The ‘other half’ of the Church

As you may have guessed from the headline this article addresses the subject of women and Vatican II. If Church statistics are reliable, it should in fact more accurately say, “The majority of the Church”, since it seems that in almost all places the vast majority of active Catholic laity are women.


“…in Apostolicam Actuositatem lay people without regard to gender were called to be evangelisers in the “apostolate of like towards like”.

While it is important, particularly in these times, to celebrate Vatican II, it would be remiss of me not to point out its gaps.

These gaps are not surprising, given that while a few women were observers at the Council after the first session, there were no women periti advising the bishops—let alone, of course, women priests or bishops. Despite this, I suggest, the Council was, within its limitations, good news for women.

We have mentioned already the Council’s universal call to holiness (chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium), which emphasised that all are called to holiness, and implied that this was something universal: priest or lay, man or woman, important or unimportant, advantaged or disadvantaged.

Women, who are in the vast majority lay, disadvantaged and unimportant (at least according to those who hold power in our thoroughly unequal world) are seen by the Council as equally called to holiness, equally able, in theory at least, to be saints.

In its teaching on the laity, too, the Council implicitly affirmed women.  Sacrosanctum Consilium, in affirming that all the people of God participated in the liturgy, did not distinguish between lay men and women in its claim. It is normal today for women to serve as ushers, lectors and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist at Mass, and increasingly we see female altar servers.

That this has become more or less normal practice is illustrated by the following story.

I recall with delight an incident I observed in a London parish where the altar boys told the parish priest that if the visiting conservative celebrant objected to altar girls, they would be unavoidably unavailable to serve his Mass. To his credit, the visitor graciously acceded to the norms of the parish.

With regard to public life and the role of the laity, the Council (particularly in Gaudium et Spes) makes no gender distinctions. It simply says that the proper role of the laity in politics and business is to bring the moral insights of their faith into these sectors.

This goes even further: in Apostolicam Actuositatem lay people without regard to gender were called to be evangelisers in the “apostolate of like towards like”.

Indeed, given that this decree calls on laity to actively preach the Gospel in their contexts, one might infer that women are called to preach the Word to other women and men wherever and whenever the opportunity arises.


Of course, the most frequent references we think of with regard to women and the Church come in the parts of Gaudium et Spes relating to the family (47-52). Here the idea of the family as the basic unit of the Church is emphasised, as is the care of children and their nurturance in the faith.

Though this may seem quite “traditional” and even patriarchal, we should note that the vision of the Council regarding husband and wife is one primarily of partnership in rearing children.

While the issue of artificial birth control was removed from the Council’s deliberations, even the most ardent defender of the Pill would be at least a little dishonest to say that the Church’s subsequent teaching was wholly anti-women.

The availability of such birth control has given many men the idea that women are “fair game”, sexual objects rather than human subjects in their own right, and shifted the “responsibility” for managing conception unjustly on to women alone.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Council is that it did not devote a decree to women, though given the lack of women at the Council one suspects that it would not have been a particularly insightful document.

Subsequent papal and Church documents on women have affirmed most of what the Council taught implicitly about women, but they have been frequently criticised for what many women perceive as a kind of “essentialism”: women are primarily wives and mothers, nurturers of children, no matter how much the Church affirms their leadership roles in society.

One area never discussed at the Council, and currently prohibited from debate in Church circles, is the ordination of women. While there were rumblings over it before and after the Council—from the St Joan’s International Alliance and in some of the writings of St Thérèse of Liseux (who deeply desired to be a priest, so much so that she is a “patron” of women’s ordination movements)—it became a “hot issue” only from the 1970s onwards.

Currently the official debate has been suppressed. The official line is: it’s theologically impossible (though this was disputed by many theologians) and not to be discussed (which means, it seems, that everyone has an opinion, however ill-informed, but does not express it). Critics of the Vatican see this as a sign that the official line lacks substance—which, ironically, we can neither affirm nor refute.

This issue casts a damper over the many good things the Church has to say about women. Despite the fact that the majority of active Catholics are women—many of whom have no strong feelings on women’s ordination or in fact oppose it—and despite the good things the Council said about women, the Catholic Church is frequently perceived as hopelessly patriarchal and irredeemably sexist.

Our challenge is to discern what can we do about that.

