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Women after Vatican II: a historian’s analysis

The legacy of the 23
conciliar mothers

Le uditrici si recano al Concilio. Nella foto sono riconoscibili: Hedwig von Skoda, Juliana
Th omas, ...
04 November 2023

There is no doubt that the Second Vatican Council also represented a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church concerning women. As one of the signs of the times, John XXIII had indicated the need for women to enter into public life (encyclical Pacem in terris). However, knowing how to grasp the new elements of a society that demanded the recognition of the social conquests achieved by women's movements, we owe to Paul VI. After all, to him is due the merit of summoning women to participate as auditors, for the first time in the history of the Church. In the third and fourth sessions of the Council, from September 1964 to July 1965, 23 women auditors were thus called. These participants were composed of 10 religious and 13 laywomen, who had been chosen, for the most part, according to a criteria of internationality and representation. They were joined by some 20 experts or appraisers for their specific expertise and professionalism, such as the British economist Barbara Ward, an international expert on world hunger issues, the American Patricia Crowley, an authority in the field of birth control issues, and Eileen Egan, an Englishwoman, committed to nonviolent and pacifist movements.

The auditors’ influence was especially expressed on two documents they had worked on in subcommittees; the first, the constitutions of Lumen Gentium, which emphasized the rejection of any sexual discrimination; and, Gaudium et Spes, in which the unified vision of man-woman as a “human person” and the fundamental equality of the two genders emerged. We know of the influential interventions of some of them (e.g., the Australian Rosemary Goldie, the Spanish Pilar Bellosillo and the French Suzanne Guillemin) so that the feminine would not be treated as a subject in itself, to isolate, cage or exalt it. Instead, the dignity of the human person and therefore, the primacy of the fundamental equality that should be conferred the principle of apostolic co-responsibility would be affirmed on every baptized person.

Also of great significance was the overcoming of the traditional contractualist and juridical conception of the family institution. This was achieved through the recovery of the fundamental value of conjugal love, founded on an “intimate community of life and love”. From this perspective, the contribution of the Mexican couple Luz Marie Alvarez Icaza and her husband Jose in the subcommittee of Gaudium et Spes was decisive in changing the bishops’ attitude towards sexual intercourse for the conjugal couple; i.e. no longer would it be considered as a remedy of concupiscence linked to sin, but as an expression and act of love.

We should also remember the economist Barbara Ward’s important contribution to the debate on the Church’s presence in the world and her commitment for a Church able to say a credible word on the problem of poverty and the issue of human development.

Religious auditors also played an important role in enacting the updating of religious life, while triggering processes of innovation and experimentation. These women worked on the repositioning of the Gospel message at the center of religious life, through a return to biblical and liturgical sources. In addition, they emphasized the personal dignity of each member of the community, while valuing the specificities and values of being a woman and pushed for a different approach by religious women toward the world to which they had to open themselves.
The significance of the Council for women, however, goes far beyond the few, albeit significant, references in its documents. Instead, it is to be found in a new methodology, of listening and dialogue that led to the recognition of the dignity of every human person, which opened unprecedented spaces of responsibility and participation in the Church to every baptized person.

The Council did not want to express dogmatic definitions, but to open windows on a changing world, while asking the Church to renew and bring herself up to date. For women and the laity it allowed access to the Theological Faculties; for example, in 1965, Maria Luisa Rigato, who was the first “extraordinary student”, to enter the Pontifical Biblical Institute; and, in 1970, Nella Filippi, who was the first woman to earn a doctorate in theology at the Pontifical Faculty  “Angelicum” in Rome.

Sixty years later, however, is it still relevant to look to the Council for inspiration? Several questions regarding the actual and active participation of the laity in the life of the Church have remained unanswered. Paul VI, who had favored the participation of women, was afraid that the changes that were taking place may bring dangers to the church and society. In addition, he avowed certain issues that deeply touched women; for example, contraception (thus the bodily and sexual sphere), ministry (the role of government in the Church) and the law of ecclesiastical celibacy (and with it the negative image of the feminine seen in opposition to the sacred). Nevertheless, these problems remain unresolved today.
On many occasions, Pope Francis has raised the issue of overcoming clericalism so that the Church could rethink herself by renewing herself; and he has opened up certain spaces previously barred to women, but we are still far from putting into practice appropriate strategies that would lead to real equality and responsibility.

A theologian and historian