I just read a Times Union piece by Cathleen Crowley about the canonization of Kateri, a 17th Century convert to Catholicism who is being put on the fast-track to Sainthood after an alleged miracle out West.
Kateri Tekakwitha was born out of conflict. Her mother was an Algonquin and a Christian; her father a chief in the Mohawk tribe who did not make the conversion. But when she was only four years old, the entire family was stricken with a wholly different and far less glamorous European import: the smallpox virus. It took the lives of both parents and left the young Kateri with permanently impaired vision (her surname was adopted from her Mohawk name which loosely translates to “she who walks into things”) and scars.
When she was twenty years old she converted to Catholicism and, after refusing to marry due to her newfound faith (or was it the other way around?), escaped across the border to Canada. She found refuge in a settlement near Montreal consisting of converted Natives from the region, assisting with aid for the sick, poor, and dying while also dabbling in missionary work. Yet while engaged in the social aspects of her faith, she was also a bit of a recluse. She lived in the woods and was considered a mystic, which would have been acceptable to converts but I’m sure did not endear her to white, European Catholics which while more pagan than their Protestant counterparts still frowned upon the retention of Native customs.
Kateri died when she was only twenty-four. Believers claim that when she died, her body became engulfed in a spiritual aura and the scars from her childhood illness disappeared from her face.
Here’s where things get a little murky.
The first troubling aspect comes when discussing the history of Kateri and her status as an outcast, which while true is easily misconstrued. From the article:
“There was a streak of feminism in her,” said Jack Casey, a Troy lawyer who wrote “Lily of the Mohawks,” a historical novel about Kateri.
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My initial reaction to this comment was negative. I thought it reeked of patronization and invoked feminism in a context that seemed to reflect at best a complete ignorance of what feminism actually means. After some thought, though, I get what he was actually trying to say by implying her streak of feminism. I don’t think (or rather I hope) he was not trying to paint her as a potential icon for gender equality in pursuit of an agenda.
That said, it’s still a strange thing to say in light of the Catholic Church’s troublesome history in regards to women’s rights, from the writings of Thomas Aquinas that categorize women as “misbegotten males” to the present day with their continued campaign against reproductive rights, assertions by Pope John Paul II of the two primary roles of women being “virgins and mothers,” and the deplorable statement the Vatican released just a year and a half ago that compared the ordination of women into the preisthood to the rape of children. That last one, in fairness, threw even some Bishops into a tizzy. But not enough to change the minds or the attitudes of what remains a very patriarchal institution, which goes against the majority of its faithful who would like to see women able to lead congregations rather than be relegated to apologetic servitude.
Even without the political and social quandaries, I think it’s a bit of a miscategorization to even infer a feminist attitude in Kateri. The primary motivational factor for her refusal to marry seems to be religious, not political. She gravitated towards service to the Church. It certainly wasn’t the Church that empowered or liberated her from her tribe’s social mores.
Then there’s the alleged miracle that led to her canonization on Monday. From the article:
…in 2006, a 6-year-old boy cut his lip during a basketball game in Washington state. Overnight, Jake Finkbonner’s face swelled up and he developed a high fever, according to an NPR report. Doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital said a flesh-eating bacterium called Strep A was attacking the boy’s face. Over the next few weeks, it destroyed his lips, cheeks and forehead. Doctors told the family the boy was going to die.
The family’s priest asked his congregation to pray to Kateri on Jake’s behalf. The priest chose Kateri because of her facial scars and Indian heritage – Jake is half Lummi Indian.
The prayers started coming in from around the world, and a representative from the Society of the Blessed Kateri went to the hospital to place a pendant of Kateri on the boy’s pillow. The next day, the infection stopped progressing and Jake recovered.
The implication here is a bit more complicated and, perhaps, more troublesome.
Certainly there were nothing but the best of intentions when the faithful asked the now canonized Kateri to assist in bringing the boy back to health. However, it was based on an antiquated European view of Native Americans as one large group of people with different subsects. Yet the Lummi have about the same claim of kinship to Algonquins or Mohawks as a Spaniard would to a Russian. While it is true that some tribes interacted in commerce and trade and at points intermingled (re: bred), it is not true that all Native Americans are the same peoples. While once again I do not fault those who were blinded by desperation and faith, the confirmation of the event as a miracle (rather than crediting it to medical science and the fact that while potentially causing permanent damage the disease is rarely fatal unless it isn’t treated) only serves to further reinforce a very narrow view of Native Americans as a single culture and ethnicity. This, however, was not true in history and is not true today save for their shared experience of subjugation and loss of identity through Western colonial expansion and outright genocide (a word rarely invoked because we think of Native Americans as one people rather than as different ethnicities, cultures, and/or societies, most of which were eradicated by European settlers).
I will give credit to the Vatican for its eagerness to downplay the supernatural element often associated with claims of “miracles.” In a very real way, the lifting of extraordinary requirements and acceptance of circumstance as evidence has helped modernize the church and eliminated some of the stigma of superstitious nonsense that has weighed it down for centuries. Still, it’s troubling that an organization that still refuses to give women position, prominence, or equal footing with men would canonize a woman they would not allow to become a nun because of her ethnicity and, furthermore, use a racist set of criteria for determining its validity.
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