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Woman in Vatican Documents 1960 to the Present. By Nadine Foley, from 'Sexism and Church Law' edited by James Coriden

Woman in Vatican Documents 1960 to the Present

By Nadine Foley, O.P.

from Sexism and Church Law
edited by James Coriden 1977, pp. 82-108

published by Paulist Press, New York/Ramsey, N.J./Toronto
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

In the past twenty-Five years documents issued from Vatican sources have frequently included references to women, particularly in texts dealing with social doctrine. This same period is roughly that of escalation in what is often called the movement for women's liberation, particularly among North American and European women. This movement has its starting point, as have other so-called liberation movements, in experience, in this case the experience of women, identified and made the object of critical reflection. Among Christian women the process of reflection necessarily involves them in examining their experience in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and that doctrine which develops from it in successive periods of the Church's history as official teaching. As important new developments take place in human consciousness, it is appropriate that the import of such trends become matter for inclusion in the continuing experience of a living Church, as well as for comment and interpretation by a teaching Church. For, as Vatican Council II has acknowledged, cultural transformation is ongoing as a process in which all people are involved. It brings forth new aspects of human reality for the incarnating mission of a Church always in need of reformation.

What then do official texts say about women? Are their contents compatible with the emerging realizations to which women themselves are coming as they subject their experience to critical examination in the light of the Gospel? These are the questions this paper addresses. In the first part representative statements from Vatican documents of the past twenty-five years are examined for the implicit "ontology of woman" which informs them. In the second part insights pertinent to the nature, status and roles of women from other sources are discussed for purposes of evaluation.


A critical reading of the allusions to women which are made in contemporary writing from official Roman Catholic sources seems to allow the following organization of the material. A. Rapid changes in the contemporary world call for new declarations of fundamental human rights and concerted efforts of all persons to insure them. B. One of the evident features of contemporary socio-cultural life is the changing status and roles of women. C. The Church looks with approval on these new developments while expressing concern that the dignity of women be protected. D. The nature of women is unique, divinely established and manifested in characteristics proper to women in their social roles. E. Roles appropriate to women in the ministry of the Church correspond to their specific nature and complementary relation to men

A. Rapid changes in the contemporary world call for new declarations of fundamental human rights and concerted efforts of all persons to insure them.

The most influential documents which have come from Vatican sources in the past twenty-five years have enunciated the dignity and freedom of human persons, especially as a context for setting forth the Church's developing social doctrine. Pope John in Pacem in Terris states the basic premise in terms of what is intrinsic to human personhood.

Any human society, if it is to be well-ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person, that is, his nature is endowed with intelligence and free will. Indeed, precisely because he is a person he has rights and obligations flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature. And as these rights and obligations are universal and inviolable so they cannot in any way be surrendered (9).

On this basis the encyclical continues with an enumeration of the fundamental rights of human persons: to life, to an appropriate standard of living, to respect for one's person, to good reputation, to freedom of expression, to information about public events, to education, to worship according to individual conscience, to choose one's state of life freely, to protection of the family in society, to parental support for and education of children, to work, to proper working conditions, to a just wage, to private property, to freedom of assembly and association, to emigrate and immigrate, to active participation in public affairs and to protection under the law (10-27).

Not only has the Church declared in this way its concern for basic human rights in a generic way, but it has also given voice to what must be guaranteed to individual persons. Pope Paul speaks in this vein in Populorum Progressio. In the design of God, every man is called upon to develop and fulfill himself, for every life is a vocation. At birth everyone is granted, in germ, a set of aptitudes and qualities for him to bring to fruition. Their coming to maturity, which will be the result of education received from the environment and personal efforts, will allow each man to direct himself toward the destiny intended for him by his Creator. Endowed with intelligence and freedom, he is responsible for his fulfillment as he is for his salvation. He is aided, or sometimes impeded, by those who educate him and those with whom he lives, but each one remains, whatever be these influences affecting him, the principal agent of his own success or failure. By the unaided effort of his own intelligence and his will, each man can grow in humanity, can enhance his personal worth, can become more a person (15).

Given the form of this kind of discourse it can be inferred that such a design of God applies universally to all human persons signified by the English word man (Latin homo). Yet within the extensive tracts on human rights and personal freedom characteristic of contemporary ecclesial social teaching there occur special paragraphs on women. A number of these will be cited in this paper.

The radical nature of the social change which typifies the present time may well dictate the singling out of women for special concern in the area of human rights. Nevertheless there is also the possibility that women require separate treatment because, in the minds of those who author Church documents, what is said of "man" generally does not apply to women without distinction. The task of verifying that in truth this possibility in fact is impeded by language — those modern languages, such as English, in which the generic word for humankind is also the specific word for the male person; and the "dead" Latin language, whose meanings can be nuanced by the modern words derivative from them. The problem of language in this respect is present in much of what is presented here.

B, One of the evident features of the contemporary socio-cultural life is the changing status and rotes of women.

The approach to women evident in the texts reviewed is nonetheless guided by an important operative principle. Pope John XXIII gave expression to it in Mater et Magistra. Recalling the social teaching of Leo XIII, Pius XI and Pius XII, he acknowledged that the circumstances contemporary to the concerns of his predecessors no longer prevailed. New trends were evident and called for further elaboration of social doctrine to meet the emergent circumstances. Mater et Magistra commemorated Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII but it was issued also, said Pope John, "in the light of changed conditions, ... to set forth the Church's teaching regarding the new and serious problems of our day" (50).

The principle that fundamental truths related to the nature of human persons and their social institutions must be brought into a continuing relation with issues which emerge in a developing human history is an important one. It was expanded in the opening paragraphs of Gaudium et Spes, ". . . the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel. . . . We must therefore recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics" (4). In reawakening the Church to an acknowledgment of its continuing need for reformation in the light of new challenges presented to it by ongoing human development. Pope John and Vatican Council II made undoubtedly the most profound contribution to a renewed ecclesial self concept. The starting point of the indispensable process of aggiornamento is to be found in the experience of peoples and societies which calls the Church to an ever renewed reflection upon the import of the Gospel and of the Church's capacity to respond to new demands upon its mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God. It seems important to acknowledge this principle for the purposes of this paper since it functions in the very fact that issues relating to women are attracting the attention of and provoking responses from those who assume responsibility for the Church's magisterium. New dogmatic statements about women do not arise from the Church's exploration into the liberating message of Gospel alone, but because an emergent consciousness of human reality in the experience of both women and men calls forth a reflective response.

