The life of Rosemary Goldie recounted by a theologian who knew her well

A giant “relic” of the Council

 Una “reliquia” gigante  del Concilio  DCM-007
02 July 2022

On 11 October 1962, sixty years ago, the Second Vatican Council began. The Secretariat of State sent out invitations for 85 cardinals, 8 patriarchs, 533 archbishops, 2,131 bishops, 26 abbots, 68 religious, plus secretaries, experts, consultants. At the inaugural ceremony, out of 2,908 eligible participants, 2,540 attended. “Where is the other half of the Church?” It was  October 22, 1963 when Belgian Cardinal Léon-Joseph Suenens posed the question about the presence of women at Vatican II.  Paul VI accepted the solicitation and on September 8, 1964 announced that there would be a group of 23 women at the Council, 10 women religious and 13 laywomen, as auditors. They could not speak, but from then on, they are the “Mothers of the Council”. Among them was Rosemary Goldie, an Australian theologian, and a historical figure for the Church in many ways. With her appointment as Undersecretary of the Council of the Laity in 1966, she was the first woman to hold a senior position in the Roman Curia.  In her book Guardare alla teologia del futuro. Dalle spalle dei nostri gigantic [Looking to the Theology of the Future. From the Shoulders of Our Giants], edited by Marinella Perroni and Brunetto Salvarani and published by Claudiana, Cettina Militello, who was her pupil and friend, recounts her story. Here are some excerpts.

If someone had told her she was a giant, Rosemary Goldie would have smiled and perhaps commented wittily in her pure Anglo-Saxon style. Yes, although an Australian, she cared about inscribing herself in the culture of a now remote motherland. I smiled when she called herself a subject of Elizabeth II. In appearance, Rosemary was quite small, even petite, not a physical gigantic. In fact, it was no coincidence that Pope John called her “the little one”! What was gigantic, on the other hand, was her stubbornness - what should we call her therefore? She had a clear awareness of herself and her tasks, which she handled with knowing firmness. She herself narrated her story in a book published in Italy under the evocative title From a Roman Window. The cover depicts her in front of the window of what she called “her office”. She was wearing one of her customary suits whose severity is broken by a patterned blouse. In the English version, the text is broader. She wanted those in her distant homeland to know about events that were more familiar to Italian Catholics. The Council above all. For a long time - and she smiled about it not without coquetry - she was considered a “relic of the Council”. She was, in fact, one of the 23 women who had the privilege of being counted among the lay auditors. As a consequence of surviving that experience and particular era, she participated in the 1985 Extraordinary Synod, the one that celebrated the Council’s 20th anniversary.

From Sydney to Rome

Rosemary was born in Manly, near Sydney, on 2 February 1916. She was the last of four children of a New Zealand journalist, Dulcie Deamer and Albert Goldie, an advertising director for the J.C. Williamson Theatre Company, who was of Jewish descent. Something had gone wrong between her parents, so the burden of her upbringing had passed to her maternal grandmother, Mabel Deamer, who had raised her and initiated her into the faith. The nuns at Our Lady of Mercy boarding school in Parramatta had also contributed to her education. Her relationship with her mother, a bohemian personality in 1920s Sydney, had not been easy, indeed it could be described as painful. Her mother was constantly travelling - this was her excuse – so she had been virtually absent from her daughter’s life, who had obviously suffered because of it. [...]

Having completed her studies in English and French literature at Sydney University, and in the years leading up to the Second World War, Rosemary received a scholarship that took her to distant Europe. In Paris, at the Sorbonne, she was a student of Jacques Maritain. In France, she had come into contact with the Grail, an association of Catholic laywomen, and Pax Christi Romana, an international association of Catholic students and graduates. Back in Australia during the war, she had promoted the establishment of both associations locally and at the same time received her Master of Arts degree that allowed her a brief teaching experience. A volume, later published in France, bears witness to the theme of her research. Again, a scholarship had brought her back to Paris to pursue a Doctorate in French literature, which she did not complete. She then moved to Freiburg and worked for six years for Pax Christi.

