Continuing with my celebration of Women’s History Month, I want to concentrate this week on the women of the Second Vatican Council. Twenty-three women were invited as official observers to the council. This meant that, while they had no official vote or anything like that, they were witnesses to just about everything and they could put in their two-cents at subcommittee meetings as the committees put together official documents and discussed issues. They were formally invited to anything that had anything to do with women. Nine of those women were religious sisters, six were single women, two were military widows, one was a married woman, and the marital status of the remaining five are unknown.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Before anyone cries discrimination, there were only 11 Catholic laymen invited to the council. While two of them were invited to speak about ecumenicism in a large session, they otherwise played the very same role as these women. “Yes, but women aren’t allowed in the priesthood” I hear someone whine from the peanut gallery. That is beyond the scope of this post, but you’re welcome to read this.
The War Widows of the Council
The Pope made a very particular political statement in inviting two war widows. It was no secret. He decried the violence rampant in the world. War should be a last resort, not a decision to take lightly. Every time a country goes to war and a soldier dies, a family at home suffers. Their deaths should never be in vain and the widows deserve support and honor.
The Single Laywomen of the Council
The six single laywomen of the council were all leaders in lay organizations. The first woman, period, to enter the hall was the French lay woman Marie-Louise Monnet, the founder of the International Movement of Apostolate in the Independent Social Milieus (MIAMSI). MIAMSI works to educate adults in the faith and to encourage them to live out Gospel values in the world. The only non-religious American woman invited to the council was Catherine McCarthy, president of the National Council of Catholic Women.
Religious Sisters of the Council
Some of the best known women from the council were sisters. The best known of the women from the United States was a woman named Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L. She was the Superior General of the Sisters of Loretto and, when she was invited to Vatican II, she was the President of the Leadership Council of Women Religious. After the council, she was very vocal about it. She shared many of her stories and opinions in print. She was a big proponent of women’s ordination. A substantial part of her legacy, however, can be found in her relationship with Thomas Merton. She helped establish two organizations that work to promote Merton’s work.
The Married Couple of Vatican II
There was one married couple invited to Vatican II. José Alvarez Icaza and his wife Luz were from Mexico and they were chosen in part because of their involvement with the Latin American branch of an organization called the Christian Family Movement. One commentator on the council has observed that some of the lay people who attended the council have since become very liberal in their views. This couple is an example of that. The last time they were mentioned in Catholic media, they were defending Liberation Theology from what they saw as a Vatican crackdown.
The Laity’s Document
Of all of the documents that came from the council, Gaudium et Spes was the one that the women observers were most involved with. Officially, three women were invited to be part of the commission to draft the document. Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, was one of the four main documents to come from the council. Appropriately, in it’s earliest stages the laity of both genders were instrumental in the discussions about it. Since the laity are the ones who are on the front lines of the Church in the world, they should have a say in the Church’s relationship to modernity.
Some Illustrative Stories
Pope Paul VI gave a talk welcoming the women to the council before they had even arrived.
When they arrived, it made news headlines. But soon, their presence became common-place.
When the aforementioned Sister Mary Luke Tobin, SL, received her pass allowing her into the council, she was told that her pass would allow her into sessions of particular concern to women. “Good,” she reportedly quipped, “that means I can attend them all.”
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.” – Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, SL
Author’s Note: One of the reasons that this post is so late is that I wanted to make sure that I got my facts straight. Feel free to let me know if you notice any factual errors. I would also like to take the opportunity to request that someone translate Adriana Valerio’s book Madri del Concilio into English. There are currently no books in English about the women of Vatican II that are not completely biased.
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