Pope Paul VI acknowledged the principle, as well as the new problem when, on December 8, 1974, he addressed the Convention of the Union of Italian Catholic Jurists. Significantly, he traced the origin of the social and cultural phenomena evident in the changing position and roles of women today to the economic shift which marks the modern historical era, though he makes no allusion to the currently popular notion that we may be participating in the movement into a post-industrial age.

Neither we nor any other observer of the contemporary scene are unaware of the sociocultural transformation that has caused, among other things a remarkable change in the position and roles of women. A rather rapid transition has brought us from a primarily agricultural society to a new type of society characterized by industrialization and its satellite phenomena: urbanization, population mobility and instability, and a revolution in domestic life and social relations.1

The fact of women's changing situation in the contemporary world is remarked upon in numerous other places. In Gaudium et Spes the concil-iar fathers speak of "new social relationships between men and women" (3), and note that "where they have not yet won it, women claim for themselves an equity with men before the law and in fact . . ." (9), and further that "Women now engage in almost all spheres of activity" (60). Humanae Vitae states, "A change is also seen both in the manner of considering the person of woman and her place in society" (2). These selected instances, typical of many, are cited for the purpose of indicating the starting point of the official Church's awareness of new trends in women's experience, namely, as a phenomenon occurring in the cultural history of peoples.

Observation of these and other phenomena led Pope John to identify three distinctive characteristics of our age in Pacem in Terris. The first was the growing ascendancy of the working classes and the third, the achieving of independence by increasing numbers of nations. The second is pertinent here.

... it is obvious to everyone that women are now taking part in public life. This is happening more rapidly perhaps in nations of Christian civilization, and more slowly but broadly, among peoples who have inherited other traditions and cultures. Since women are becoming more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as mere material instruments, but demand rights befitting a human person both in domestic and in public life (41).

Summarizing these trends, Pope John encompassed all three in one principle: "Thus in very many human beings the inferiority complex which endured for hundreds of thousands of years is disappearing, while in others there is an attenuation and gradual fading of the corresponding superiority complex which had its roots in social-economic privileges, sex or political standing" (43). The much studied and admired Pacem in Terris proceeds with an extensive treatment of rights and obligations affecting persons and societies in the economic and political spheres of life, but does not specifically address the second of the characteristics it had signalled as typifying our age. It is noteworthy, however, that the point of observation taken by Pope John is not merely of the external changes in "women's roles" but something occurring within the consciousness of people. Unfortunately, in subsequent documents the phenomenon of contemporary experience has rarely been addressed on this level.

Nevertheless, as one peruses the official documents of this period there is repeated recognition of what is happening to women in contemporary society. The earlier statements seem to address the issue as it exists in social institutions outside the Church. The later ones begin to address roles and responsibilities of women within the Church itself.

Thus Gaudium et Spes could say "Women now engage in almost all spheres of activity. ... It is incumbent upon all to acknowledge and favor the proper and necessary participation of women in cultural life" (60). In the 1971 Apostolic Letter A Call to Action, Pope Paul could note approvingly that ". . . in many countries a charter for women which would put an end to an actual discrimination and would establish relationships of equality in rights and of respect for their dignity is the object of study and of lively demands" (13). He could also identify sex as a basis for discrimination. "Among the victims of injustice — unfortunately no new phenomenon — must be placed those who are discriminated against in law or in fact, on account of their race, origin, color, culture, sex or religion" (16). Later in the same year the synodal document Justice in the World brought concern for women's participation into the household of the Church. "We also urge that women should have their own share of responsibility and participation in the community life of society and likewise of the Church."2

C. The Church looks with approval on these new developments while at the same time she expresses concern that the dignity of women be protected.

Perhaps one of the clearest indicators of this generalization is found in the following from Pope Paul VI.

If we were to reduce to a few brief essentials these brief indications concerning the place women should have in a renewed society, we might say: Let us willingly vote for

  1. (1) the recognition of the civil rights of women as the full equals of men, whenever these rights have not yet been acknowledged;
  2. (2) laws that will make it really possible for women to fill the same professional, social and political roles as men, according to the individual capacities of the person;
  3. (3) the acknowledgment, respect and protection of the special prerogatives of women in marriage, family, education and society;
  4. (4) the maintenance and defense of the dignity of women as persons, unmarried women, wives and widows; and the help they need, especially when the husband is absent, disabled or imprisoned, that is, when he cannot fulfill his function in the family.3

The first two of these "essentials" are among the clearest unqualified statements of the rights of women to be found in any official text. Some of the implications of the context provided by the third and fourth points are appropriate to the material in the next section of this paper.

A major concern about women, due to their increased presence in the labor force and professions, is for their economic rights. Mater et Magistra includes among the duties of the state the safeguarding of "... the rights of all citizens, but especially the weaker, such as workers, women and children" (20). Pacem in Terris states, "Women have the right to working conditions in accordance with their requirements and their duties as wives and mothers" (19). This concern is echoed in Gaudium et Spes. "... it too often happens, even in our day, that in one way or another workers are made slaves of their work ... Such is especially the case with respect to mothers of families, but due consideration must be given to every person's sex and age" (67), Reference to the role of women in the family here is key to the fundamental position of the Church on women, from which notions of feminine nature and distinguishing characteristics are derived. Official Church teaching repeatedly addresses the place of the woman in the family. Vatican II idealized the family as a "school of deeper humanity," and continued,

But if it is to achieve the full flowering of its life and mission, it needs the kindly communion of minds and the joint deliberation of spouses, as well as the painstaking cooperation of parents in the education of their children. The active presence of the father is highly beneficial to their formation. The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account (Gaudium et Spes, 52).

