The women auditors at the Second Vatican Council

Vat II002

This article is taken from the Pontifical Council for the Laity newsletter "Notiziario"

Here we continue our description of the presence of lay auditors at the Second Vatican Council with documentation contained in the archives of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. In the first article, we briefly spoke of the lay auditors, women and men. Now we shall concentrate our attention on the women who were present.

At the second session of the Council which was held towards the end of 1963, on 22 October, Cardinal Leo Josef Suenens, Archbishop of Malines-Bruxelles, gave one of the most applauded speeches. Words of appreciation can also be found in our archives. He spoke about the laity and the gifts of grace and the charisms they have received, and he placed particular emphasis on the charisms that are proper to women. He called for an increase in the number of lay auditors (who at the time were 13 men), and to include women who “make up half of humanity”.

Throughout that session, others made the same request. As the time approached for the opening of the third session, the media began to hypothesise and raise hopes that there would be a larger number of lay auditors and that there would be women. Their hypotheses proved to be true in the end. Pope Paul VI, a few days before the opening of the third session, when speaking to a group of religious sisters, announced that he had decided to invite some women as auditors.

When we read the words spoken by Paul VI on that occasion, we see what a great innovation this decision brought to the Council. The Pope announced it with joy: “We have disposed that some qualified and devout women should assist, as auditors, at many solemn rites and many general congregations at the forthcoming third session of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council; at those congregations, we say, that contain issues for discussion that might particularly be of interest for women’s lives” (Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, 8 September 1964). It is interesting to note that there were no restrictions actually made to the participation of the women. They were not prevented from attending any of the congregations. They always attended them all and not only those that were directly concerned with the lives of women.

Who were these women auditors? In 1964 nine religious sisters were nominated, most of them being superior generals of their institutes, and some of them being leaders in international unions of women religious. They were: Costantina Baldinucci (Italy), Claudia Feddish (United States), Cristina Estrada (Spain), Marie Henriette Ghanem (Lebanon), Mary Luke Tobin (United States), Marie de la Croix Khouzam (Egypt), Sabine de Valon (France), Juliana Thomas (Germany), Suzanne Guillemin (France). In 1965 these were joined by Jerome M. Chimy (Canada). In 1964, eight lay women were nominated. Of these, six were single and two were war widows. The six single women held leadership roles in international lay associations. They were: Pilar Belosillo (Spain), Rosemary Goldie (Australia), Marie-Louise Monnet (France), Anne Marie Roeloffzen (Netherlands), Alda Micheli (Italy), Amalia Dematteis Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo (Italy), Ida Marenghi Grillo (Italy). In 1965 they were joined by Margarita Moyano Llerena (Argentina), Gladys Parentelli (Uruguay) Gertrud Ehrle (Germany), Hedwig von Skoda (Switzerland) and a married couple: José and Luz María Álvarez Icaza (Mexico).

The first to enter the council hall on 25 September 1964 was the French lay woman Marie-Louise Monnet, the founder of the International Movement of Apostolate in the Independent Social Milieus (MIAMSI). Over the next few days she was followed by others as they gradually arrived in Rome after their nomination was announced. At first their presence caused surprise, and perhaps even inconvenience for some, but they were mostly welcomed as an interesting innovation. They tell of how some of the council fathers greeted them when they were addressing the Council. They addressed them as carissimae sorores… For the first few days they attracted the attention of press photographers and headlines all over the world. Then, as time passed, the female presence became normal, an integral part of the Council sessions.

The contribution of the women auditors was particularly significant in the commissions that had to draw up the decree on the apostolate of the laity. This text was called “Schema XIII”, and it was to become the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. The story of the two documents reached a crucial moment during the final “intersession”, that is, between the closing of the third session in December 1964 and the opening of the fourth in September 1965. Both documents had been presented during the third session and received major criticisms and clarifications. In the early part of 1965, various commissions and sub-commissions met to discuss the points and make the necessary changes. For this they consulted many lay people beyond those in the official group of auditors.

It is also important to point out that the auditors were asked several times to speak during the plenary assemblies of the Council during both the third and the fourth sessions, as we already mentioned in the previous article. However, notwithstanding the insistence of some of the auditors that women should be able to speak, this did not happen. In the testimonies that are kept in our archives, there is a mention of an unnamed authority who said that the request was “premature”. Perhaps, in that context, this step may have given rise to more surprise than benefits.

The archive documents left by the women auditors allow us to see that the positions of some of them became somewhat radicalised after the Council. They supported reforms that were quite different from those indicated by the Council, and centred more on what Pope Benedict XVI would call “the hermeneutic of discontinuity” (Address to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005). For example, some of the women auditors would support women’s ordination. The documentation available to us is not sufficient to follow how that process came about. However, we can sense that in the years immediately following Vatican II, some of these women had a change of perspective which caused them to lose sight of the essential, that which does not change in a time of many innovations. “The substance of ancient doctrine, the depositum fidei”, is not subject to reform (cf. John XXIII, Address on the solemn inauguration of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 1962). From the tone of what the auditors wrote, perhaps we can perceive an attitude of excessive openness to the world, somewhat uncritical, and at the same time too superficially critical of traditional institutions. Nevertheless, on the whole, their participation at the Council was certainly very positive. They were an instrument of the Holy Spirit in sustaining conciliar renewal and in making us more aware of the importance of women and men working together, and hierarchy and laity, in the mission of the Church.

To conclude, we would like to quote what Rosemary Goldie said when she was asked by a journalist, shortly after the closing of the Council, what impressed her most when she first entered the council hall. She answered: “My first impression? I remember it very well. I entered Saint Peter’s Basilica by passing through the Porta Santa Marta. That entrance leads directly to the Blessed Sacrament chapel. When I entered, I saw a large number of bishops on their knees praying. This made a deep impression on me. The Council is mostly about the prayer of the bishops ... is that not true? It is a strange combination of almost liturgical solemnity and familiar simplicity, especially when the bishops leave their places to go to the bar for a coffee” (Interview with Rosemary Goldie, from the archives of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, No date. French original). In something she wrote concerning the contribution of the women auditors, she made the observation that the most important thing, beyond the specific contribution of individual women to the debate or the drawing up of the text, was how the female presence at the Council began as something extraordinary and new and very quickly became totally normal. She saw the presence of women auditors at the Council to be an expression of the renewed self-awareness that the Church was acquiring (cf. R. Goldie, An Auditor at the Council, in: Direction: National Magazine for Adult Sodalists, St Louis Missouri, April-May 1965, p. 27).

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