In October 1952, the legendary president of Catholic Action, (later director general of UNESCO), Vittorino Veronese invited Rosemary Goldie to Rome to collaborate in the Secretariat of the Permanent Committee of International Congresses for the Apostolate of the Laity (COPCIAL).  The previous year, she had participated in the first congress and then, together with others, she worked on the preparation of the second, a sort of general assembly of the lay intelligentsia. In many ways, this event was anticipatory -both in the speakers invited and by the themes discussed-, of the imminent season of Vatican II. The congress in 1957 was a clear sign of that awareness, of the laity that would have its Magna Charta in Apostolicam Actuositatem. In fact, the event paved the way to that reacquisition of the theological category of the people of God that Lumen Gentium recognised as a prior characteristic of everyone baptized, regardless of subsequent distinctions.  The collaborations and dialogue with Vittorino Veronese, as well as with the future Cardinal Joseph Cardjin and with Giovan Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, date from this period too.

A theologian in spite of herself

During Vatican II, the assembly was opened to lay auditors, and the COPECIAL Secretariat was consulted on the matter. In this, Rosemary Goldie had her part to play in their selection, and finally in the opening up of the possibility for women to be counted among the auditors, and within the small group, she herself participated. She told me how the lay auditors, dressed in black and veiled, stood in an area reserved for them. They could obviously neither speak nor vote, and interestingly, they could not even meet the fathers or auditors in the breaks. For the women there was a separate cafe, intended exclusively for them.

If during the public sessions the auditors were not permitted to speak, this was not the case in the study circles. Rosemary Goldie was an active participant in the so-called “Ariccia Group”, the one that brought schema XIII, our Gaudium et Spes, to fruition. I asked her several times why more space was not made within it and more generally in the Council texts to condemn sexism or why there was not a clearer statement on the equal dignity of men and women in society and in the church. She candidly replied, “We thought the problem was over; that it was superfluous to talk about it”. […]  Obviously, they were deceiving themselves, and how! And yet, Rosemary would reply to Yves Congar, who wanted to include in Apostolicam Actuositatem a reference to women by comparing them to the delicacy of flowers and the rays of the sun, stating, “Father, leave the flowers alone. What women want from the Church is to be recognised as fully human persons”. [...]

After the celebration of the 3rd COPECIAL Congress, the idea of creating an organism directly within the Roman Curia came to the fore. Thus, it was in 1967 when the Pontifical “Consilium de laicis” was instituted ad experimentum and Rosemary was one of its undersecretaries - a task, in the curia, that until then had only been carried out by clerics. She exercised this task with dedication and competence until 1976 when the Motu Proprio Apostolatus peragendi put an end to the experimentum. Now the organism was brought back to the standards of the curia in a strict sense and returned the task of undersecretary to an ecclesiastic. On the evening before the promulgation, Rosemary was informed by the Secretary of State of her appointment as full professor at the Pastoral Institute of the Pontifical Lateran University, where she had been teaching a course on the lay apostolate since 1967. Even though she gives a sweetened version of it, Rosemary protested vividly to Paul VI. Among other things, the “Consilium” also changed its wording, no longer “de laicis” but “pro laicis”, which is a regurgitation of paternalism! Once again, women had been purged. When she handed in the manuscript of From a Roman Window, Rosemary pointed out that in the role that was hers, still in 2000, there was no woman. It was later, with Pope Francis that her presence as undersecretary in various congregations increased. In fact, the 1970s were marked by Paul VI’s rather painful positions, which I recount in both a subjective and objective sense. One of the thorny issues, which was shipwrecked in the nothingness of clerical prejudice, concerned women and their place in the Church. Between 1974 and 1975, Rosemary was secretary of the Study Commission on “Women in Church and Society”, which had been established by Pope Paul with the task of studying the specific function of women in society, man-woman relations, and the authentic promotion of women and the position of women in the church. In addition, the Commission was involved in the preparation of activities related to the International Year of Women in 1975. Rosemary gave an amended reading of this, but it was clear how it had failed.