Yet developments in our times continue to place the domestic role of women in the family in jeopardy. One effect of rapid social transition, according to Pope Paul, has been ... to put women at the center of a yet unresolved crisis in institutions and culture with critical implications for their relationships within the family, their educational mission, their very identity as women, and their "specific way" of sharing in the life of society through work, friendships and the help and comfort they give to others. Even the religious outlook and practice of women have been affected, he observes. He then enumerates four developments of enormous importance:

  1. 1. the equal rights given to women, along with their increasing emancipation from the control of men;
  2. 2. a new conception of their roles as wives, mothers, daughters and sisters;
  3. 3. the ever greater availability to them of a vast and expanding range of specialized professional occupations;
  4. 4. their growing tendency to prefer jobs outside the home, with Us effects on the marital relationship and, above all, on the education of children who are prematurely freed from the authority of parents and especially of the mother.4

While the Holy Father is concerned about the dangers to woman's dignity and her place in the family he does not take a totally negative view of the new developments.

The new situation is evidently not wholly negative in its impact. In these new circumstances the woman of today and tomorrow will perhaps be able more easily to develop her full potential. Even the misguided experiments of the present time can be useful, if the sound universal principles of conscience take firmer root in society and lead to a new balance in family and social life.5

The context of these kinds of statements indicates official concern that what is regarded as woman's essential role of nurturing in the family be guarded because it is intrinsically related to her special nature.

D. The nature of women is unique, divinely established, and manifested in characteristics proper to women in their social roles.

There is a consistency in the way in which affirmations about woman in Vatican texts are qualified by references to her nature. Gaudium et Spes almost every area of life, with the following: "It is appropriate that they continues, after observing the fact that women are now employed in should be able to assume their full proper role in accordance with their own nature" (60). Women were singled out, along with rulers, men of thought and science, artists, the poor, sick and suffering, workers and youth for a special message at the close of Vatican Council II. They were told, ". . . the Church is proud to have glorified and liberated women, and in the course of centuries, in diversity of characters, to have brought into relief her basic equality with man." Women were further directed:

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 unhuman. 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.6

Presumably this role for women is conformable to her position at the heart of the family and within society of which Pope Paul speaks in A Call to Action. After approving the idea of a charter for women that would put an end to discrimination against them he continues.

We do not have in mind that false equality which would be in contradiction with woman's proper role, which is of such capital importance, at the heart of the family, as well as within society. Developments in legislation should on the contrary be directed to protecting her proper vocation and at the Same time recognizing her independence as a person, and her equal rights to participate in cultural, economic, social and political life (13).

In his address to Italian Catholic Jurists in December of 1972, Pope Paul identified the appropriate role of woman and qualified the nature of her equality with men when he said, ". . . women's authentic liberation does not consist in a formalistic or materialistic equality with the other sex, but in recognizing what the female personality has that is essentially specific to it: woman's vocation to be a mother."7 In the 1975 document The Role of Women in Church and Society: Disciples and Co-Workers, Pope Paul referred to complementarity of roles, ", . . to speak of rights does not resolve the problem, which is much more profound; it is necessary to aim at an effective complementarity, so that men and women bring their proper riches and dynamism to the building of the world, not levelled and uniform, but harmonious and unified, according to the design of the Creator, or, to use the terms of the Holy Year, renewed and reconciled."8

Pope Paul expresses his concern for women's proper place in society and in the Church in his statement on Women /Balancing Rights and Duties. He says in part, "The panorama of the apostolic activities of women is already an impressive one in those places where an effort has been made to enable them to take on the responsibilities that can be theirs." (emphasis added) And further, "Authentic Christian advancement of women is not limited to the claiming of rights. The Christian spirit obliges all of us, both men and women, to remember always our own proper duties and responsibilities, (emphasis added) Today it is especially a question of achieving a greater and closer collaboration between men and women in all society and in the Church."9 In this same document the Holy Father urges a seeming kind of restraint in efforts to promote women in positions of increased responsibility. ". . . we cannot fail to emphasize the fact that in the most highly developed countries the ascension of women to posts of reflection and decision making which conditions all spheres of life in society needs to progress with wisdom and realism." In a similar vein he urges women to remain alert to needs that manifest themselves with the caution that it would be vain and illusory to increase experiments indefinitely. "It is rather a question of totally taking on responsibilities that you have accepted, not in a spirit of competition or vanity, but in a spirit of collaboration and evangelical humility." (10)

The Holy See itself has taken some cautious steps in involving women in its organization. Pope Paul observes,

Effectively for several decades, a great many Christian communities have benefitted from the apostolic commitment of women, most especially in the prime area of pastoral work with families. At present certain women are even called upon to participate in sessions of pastoral reflection, either on the level of the dioceses, or on that of parishes and deaneries. It goes without saying that these new experiences need to mature. The Apostolic See, as you know, has itself called some particularly qualified women to take places on certain working groups (11)

A number of texts point to the unique qualities or traits of women that derive from their special nature. In Vatican II's closing address to women they are given the vocation to save the peace of the world. "Women, you who 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 nonbe-lieving, you to whom life is entrusted at this grave moment in history, it is for you to save the world.(12) The qualities of women are divinely bestowed as Pope Paul maintains in his discourse on "Reconciliation/the Way to Peace" delivered at Christmas time in 1974.

