Women in the Church Since Vatican II: From November 1, 1986
The end of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens of Belgium asked his fellow bishops: "Why are we even discussing the reality of the church when half of the church is not even represented here?" This provocative question, midway through a council that was then totally male, was a breakthrough that prodded council members to invite a few "token" women to the ensuing sessions.
My own experience as one of the 15 women "auditors" originally invited to Vatican II gives me a particular vantage point from which to view the struggles of Roman Catholic women in the United States since the council.
This emerging women's movement in the Roman Catholic Church has captured attention worldwide because it is challenging an intransigent and patriarchal tradition of that church and is making serious headway toward its goal: restoring the equality in theory and practice that belongs to a Christian and Catholic theology of persons.
The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution “The Church in the Modem World" stated, "With respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent" (No. 29). Although one may say that the document speaks from a negative position, sometimes a negative approach serves to point out the contradictions latent in an unaddressed problem. The insight into "what's right" often follows from an intuition of 'what's wrong."
Today we readily accept the sociological theory that persons experiencing injustice have the best insights into their plight. Had the bishops of the council understood the injustices in the church's attitude toward and treatment of women, and had they possessed this sociological knowledge, perhaps they would have included a wide spectrum of women in their deliberations.
I was invited to Vatican II as the result of a particular position I had in those years. I had been newly elected as president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Women, now known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
That women auditors were at the council--only 15 of us were invited from as many countries-was at least an important first step. And there was the further valuable insight of a council theologian, Bernard Haring, C.SS.R., that if women were invited, they should have a place in the commissions formulating the documents. As a result, some were invited to attend commission meetings. There we were allowed to speak as freely as we wished, and each of us did speak. Although we did not create a countervailing current turning around the attitude toward women, our presence was noticed immediately by the press, and at least a few bishops began to see the problems more clearly.
There was some effort within the Commission on the Church in the Modem World to take a stand for women by recognizing the prevailing discrimination against them.
I recall vividly a question asked of Rosemary Goldie, an auditor from Australia, during one of the sessions of this commission: One of the authors of the commission's document, in the process of constructing a statement about women, read a flowery and innocuous sentence to the commission members for their consideration. When he had finished, he noticed that the women present were unimpressed. "But, Rosemary," he said, addressing the intelligent and able Rosemary Goldie, "why don't you respond happily to my praise of women and what they have contributed to the church?"
Pressed for a response, Rosemary answered: "You can omit all those gratuitous flowery adjectives, the pedestals and incense, from your sentence. All women ask for is that they be recognized as the full human persons they are, and treated accordingly." I do not believe that to this day the bishops who were present then have understood what Rosemary meant to convey. This episode represents to me the state of ignorance of the problem at the time of Vatican II.
I was grateful for Rosemary's presence at the commission, and have publicly asked audiences many times since how long it will be until the official church realizes the deprivation and impoverishment it suffers by excluding from its deliberations representatives from half its constituency.
For me, Vatican II was an opening, although just a tiny crack in the door, to a recognition of the vast indifference toward women and the ignoring of their potential within the whole body of the church.
What has happened since?
In addition to the recognition of the problem by Vatican II, other elements have also contributed to the state of women in the church today.
1. The women's movement has grown, especially here in the United States. While it is true that there has been progress in overcoming patriarchy, yet in a situation of such urgency, what remains to be done looms very large ahead of us. The years since the early 1970's have seen steady progress as women's groups began to include women's issues in their agenda. Both laywomen and women religious give daily evidence of this raised consciousness.
2. Religious orders of women, since Vatican II, have developed collegial and personalist insights and practices. Perhaps one way to summarize this development is to recall the experience of one religious community, the Sisters of Loretto, to which I belong. As part of my book, Hope Is an Open Door, I described this evolution in religious life by relating the Loretto experience immediately after Vatican II. While this is specific to one group, it fairly typifies the development in most religious communities of women.
I listed those changes which I believe prepared the educational process for sisters to become conscious of the contradiction between what they were experiencing as women increasingly aware of discrimination, and the reality in the church.
"What were some of the specific changes? Although it is difficult to attempt a summary, I can suggest some highlights. A first insight had to do with the importance of a new way of setting value on the human person, within the context of faith and the world. Recent psychological, sociological and philosophical insights had influenced this concept. That perception led to an emphasis on the priority of persons over institutions, the value of each person's full participation in decisions affecting her and, flowing from this, each person's responsibility to seek justice in the world.
