In 1690, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695) wrote a theological argument questioning a famous sermon by one of the most celebrated Christian orators of the 17th century, the Portuguese Jesuit Father Antonio de Vieyra, who was especially admired throughout Spain and Mexico. Forty years earlier, in 1650, he had preached on the topic of Christ’s love for humanity. Sor Juana took issue with some of the finer theological points made by Vieyra, and at the encouragement of the Bishop of Puebla—a churchman close to Juana—put down her thoughts into an erudite document. Without Sor Juana’s permission, the bishop printed the document, and even sent a copy to Juana with a personal dedication. News of Juana’s critique spread quickly, dividing the community. Soon the Bishop of Puebla—ordered by his superiors—drafted a blunt letter to Juana using the female pseudonym “Sor Filotea de la Cruz”, in which he admonished her not so much for the theological argument against de Vieyra, but for her overall interest in secular writings, science and knowledge. In the letter he scolds, “I don’t pretend … to change your talents by renouncing books, but to improve them by occasionally reading that of Jesus Christ.”¹ While nuns often studied and wrote, their topics were generally religious in nature, unlike many of Sor Juana’s commissioned poems and plays.
On March 1, 1691, Sor Juana drafted her response to the Bishop. The result is her famed Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Response to Sor Filotea)—an historically unprecedented treatise in defense, both personal and universal, of women’s right to education. Carefully worded, the letter documents Juana’s passion for learning from childhood to womanhood, and describes her God-given thirst for knowledge as well as her justification in pursuing it. In the process, Sor Juana cites sources ancient and modern, scientific, literary and religious (e.g., Genesis, Saint Jerome, Seneca, St. Thomas Aquinas, Athanasius Kircher, Lupercio Leonardo de Argensol, Eusebius, Pliny, St. John Chrysostom, etc.), humbly pleading her case while simultaneously displaying the depth and breadth of her learning. In Response, Sor Juana argues that intelligent religious women had always played an integral role in the history of the Catholic Church, looking to St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Gertrude the Great, St. Teresa of Avila, and Mary of Agreda as examples, even if her contemporaries wished to ignore it.
One of Juana’s best arguments in support of women’s education is her opinion regarding whether or not women should be allowed to interpret scripture—a raging debate during her lifetime. In the process of defending women’s ability to study and interpret scripture, Juana does, in fact, interpret scripture. The passage she looks to is St. Paul’s controversial quote in 1 Corinthians 14:34 which urges women to “be silent in the churches.” Long held by her contemporaries to be a mandate that women have silent roles in the Church in general, Juana argues that St. Paul instead spoke in specific terms and meant only that women should not preach from the pulpits in churches. She cites other quotes from St. Paul and St. Jerome in which they encourage the education of women, ultimately arguing that overall, the church’s tradition has encouraged the academic pursuits of women, and that any argument otherwise is a misinterpretation of scripture and tradition. She concludes that for women in the Catholic Church “to study, write, and teach privately not only is permissible, but most advantageous and useful.”²
In response to the Bishop of Puebla’s admonition of her secular and scientific interests, Sor Juana brilliantly argued that study must include these subjects before approaching the religious: “Directing the course of my studies toward the peak of Sacred Theology, it seeming necessary to me, in order to scale those heights, to climb the steps of the human sciences and arts; for how could one undertake the study of the Queen of Sciences if first one had not come to know her servants?”³ Countering attacks on her love of poetry and verse, Sor Juana cites examples from the church in which poetry is central, including the writings of Kings Solomon and David, books of the Bible written in meter, the Canticle of Canticles, as well as Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat on occasion of her visit to Elizabeth.⁴ In doing so, Sor Juana shrewdly deflected attacks from the clergy by using powerful examples from church history to her advantage. She concludes her letter of respectful dissent by affirming her loyalty to the church, but also asserting her freedom to offer an alternate opinion to Father de Vieyra’s famous sermon: “I esteem more highly my reputation as a Catholic and obedient daughter of the Holy Mother Church than all the approbation due a learned woman … and as I was free to dissent from de Vieyra, so will anyone be free to oppose my opinion.”⁵
Sor Juana’s letter caused division among Catholics in Mexico—an unrest mirrored by famine, political unrest, riots, and an outbreak of the plague in 1692 which was considered by many to be a punishment from God for sin. In 1693, Sor Juana sold her beloved library for the relief of the poor, and with her own blood signed a renewal of her religious vows. When plague struck the convent, Sor Juana nursed her fellow sisters and finally succumbed to the disease in 1695. At the age of only 44, Sor Juana left behind a groundbreaking oeuvre, and made history by boldly championing the education of women. Appropriately, her in convent in Mexico City’s historic center serves today as the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana—an institution of learning whose identity is based on the life and writings of the scholarly sister.
—Raphael Fitzgerald is an art historian and researcher.
1. Peden & Stavens, xv.
2. Peden & Stavens, 49.
3. Peden & Stevens, 19.
4. Peden & Stevens, 65.
5. Peden & Stevens, 61.