We rejoice especially on the eve of International Women's Year, proclaimed by the United Nations, at the ever wider participation of women in the life of society, to which they bring a specific contribution of great value, thanks to the qualities God has given them. These qualities of intuition, creativity, sensibility, a sense of piety and compassion, a profound capacity for understanding and love, enable women to be in a very particular way the creators of reconciliation in families and in society. (13)

In a similar vein in April of 1975 Pope Paul spoke of the need to obtain for women equality of rights and their full integration in the worldwide effort of development. He cited their growing contribution to the strengthening of peace among peoples. He concluded,

Yes, Christian women, the future of civil society and of the ecclesial community expects much of your sensitivity and of your capacity for understanding, of your sweetness and of your perseverance, of your generosity and of your humility. These virtues, so well in accord with feminine psychology, and magnificently developed in the Virgin Mary, are also the fruits of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit will guide you surely into the full development, into the promotion that you seek, that we all seek. (14)

A somewhat different approach to specifically feminine qualities is found in the document The Role of Women in Evangelization from the Pastoral Commission of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Some anonymous women missionaries are quoted as having said, "A woman is better suited to all that relates to life rather than to structures. She is better equipped for acting in the area of personal relations." This observation is then declared subordinate by the same women to three more general principles. The document affirms that the basic charism for both men and women is the gift of faith and baptism. Accordingly, a life lived in accordance with the gospel constitutes true witness and supersedes any subsequent differentiations. Furthermore, spiritual depth, consistency between preaching and one's way of life, the equilibrium and joy in the Spirit that results from this consistency are charisms that have no boundary and can be equally shared by men and women. There then follows a lengthy discourse on specifically feminine qualities. It deserves quotation in full.

On the other hand, women themselves, and men who observe them at work, recognize that certain human qualities are more specifically feminine and are a precious resource for evangelization.

As fashioners of life, women are aware of the conditions that this slow germination of persons, according to both nature and grace, demands of them and develops in them. They show a great capacity for loving what is to come, and for living in hope, in spite of delays, disappointments and trials

"That human beings may have life," full life and especially that of the soul through grace, "that they may have life more abundantly," through the gospel, the sacraments and the Church, women are capable of giving themselves without counting the cost.

Their devotedness is often more intuitive than that of men; they are better able to grasp the aspirations and distress, even when unexpressed, of mankind and to sense what response ought to be made. Their intuition spontaneously produces practical initiatives: "Man is a being of ideas, woman a being of action," it has been said, though the antithesis should not be exaggerated.

A woman reacts with more continuity and fidelity than a man to life as it presents itself. Her faith in life sustains her faith in grace and gives her the patience necessary for the work of natural and supernatural education. As the sanctuary in which each living person begins to grow, women have a more alert sensitivity to and a deeper respect for the individual person and his special qualities; they are better judges of character, and better able to bring to flower the seeds of good that lie latent in every well-disposed soul,

In the complex work of evangelization they show a special capacity for establishing contacts through a delicate sympathy, for patiently sowing the seeds of faith, and building up the family of God's children in countless ways.

Finally, in the face of the varied and often unforeseen demands of the actual life of social groups and ecclesial communities, experience shows that women give proof of a great capacity for personal adaptation, which enables them, even in difficult circumstances, to ensure the survival and progress of evangelization.

In fact, the history of the missions has for a long time borne witness to the very large role played by women in the evangelization of the world.

The Church can never thank them enough; and, at this particular moment of history, the best form of gratitude would probably be a more serious and more open reflection on the future of women in evangelization. (15)

It is difficult to imagine a Vatican text detailing the characteristics of males in a corresponding way, nor certainly a statement of the Church's gratitude to its male members. One cannot escape the impression that such detail is required about those who are deviant from the norm and who are marginalized in the Church and considered as a category without differentiation. (16)

E. Roles appropriate to women in the ministry of the Church correspond to their specific nature and their complementary relation with men.

Having taken up the cause of justice in the world, the Church has declared what this mission requires of her own institutions.

The Church, indeed, is not alone responsible for justice in the world; however, she has a proper and specific responsibility which is identified with her mission of giving witness before the world of the need for love and justice contained in the Gospel message, a witness to be carried out in Church institutions themselves and in the lives of Christians. (17)

The Pontifical Commission for Peace and Justice reflects this realization. "If her evangelical mission is to be effective, the Church must first and foremost stimulate in the world the recognition and promotion of the rights of the human person, beginning with an act of self-examination, a hard look at the manner and degree in which fundamental rights are observed and applied within her own organization." (18) In an uncharacteristic phraseology this document later states, "All persons are made in the image of God, the Father of all. They thus fee! themselves, and indeed truly are, brothers and sisters equal in dignity and freedom." (19) Quite as noteworthy as the use of the phrase "brothers and sisters" is the acknowledgment that equality in dignity and freedom is something felt or experienced by persons today.

It is perhaps in the light of the admitted demands of justice upon the Church itself that in the past year several documents have addressed the roles of women in the Church, especially the statement on "The Role of Women in Evangelization" from the pastoral commission of the Vatican Congregation on the Evangelization of Peoples (October 19, 1975), and Pope Paul's text "Women/Balancing Rights and Duties" (January 1, 1976). The operative principles applied in these statements are those of woman's specific feminine nature, her unique qualities as a woman, and her appropriateness for serving in auxiliary, nurturing ministerial roles.

"The Role of Women in Evangelization" is a case in point. Basic premises are contained in the first two paragraphs. First the universality of the Christian call to participation in evangelization is declared. "The work of evangelization belongs to every Christian, regardless of sex, age or condition. By virtue of their baptism Christians are not only called and enabled to possess the faith, but also to radiate and transmit it."(20) The text then continues with a principle of differentiation.

The motivations and forms of this work, which is basically the same for all, are differentiated according to groups and individuals, and one of these differentiations obviously derives from the nature, masculine or feminine, of the persons concerned. (21)

The authors then declare their intent to examine the feminine group while admitting that both "categories" have "features appropriate to each" which merit study. There is no indication that a companion document on "men's role" and evangelization is contemplated. The approach is based on an "attentive study" of the Bible which, it is stated, is easier now than in the past. There is, however, little to suggest the application of contemporary exegetical methods in the following.

