(Photo credit: Sr. Doreen Whitney)

I am ashamed to say that during the council I was a male chauvinist pig, untouched by the women's movement, and hence I simply do not know what happened in regard to women at, during and around the council...It does show you that the paradigms we have in the imagination are research-guiding;  they determine what we see and what we do not see, unless something altogether drastic happens to raise our consciousness. ~Vatican II peritus, Rev. Gregory Baum

Sister of Mercy Carmel McEnroy died on December 3, 2019 at the age of 83.

We have many reasons to be grateful for her work. She fought against censure and, ultimately, her firing at St. Meinrads for her public support for ordaining women priests. She called on leaders of the Catholic Church to model the justice they preached and worked for women's full equality in many contexts. But, maybe she will be most remembered for bringing awareness and preserving the witness of twenty three women at Vatican II. Her book, Guests in their Own House: The Women of Vatican II, published in 1996, details their quest.

As a student of theology, I had not only studied the sixteen documents, but I also read many of the accounts of the human drama behind the documents. Volumes of historical treatments have been written about Vatican II examining every angle of the workings of the Council, as well as the cast of characters who clashed and ultimately forged those documents remaking the Church for the modern world. Yet, for years, I did not know women were there. My guess is most Catholics did not know either.

McEnroy opened my eyes. Stumbling upon her book, I practically gulped down the chapters and later spent months delving into all the literature I could find on the women who shaped Vatican II, presenting my findings at theological conferences and offering my research to Catholic students from arouond the globe in a course I designed for Catherine of Siena College in its early days before it moved to Roehampton University under the fine leadership of Prof. Tina Beattie.

Obviously, the sources were thin in comparison to the voluminous writings about the contributions of churchmen, but because of McEnroy's considerable investment of energies interviewing most all the women who had attended the Council, a growing number of women participants, writers, and scholars told their stories of being at the Council or, they picked up a feminist lens and starting looking again and the secondary and original sources in order to expand our knowledge and appreciation of the twenty three.

Sister of Loreto, Mary Luke Tobin summed up her experience in Hope is an Open Door.  Australian Rosemary Goldie  captured her experiences before, during and after Vatican II in From a Roman Window: Five Decades: the  World, the Church and the Catholic Laity (1998). Church historian Adriana Valerio published Madri del Concilio: Ventitré Donne al Vaticano II. Marinella Perroni, Alberto Melloni and Serena Noceti edited Tantum aurora est; Donne e Concilio Vaticano II. Katholikinnen und das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil: Petitionen, Berichte, Fotografien was co-written by Regina Heyder and Gisela Mschiol; and Elaine Catherine Macmillan, writing for the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame, recalled Pilar Bellosillo, Rosemary Goldie and Mary Luke Tobin, SL, as the "women drafters" of Gaudium et Spes in "In Memory of Them."

Like the many feminist scholars who have recovered the witness and leadership of early Christian women, it was exciting to see how these modern women were moving the twenty three from obscurity to a place of importance in the making of the Second Vatican Council.

Women Lobby the Vatican to Get In

Women were not simply waiting around to be invited. In fact, a number lobbied to get a seat at the Council table.

John XXIII's history-making call, while opening the Council to new participants from around the world, did not include women.   On January 2, 1962, over 2800 invitations were issued to eligible participants of the Council which included Protestant and Orthodox observers.  No women, or laymen for that matter, were invited.

The Council opened on Oct 11, 1962, and as the "great ferment" of the first session was felt, John XXIII called the first layman, Jean Guitton, from the French Academy to "come immediately... to cast a ray of sunshine across the council."

In the meantime women were ratcheting up the pressure.

Before the Council began, Catholic women lobbied for participation. They wrote letters to bishops and the Council Secretariat suggesting the names of women who should participate.

At the first German press conference at the Council, Bishop Walter Gunther Kampe gave a lecture and then opened the floor to journalists' questions.  Josefa Theresia Münch, ad advocate for women's ordination who had been petitioning the Popes (from Pius XII on) to address women leadership and participation in the Church and in worship,  publicly addressed the absence of women at the Council for the first time when she asked,  "Have women also been invited to the Council?"  Her question was met with an awkward silence and then a reply from Kampe that stirred nervous laughter, "Perhaps at Vatican III."

On June 3, 1963, John XXIII died and on June 21, 1963, Archbishop Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini was elected Pope. It was Paul VI who expanded the strict canonical definition of conciliar membership to include laypersons who had the experience that most bishops lacked of being in the world and would give Vatican II "it's own true character"  as "experts in life" by working on important conciliar documents.   As the second session commenced on September 29, thirteen laymen were invited to participate as "experts in life." It was also said that the pope was surprised no suggestions of women participants was included.