It is well known how the commission disagreed and how in the end a minority-supported document was published that neither addressed nor resolved any of the problems that were looming on the horizon. Rosemary therefore obtained by clear fame to teach theology of the laity at the Institute of Pastoral Theology, of which she was also vice-principal. As the first “ordinary” lecturer in a Roman ecclesiastical university, she found herself, as she was wont to say, teaching a subject for which she had not been professionally trained, in a language that was not her own and which she had not even studied very often. Rosemary officially left this position due to age limit in 1986, but continued for many years to supervise English language students’ theses. During these years, she was a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Secretariat for the Union of Christians. She was also a member of the Holy See delegation for the Assemblies of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Uppsala (1968) and Canberra (1991), and for the World Conference for the International Year of Women in Mexico City (1975).

Patiently, always camped out (she never took her suitcases off the top of the wardrobe in the single room with no kitchen where she was staying because she considered a stay that would last for five decades to be temporary) she completed, in an increasingly cramped office, the sorting out of her archives, with the part pertaining to Vatican II particularly precious. Her life ended on 27 February 2010 in Randwick, in the house of the Little Sisters of the Poor that she had chosen as her residence in 2002. This was the same house where her mother had died 30 years earlier. She greatly admired the sisters who ran it. She told me, “They are able to make even prams dance!” Benedict XVI visited there in 2008. One last detail to add is that Rosemary Goldie was not a feminist - I would say she remained a “woman of the curia” until the end. When asked in the early 1990s about the question of the ministry, she personally expressed to John Paul II her opinion in favour of the female diaconate. This was not appreciated. So much so that from then on she was no longer consulted as she had been before. I think I can say of her, she was a theologian in spite of herself, that common sense and life make us mature, in intellectual honesty, on “feminist” positions. For her, as for other early pioneers, the unhealed discrimination that women in the church continued to suffer was intolerable. [...]

A stubborn loyalty to the Church

And yet, giants must be valued for what they have bequeathed us. The footsteps left by Rosemary - I am of course referring to her writing - are not many. Of hers, we have the aforementioned From a Roman Window and the essay on integral heroism along the lines of Péguy. [...] It is Pietro Doria in Tantum aurora est who brings out how she was the most active and prolific of the female listeners at Vatican II. The first in attendance, and the first in proposing variants verbally or in writing both in relation to Apostolicam Actuositatem and Gaudium et Spes. Moreover, she herself recounts how she went from being an “auditor” to a “speaker” in the sense that she was asked to speak in front of the bishops - outside the hall, of course. Since this aroused perplexity, almost as if the roles between hierarchy and laity had been reversed, it was the future John Paul I, Albino Luciani, then Patriarch of Venice, who silenced those who had intervened with concern - he was an ecclesiastical assistant of Catholic Action - with a letter that she herself quotes.

Personally, I would like to close this piece of my construction of the giant that Rosemary was by rereading the entry “Woman” in the New Liturgy Dictionary. [...] Rosemary had not yet made the “feminist” breakthrough. Nevertheless, the issues were clear to her and the liturgy was her litmus test. She began by saying that a few years earlier one would have merely noted how women make up the bulk of the liturgical assembly or emphasized their importance in the prayer of the church starting with Mary and the holy virgins and martyrs and only exceptionally the “neither virgins nor martyrs”. However, Vatican II changed this, because it emphasized how all members of God’s family are called to full fruitful and active participation, including women. Of the inclusive path, she quickly gives the stages starting with the Council. This was followed by an examination of the liturgical role of women in the Bible and tradition in general. In particular, with regard to the New Testament, she lacked the tools we possess today. Yet, she gave ample space to female deacons in the Eastern tradition and raised the question of the priestly ordination of women, albeit with a question mark. On the one hand, the demand for a greater presence and prominence of women emerges, which was echoed by both the 1971 Synod and the Study Commission sort for by Paul VI and led by Monsignor Bartoletti. On the other hand, she could not but register the opinion of the Inter Insignores that rejected the alleged inferiority and impurity of women, but links representation in persona Christi Capitis to the masculinity of the minister. Rosemary noted how this argument left many with the suspicion of an anthropology that denied the dignity of women by attributing the power to be “chief” to men only. She concluded by considering the theological problem of ordination an “open question”. There followed a long examination of the liturgical spaces that the legislation in force at the time left to women, with the exception of the role of acolyte.