In noting that God created human beings male and female. Genesis, at the beginning of the sacred text, indicates briefly but clearly the complementary nature of the two sexes; that is to say, their likeness, difference and convergence in every human enterprise, including therefore evangelization. (22)

Once again, relying curiously on "dozens of groups of women missionaries" as noted earlier, the "traditional occupations" of women missionaries in hospitals, schools and welfare services are recommended as essential. The anonymous women missionaries suggested other areas for the expansion of women's ministry — catechetical work, active home visiting, active contribution to retreats and spirituality sessions, counselling, the teaching of religion "including theology when one has the necessary qualifications," activity in the social communications media. There is confidence that, with a presupposed deep faith and "appropriate pedagogical preparation," women "will bring to their task their own special gifts of sensitivity and finesse." (23)

The document then spells out two groups of parish activities in which feminine qualities will be useful, the first called "roughly" administrative, the second directly pastoral. To the first it is envisioned that women will bring "the precious contribution of their sense of concrete reality, their methodical and personal diligence and their practical creativity." For the pastoral duties which, it is cautioned, do not constitute ministries in the strict sense, "women have a special educational role to play, which men cannot lay claim to."

Preparation of people for sacraments is as open to women as to priests. Hope is expressed that priests who are "often overburdened in this area will find women to be valued associates in it." They are advised to give women the responsibility and independence due to "their personal qualifications." The document remarks with approval that long experience in some cases and the success of new initiatives by women in other instances have taken women into areas previously reserved to priests. It adds, "Some of these were previously reserved to priests, but are not of their nature sacerdotal and so may be made the object of a 'diakonia' or service on the part of women." (24) Examples cited are the presiding over Sunday and weekday assemblies in the absence of a priest, exhortation and instruction of the faithful in their Christian duties, distribution of the blessed sacrament though the allusion here is to a "sister." More extraordinary are the cases in which, with a bishop's authorization, a sister is in charge of a parish, administers baptism and presides as the Church's official witness at marriages. Given the possibility of these responsibilities for women, the following line is surprising. "Other functions, such as the prayer for the sick and at funerals, are also urgent, but the role of women in them should be the object of further precise study."

Another observation contained in this text is worth quoting here.

It is certain that sisters often suffer deeply at the sight of the neglect-ed state of Christian communities, threatened by loss of vitality and death. Their requests to be entrusted with greater pastoral responsibilities spring from this anguish and not from a spirit of pretension, and should be examined with sympathy and urgency required by the circumstances. (25)

Though the context does not seem to imply women's requests for authorization to perform sacramental ministry the description corresponds to the kind of experience which leads many women to consider such a possibility for themselves. The writers can only hope . . . "that, to the consecrated women's offer of their service, the authorities will reply with the full range of possibilities, which are many." (26)

The continued reference here to "sisters" raises questions about the involvement of lay women in evangelization. In the introductory background to the text the lay women Pauline Jaricot and Jeanne Bigard are cited as founders of the first mission-aid societies. Apart from the sections dealing with women's characteristics in general, the remainder of the treatise seems to imply that its concern is with women religious and their roles in evangelization. Though this may be only an impression, it is sufficiently strong to cause women who are not members of apostolic religious institutes to question the real possibility of their being encouraged to carry on the work of evangelization which belongs to them by virtue of their baptism.

Pope Paul's statement on "Women/Balancing Rights and Duties" echoes the concern that women in the Church contribute to the immense task of evangelization their special talents, both human and divine. He is especially concerned, however, that "Women should be encouraged and assisted in the role of prime importance which they take on in their families." (27) He includes a word of warning against some of the pitfalls in current strivings for equality.

The equalizing of rights must not degenerate into an egalitarian and impersonal leveling. Egalitarianism, which is blindly pushed by our materialistic society, is little concerned with the specific welfare of persons, and contrary to appearances it takes no notice of what is suitable or not suitable for women. It thereby runs the risk either of "virilizing" them or depersonalizing them. In both cases, it does violence to women's deepest qualities. Egalitarianism can even favor certain forms of hedonism which are a threat to the spiritual and moral integrity of women and to their purely human dignity. (28)

The corrective for the dangerous consequences of an unrestrained egalitarianism is predictable. "Authentic Christian advancement of women is not limited to the claiming of rights. The Christian spirit also obliges all of us, both men and women, to remember always our own proper duties and responsibilities." (29)

The Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam issued on August 15, 1972, perhaps implicitly carries this kind of reasoning through to its conclusion. The letter which revised Church discipline on first tonsure, minor orders and the subdiaconate opened the offices of lector, acolyte and subdeacon to the laity. The rationale cited in the letter is quoted from the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy as follows.

Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as 'a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people' (1 Pt. 2, 9; see 2, 4-5) is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work (14). (30)

Phrases such as "all the faithful," "the Christian people," "right and duty by reason of their baptism," "participation by all the people," are inclusive seemingly of all baptized Christians, men and women. They are nonetheless at odds with the statement occurring in norm 7 of the letter: "In accordance with the venerable tradition of the Church, installation in the ministries of lector and acolyte is reserved to men." This statement is also in evident contradiction with the developing practice in the contemporary Church whereby women competently assume the roles of acolyte and lector in parishes in growing numbers, to say nothing of the expanded responsibilities of women cited in Women in Evangelization.

This text particularly must cause reflective women to ask seriously whether or not the authors regard them as included among all the faithful, among Christian people, among those who have rights and duties by reason of their baptism. A casual reference to the Church's "venerable tradition" in such a context is inadequate and ambiguous and can only raise questions about the meaning of a tradition that is inconsistent with such basic ecclesial concepts as inclusion among the people of God and the consequences of baptism.


This survey of selected texts from official Vatican documents of the past twenty-five years supports the conclusion that they are informed by a distinctive "ontology of woman." This ontology is distinctive for one category of human beings because by implication women's nature has a specificity revealed through a unique set of personal traits evident in her behavior. These characteristics are interpreted as necessarily flowing from the woman's child bearing function in procreation which in turn dictates her primary and indispensable role in nurturing children in the family. It is a role of complementarity with men whose educative influence in the family is necessary but secondary. The familial role of women is essential and normative. All other possibilities which may open to women through so-ciocultural development are legitimate for her to the extent that her complement of unique "feminine" qualities can be expressed in a nurturing supportive capacity. The rights of women are those compatible with her nature understood in this way. The championing of these rights, which is to say in another way the preservation of women's dignity, is taken as a special responsiblity of the Church. This follows from the conviction that the ontology of woman may be expressed philosophically, but its final guarantee is in the divine order of things. The theological foundation is claimed to be ultimately rooted in the revelation contained in the first two chapters of Genesis. It is thus deemed to be absolute and unchangeable.


