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Preaching Sex: Gender and Official Church Discourses in Mexico City, 1720-1875

  • Author(s): Witschorik II, Charles Arthur;
  • Advisor(s): Chowning, Margaret;
  • et al.

This dissertation project analyzes the different ways that, over time, gendered images, metaphors and hagiographical examples were used in sermons and other documents that the Church approved for publication (that is, what I am calling official Church discourses) to help it negotiate challenges to its cultural and ideological hegemony. I argue that beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing into the first half of the eighteenth preachers utilized the discursive openness of the Baroque in New Spain to articulate surprisingly flexible visions of gender. For example, some preachers portrayed exceptional, saintly women as "manly," while others did not hesitate to describe how some men took on motherly, nurturing roles. As part of a larger Baroque aesthetic in which opposites and excesses were celebrated, unusual gendered language and associations provided a way for prelates to engage their audiences even while upholding, albeit paradoxically, received conventions.

As "enlightened" ideas began to penetrate New Spain in the later part of the century, however, preachers' visions of gender evolved according to the prevailing reformist spirit. As with church architecture, paintings and other media, so also in sermons those stylistic elements which had formerly displayed the Baroque spirit were increasingly jettisoned in favor of new, more austere features, resulting, in the case of sermons, in less flexibility in how men and women were portrayed. While women could to an extent still aspire to imitate virtues associated with men, preachers' language about men grew significantly more masculinized and even militarized, often at the service of promoting the needs and interests of the Crown. Then, in the years preceding independence (1821), preaching once again changed course as the implications of some of the earlier changes grew clearer. Where reformers had promoted obedience to secular authorities and a close church-state alliance, later prelates became alarmed as the Crown began to chip away at traditional Church privileges and rational, sometimes even secular ideas and trends took hold in New Spain with a tenacity beyond the Church's ability to control. As a result, the high clergy responded by promoting moral renewal and reinvigorated obedience to "legitimate" authorities, by whom they often meant God, not the now-unreliable Crown. Women were the particular targets of clerical admonishments, not because they had strayed more than men, but because women, in a patriarchal society that emphasized female obedience, symbolized the dangers of excessive freedom. In the wake of independence and the struggles that followed it, however, it became clearer that not every church-state battle could be won, and preachers turned increasingly to women as idealized members of "the devout sex," charged with fomenting devotion and moral virtue among their contemporaries, both female and male. Put another way, liberals after independence were not the only ones to assert a kind of "republican motherhood": preachers countered with a vision of "Catholic motherhood" that had great resonance in Mexico even into the twentieth century.

This dissertation offers contributions to the history of the Catholic Church in Mexico, suggesting some of the ways that the institution sought to strengthen and perpetuate its traditionally prominent role in Mexican society. Though historians of the Baroque and its various manifestations in New Spain sometimes use the floweriness or elaborateness of sermons to exemplify Baroque style, few studies have sought to examine in depth how the Baroque aesthetic of excess and opposites functioned discursively in sermons. Likewise, a handful of other historians have explored issues of the Enlightenment and the Church, but primarily from the point of view of internal reform efforts, and they have not used sermons as a source for understanding the ways that official ecclesiastical discourses were shaped and articulated. Sermons have been used by a small number of historians to build a picture of a Church that is neither monolithic nor fully reactionary, but their aim has been primarily to understand the Church's political role after independence, not the earlier struggles it faced in the late colonial period or the adaptations it made later in the nineteenth century. Finally, none of these students of the Church have been especially interested in gender as a key aspect of how ecclesiastical discourses were constructed. My dissertation addresses these lacunae.

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