Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil: Book Review

Mayblin, Maya.  2010. Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil: Virtuous Husbands, Powerful Wives.  New York: Palgrave MacMillan.  

By: Astrid Grue (University of Copenhagen)

If, following a point recently made by Sara Ahmed, an ideological argument of contemporary Western societies appears to be that “if you are married, then we can predict that you are more likely to be happier than if you are not married” (2010: 6), Maya Mayblin’s rich account of married life among Catholics in a village community in Northeast Brazil paints a different picture. Here, marriage is about hard work, suffering, and spiritual pollution; it is a curse as much as a blessing, for even if it is not the route to happiness, it is generally necessary for the constitution and performance of moral personhood for both women and men.

In Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil, Mayblin offers a substantial ethnography of gendered, as well as ungendered, discourses and practices that unfold around marriage, elegantly interwoven with a range of perceptive analytical points about Catholic morality. The book is built around different stages in the life cycle of a person from the village of Santa Lucia; after being introduced to the history of the region and learning that people make a living mainly from agriculture and livestock rearing, and that anticlericalism is common, we are thus taken from the ’carefree’ lives of the young and unmarried, through courtship, to the radical transition to married life which implies new moral responsibilities and thus a completely new form of personhood. Then follow two chapters that deal with the moral challenges and expectations posed to women and men in marriage, respectively, leading on to a chapter on the dangers of married life, including wife beating and adultery, both locally understood to be the results of sinful pride. Finally, we learn how children are socialised to become, at once, sinners and saints, because one needs to be stripped of innocence in order to survive in the world, but at the same time must not become excessively sinful by letting oneself be overcome by pride.

The challenge of managing the “apparent disjuncture between an ideal religious purity that values innocence and worldly detachment and the need for knowledge to live a productive life” (6) runs through the whole book and it is this tension between pure innocence and sinful knowledge that appears to be driving morality for Santa Lucians, as much as it lends force and sophistication to Mayblin’s anthropological argument. As she rightfully points out, contrary to what might be expected for some Protestants, for these Brazilian Catholics this apparent paradox is less a problem than a positive way of moving closer to God, “a clear and legitimate means of engaging with the divine, a source of spiritual vitality in and of itself” (7; cf. Grue 2013). This point is carefully and convincingly made through ethnography, particularly in her descriptions of the social roles of sofredora and trabalhador. The relationship between innocence and knowledge appears to be a lifelong moral tension but, crucially, it is also central to the abrupt transition from childhood to adulthood with marriage, the prime moment when someone becomes knowledgeable of the spiritually polluting spheres of sex and commerce and hence exposed to the potential for sin due to the desire and selfishness that these activities give rise to. That worldly knowledge and experience can simultaneously become the gateway to spiritual fortification, however, is apparent in the example of the sofredora, a suffering married woman. Suffering from poverty, violent and alcoholic husbands, and work rearing children and in the household is elaborated in women’s narratives, in which the moral importance of being able to contain this suffering for the sake of others is emphasised. Paradoxically, greater knowledge about the sinful ways of the world thus opens up the possibility for greater piety because it enables women to perform as sofredoras, i.e. as someone who selflessly contains her suffering without letting it transform into dangerous pride. The sofredora’s masculine counterpart is the trabalhador, the husband who works hard to provide for his family, thus showing his love for them. Again, this moral imperative to love and care for one’s wife and children can only be pursued through engagement with the sinful sphere of commerce where selfishness and cunning is demanded. One of the book’s major strengths, I believe, lies in this nuanced analysis of morality as a complex interplay between innocence and knowledge, not as a problem, but as a productive tension.

Mayblin’s other theoretical project is to go against a current of feminist approaches to gender in Latin America that have focused “on the tyranny of machista men and their oppression of women” (123); specifically, her declared aim is to “question whether there can be any such thing as a ‘gendered morality’” (122), a term she takes from Marit Melhuus (1996) who, among others, has identified Latin American men to be morally evaluated according to power, women according to virtue. In her most ethnograhically most gripping chapter, Virtuous Husbands, Powerful Wives: Marriage and the Dangers of Power, Mayblin puts forward the argument that morality, contrary to what many of these earlier studies have shown, is not, or at least not overtly, gendered.  This is also her most radical argument. Here, we hear of how Seu Roberto, well prior to Mayblin’s arrival in the village, murdered his wife with a scythe in a fit of jealousy because of her supposed adultery. That Seu Roberto is still living in the village and has been relatively forgiven by the community despite his violent deed, is a puzzle that Mayblin solves analytically by showing that while for men, wife-beating can be a result of sinful pride and the opposite of love, the equivalent sinful act for women is adultery, which is powerful enough to bring about the ‘social death’ of their cuckolded husbands. Thus, if the murdered woman “had indeed cheated on her husband, it was believed that she would have known, without doubt, the destruction this could bring to her husband’s life” (142), since a cuckolded husband becomes “an object of ridicule and disgust” (137). There is thus, Mayblin argues, a moral equivalence between men and women in that both hold power over their partner, and in that both may be carried away by pride, thus hurting each other, meaning that Seu Roberto could be forgiven because he too was suffering – from the ‘violence’ produced by his wife’s alleged adultery.