The official teaching of the Church on women revealed through formal statements from the Vatican, while possessing a certain inner logic which can be elucidated, nonetheless does not resonate with the conclusions to which many women today have come after reflection upon their growing experience. Consequently, thoughtful women are challenging the ontological and theological presuppositions upon which such a doctrine, incompatible with their emerging self concepts, is founded. That biological differences established in the divine order of creation must be definitive of women and their social roles is not immediately evident in the existential order of human reality. In fact this option for designating the roles of women and men is only one of a variety of possibilities which might be suggested.

Peggy Ann Way, surveying the several ontological approaches to sexual differences taken by various persons and groups, suggested that they are five,

  1. 1. There are fixed sex roles in the orders of creation. The male is superordinate; the female, subordinate.
  2. 2. Biology determines the crucial shapes which masculine and feminine experiences take. The male-female duality is complementary on this basis.
  3. 3. There is no sexual difference in the nature of things. Culture wholly transcends biology.
  4. 4. There are polarities of human existence which have been called masculine and feminine polarities but which are not determinative of sexual roles.
  5. 5. New cultural experiences should speak for themselves. There is not enough data on what is masculine and what is feminine, especially since feminine possibility is new and needs time for fuller realization. (31)

In this schema the official Roman Catholic position would seem to encompass the first and second options with emphasis upon what has been established in the divine order of things. The third option attributes all gender differentiation to the influences of acculturation in the course of time, while the fifth seems not to accord value to the cultural experience of the past.

The fourth option is the one having the most to recommend itself to those interested in a holistic view of human persons. It allows for the fact that individual persons manifest a unique complement of human characteristics, that on a continuum of human potentialities from what has been called "masculine" to what has been viewed as "feminine" individual men and women would fall in various places. Operationalizing such an option would involve affirming people for what they are individually without requiring them to conform to sex role stereotypes. It is an ontological option which accords well with Pope Paul's statement on the rights of individual persons when he speaks generically in the passage quoted from Populorum Progressio above, p. 84.

The problems which arise when individual persons are required to fit their behavior to stereotyped expectations of what it is to be a man or a woman have been widely identified and discussed. The data accumulated in psychological and sociological studies is a record of human experience and is in contradiction with the ontology represented by option one. But even these sciences are inadequate to the extent that they share with theology the tendency to deal with an abstract category woman. "Despite thousands of years of concern, something important has eluded the grasp of philosophers and scientists. Somehow in our eagerness to know and understand women as a group, we have overlooked women as individuals. We have forgotten that a woman is, above all else, a person. We have surrounded women with myriad restrictions and demands, assuming that what is good for some women is good for all. The individual woman, as a person, has been ignored." (32) This nicely summarizes a pervasive problem in the Church's centuries old treatment of women. It is epitomized in the model of Mary constantly held up for imitation by women."

Part of the difficulty in understanding the mind of the Church on women is due to the ambiguity experienced in trying to relate the treatment of human persons (man used generically) to those which treat of women specifically, especially in the absence of any corresponding special tracts on male persons. It is evident that among human persons women are singled out as a distinct category and described as such without allowance made for differentiation of the individual traits of personality which women experience in themselves. It is in this respect that the presumed essential function of woman at the heart of the family is a critical issue for interpretation. This is the factor which repeatedly surfaces with urgings that women's role in it be protected especially so that proper attention be given to the rearing of the children. There are no extended treatises on the man's role in the family, apparently because his major area of responsibility is elsewhere.

There is an assumption in all of this, namely, that in a family as traditionally structured, indispensable human values are insured. The family is viewed therefore as a stable social organization to be preserved in a proven pattern of relationships. There is considerable evidence to the contrary, however, especially as the family with its traditional sex roles is subjected to the pressures of rapidly changing economic structures. "The sociological, anthropological, or social theories all seem to point — ultimately—to changes in the requirements of the economic system as the prime moving forces of shifts in sex roles or changes in the status of women."34 Social organization within the family was a product of a long agricultural era;35 it changed with the advent of the industrial age; it continues to adjust to the assaults of a world moving faster than its powers of assimilation toward post-industrialization. As women and men are caught up in the confusion of contemporary life many have come to question the traditional division of labor in the family and roles in society. A significant trend toward "dual-career" families has come about, for example, as more women have entered the labor market.

The dual-career family is one in which both "heads" pursue careers. It is not only a situation of dual careers but of acknowledged dual family responsibility.

The implication is not, as with the concept of women's two roles, that men do not also have two roles. Both men and women, in the dual-career family, have both career roles and familial roles, and with the exception of pregnancy and childbirth, there is no assumption that any of the activities are inexorably sex-linked. This is not to say that there are categorically no biologically linked sex differences in the capacities of men and women to perform specific activities, e.g. "mothering." The probability is that there are "overlapping curves" of characteristics such that some men may have more of one attribute (say, nurturance) than some women and, conversely, some women may have more of an attribute (say, mechanical skills) than some men (Riesman 1965). At the same time more women may turn out to be more nurturant biologically than most men and more men may turn out to be more "mechanical" than most women. (36)

This sociological analysis of the sex role differentiation appropriate to the dual-career family reflects the fourth ontological option described earlier. It further points to a better foundation for speaking of equality in the relation of spouses within the family. When each has a career and when each has a designated role to play in the family according to individual capabilities there is a foundation for genuine complementarity of shared participation in carrying out mutual responsibilities. The possibility of a kind of complementarity that shields a superiority-inferiority relationship is removed. Respect for the uniqueness of persons is operationalized.

