Two Weeks of Worthy Women: Maude Petre

Today is Independence Day in the US. It’s also the conclusion of the Fortnight for Freedom. In parallel, we will draw this series on worthy women to a conclusion. Thanks, all for reading and following. I’m especially appreciative for our guest bloggers these past two weeks: Fran, John, and Rae.

I was looking for an American woman to close this out, but I was struck by the story of Maude Petre, as an unabashed modernist in an age when aggiornamento was a most unwelcome guest in the Catholic Church. So let’s wrap up two weeks of worthiness with an Englishwoman who struggled for freedom within the Church she loyally loved and supported.

Maude Petre was born into a Catholic family in 1863. As a young adult she expressed skepticism about the faith, so her Jesuit confessor recommended she look to Thomas Aquinas. And in 1885, it was off study neo-scholasticism with some professors in the Vatican. One of her relatives quipped, “Maude has gone to Rome to study for the priesthood.”

She settled into religious life with the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a French community of sisters who, lest you think the 19th century was all about cloisters and habits for religious women, allowed its members to live in their own houses and wear street clothes. This, friend trads, before the invention of polyester. Her apostolate included ministry to orphans and housing the poor. The once-skeptic also instructed converts to Catholicism. Her leadership skills were apparently well-regarded as she was named a local superior in 1896 and a provincial just four years later.

Also in 1900, Maude met the Jesuit theologian George Tyrrell. In her own writings, she seemed less a parrot of his ideas of a Catholicism recapturing its mystical voice, and the search for God in human experience. She promoted a Church in which people should be free to discuss such possibilities. Maude published Catholicism and Independence: Being Studies in Spiritual Liberty. For this, she was refused permission to renew her vows with her community.

Those conversant in Church history know that Pope Pius X came down brutally hard on the modernists. Fr Tyrrell was eventually ejected from the Jesuits, from the priesthood, and excommunicated. A priest friend of Tyrrell’s was harshly disciplined for making a sign of the cross over the man’s grave.

Maude’s bishop grew alarmed at her efforts to edit and publish the works of Fr Tyrrell. When she refused to sign the anti-Modernist oath, she was excommunicated.

If I am wrong, then I am so deeply fundamentally wrong, that only God can prove it to me. If I am right, then He will make good to me what I have forfeited before men.

Maude always considered herself a faithful Catholic. When she moved to London, she attended daily Mass, regularly receiving the sacraments. In his book, Blessed Among Women, Robert Ellsberg spoke of her as “exemplify(ing) a spirituality of loyal dissent.”

Near the end of her life, she wrote:

Nothing can alter the radical aspirations of the human heart, and it was for these that the Modernist contended, and for the sake of which he endured the cramping torture of ecclesiastical institutions, because in spite of their limitations, he found in them a support in the passage through this dark and troubled life: he found through them, the grace to live, the courage to die.

If the US bishops were authentically inclined to religious freedom, it would mean more than just a salve for their own consciences. Religious liberty applies within the institution, and not just to a limited interpretation of how it might be threatened from without. Ultimately, a believer is always in charge of her or his expression of faith. People like Maude Petre and other worthy women realized this. They made decisions–not always compliant, not always dissenting. But they made these choices as part of a lifelong loyalty to Christ, the Master of Liberty and provider, thanks to the Paschal Mystery, of the freedom to choose God and walk in the life of the Spirit.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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