Recently, while google-ing and wiki-ing and yahoo-ing the use of the word "prostitute" in history, I stumbled upon some information that blew my every-Sunday-in-a-pew Catholic mind. All at once I didn't believe it, and sadly knew why (and that) it could very well be true. Sandra Fluke probably wasn't the first woman to be falsely accused by a powerful public figure of being a prostitute.
It seems the Bible never referred to Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. A Catholic Pope did. Scholars traced the first mention of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute to a homily given nearly 600 years after the death of Christ. Catholic Pope Gregory the Great (he probably named himself), declared from the pulpit to the mass masses that Mary was a prostitute.
Here's where things get really interesting. It's noted in more than a few spots in the Bible that Jesus had cured Mary of seven "demons" or "illnesses", depending on the translation. Gregory decided that the demons were in fact the Seven Deadly Sins (anger, greed, lust, gluttony, pride and sloth). So, he must have surmised, Mary was a prostitute! Pope Gregory shared his opinion as gospel (I think Popes had decided they were infallible by this time) during his homily on September 14th, 591 AD. It could be that by this one change in Mary's stature, the roles of women in Catholicism, and arguably world society, were changed for the worse. (Gregory must have thought that lust and prostitution were somehow related, though I imagine most prostitutes don't feel that lust on their part has much to do with it. Ah, but I digress ...)
It's worth noting what the Bible does say about Mary. She was one of the last to leave Jesus as He hung on the cross, staying after most of the other apostles left. She was also the first person Jesus appeared to at the time of His Resurrection. According to the Bible, this makes Mary of Magdala at least one of Jesus' BFFs, if not His closest disciple. Pope Gregory, seeming to believe that a woman at Jesus' right hand wouldn't mesh well with a male-driven church, decided to cut the poor disciple off at her privates.
What can a man say about a female that instantly disables her power? What would make her sin-filled, less than, more than a few rungs below a man, unworthy of equality? Call her a slut. A prostitute. Damn her essence, the part that makes her a unique creature of God. Say she's a whore. Impure. And she got paid to do it. Mary Magdalene was extremely close to Jesus, and seemingly equal to her fellow disciples in stature. Why on Earth would Christ want to place her in a hand maiden role in the church?
The other Mary, the Virgin Mary, was impregnated by the Holy Spirit so that she would remain virginal or "pure". When a woman has lost her virginity, we're taught in a variety of ways by the Church that she is no longer as pure as she once was. The two poor Marys got the short end of the pastoral stick. One had to be a virgin in order to be worthy, and the other had to made into a prostitute to lose her worthiness.
At this point, some among us might ask, "Why does this matter?" We live in a world society sculpted by religious beliefs, many of which rely on the second-, third- and no-class citizenry of women. Some Jewish sects make women cover their arms and legs and wear wigs to show their faith. A variety of Muslim groups require women to cover their faces like shamed criminals, all in the name of Allah. Catholic girls like me were taught that we needed to be subservient to our husbands, and give control of our bodies to the Church. We were taught that we weren't worthy of becoming priests, making us second class members of our own religion.
The empowerment and wonderment of the female gender, in part, lies in our ability to become pregnant and give birth. Men can't get pregnant, nor can they bring another life form into the world. For some religious leaders, fear and a need for power may have led them to undermine the female gender. What could be better than eviscerating the very thing that makes women great, their sexuality? It was also key to hold in the highest esteem a woman's virginity -- the precursor to her true empowerment -- at the same time.
I am still struggling to believe that Mary Magdalene was labeled a prostitute almost 600 years after the death of Christ by a leader in my own faith. Then again, sadly, I really can understand it. And I only need to turn on the radio to see how the sexual degradation of women is alive and well on our airwaves today. Unfortunately for us, it's a concept as old as humankind.
Vatican II took the moniker of "prostitute" from Mary Magdalene, but the successful communication of that change to the Catholic masses is certainly up for debate. My Catholic friends, graduates of places such as Notre Dame and Boston College, had no idea she wasn't a prostitute. I, for one, was taught well after Vatican II, that she was.
When all is said and done, the question that's most deserving of our consideration is this: Why was she was made a whore in the first place?
Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalen: The Essential History, page 96 (Pimlico, 2003). ISBN 1-8459-5004-6
Who Was Mary Magdalene?, James Carroll, Smithsonian magazine, June 2006
Sarah O'Leary is a successful author, speaker, commentator and issues-focused independent. The opinions expressed herein are her own. She may be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org