The Women at Second
From November 1, 1986
Mary Luke Tobin | Archived Article
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.
How Far have We Come? See: cont’d 1986 article from Mary Luke Tobin
… 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.
Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., was one of the women auditors at the Second Vatican Council.