Cracks in the well clad barrier preventing women from participating began to show up and building on the momentum created by women, on October 22, 1963, Cardinal Suenens uttered, "Women too should invited as auditors: unless I am mistaken, they make up half of the human race."  

He also observed with equal irony that women religious, whose numbers exceeded one million, also belonged to the Church. The cardinal recounted speaking personally with Paul VI asking him to invite women. More and more episcopal leaders began to voice their support even while others voiced their strong opposition.

Lobbying efforts intensified inside and outside the council and just after the close of Session II, in January 1964, three petitions were received in Rome recommending that women be invited to the council along with names of qualified candidates.  

World Union of Catholic Women's Organizations proposed seven names. Maria H.C. Vendri, president of the International Catholic Young Women's Movement sent a second petition. And the third petition was sent on January 21, 1964 by Vittorino Veronese, Secretary general of COPECIAL suggesting eight names.  The three petitions reflected the evolving sentiments of a number of Council Prelates, as well as, public opinion and on September 8, 1964, Paul VI announced to a large group of women religious from the Diocese of Albano his intention to invite women as auditors.  

Women Shaping Vatican II

Thus, during sessions three and four, twenty three women served as auditors.  Ten were women religious and thirteen were lay.  Seventeen women came to session three and the additional six came to session four.

Session three auditors included:  

  • Constantina Baldunicci, S.C., (Italy)
  • Pilar Bellosillo (Spain)
  • Cristina Estrada, A.C.J., (Spain)
  • Claudia Feddish, O.S.B.M., (USA)
  • M. Henriette Ghanem, S.S.C.C., (Lebanon)
  • Rosemary Goldie (Australia)
  • Ida Grillo Marenghi  Marenco (Italy)
  • Suzanne Guillemin, D.C.,  (France)
  • Marie de la Croix Khouzam, R.E.S.C.,(Egypt)
  • Catherine McCarthy (USA)
  • Alda Miceli (Italy)
  • Marie-Louise Monnet (France)
  • Amalia cordero Lanza  di Montezemolo Dematteis (Italy)
  • Anne-Marie Roeloffzen (Belgium)
  • Juliana Thomas, A.D.J., (Germany)
  • Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., (USA)
  • Sabine de Valon, R.S.C.J., (France)

An additional six women were invited to session four:

  • Luz-Marie Alvarez-Icaza (Mexico)
  • Jerome Maria Chimy, S.S.M.I., (Canada)
  • Gertrud Ehrle (Germany)
  • Margarita Moyano Llerena (Argentina)
  • Gladys Parentelli (Uruguay)
  • Hedwig Skoda (Czechoslovakia

In addition to women auditors, Catholic women were summoned as “experts” for their specific competencies and expertise.  They included:

  • Marguerite Fiévez (Belgium)
  • Marie-Annick Chéreau (France)
  • Marie du Rostu (France)
  • Marie-Thérèse Cheroute (France)
  • Mr and Mrs Francis and Germaine de Baecque (France)
  • Rachel Donders (Netherlands)
  • Marga Klompe (Netherlands)
  • Maria R Vendrik (Netherlands)
  • Celina Piñeiro Pearson (Argentina)
  • Sofia del Valle (Mexico)
  • Elisabeth Mueller (Germany)
  • Eileen Egan (USA)
  • Barbara Ward (UK)
  • Patricia Crowley (USA)
  • May Lobo (Pakistan)
  • Joanne Morard (Switzerland)
  • Mary Pothen (India)
  • Catherine Schaefer (USA)
  • Marisetta Paronetto-Valier (Italy)
  • Federico and Hortensia Soneira (Uruguay)  

McEnroy's documentation shows that far beyond passive observation, women were actively engaged serving as contributors on commissions helping shape the language of Gaudium et Spes, Apostolicum Actuositatem, Perfectae caritatis, and other documents.

German moral theologian and Redemptorist Bernard Häring (who wrote an endorsement of McEnroy's book and was rightly nicknamed "Haring the Daring") lobbied for women's participation on commissions.

As a result of Häring's action, Marie-Louise Monnet, Pilar Bellosillo, Rosemary Goldie, Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, SL and  Sr. Suzanne Guillemin all sat on the mixed commission as full voting members, along with peritus Maria Rie Vendrik. Here women had the right to ask for the floor to speak, make interventions, submit ideas, and vote. With a bit of a smile, Rosemary Goldie noted that as part of a subcommission with Yves Congar and Karol Wojtyla, "she was able to vote although Wojtyla was not."  

