La respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz is Sor Juan’s response to a letter from the Bishop of Puebla, which he signed with the pseudonym of Sor Filotea de la Cruz. The Bishop of Puebla had published a private letter sent to him by Sor Juana that came to be called La Carta Atenagórica in which she criticizes the sermon of Antonio de Vieyra, a well-respected Portuguese Jesuit priest. Then, he sends Sor Juana a letter in which he reprimands her for her intellectualism. In La respuesta Sor Juana expresses her gratitude for the publication of her letter, and then she explains her initial silence upon finding out about its publication. In La respuesta Sor Juana defends her inclination for learning and petitions for women to be allowed to study privately and to teach other women. She concludes with a re-interpretation of Paul’s discourse in which he dictates the silence of women in church.
One of the most impressive aspects of Sor Juana’s La respuesta is the way in which she confronts masculine social domination and ecclesiastical authority. In her writing, Sor Juana gives examples of learned women of antiquity as evidence that women have the same capacity to learn as men. She questions the binary of gender and argues that one should not permit or prohibit learning based on gender alone without taking into account the capacity of the individual. She follows with a criticism of men like Martin Luther who, she evaluates, read without intellectual capacity and have poorly interpreted the Bible to the detriment of Christianity.
The structure of La respuesta reveals a strong Baroque influence. In the 17th century the Spanish Peninsula is at the peak of its Baroque period and has closed itself off from the rest of Europe. The Baroque period coincides with a plethora of scientific discoveries such as the confirmation of Copernicus’s Heliocentric Theory (1543), Galileo’s invention of the first telescope (1608), William Harvey’s demonstration of the circulation of blood (1628), and Isaac Newton’s Law of Universal Gravity (1687) that begin to undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. In the Baroque period, Catholicism, Medieval thought, and Renaissance ideals collide in a way that threatens the basic pillars of Christianity (Leonard 29). Spain insulates itself from change opting to view itself as an instrument of divine providence and insisting that its extensive colonial territory proves that God had chosen Spain to re-establish Christianity in its purest form: “The large populations threatened by heresy in Europe and awaiting the illumination of Christian doctrine in America were clearly a trust which providence had bestowed exclusively on the peoples of the Spanish Peninsula” (Leonard 24). So while the rest of Europe opens to new ideas and ways of thinking, Spain guards itself from these. Scholasticism, the predominant system of critical thought, incorporated logic with the basic premise that all truth emanates from God. Those that have knowledge of this truth are the people chosen by God to “know” and transmit wisdom. Given that God disseminates wisdom to particular people and not to others, knowledge in the Baroque period is based on memorizing material from accepted sources and not on being able to reason. In La respuesta, Sor Juana demonstrates her ability with the extensive use of citations from accepted sources such as Quintilian, Saint Geronimo, Saint Augustine, and Aristotle. The structure of La respuesta also manifests a classic juridical order that shows Sor Juana’s knowledge of the classis Greek and Roman models (Arenal 22).
The numerous contradictions in Sor Juana’s letter can be explained as conventional rhetorical forms of the era that don’t reveal more about Sor Juana than a knowledge of the rules of the discourse. For example, in the beginning and at the end of La respuesta, Sor Juana’s tone seems self-deprecating and excessively humble. Sor Juana says that she doesn’t study in order to know, but only to be less ignorant. She emphasizes her insignificance as a poor nun, “la más mínima criatura del mundo y la más indigna de ocupar vuestra atención” (33) [the most insignificant creature in the World and the least worthy of your attention.] In the conclusion of her letter she undermines her own authority over her letter when she acknowledges the Bishop’s authority to rip it up or to erase her writing. While some critics have argued that Sor Juana’s excessive humility is a parody of the norms, Electra Arenal explains that the hyperbolic humility and false modesty that Sor Juana shows are part of the conventions of the epistolary form of the Baroque period:
In Sor Juana’s day, formal letter writing was governed by strict rhetorical rules, including Renaissance adaptations of Greek and Latin models. Vestiges of such rules are quite apparent today in French forms of address in letter writing; early in the twentieth century, formal English language letters were still ended with the metaphorical ‘Your humble servant’...Writing by nuns and clerics, especially when addressed to their superiors, followed established modes that included such metaphors of humility as ‘I lowlier than a worm’ and, as Sor Juana wrote in a document on the Immaculate Conception of Mary: ‘I...the most insignificant of the slaves of Our Lady the Most Holy Mary.’ (23)