Lessons in Feminine Greatness: What St. Joan of Arc Can Teach Us About Women and the Church

Sitting down to write a blog post in honor of St. Joan of Arc’s feast day is a somewhat daunting task, I’ve discovered. Part of me is tempted to forgo it altogether. There are plenty of excuses standing between me and my keyboard: I’ve written a post on her before, there is so much literature on her out there already, I can’t possibly have anything useful to add…Still, I feel the need to share some thoughts on this incredible saint.

What is it about this peasant girl turned savior of France that so intrigues us? She seems to offer something for everyone. For Catholics, she is a martyr and a saint. For feminists, she is an example of a woman who defied society’s stereotypes and took on a traditionally male role, with great success. For the French, she is a national hero. Some people view her as an early Protestant, standing up to abuses of power within the Catholic Church. Some people believe her visions were truly from God; the rest of the world comes up with various theories about her mental health, trying to explain away the divine element of her story without sacrificing the rest of it. Some of these interpretations are more valid than others. However, they all share in their admiration of Joan’s strength, courage, and conviction.

As a Catholic, I believe that Joan was truly sent by God to save France, and that she is now a saint in heaven. Furthermore, I’d argue that from a historical perspective, even aside from personal religious conviction, it is important to recognize Joan’s Catholicism in order to more fully understand her. True, she stood up to individuals in the Church. She placed her fidelity to God above her fidelity to man. Ultimately, she was killed for doing this. However, she always made it clear that her defiance was of individuals in the Church, not the divine institution of the Church. Joan herself said: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” Joan died out of love for Jesus, and therefore out of love for His Church. One can admire Joan without sharing her beliefs; however, one cannot change the fact that Joan was as faithful a Catholic as they come.

Perhaps this fact so often goes unrecognized because people don’t know how to reconcile their vision of Joan as a strong, empowered woman with their understanding of the Catholic faith. So often, the Catholic Church is perceived as the enemy of women. This seeming contradiction, however, is the very reason that St. Joan can be such a powerful witness to our modern world.

First of all, Joan shows us that there is a very big difference between the individuals that make up the Catholic Church and the divine institution of the Church. Individuals in the Church had her killed; the Church herself now holds her to be a saint. Joan fearlessly stood up to these individuals while unswervingly maintaining her Catholic faith. For anyone trying to make head or tail of the Church’s stance on women, this distinction is vital. Sadly, the individuals in the Church are flawed, and throughout history, many have contributed to the oppression of women. In his Letter to Women, John Paul II acknowledged this fact and expressed his deep regret for it. However, the Catholic Church herself upholds the dignity and rights of women in every way.

Joan was no activist; she was not trying to make a statement about a woman’s right to wear male attire, or to lead an army into battle. Sure, activism can be a noble cause, but it’s noteworthy that Joan has made a stronger impression on our collective consciousness than all the secular women’s rights advocates put together. Joan was simply trying to follow God’s will, and following His will in the heart of the Church led her to greatness. Her love for Christ and His Church gave her the strength, courage, and conviction for which she is so admired. She was a living example of a woman who became truly empowered by living her Catholic faith to the fullest. Obedience to Christ, even unto death, made her a hero for all time. To most modern feminists, this is a radical, even unacceptable, notion. However, it is a notion that we must come to terms with if we are to understand Joan’s life and, more importantly, the true path to feminine greatness.

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