It was at the Second Vatican Council that, for the first time in history, women were allowed into an assembly of bishops. Then they were mere observers but, as a conference in Rome heard last week, it was the beginning of an unstoppable process
Clifford Longley, in last week’s Tablet, wrote that the men in David Cameron’s Government see “the world peopled by males, noticing the women only once they are pointed out to them”. He asked if this also characterises the Catholic Church’s attitude to women. Some might say the answer is “yes”, if they were going by the articles on Vatican II in that same issue – not one of which mentioned women.
But the council coincided with another epochal event in history, the rise of the women’s movement. The fact that these two emancipatory movements coincided means that women have been a source of increasing anxiety for the men who govern the Church, as we have seen in the recent attempt to rein in women Religious in America. Questions that touch most deeply on the role of women – particularly sexuality, motherhood and ordination – have moved to the forefront of debates in the post-conciliar Church. Unlike the present British Government, the men who govern the Catholic Church most certainly notice that we women are here. They just haven’t a clue what to do about us.
These neuralgic issues were given a robust scholarly airing at an international conference at the Benedictines’ Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome (4-6 October) on the theme of “Women re-read Vatican II: taking in a history and preparing for the future”. The event was organised by a group representing women theologians, Coordinamento Teologhe Italiane (CTI), which seeks to raise their visibility by providing a forum for ecumenical discussion, promoting gender studies and encouraging women who want to study, research and teach theology. It brought together some 230 women and men – laity, Religious and priests – from 22 countries.
Any expectation that controversial issues might be avoided was put to rest by the first speaker, the Dominican theologian Hervé Legrand, of the Institut Catholique in Paris. Referring to Lumen Gentium’s understanding of the Church as “one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element”, he argued that it is as important to attend to the human sciences as to dogmatic theology. In particular, the key principle, which the Church has yet to address, is the “irreversible phenomenon” of the disappearance of androcentrism.
The changing roles and expectations of women in Western society in the last 50 years – including the liberating effects of contraception – require of the Church a wide-ranging discussion, which must include the question of ordination. As Helen Costigane, of Heythrop College, pointed out in her paper on canon law, one way in which the Church could immediately create opportunities for women would be in the role of cardinal, for there is nothing in canon law that requires cardinals to be ordained.
“Gender” is a loaded word for conservatives in the Church, who associate it with radical feminism and waging war on the family and heterosexuality. Yet as Italian theologian Serena Noceti argued in her paper, gender studies opens up new perspectives with regard to the relationship between nature and culture, symbolism and ritual, which affect both women and men and which can lead to positive social and political transformation. To engage with this emergent scholarly field is to read the signs of the times, as Gaudium et Spes says we should.
My own paper picked up on some of these themes, analysing the changing role of women in documents from Vatican II to Pope John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter on women, Mulieris Dignitatem. I argued that a close reading of such documents reveals that the language of Catholic ecclesiology is highly analogical and “gendered” rather than “sexed”, since it refers not to biological bodies but to sacramental signs and nuptial relationships.
For me, however, some of the most poignant reflections were those which focused on the role of women in Vatican II – a question that Gerard Mannion, of the University of San Diego, addressed. At the end of the second session of the council, Cardinal Suenens of Belgium asked how it was possible to discuss the future of the Church when half the Church was not even present. As a result, a small number of women were invited as observers.
Initially, they were forbidden from attending many of the sessions, and they were not per mitted to receive Communion at the conciliar sacred liturgies. But, eventually, there were 23 women auditors who were included in the sub-commissions which drafted some of the documents. We might detect the unacknowledged presence of these women in some of the more inclusive visions seeded in the documents, but which have not yet found a fertile space to grow in the life of the Church.
Professor Mannion also pointed out that the current understanding of the Magisterium, as restricted to the Roman Curia under the Pope, finds little support in tradition, which has understood “magisterium” in terms of a more participatory and collaborative endeavour on the part of the whole Church. The authority of the Magisterium, said Mannion, is “a question of what, not whom” – a suggestion that provoked a lively response from the floor by a number of people, who pointed out that, until the “who” includes women, the “what” will remain problematic.
The conference would have offered a more inclusive perspective if it had included papers from non-Western theologians. Although there were papers on ecumenism by the Swiss theologian and priest Angela Berlis, and on different aspects of history, culture and interreligious and inter-generational dialogue by well-known Italian scholars, such as Massimo Faggioli, Cettina Militello and Simona Borello, an alternative view might have emerged if we had considered the council’s diverse influences on Catholic women in Asia, Africa and Latin America, for example.
All in all though, the conference encouraged me in the truest sense of the word. Against all the odds, the women I met continue to study and to teach in sometimes highly controlled and misogynistic environments with feisty determination, intellectual rigour – and more than a little wit and humour.
Each speaker was given a present. I don’t know what the men were given, but the women each received a small cactus in a silver pot. It will sit on my desk, reminding me that some of God’s creatures are able to survive for many years in the wilderness, and that if we become a little prickly as a result, it is a price worth paying for the flowering yet to come.
■ Professor Tina Beattie is director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Catholic Studies at Roehampton University.