knew, she wrote a report on the convent goings-on that resulted in an inquiry by the Roman Inquisition. Dominican friar Vincenzo Sallua, who conducted the inquiry between December 1859 and February 1862, was horrified at what he found. Although the nuns of the Regulated Third Order of Holy Saint Francis resident in Sant'Ambrogio were supposed to live lives of strict enclosure and austerity, it was revealed that Maria Luisa had established a lax set of rules based on her visions and heavenly letters and that her authority went unquestioned. Moreover, when the mistress invited novices to her cell she claimed her vagina contained a liquid of great purifying and sanctifying power that she wished to share with them by entwining their naked bodies together. During Maria Luisa's own interrogation, she confessed to the entire litany of allegations against her – feigned holiness, “female sodomy," poisonings, and the like. She was sentenced to 18 years of monastic imprisonment. Although released when the Kingdom of Italy annexed the last remnants of the Papal States in 1870, things did not go well for her. Mentally and physically damaged, she spent time in an asylum, fell into destitution, and died in obscurity. The Regulated Third Order, to which she had belonged, was dissolved following the inquiry that led to her downfall.


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