St. Monica became one of my favorites when I got engaged and even more so later when I discovered I’d be the first housewife in my family since my grandmothers had young children. This was all before I discovered some controversy surrounding her.
St. Monica loved her son. She dedicated her life to praying for his conversion to Christianity. St. Augustine also loved his mother dearly and mentioned her often in his writings. We know through St. Augustine’s writings that St. Monica was likely a victim of what we would call today domestic violence and spousal abuse.
This isn’t the controversy. The controversy is how St. Monica and St. Augustine responded to the abuse and how Christians have responded to abuse through the centuries.
[Monica] was thus nurtured in an atmosphere of purity and temperance, and was subjected by you [God] to the authority of her parents rather than by them to yours. When she attained full marriageable age she was entrusted to a husband; she served him as her lord, but she made it her business to win him for you by preaching you to him through her way of life, for by her conduct you made her beautiful in her husband’s eyes, as a person to be respected, loved and admired.
So gently did she put up with his marital infidelities that no quarrel ever broke out between them on this score, for she looked to you to show him mercy, knowing that once he came to believe he would become chaste.
Although he was outstandingly generous, he was also hot-tempered, but she learned to offer him no resistance, by deed or even by word, when he was angry; she would wait for a favorable moment, when she saw that his mood had changed and he was calm again, and then explain her action, in case he had given way to wrath without due consideration.
There were plenty of women married to husbands of gentler temper whose faces were badly disfigured by traces of blows, who while gossiping together would complain about their husbands’ behavior; but she checked their talk, reminding them in what seemed to be a joking vein but with serious import that from the time they had heard their marriage contracts read out they had been in duty bound to consider these as legal documents which made slaves of them. In consequence they ought to keep their subservient status in mind and not defy their masters.
These other wives knew what a violent husband she had to put up with, and were amazed that there had never been any rumor of Patricius striking his wife, nor the least evidence of its happening, nor even a day’s domestic strife between the two of them; and in friendly talk they sought an explanation. My mother would then instruct them in this plan of hers that I have outlined. Those who followed it found out its worth and were happy; those who did not continued to be bullied and battered. (Confessions, Book IX, #9, 19, Boulding translation) – as edited by WIT
Let me summarize what you just read. St. Monica was a meek woman. Her husband cheated on her and lost his temper over stupid stuff, and she just put up with it. When women talked about the abuse they were suffering at home, she advised them to just put up with it and it would get better.
Some people are concerned about her following as a saint. Her coping mechanism is the last thing anyone would suggest today. We’d want to free her and her friends from their situations. We’d want to see all of those “men” in jail. We’d want to launch massive PSA campaigns to change the culture of martial violence in the late Roman Empire. We’d save the world, because, hey, that’s what we do.
But here, St. Augustine is praising his mother for being a good Christian example for her husband and her wisdom in figuring out how not to get beaten as badly as the neighbors. The unfortunate truth is that for centuries Christian clergy of all stripes have advised women in abusive relationships to stay.
As recently as the 1980s, a significant percentage of pastors would not advise an abused woman to leave, but to humbly submit to their husbands. Granted, it was only in 1993 that marital rape became a crime in all 50 states.
While we would never want a woman to behave as St. Monica did, I still think that St. Monica is a valuable patron saint for victims of domestic violence. She should not be set as an example of how to respond. It is valuable, however, to have a heavenly friend who knows exactly what you’re going through. That is what the communion of saints is all about. As the body of Christ, we are to support one another in prayer and action.
Now, I would like to leave you with some practical resources:
For Abusers (I was only able to find resources in the UK for them. We need similar programs in the US. Abusers are people too.)
For Catholic priests and clergy of similar traditions