What this might mean in terms of the Vatican mentality is that special sections on women peripheral to documents on human rights might be obviated in favor of needed expositions on the family, with broader concerns for the complementary partnership of the adult persons who form that social unit to achieve its ends. Complementarity of persons is not complementarity of sexes. But that such a new approach might be adopted seems unlikely if a principle enunciated by Pope Paul continues to be applied as it is at present, namely, "In the exercise of Our apostolic ministry, We move beyond sociological situations and problems and adopt a theological and spiritual viewpoint." (37) This raises the issue of appropriate theological method and the relation of the human sciences to theological reflection in the matter of sex role differentiation as in all other areas of theological concern. Not only do Vatican pronouncements on women appear to be made in isolation from the kinds of data available from such sciences as anthropology, psychology and sociology, but they are also made in isolation from the insights of modern biblical scholarship.

One of the tasks of biblical interpretation is to recognize and take into account the fact that the biblical materials are themselves products of acculturation. As Raymond Brown points out, "Since the Bible contains the word of God in the words of men, these texts reflect the sociology of God's people respectively in the first century A.D. and the eleventh century B.C. They cannot be repeated as normative today in a different sociology without first investigating whether the change of social condition does not require a different expression of God's will for his people." (38) This principle applies certainly to the first two chapters of Genesis so frequently invoked as precedent for a view of divinely established differences in the natures of men and women.

Evidence of the kind of painstaking work required to exegete the meaning of Old Testament texts pertinent to the issue is found in the recent report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on the ordination of women.(39) The report notes at the beginning that "in general the role of women does not constitute the principal object of biblical texts." As a consequence investigators must rely on "information given here and there." (40) The members of the pontifical commission indicate the scope of the inquiry in the survey of both Old Testament and New Testament texts reviewed briefly in their document. They make a careful distinction between the equality of men and women in the spiritual domain and the moral area, which is the teaching of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and the social condition of women which is a sociological problem. This problem, the report states, must be treated as such:

  1. 1. In terms of the laws of sociology: physical and psychosomatic data of feminine behavior in an earthly society;
  2. 2. In terms of the history of the societies in which the people of God lived during and after the composition of the Bible;
  3. 3. In terms of the laws of the Church of Christ, his body, whose members live an ecclesial life under the direction of a magisterium instituted by Christ, while belonging to other societies and states. (41)

The application of the first two of these criteria is less evident in current official teaching about women than the influence of the third.

The Pontifical Biblical Commission points out a direction for theological inquiry involving biblical texts which is a continuing requirement for a Christian community in bringing its faith into relation with developments taking place in contemporary society. A simplistic use of long standing assumptions about the meaning of the scriptures is a failure in the kind of responsibility to be expected from a Church which takes its teaching function seriously.

It is from the perspective of their freedom that man and woman discover not only their equality and their complementariness but also the paradox of their freedom. The Bible does not contain a ready answer to the question of the role of women in the Church or in society. Many questions related to this role remain for contemporary theologians to investigate. Biblical faith, however, from Abraham to Jesus Christ, lays the basis of a theology of womanhood which goes counter to the traditional attitudes and practices of Christendom and challenges the Church of today to rethink critically and creatively the functions of man and woman. (42)

Those who accept such a challenge in the name of the Church and her official teaching must include women who alone can bring a requisite reality testing to this area of study. Yet there is little evidence of even a few women being recognized as "highly qualified" for the task. This will remain a consistent problem in a male dominated Church, customarily alluded to in female terms, but habitually couching its formal pronouncements in a male idiom.

The seeming impossibility of gaining admission to the exclusively male preserve of theologizing for a reconsidered doctrine leads some women to look for other ways to bring their experience into the mainstream of movements that have potential for a Church renewal which will remove them from their present status of a marginated category of persons. In the post Vatican II tension among varying ecclesial self concepts, especially those of hierarchy and people of God, many concerned Christian men and women forsake the privileged domain of the former for the real possibilities present in the latter. For the Church as people of God is accessible and large segments of it are open to new initiatives of leadership for the exploration of faith and the renewal of ministry. Increasing numbers of women find acceptance and creative possibilities for testing their own newly discovered potential in opportunities for Christian service in response to genuine needs with which they are confronted.

In this respect women are in a good position to do something advocated by theologian Letty Russell who recalls that it is the liberating and saving action of God that opens up future and hope. This, she says, is the key to creation and not the other way around. "Those who begin with creation, without first gaining a new perspective are likely to lose sight of the eschatological dimension of partnership as seen in the koinonia creating presence of Christ in their lives." (43) The new perspective comes from considering the meaning of two words most frequently used in the early Church to connote partnership, namely, koinonos and metochos. Commenting on the more familiar koinonia, she says "The emphasis of koinonia or community is on a two-sided relationship of giving or receiving, participation, impartation, fellowship." (44) We are set free for others by a new focus of relationship in a common history of Jesus Christ. Koinonia enables us to come to a new theological understanding of partnership of women and men and of all sizes and groupings of Christians. "A new event of God's traditioning action in Jesus Christ results in a focus of koinonia that sets us free for diaconia. (45) Russell proposes that instead of perpetuating the hermeneutical debate over Genesis 1-3, Christians would be better advised to begin exploring the meaning of the New Humanity in Jesus Christ as anthropos (human), not just aner (male). She says ". . . as important as sexuality is in the lives of each of us, the bearer of the image of God is servanthood (diakonos), not sexuality, and is best expressed in many varieties of partnership (koinonos)." (46)

When the emphasis is upon the service made possible through partnerships of whatever numbers of persons, it is easier to see that personal gifts are neither equally distributed nor sex-linked.

Every human partnership, of whatever kind is based, not on equality of gifts, but on a relationship of mutual trust that allows each to find his or her best forms of service and affirms this in others. To assume we know a person's gifts simply because of her or his biological sex is a form of "heresy," because the Spirit works in many ways through people. (47)

Russell suggests a model for praxis that is already in effect within the Church. Women, lay and religious, along with men who share their vision, have begun to form relationships and pool talents for the sake of services they perceive to be needed. In them can be found an opting for the priority of mission over structure in the Church.

