I picked up a nice little brochure on the Year of Mercy at my parish in December. It had a lot of good information in it, including a handy checklist of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; and it had this prayer:
Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him. Show us your face and we will be saved. Your loving gaze freed Zaccaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things…
OK, I don’t know what it says after that, because I was so shocked that I stopped reading. Because apparently, Jesus frees men from love of money, and women from love of sex with men. What?
First of all, juxtaposing Mary Magdalene with the woman taken in adultery (and where was the man she was committing adultery with, I might ask) reinforces the medieval tradition that conflated Mary Magdalene with a prostitute. In fact, the only thing scripture tells us about Mary Magdalene’s past is that she had been freed from seven demons. She was the first to see the Risen Lord in 3 of the 4 gospels, for which reason she is rightly named “Apostle to the Apostles.”
Secondly — and I admit my reaction here is not quite fair, because the prayer does say Jesus freed her from this — but to associate Mary Magdalene with seeking happiness “only in created things” when her devotion to Jesus was so strong that he had to tell her, in the garden on Easter morning, “Don’t cling to me, Mary,” strikes me as ludicrous. (Either that, or it raises questions about a rather foundational Christological claim.)
Again, though, we know almost nothing about her life before she encountered Jesus, except that she had enough money that she could bankroll Jesus’ ministry once she joined him. We don’t know where her money came from; she might have been a successful merchant, like Lydia who preached alongside Paul, or a wealthy widow.
But most unjust of all is that, by presenting two men with one sin and two women with another sin, the prayer rhetorically implies that these are characteristic sins of men and of women. And anyone who looks around the world today, anyone who is paying any attention whatsoever to the prevalence of street harassment, rape, and domestic violence, anyone who is aware that women are more at risk from their intimate partners than from anyone else, could not possibly present an over-attachment to sex as a characteristic sin of women. It’s not women who buy guns and go out on shooting sprees because they can’t get laid.
Perhaps the intent here is a reference back to the Fall, dressed up in New Testament clothes. The LORD told the man that he would have to earn his bread [Gen 3:19], and woman that her desire would be for her husband [Gen 3:16]. So the prayer gestures back to these consequences of original sin as habitual sins from which Jesus’ merciful gaze frees us. That’s pretty, I suppose, and appropriately literary and allusive; but it does nothing to free women from the traditionally misogynistic wielding of this story. Instead it tightens the chains of patriarchy, portraying women as not only afflicted by sexual sin, but as a temptation to sexual sin for men.
It’s not mercy, to free women from supposedly characteristic sins wrongly attributed to them by the sin of sexism. Mercy would have refrained from trotting out that misogynist rhetoric yet again. (And prudence would have run the text past a couple of feminist theologians or bible scholars while revising!)
Sigh. Well, now that I’ve got that out of my system, I can go read the rest of the prayer.