Although Mayblin is careful to emphasize that she is interested in how her interlocutors themselves conceptualise morality, i.e. as universal, rather than gendered, I am uneasy about the political and ethical implications of this part of her argument. While I commend her aim to analyse morality ‘from within’ – and I am very sympathetic to the current anthropological vogue of ‘theorising things ethnographically’ (cf. Henare et al. 2007) – Mayblin’s effort to counterbalance research focused on women’s oppression seems to me to overshadow a possibly more nuanced account of the relationship between gender and morality. As she herself writes, “one might also point to the fact that the woman of this unfortunate couple ended up dead, where the man, whatever ostracism he may have suffered, did not” (144); indeed, and one might also stress the fact that for men, adultery does not carry the risk of violent death, but is rather fully acceptable, even expected. Even if people in Santa Lucia equate masculine violence with feminine adultery (which I am not entirely convinced that they do), social death simply is not the same as physical death, something that is not, in my opinion, made sufficiently clear in Mayblin’s analysis. I am not suggesting that we would be better off thinking in terms of a simple male dominance/female subjugation dichotomy, and I do think that Mayblin’s analysis contributes significantly to nuancing such an approach by showing that men too must be virtuous, and that women too possess power. But, as the book’s subtitle, Virtuous Husbands, Powerful Wives, reveals, in her endeavour to prove this, Mayblin runs the risk of going to the opposite extreme, seeing no gender where gender is actually highly relevant. Nevertheless, this point of criticism does not subtract from it being a highly original argument that is certainly able to open up a debate about the theorisation of gender in Latin America.

Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil is also a valuable contribution to the anthropology of Christianity. As Chris Hann, among others, has pointed out, there appears to be a bias in this growing field towards studying Protestant Christianities, often ones that are the result of missionary encounters, while generally overlooking “dominant institutionalized Christian denominations” (2007: 384), combined with a lack of work on non-charismatic forms of Catholicism (Bialecki et al. 2008: 1152). This book adds to the sub-field, not only by focusing on ‘mainstream’ Catholicism, but also by showing that Christian ideas are locally shaped, lived, and embodied, even if they spring from a supposedly homogenous global institution. This is evident, for example, in the fact that Santa Lucians are not well read in scripture, but tend to use Christian mythology, particularly Genesis and the Passion, to conceptualise their own moral personhood (33; cf. Scott 2005).

Finally, the book is very well written, engaging, and ethnographically precise and rich, qualities that should not be underestimated. Mayblin’s aim “to write an ethnography about Santa Lucian people in which their own voices are clearly present” (40) is most certainly met, and gracefully so. The author’s own voice and positionality are clearly present, without drowning out the stories and lives of her interlocutors. One characteristic of the style that I very much appreciated during reading was the use of footnotes to elaborate on the theoretical literature that had inspired analytical points in the main text, so that as a reader one is free to enjoy the many well-crafted ethnographic-cum-analytical build-ups without unnecessary literary digressions, while also being able to seek clarifications in the notes. All too often, texts sand up with references. This approach helps make Gender, Catholicism, and Morality in Brazil recommendable to a number of audiences. Anthropologists working with Catholicism, Latin America, and/or morality, in my opinion, cannot and would not want to bypass this book.  Those interested in Christianity and gender more broadly should find it very enriching. Since it presents a number of complex analytical points in a very accessible writing style, it could also benefit students at all levels. Altogether, this is a very welcome contribution that does not limit itself to a narrow focus on religion, but through its broad ethnography reminds us that an anthropology of Christianity needs to take into account the many ways in which religiosity is enmeshed in, or even indistinguishable from, morality, gender, and human existence.


Ahmed, S. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Bialecki, J., N. Haynes and J. Robbins. 2008. The Anthropology of Christianity. Religion Compass 2/6:1139-1158.

Grue, A. 2013. Paths to Sanctity: Crafting Catholic Subjectivities in a Spanish Church Community. M.Sc. Thesis. Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.

Hann, C. 2007. The Anthropology of Christianity per se. European Journal of Sociology 48(3):383-410.

Henare, A., M. Holbraad and S. Wastell. 2007. ”Introduction: Thinking Through Things,” in Thinking Through Things: Theorising Artefacts Ethnographically. Edited by A. Henare, M. Holbraad and S. Wastell, pp. 1-31. London and New York: Routledge.

Melhuus, M. 1996. ”Power, Value and the Ambiguous Meanings of Gender,” in Machos, Mistresses, Madonnas: Contesting the Power of Latin American Gender Imagery. Edited by M. Melhuus and K. A. Stølen, pp. 230-259. London: Verso.

Scott, M. 2005. ’I Was Like Abraham’: Notes on the Anthropology of Christianity from the Solomon Islands. Ethnos 70(1):101-125.

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