The women took every opportunity presented to reshape the thinking of bishops and influence the language of the documents. Although iit is difficult to point to direct correlations in all cases, some of their input is footnoted.

In Apostolicam Actuositatem, Goldie is credited in the Abbott edition of The Documents of Vatican II with contributing the following statement to that text: “Since in our time women have a more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Church’s apostolate.”

With her international experience, Goldie also noted her influence in Gaudium et Spes, paragraph 90, which she believed laid the groundwork for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Justice and Peace.

The Male Gaze: Confronting the Scandalized and the Flatterers

The women at Vatican II

The twenty three also helped define their own presence at the council. Humor was an important tool for that task and so was their willingness to speak truth to power.

Some scandalized churchmen would not look at the women auditors. Pilar Bellosillo recalled seeing an elderly bishop cover his eyes when the women walked past him to and from communion. "He was scandalized...It was all so new," she said.

And while the groundbreaking Paul VI claimed, "women must come closer the altar", when Eva Fleischner, a journalist from "Grail Notes,"  tried to follow her male counterparts up the aisle to receive Communion during a conciliar Mass, she was physically blocked by a Swiss Guard and forced to turn back.

When the male auditors arrived for session two, they mingled effortlessly with prelates and priests at the two coffee bars, known as "Bar-Jonah" and "Bar-Abbas."  But this did not hold true when the female auditors arrived during session three.  Having women in such close proximity was too much for many bishops and, so to relieve their uneasiness, a separate coffee bar for the women was created.   Chagrined by this attempt, the women called their segregated area, "Bar-Nun"  or  "Bar-None."  José and Luz-Marie Alvarez-Icaza and others protested this arrangement and more than a few churchmen cross over the artificial barrier to the exhange ideas with the women.

Then, too, were the churchmen eager to counteract the sting of rejection. They offered flattery. But the women were not impressed. Yves Congar read a flowery description of women he had written for the commission's work on Gaudium et Spes.  When finished, he received no response.   Looking at Goldie he asked, "Rosemary, you don't like it?" "No," she replied, "you can cut out all the references to women as flowers, light, etc.  We don't need any grandiose stuff that has no basis in women's reality.  All we want is to be treated as full human beings, accorded the same equality as men."

Herstory Repeats Itself: She Persists

With Sr. Carmel McEnroy's passing, her wisdom and her passion for getting history right is a legacy that guides us today. She preserved the precious memory of women forging new paths in the church. And according to McEnroy, the twenty three did it with verve, style, tenacity, and humor.

And it should be no surprise that since that time, women have followed Tobin, Bellosillio, Goldie and others in working to build true equality into our decision making bodies, processes, and teachings. Women such as FutureChurch Co-Founder Sr. Christine Schenk and others made impacts at the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist where the priest shortage was addressed and the 2008 Synod on the Word where

  • Twenty-five women were invited to participate, the most women to ever attend any Catholic synod. Six female “experts,” and 19 female auditors provided female perspectives to this historic gathering that universally affirmed Dei Verbum, the Vatican II document on the Bible.
  • For the first time in history, Catholic bishops meeting in a synod discussed the need to restore women’s stories to the lectionary. Surprisingly, Proposition 16 recommended “that an examination of the Roman lectionary be opened to see if the actual selection and ordering of the reading are truly adequate to the mission of the Church in this historic moment.”
  • Synod proposition 17 “recognized and encouraged” the ministry of women of the Word affirming the work of women “delegates of the Word” who are leading base communities all over the developing world.

2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family

At the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family, then president of the International Union of Superiors General, Sr. Carmen Sammut, explained how she and others met with Vatican officials and sent letters requesting they be included at the synod. Five invitations were extended to male religious (USG), but none came to female International Union of Superiors General (UISG).

2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family

In 2015 as the Ordinary Synod on the Family ramped up, they lobbied Vatican officals again and were able to gain three seats. Sammut was there along with Sr. Maureen Kelleher and Sr. Berta Maria Porras Fallas. Sammut, with her characteristic candor, quipped, "Do not think it was automatic."

At a coffee break during the synod, Sammut's savvy was on full display when met Pope Francis. She recounted her struggles in trying to get letters to him requesting admittance to the synods. Pope Francis revealed that he had not received any letters. The high level gatekeepers who had assured Sammut that the Pope was getting her requests, had been less than forthright. Handing Francis the invitation to the May 2016 UISG assembly (where UISG asked the pope to consider women deacons), Sammut had found a way around the system to that kept women at bay. The following day, Carmen received a hand-written response from Pope Francis. Later, Sammut noted, “When they want things settled, they are settled very quickly!”

