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Women at Vatican II: Surprising women, a surprising Council!

A recently published book on Catholic Women at the Second Vatican Council attempts to explore the history of these women and their contribution to the Council.

By Gudrun Sailer

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) was to become a new Pentecost of the Catholic Church. The event also really shed new light on the contribution and role of women: At the invitation of Saint Pope Paul VI, 23 women took part in the Council as auditors. But women believers also played a role in the larger context of the Council. They shared their concerns for a reform of the Catholic Church, formulating their expectations in petitions they sent to Rome; they advised bishops, worked as hosts and networkers. At the conclusion of the Council, the 23 female auditors rightly saw themselves as multipliers of the results achieved.

To find out more, Gudrun Sailer spoke to church historian Regina Heyder, one of the authors of a recently published book on Catholic Women at the Second Vatican Council entitled Katholikinnen und das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Petitionen, Berichte, Fotografien:

At the beginning of the Council in 1962 it seemed impossible for women to participate. How did it come about that the Pope ended up appointing women as auditors for the second half of the Council?

Pope Paul VI was the first pope to appoint lay auditors at a larger scale. In 1963, 13 male lay auditors took part in the Council. Even before the beginning of the Council, Catholic women had asked to be allowed to participate. Now they intensified their activities: they wrote letters to bishops and to the Council Secretariat, suggested participants, asked subversive questions during press conferences and succeeded in winning supporters for this idea. In his famous speech in October 1963, Cardinal Suenens from Mecheln observed that women make up half of mankind and therefore should be invited as auditors. Thus, the idea of female lay auditors gained more and more plausibility.

When in 1964, women were welcomed by the Pope at the opening of the third session of the Council, members of the General Secretariat were still discussing who should be invited. It was not until a week later that the respective letters of nomination were written. A few days later the first women auditors arrived in the Council Hall. 

What role did the Catholic women, the Catholic women's groups and the female religious orders play in the Council?

The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations was the first organisation to write a Conciliar petition. It served as a model for several women’s organisations that also launched petitions and thus made the concerns and wishes of women visible within the Council’s contexts and networks.

During the Council, Catholic women travelled to Rome to talk to their bishops, to meet non-Catholic observers, to participate in the masses that were celebrated in St. Peter’s in the morning. And indeed, several bishops intentionally consulted these women. In the end, women also participated in the sub commissions for the various chapters of “Gaudium et spes” and thus contributed to the text.

Women religious were among the lay auditors and contributed to the decree “Perfectae caritatis” on religious life. The fact that various women’s congregations hosted participants in their guest houses also played an important part with regard to the atmosphere of the Council. Mother Superiors influenced the international composition of the guests, and they even gave talks to the bishops, who listened carefully to the nuns. When the constitution on the Liturgy was to be implemented, the first celebrations quite often took place in the chapels of the women religious. They proved to be interested, liturgically trained congregations.

What were the greatest concerns of Catholic women at the Council?

The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organisations, which represented about 36 million Catholic women, wrote its first council petition back in 1960. It listed very fundamental topics which the Council was to deal with: the redefinition of the personal dignity of women and the position of women in the family, society and Church. On the one hand, the representatives of the association warned against idealizing women. On the other, they claimed that the emancipation of women should not adopt male role models.

The other great concern regarded Christian family life. Proposals ranged from the number of children to the age of confirmation

Which wishes of Catholic women at the Council were fulfilled - and which were not?

Even in the 1960s, Catholic women did not always agree. While German Catholics were extremely happy with the liturgical reform, English Catholics preferred to keep the Latin Mass.

Contraception and embarrassing situations in the confessional were a big question that was also debated internationally. Many Catholic couples interpreted ‘Gaudium et spes’ in such a way that artificial contraception was now permitted. When the encyclical “Humanae vitae” appeared in 1968, it turned out that they had been wrong.

Again and again, Catholic women also suggested that women should be involved in the training of priests. In other words, this meant that they were dissatisfied with the pastoral work. As we know, this demand has increasingly been taken up by bishops in recent years. Another often mentioned desire was that of women deacons - a desire that still remains open after the recent statements of Pope Francis who said it will take 100 years to implement the Council, and only half of the work has yet been done. So maybe some of the women’s desires will be fulfilled in later years.

Listen to the interview with Regina Heyder
18 June 2019, 12:59