Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, advocate for an inclusive church

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz teaches that Catholicism is not a passive faith but an active one.
Our Faith

Growing up in Texas, I often had a stash of Mexican pesos on hand from our recurrent trips across the border. I frequently fiddled with the bills and, raised by Catholic parents, became fascinated with the nun featured on the 200-peso banknote; I assumed she was a saint. This was my first encounter with the revolutionary writer and powerhouse known as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Later, in college, I realized the brilliance of Sor Juana and her work. In a survey course on the canonical works of Spanish and Latin American literature, I discovered she was a historical figure and a prolific writer. Fiery, passionate, and mesmerizing, Sor Juana’s work stood out from the other texts we read for the class. Her vibrant prose combined with a masterful grasp of truths dazzled me, even as I also admired her willingness to challenge the status quo.

Sor Juana was a criolla born during the 17th century in Mexico, a colony of the Spanish Empire that at the time was known as “New Spain.” During her childhood, she educated herself, mastering philosophy as well as the languages of Latin and Nahuatl (the language of the Indigenous Mexica people). Her love for knowledge eventually manifested itself in her decision to enter religious life and become a nun; she joined a cloistered religious order at the Hieronymite Convent of Santa Paula.

The life of a cloistered nun allowed Sor Juana time for learning and writing. She became a renowned intellectual, and in many ways the church supported her endeavors. Her fellow sisters nominated her several times to be mother superior, and she served as both the treasurer and archivist for the convent. Powerful priests promoted her work, visited her, and gave her praise.


In her seminal poem, Hombres necios que acusáis (“You Foolish Men”), Sor Juana takes a stance against the sexism and hypocrisy she observed in the male-female relationship in New Spain. In the first stanza, she expresses her disappointment at how men blame women for their immorality without recognizing how they themselves corrupt women.

The poem serves as a profound social commentary on gender dynamics, in which Sor Juana demands that oppressive expectations for women be evaluated and dismantled.

Sor Juana also advocated for the inclusion of Indigenous people. In El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), a religious allegorical play, she merges scripture with ancient Greek mythology. More specifically, she presents Christ as Narcissus and the devil as Echo. In the opening stanza, the poem highlights Sor Juana’s pride in the Mexican people and her admiration for their Indigenous ancestors.

The characters Occident, America, Religion, and Zeal are central to the play’s plot. In the beginning, the magnificent Occident and regal America (both Mexicas) consume seeds and human blood as part of their ritual to honor the god Huitzilopochtli. Pivotal to this ceremony is the dancing of the tocotín, a traditional Mexica dance. Religion and Zeal (both Spanish) show up and, after a skirmish, appeal to the Indigenous people by comparing the seeds and human blood to the body and blood of Christ. Promptly afterward, Occident and America convert to Christianity.


In the play, Sor Juana denies that Indigenous communities are inherently barbaric and instead portrays Indigenous cultures as magnificent and noble. Moreover, she includes a tocotín in the play, which allowed Indigenous people to perform their dance onstage despite the practice being banned by the Spanish. Sor Juana’s play both defends and honors the culture of Indigenous Mexicans.

In March 1691, Sor Juana conducted her bravest act of defiance when she wrote her most well-known work, Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Response to Sor Filotea de la Cruz), a response to the bishop of Puebla. In it, she defends the rights of women and their ability to pursue an education while criticizing the church for contributing to women being uneducated and ill-informed. By all accounts, this was a bold move, one that heralded her downfall.

Her fame and prestige came to an end when she criticized a homily by Father António Vieira, denouncing its colonialist and sexist implications. This critique drew the attention of Bishop Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz, who admonished Sor Juana, arguing that God does not believe learning is fit for women, as it fuels pride. She countered that God gave women intellect to use it, and vast knowledge aids in fully understanding the gospel. Gradually, however, she lost her prestige and was forced to give up writing and get rid of her books. No longer able to engage in scholarship, she dedicated more time to charity work. She died of a plague while caring for her religious sisters.

My initial encounter with Sor Juana when I was an undergraduate coincided with my reversion to Catholicism. Even as I was on the cusp of reverting, however, I was still troubled. As a Latino born to Latin American immigrants, I had been engaged in political and social justice advocacy since I was a child. So, I wondered, what did Catholicism have to offer me in terms of advocating for the marginalized? Sor Juana served as my guide to understanding that Catholicism and social justice are not dichotomies but rather complementary.


Sor Juana found solace in the church; at first, at least, it provided the space and resources to dedicate her time to writing and learning. However, Sor Juana also saw that the church was not only complicit in the marginalization of women, racial minorities, and the lower classes in New Spain but was also the perpetrator. And yet she remained faithful to the church.

Growing up, I often found myself in more conservative Catholic spaces that emphasized sin, culpability, and purity rather than mercy, grace, and Catholic social teaching. When I heard Catholics emphasize that certain communities were less worthy of heaven or that any criticism of clergy was erroneous, I remained silent, worried that I might rock the boat. After reading Sor Juana, though, I realized my apprehension was unfounded.

I now feel called by the Holy Spirit to stress what the Catholic Church should stand for: the advancement of a world based on justice and love where everyone sees the inherent dignity in each child of God. Sor Juana advocated for a church of inclusion, one that embraced women and Indigenous people. So why shouldn’t I?

The life and works of Sor Juana can be a guide to contemporary Catholics. She teaches us that Catholicism is not a passive faith but an active one. Standing up for the rights of others, however controversial that might be both within and outside the church, is God’s will.


Social justice advocates, feminists, scholars, and the people of Mexico all revere Sor Juana. Today, her ideas are fundamental to my own spiritual practice. I learned from her that being defiant is not a bad thing when we rebel to bring about good. I’m reminded of this every time I go to Mexico and pay with a 200-peso banknote. 

This article also appears in the July 2024 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 89, No. 7, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.


Image: Fray Miguel de Herrera, WIkimedia Commons


About the author

Ivan Brea

Ivan Brea is a writer whose work focuses on the intersection of faith, culture, and the human experience. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin.

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