This is a hopeful sign for the future of the Church. Women, all "lay" people, married and single, indeed all Christians who desire to be responsible for their role in evangelization will, by the power of the Spirit dwelling in them, come to an ever deeper realization that it is to his mission that the Lord calls them, that the forms and structures of the Church have no other purpose than to serve and facilitate that mission, that in the freedom Christians enjoy they will form life-giving partnerships witnessing to the unifying and reconciling mission of the Lord. Many will come to the threshold of sacramental ministry without the requisite empowerment to carry it out. This will perpetuate the pain to which the document on "Women and Evangelization" alludes with such apparent insensitivity. But it will not be in vain. The Spirit of the Lord in bringing in a new future cannot be contained.


However limited the scope of an inquiry into the place of women in the Church, the effort invariably leads to the most fundamental questions about the meaning of the incarnation and redemption of Jesus Christ, about the nature and function of the Church in carrying out his mission. This paper reveals a sufficient number of inconsistencies in formal Church teaching to show the critical need for: a new anthropology, based upon conclusions from contemporary studies, as a foundation for a reconsidered theology of incarnation in which all Christians, men and women, would be seen as participating fully in the redemption and saving mission of Jesus Christ; a candid opening of the question of the meaning of authority in the Church and how it is exercised in relation to the promulgation of teaching that is dependent upon highly specialized disciplines, such as philosophy, the human sciences, Scripture and the various areas of theology; serious attention to the ways in which the Church as a people of God can be fully formed, organized and actualized to participate in mission according to the gifts that belong to individual Christians; the need to address the perplexing question of ministry, what it is, how it is structured, who is responsible for it and how.

1. "The Role of Women in Contemporary Society," The Pope Speaks, XIX (December 8, 1974), 314.

2. Synod of Bishops, The Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World (Washington: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1971), p. 44.

3. "The Role of Women in Contemporary Society," p. 316.

4. Ibid., p. 315.

5. Ibid.

6. "To Women," Closing Messages of the Council, The Documents of Vatican II, ed. by Walter M. Abbott and Joseph Gallagher (New York: Guild Press, 1966), p. 733.

7. "The Right to Be Born." The Pope Speaks, XVII (No. 4, 1973), 335.

8. Origins, IV (May 1, 1975) 718.

9. Origins, V (February 19, 1976), 552.

10. Ibid.

11. Origins, IV (May 1, 1975), 719.

12. The Documents of Vatican II, p. 734.

13. Origins, IV (December 26, 1974), 431.

14. Origins, IV (May 1, 1975), 719.

15. Origins, V (April 22, 1976), 703-704.

16. In his address of December 8, 1974, to the Italian Catholic Jurists, Pope Paul repeated an assessment of woman which he had originally included in an address to the Italian Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists on October 29, 1966: "As We see her, Woman is a reflection of transcendent beauty, a symbol of limitless goodness, a mirror of the ideal human being as God conceived it is in his own image and likeness. As We see her, Woman is a vision of virginal purity that revitalizes the highest affective and moral sentiments of the human heart. As We see her, she is, for man in his loneliness, the companion whose life is one of unreserved loving dedication, resourceful collaboration and help, courageous fidelity and toil, and habitual heroic sacrifice. As We see her, she is the Mother — let us bow in reverence before her! — the mysterious well-spring of life, through whom nature still receives the breath of God, creator of the immortal soul. . . As We see her, she symbolizes mankind itself."

17. Justice in the World, op. cit., p. 42.

18. "The Church and Human Rights," Origins, IV (September 4, 1975), 163.

19. Ibid., p. 168.

20. Origins, V (April 22, 1976), 702.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., p. 704.

24. Ibid., p. 705.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Origins, V (February 19, 1976), 551.

28. Ibid., p. 552.

29. Ibid.

30. "The Ministries of Lector and Acolyte," The Pope Speaks, XVII (Autumn, 1972), pp. 257-261.

31. "Woman as Possibility," Woman and the Word. Toward a Whole Theology (Berkeley, California: Office of Women's Affairs, 1972), pp.8-10.

32. Edwin C. Lewis, Developing Women's Potential (Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1968), p. 3.

33. Pope Paul, in his statement to the Italian Catholic Jurists, after recalling that his ministry required a theological and spiritual viewpoint, immediately referred to Mary. "We call attention to that creature whom Christ, her Son, frequently addressed as 'Woman,' for she can serve as a point of departure in the attempt to answer many questions even of the temporal order, the family and society. We wish to encourage the woman of today, in her quest for authentic development as a woman, to look to Mary as a model, for Mary is radiant with genuine beauty and spotless holiness . . ." Origins, "The Rote of Women in Contemporary Society" (December, 1975), p. 315.

34. Harriet Holter, "Sex Roles and Social Change," Toward a Sociology of Women, ed. by Constantina Safilios-Rothschild (Lexington, Mass.: Xerox College Publishing, 1972). p. 331.

35. Ashley Montagu points out that throughout more than nine-tenths of the long history of humankind, Us economy was characterized by food-gathering and hunting. He derives from this fact a basis for a long cultural conditioning of women and men which, precisely because of its beginnings in prehistory, can and has been mistaken for biological determination. Cf. The Natural Superiority of Women, New Revised Edition (New York: Collier Books, 1974), pp. 12-16.

36. Rhona Rapaport and Robert N. Rapaport, "The Dual-Career Family: A Variant Pattern and Social Change," Toward a Sociology of Women, pp. 236-237.

37. "The Role of Women in Contemporary Society," Origins (December, 1975), p. 318.

38. Biblical Reflections on Crises Facing the Church (New York: Paulist Press, 1975), p. 51.

39. "Can Women Be Priests?" Report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Origins, VI (July 1, 1976) pp. 92-96.

40. Ibid., p. 92.

41. Ibid., Part II, p. 94.

42. Samuel Terrien, "Toward a Biblical Theology of Womanhood," Religion and Life (Autumn, 1973), p. 333.

43. Letty M. Russell, "Theological Aspects of Women and Men in Christian Communities," Bulletin International, Femmes et Hommes dans L'Eglise, No. 17 (Avril, 1976), p. 7.

44. Ibid., p. 6.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.,p.7.

47. Ibid.

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