Further, in 2015, we learned that the male body of superior generals (USG), had also lobbied synod leaders to allow women to vote. The USG had 10 votes and they wanted to give 5 of those seats to women superiors. One of their selected members was a brother, a non-ordained superior, who had been given permission to vote. Since women religious superiors have the exact ecclesial status, the reason for the difference was all too apparent. The long history of overt sexism was still playing out in the Vatican.

Another important change took place at the 2015 synod that helped integrate women's experiences and voices into the final document that would be produced. Francis moved the synod from a large floor exercise with intervention after intervention, to small language group discussions. Women were included in those discussions and had the opportunity to make a more substantial impact on the content. Many of the women found the experience to be promising. But, like the experience of the twenty three at Vatcian II, some prelates preferred to dish out contempt for women's opinions. Sr. Maureen Kelleher recalled her experience of being in a small group with Archbishop Charles Chaput. She commented, "The condescension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife."

2018 Ordinary Synod on Youth

The 2018 Synod on Youth took on a life of its own as young people shared their enthusiasm for the Church, but also their concerns with the worlds' bishops. The lack of women's roles and LGBT exclusion were priorities for these young Catholics. The USG chose two non-ordained male superiors to attend and vote thus opening the way for a full campaign to get women religious superiors the vote. "Votes for Catholic Women" initiated by Women's Ordination Conference, quickly grew into a worldwide response to the continued exclusion of women' authority at the synod. Taking on the role of Catholic Suffragists, outside the synod hall, women from five continents chanted, "Knock, knock. Who's there? More than half the Church." Calling on prelates to give women the vote, the campaign helped educate churchmen about the power dynamics -- women and men of equal ecclesial status being treated very differently in terms of their authority.

On the inside, vice-president of the UISG, Sr. Sally Hodgdon, spoke candidly about the disparity between women religious superiors and male religious superiors. "Why are women not voting?" she asked. The male body of superiors (USG) had ten voting members, 2 non-ordained, while the UISG had three, none of whom could vote. It was also revealed that the two groups intended to send a proposal to Pope Francis making a way for women to vote.

The final document did reflect progress. It recognized Jesus' treatment of women as partners in salvation and called the inclusion of women in decision making bodies of the Church a "duty of justice."

At the final press conference of the UISG, Hodgdon spoke forcefully saying, “We need to be the dangerous memory of this synod and the spirit of what happened at this synod.”

She also vowed, “We will not let this issue just die.”

2019 Amazonian Synod

The "Votes for Catholic Women" campaigned continued in multiple ways with a press event, demonstrations, lighted signs, and most prominently, women religious from the Fahr Monastery who, sponsored by Voices of Faith, took a bus from Switzerland to Rome to spread the word that women should vote at the synod. Donned in orange and black capes that read "Votes for Catholic Women" they garnered the attention of the media and Catholics at large with their smiling faces and their powerful message.

The message of women's full equality as voting members was also a central theme at the Voices of Faith event featuring Sr. Simone Campbell and other women religious who called for women religious themselves to take up the cause more forcefully.

Inside the synod, women made a strong impact in shaping the narrative. They talked about women voting. They urged the Church to open ordination to women deacons who were already performing those tasks in the Amazon. They urged the Church to open doors to women's fuller participation in governance and ministry.

Medical Missionary Sister Dr. Birgit Weiler stood out for her leadership.

When I asked her at a press conference about women voting she responsded:

Yes, in our circle, it has been a topic -- a strong topic -- and we have been cited by several bishops.

I am really grateful to Pope Francis for the steps he is taking to make it possible. We are now 35 women, from different positions, and functions in the synod. This is already a significant step forward and I want to honor it.

Of course, as many other religious women, we desire that we come to the point that our superiors general can have a vote as the superiors general of the brothers can.

Pope Francis at the last synod, already made it possible, saying that it is not [necessary to have] ordination to priesthood to be able to vote. When you are participating fully in the whole process of sharing faith, of discerning together, then the vote is also an expression; you also want to responsibly participate in the decision that is taken.

And, yes, we hope very much that something can happen there.

It is expressed, and clearly expressed.

There is no real reason for why not [having women religious superiors vote] because when the brethren can vote, women religious are equals. Both have votes and are not ordained.

She also spoke of her experience at they synod in small groups.