‘Further, as each individual deepened in her self-appreciation and played a greater part in decision-making, the community itself became better able to hear and to respond to the call for justice within a faith dimension.
"Protest experiences against U. S. participation in the Vietnam War, the escalation of the arms race, racism, etc. helped individuals and the community to illustrate that action for justice is a constituent element of the Gospel."
3. A number of outstanding women have emerged as theologians and biblical scholars. Through biblical and anthropological research, several remarkable women scholars are uncovering new data regarding women in history, Scripture and the early church community. The scholarship of these theologians is winning acclaim in theological circles.
For example, Rosemary Ruether, in Sexism and God Talk, states unequivocally: "Whatever diminishes, denies or distorts the full humanity of women does not reflect the divine and therefore is not redemptive; by the same token, whatever promotes the full humanity of women is 'of the Holy.'" Feminist theology, Dr. Ruether points out, is not unique in claiming this principle, but is startling in the fact that women are now claiming this principle for themselves.
4. In the middle to late 1970's, there was a great push for women's ordination on the part of many Catholic women. But by the 1980's, the enthusiasm had waned. As women became more conscious of a rigidity and oppressiveness apparent in the clerical state and the inflexibility of patriarchal structures and spirit, they became disaffected and lost their earlier enthusiasm. A new interest in women's liturgies and feminist theology sparked a desire to develop more collegial ways of worship on their own. Thus the concept of "Woman Church" emerged.
According to Rosemary Ruether, this missing feminist element must, after experimentation, be included in the whole church.
5. Organizations of women in the church, especially the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (L.C.W.R.), have grown in strength. Shortly after Vatican II, the L.C.W.R began an important educational program for its members with a view to furthering among U.S. sisters the developments of the council. Through the years, the L.C.W.R program has included ways to develop collegiality and solidarity; the promotion of post-Vatican II theology within the orders, and feminist insights and strategies in the church. The growing emphasis on a Gospel spirituality pointed religious women toward further developments in the social order. Concern for the poor and the oppressed led to their risking strong positions--opposing, for example, the nuclear arms buildup and U. S. Government policies in Central America.
However, on the part of the Vatican, understanding the evolution of U.S. women religious has been tragically lacking. To bring about understanding, there must be a far greater effort on the part of church authorities to listen to and appreciate the motivation of women religious and their rootedness in Vatican II.
6. U.S. bishops have shown a greater willingness to take positions on critical issues. The bishops' pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response was a landmark in the readiness of Catholic leadership to take public positions on controversial subjects. The process of holding hearings, carefully researching the questions and then speaking out vigorously has been rightfully acclaimed. The pastoral letter on the economy also showed both an openness to listen and a willingness to formulate a stance of moral authority.
Such outspoken leadership on the part of the bishops is in some ways an outgrowth of the vast learning process that began at Vatican II and is still being assimilated.
Having addressed these two areas of profound concern, the bishops felt they had to consider another topic that needed their attention: the situation of women in the church. Proposing to write a pastoral on this topic, they invited a committee of several women to work with them, and set up hearings for women to speak out on the issue.
In the spring of 1985, the national board of the L. C. W. R. recommended that the U.S. bishops "not issue a pastoral on women in society and in the church, or alternatively, that they defer writing for several years." The board called for "a process of reflection and study precisely in the absence of an operative tradition" regarding the equality and basic dignity and worth of women.
The L. C. W. R. report also described the conditions contributing to the alienation of women from church and society and their consequent need of reconciliation with both groups. Let me outline briefly some of the alienating factors described in the report:
1. Patriarchy has been a prime concept for the perception and organization of reality. Patriarchy as a worldview of its very nature assumes the alienation of women. It places the male in the center of reality and makes the masculine normative.
2. Women have been excluded or minimized in liturgical worship. The exclusion and/or negation of women in liturgy is one of the most demoralizing experiences for women in the church. If one is invisible in liturgy (especially in the Eucharist), one is quite literally displaced or alienated.
3. Through humor, ridicule or metaphor women have been depersonalized. The joke or humorous quip is a powerful tool of dismissal.
4. It is the experience of women that many clergy and hierarchy relate poorly to them.
5. Women are unable to participate fully in ministry. The concentration of women in stereotypical ministry roles opposes the full range of services.
6. Women are excluded from the structures and processes of church polity. Jurisdiction in the Catholic Church is reserved to the ordained. The exercise of power is, by policy, in the hands of men alone. That situation is of its nature unjust. It breeds disdain for women and their gifts and reinforces their invisibility.
7. Although official church positions on such matters as contraception, sterilization and abortion are not of concern to women only, the existential consequences of those positions bear more heavily on women.