An ad hoc paragraph in this long juncture advocated that the change in praxis also implied a change in mentality. Finally, it presented the doctrine and practice of other Christian communions. In addition, she recorded in this regard how much good has come out of the mutual relationship between the churches beyond the question of ordination. Regarding the exchanges, and the increase in relationships, she wrote, “the growth of a capacity for expression, of a creativity not only of men but also of women [...] a creativity that must naturally remain within the limits of the faith and discipline of the Catholic Church”.

These very last words are delivered to us from her stubborn fidelity to the Church that she served to the bitter end with abnegation and competence, without, however, flattening herself into uncritical submission. A comparison of the dictionary entry with what she wrote almost at the end of her life certainly reveals the path she took in an increasingly centered focus on the condition of women in the church. Perhaps without knowing it, thanks to her stubborn fidelity, women have been able to be and feel more and more part of the church, either by acquiring titles and theological academic professionalism, or by entering in increasing numbers into places of power. Of course, in the Roman Curia they do not go beyond the role of “undersecretary” (the book was published before the appointment of Sister Alessandra Smerilli as secretary of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development April 23,2022, ed.) because the permanence of the clerical structure demands it. However, undoubtedly the presence of women as “consultors” in the various congregations is multiplying. There are several present in the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission as well as in the various “Pontifical Academies”. One woman was appointed as an undersecretary at the Synod of Bishops, with voting rights. Of course, the glass ceiling has not been broken, but it really will not last much longer. The qualified and qualifying presence of laymen and laywomen is not an optional extra but a conditio sine qua non of the present and future of the church.

By Cettina Militello


Closing of the second Vatican Ecumenical Council
address of Pope Paul VI to women


And now it is to you that we address ourselves, women of all states—girls, wives, mothers and widows, to you also, consecrated virgins and women living alone—you constitute half of the immense human family. As you know, the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated woman, and in the course of the centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man. But the hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of woman is being achieved in its fullness, the hour in which woman acquires in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved. That is why, at this moment when the human race is under-going so deep a transformation, women impregnated with the spirit of the Gospel can do so much to aid mankind in not falling.

You women have always had as your lot the protection of the home, the love of beginnings and an understanding of cradles. You are present in the mystery of a life beginning. You offer consolation in the departure of death. Our technology runs the risk of becoming inhuman. Reconcile men with life and above all, we beseech you, watch carefully over the future of our race. Hold back the hand of man who, in a moment of folly, might attempt to destroy human civilization.

Wives, mothers of families, the first educators of the human race in the intimacy of the family circle, pass on to your sons and your daughters the traditions of your fathers at the same time that you prepare them for an unsearchable future. Always remember that by her children a mother belongs to that future which perhaps she will not see.

And you, women living alone, realize what you can accomplish through your dedicated vocation. Society is appealing to you on all sides. Not even families can live without the help of those who have no families. Especially you, consecrated virgins, in a world where egoism and the search for pleasure would become law, be the guardians of purity, unselfishness and piety. Jesus who has given to conjugal love all its plenitudes, has also exalted the renouncement of human love when this is for the sake of divine love and for the service of all.

Lastly, women in trial, who stand upright at the foot the cross like Mary, you who so often in history have given to men the strength to battle unto the very end and to give witness to the point of martyrdom, aid them now still once more to retain courage in their great undertakings, while at the same time maintaining patience and an esteem for humble beginnings.

Women, you do know how to make truth sweet, tender and accessible; make it your task to bring the spirit of this council into institutions, schools, homes and daily life. Women of the entire universe, whether Christian or non-believing, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the peace of the world.

December 8, 1965