We experience that we are really accepted as part of the group. There is not a clerical attitude. There's a lot of freedom of speech and it is a beautiful experience, really, to discern together. And also, we could speak how we sometimes feel about the Church -- what hurts us, what we desire to change so that we can really be a community of sisters and brothers sharing faith, learning together, and trying to live together out of the Spirit - what the Spirit wants to tell the Church today so that we follow the path of Jesus in today's context -- with today's potentials and today's demands. Yes, it is certainly strong.

And I also heard from other women religious who are participating in some other small circles, and they say it is the same -- it is really an open atmosphere. So, more critical questions can be put openly and respectfully on the table. And it is beautiful that I experienced this on the first day. There are, among the bishops and cardinals, a good number who really understand us as women and who share our concerns and who share [understand] that there are things that are paining us. And they understand why and also want that things will change. So recognition? Yes, definitely.

And in our small group, it was a strong point even said by the bishops that when you want to become a church that expects to be a synodal church, really walking together and discerning together, [it] means we must come to the point to decide together. And that means you have to have more women in positions of leadership.

There's a wide field where you do not need to be ordained, and we hope this will be much more the reality in the future that women -- lay women, religious women -- will be invited to also assume responsible positions. Now, already many of them already do [assume responsible leadership roles] and that is recognized in the working document. Practically, the major pastoral work and presence is lived by women. But is not only the work that we do, but we should also be included in positions where we take responsible decisions. How to design pastoral work? How to go forward with inter-cultural [work]. Or liturgy, for example. Or the way you walk together with indigenous people to really form and shape Christian communities, rooted in their cultures.

New Progress, More Disappointments

There was progress and disappointments as the synod ended.

The final document contained a proposal to open the priesthood to married men in the Amazon. And for the first time, a majority of bishops, especially those from the Amazon region, went on record as decidedly in favor of ordaining women as deacons. This was driven by the reality of how the church actually functions in the Amazon - women led and women sustained, but also by the women who spoke at the synod. Thus, a seismic shift had occurred with four out of nine small language groups from the Amazon recommending opening the diaconate to women while the others reflected openness and the need for more discernment. The final document captured those sentiments when it recommended opening the commission created in 2016 again with a new infusion of members who can attest to women's ministry in the Amazon church.

No doubt, I and many were disappointed that the bishops didn't go further in advancing women's ministry in the face of the stark realities of their service in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

More truthfully, it was appalling to see how their biases still played out in the face of the sheroic ministry of these women.

We Persist Because They Persisted

As we mourn Sr. Carmel McEnroy's death, we gratefully remember her work by carrying on her legacy. Far from giving in to sin, as a baptized people we resolve to change the structures where sin manifests and limits the effectiveness of our collective work for Gospel.

Long before Vatican II, women were at the center of our salvation history. From Mary Magdala to Mary of the Magnificat, from Deacon Phoebe to prophet Catherine of Siena, women have shaped the very path of faith we navigate and hold dear today.

McEnroy illuminated and preserved the memory of prophetic women like Mary Luke Tobin, Pilar Bellosimo, Rosemary Goldie and others who, in their day, sought to overcome the limits of patriarchy by showing up in the aula, on commissions, and at the coffee bars, speaking their truth.

Women will not attain the fullness of our baptismal promise by waiting for churchmen to act. Like so many women witnesses who went before us, we must use our voices in the service of the Gospel -- a radical legacy that calls us to confront the sin of sexism whereever it is found and claim our heritage as God's ministers and leaders engaging all God's people in the ministries to which they are called.

As we move forward, we seek to build up movements like Maria 2.0 that originated in Germany, Votes for Catholic Women, and other efforts that confont the injustices that still permeate the institution, calling it to accountability and new forms of inclusion.

In the spirit of McEnroy, Tobin, Goldie, Bellosimo and others, we cannot fail.

Deborah Rose-Milavec

Sources for this blog:

MacMillan, Elaine Catherine. "The Women Drafters of Gaudium et Spes" at https://cushwa.nd.edu/publications/american-catholic-studies-newsletter/spring-2016-newsletter/in-memory-of-them/.

McEnroy, Carmel. Guests in their Own House: The Women of Vatican II. New York: Crossroad Publishing. 1996.

Rose-Milavec, Deborah. "Vatican II: Women Were There and They Made a Difference". Paper presented at DVK Theological Conference, Bangalore, India. 2012.

Sailer, Gudrun. "Women at Vatican II: Surprising Women! Surprising Council!" at https://www.vaticannews.va/en/vatican-city/news/2019-06/second-vatican-council-women-regina-heyder.html.

Valerio, Adriana. Madri del Concilio: Ventitré Donne al VaticanoII. Rome: Carochi editore, S.p.A., 2012.