Conference looks at women and church since Vatican II

by Heidi Schlumpf

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Are women in the church still “guests in their own house?” Yes. And no.

At a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, presenters both celebrated the accomplishments of women in the church during the past five decades and lamented that women continue to face many of the same discrimination and limitations.

“How difficult a world our church can be--not impossible, but difficult, very difficult,” keynote speaker M. Shawn Copeland, professor of theology at Boston College, said in the conference’s opening remarks Friday, Nov. 6, at Loyola University Chicago.

Combining poetry, scripture and personal and theological reflection, Copeland described how women often find themselves “wounded by friends in their own house,” particularly when it comes to the issue of ordination to the priesthood.

Nothing short of a change in “horizons,” or worldviews, is necessary to fix the impasse between the episcopal magisterium and Catholic feminists, Copeland said. But she said she remains hopeful, quoting poet Adrienne Rich: “A wild patience has taken us this far.”

Some 150 attendees at the two-day conference admitted to varying degrees of patience. Some celebrated the contributions of women, from women religious who pastor priest-less parishes to the unsung women who contributed to the writing of the Vatican II document on the church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes.

Other presentations documented less celebratory trends, from a declining number of women on seminary faculties to the lack of implementation of “Decree 14,” a solidly feminist document that came out of the Jesuit general congregation meeting in 1995.

The nearly 30 presentations by women and men from more than a dozen universities covered topics from women in music and medicine, to the realities of women’s bodies. Some of the most inspiring presenters were young women, including a panel of four Loyola students who shared why they stay in the church despite the challenges of doing so.

Elizabeth Sextro, a senior at Loyola, gave a paper about the challenge of patriarchal language. “Just last year, I learned that God is not ‘he,’” she said, lamenting that other models of God are “not given the space to thrive.”

Exclusively male imagery for God, Sextro said, was not only boring but denied God’s mystery. It also overemphasized the role of certitude in faith, instead of recognizing that faith involves openness to questions. In the end, she said, “we are enticed by what we do not know about God.”

The conference was sponsored by Loyola’s Gannon Center for Women and Leadership, its history and theology departments, the Institute for Pastoral Studies, Catholic Studies Program, two endowed chairs and the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage.  

“This conference was my dream because I was changed by the Second Vatican Council,” said Kathleen Maas Weigert, the Carolyn Farrell, BVM, Professor of Women and Leadership, one of the conference organizers.

The conference took its theme, “Still Guests in Our Own House?” from the 1996 book by Mercy Sister Carmel E. McEnroy, “Guests in Their Own House,” which told the story of the 23 women auditors of Vatican II. McEnroy, who had been on the faculty at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, was fired in 1995 after signing a letter asking Pope John Paul II to consider opening ordination to women.



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