  • P Hunt

    I find Fr Egan’s insight into the role that women play in keeping Catholicism alive, a relief and refreshingly honest.

    However, I am afraid that his insight would be completely lost on this latest Pope who is probably a reincarnation of Saul of Tarsus, who liked nothing better than to murder Jews and keep women at heel. By the way, latest research indicates he (Saul, I mean) may have been instrumental in the murder of St Peter.

    Saul has been responsible for so much pain and cruelty in society, and the excuse the Catholic Church has used for centuries to keep economic power in the hands of the men in the Church.

    What is forgotten , of course, is the following:

    1. Christian theology is essentially a feminine perspective on life
    2. Christ had to be born a male during that period of history in order to be taken seriously
    3. Christ appeared to a woman after His Resurrection – odd that……After all, are not men the superior sex? That’s why men get to drive around in ‘pope-mobiles’ and wear silky white dresses and big jewellery. Very , very ‘camp’. That’s why I have never understood the stance the Church adopts in respect of gay men. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that gay men sympathize with women, and have no desire to compete with them. They also do not subscribe to the male ideology of ‘your gang versus my gang’. They, like women, fall outside the ‘gang’, and must likewise be marginalized.
    4. Christ never once preached that women were subject to men, nor did he ever say women could not become priests. Saul was responsible for that – he was a misogynist. His views, if expressed today, would lead to his successful prosecution on the grounds of gender discrimination and hate speech, together with a long stretch of community service, which would do him the world of good. Personally, I think he was dead ugly and couldn’t find a girlfriend. His mother probably thought he was useless and told him so.
    5. Priests were allowed to marry until the Church did the maths and worked out that when a priest died, he left his property to his family, and not the See. Quite a Protestant view on life, but if priests could not have families, the new ruling was guaranteed to accumulate wealth.
    6. Nuns outnumber priests. The Church is in crisis. She (ummm) needs to ordain women in order to survive. Get over the rubbish about ‘the Apple’, guys and get real! Save your Church. Actions are what make the Church great, not a penis.
    7. All human embryos start out life as female. The injection of hormones later on in its development, changes the foetus into a male. That, of course, leads to the end of the discussion over the ‘rib’ being summarily expropriated from poor old Adam’s ribcage whilst he was fast asleep and minding his own business, after a hard night at the pub. I would imagine, however, on waking up and getting over the agony of unscheduled surgery, to find a servant to clean his extremely dirty cave and change the bandages, must have been a delight and relief. Also, no more masturbation. Mistranslations of the original Hebrew text proved expedient to old Mother Church. Pure dishonesty, trotted out as the ‘Gospel truth’. Hundreds of women were left to starve after they were disinherited overnight by the Pope – this piece of history is conveniently swept under the carpet. This evil has never been addressed or acknowledged and the Church has never apologized for its appalling behaviour.
    8.Women have always been spiritual leaders. Hence the Irish refusal to let go of their Goddess, and Rome’s recognition of this fact. The Mother Goddess was hurriedly re-registered at Home Affairs, as ‘Mary’.
    9. Women are more suited to celibate life. It’s biology. They are also by nature , more nurturing. They actually care about what happens and don’t run around pillaging and raping and dropping nuclear bombs. They also don’t fill goals to nearly the same extent as men do. i know this is a generalization, but on the whole, it is true.
    8. So, being more logical that us ‘flighty’ women, surely the logical conclusion would be to ordain women. After all, you guys will soon have literally nothing left to lose – other than the fat bank balance in Rome, the priceless paintings, gold etc. Being more spiritual than women, ( if we apply current doctrine a la Rome), wouldn’t be nice to be able to liquidate some of those useless assets and do things like setting up schools, hospitals and the like – you know, good old fashioned Catholic things, that actually make us ‘Catholic’?

    I have been watching with great amusement, our ‘Holy’ Father’s horror at what he perceives as a direct challenge to his omnipotence from the very nuns that educated me, the Sisters of Mercy.

    It is clear this man has absolutely no idea who he is dealing with. In a carefully worded press release, the nuns have told him that after thinking long and hard about it, they don’t agree with his views on gays and sex. His response? He’s appointed three Bishops to step in and take control of these disobedient girls. i nearly died laughing.

    Well, all I can say is ‘good luck to you’, old boy. I do hope you don’t destroy the Church in your ‘jihad’.