8. Support for measures that would benefit women, such as the Equal Rights Amendment, child-care legislation and earnings-sharing legislation, is conspicuously lacking.
The L. C. W. R. report then lists some of the conditions that could bring about reconciliation. Among them are:
1. Women must make their own decisions and claim responsibility for their lives. The movement toward acknowledgment of one's self as possessing inherent dignity and worth is a powerful factor in reconciliation.
2. New relationships with men must be established. When men acknowledge their complicity in the oppression of women and their own need for liberation and maturation, the process of their relationship to women is itself liberating.
3. Officials of the church must acknowledge that alienation exists. When the men who hold power in the church are willing to admit that the alienation of women is the result of concrete experiences, policies, attitudes and structures, that fact in itself will promote reconciliation.
4. Structural change must address alienating factors. Any structures that allow for the significant involvement of women in decision making at any level contribute to reconciliation because they go beyond the effects to the systemic causes of alienation.
5. The church as institution and its officials must be willing to grapple with painful, conflict-generating topics and situations. The church as institution is perceived as studiously avoiding certain subjects because they "have been settled" in perpetuity.
Not only women religious, but specifically laywomen's groups, have become articulate on many of these points. A report, for example, drawn up by an international group, the World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations (W.U.C.W.O.), serves as a basis for their input to the 1987 World Synod of Bishops on the Laity. W.U.C.W.O. represents Catholic women's groups with a combined membership of 30 million. The report reviews developments in the discussion of women's place in the church since Vatican II, and states that "the way we understand humanity, the way we understand what it means to be a human being created in the image and likeness of God, conditions the roles of people in private and public life, both in society and in the church. It is now clear that anthropology is responsible for much of the existing stereotyping, discrimination and conflictual divisiveness that exists in the world and in the church."
The report expressed concern that many women leave the church because the church is insensitive to their desire to "participate fully" in its life and mission.
The momentum created by the emergence of the women's issue shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, the very love of the church that women profess and manifest urges them on in this difficult and demanding work. Presuming on the good will already evident among some male leaders of the church, women can have a more secure hope that perhaps a new day of mutuality, equality and sharing may be on its way.
In testimony to this last point, I can cite recent, encouraging statements by two bishops. The Most Rev. Paul J. Cordes, vice-president for the Vatican's Council for the Laity, speaking at the 1980 United Nations Decade for Women Conference in Copenhagen, said: “The creation of man and woman-recounted in Genesis-underlines the fact that man and woman are absolutely equal in dignity. The Holy Bible teaches us that woman is created in the image of God exactly as man is. It clearly states that both sexes have been created together and that neither one may prevail over the other for any reason of superiority whatsoever."
And the Most Rev. Louis-Albert Vachon, Archbishop of Quebec, speaking at the most recent synod on the subject of reconciliation, said that the church needs to recognize "our own cultural deformation" and particularly "the ravages of sexism and our own male appropriation of church institutions and numerous aspects of the Christian life."
Finally, in spite of the tension produced by the women's issue in a highly conservative institution, it is apparent that the tide is changing. The truth of women's minimal role in the church is becoming daily more visible.
The socialization of girls toward the recognition of the impressive number of options open to them is proceeding rapidly. Recently I heard a young mother describe her dilemma and confusion at an ordination ceremony when her five-year-old daughter insisted on an answer to her question: "Why are there only men up there?'
Imagine the surge of hope that would be created if a bishop in the United States would write to his people in this vein:
"My dear people: A question that is increasingly asked of the church today is, Can women be ordained? We know that both men and women are equal before God. Today women are showing themselves more and more capable of the myriad ministries needed in the church. Can we not hope and pray for the day when recognition by the official church of the fitness of women for all ministries, including priesthood, may be acknowledged?
"The psychological fears and historical barriers will need to be overcome. But let us all work to eliminate them so that in the future women also may respond to the call to fullness of sacramental ministry, which many of them declare to be their most earnest desire. The Spirit of God is not bound."
Even though many women may not choose to be ordained, such a message would encourage them because it would convey some recognition of the inequity they have experienced all through the years.
At a recent conference, a layman in the audience asked the presiding bishop: "What shall I tell my daughter when she tells me she would like to be a priest?"
The bishop replied, "Just tell her she will not be ordained, and that for only one reason: She is a woman."
He continued, "All her life she will be minimized by that reality." Then the bishop concluded his answer with this statement: "I agree that the situation is unjust. It must change, and it will."
I hope he is right.