The changing World of Woman : 1972

The changing World of Woman : 1972

Foreward by Ethne Kennedy,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 9-18.

KENNEDY, S. Ethne SH. Diploma Magisterii (Sacred Studies), Regina Mundi, 1965; MA, Loyola Pastoral Institute, 1972. Involved since 1968 in diocesan and national sisters movements, chairman NAWR.

For centuries woman accepted, more or less without questioning, the roles given to her by society. Traditionally she was mother, home-maker, nurse, educator of youth, guardian of the aged, symbol of the human “ideal” as contrasted to the “real,” i.e. man. In recent times, however, woman has experienced increasing dissatisfaction with this role identification. Knowing herself to be someone, to be other than a network of relations to and functions for those around her, woman during the past fifty years at least has been openly resisting, ignoring, latterly attacking the pressures of society to make her conform.

Woman has begun to liberate herself from artificial restrictions in view of mature personal development and mature interaction in society. Woman knows herself capable of more responsibility for and involvement in shaping the world and the future of humanity. She is aware that changing her role identification will bring about a major change in man’s identification. She is not surprised, then, to encounter a general and profound (often unconscious) resistance to this change among men; even many women fear its responsibility. For statistically, with the coming of age of woman, man finds himself member of a minority, since women comprise 51 percent of the world’s population.

Nevertheless, woman cannot deny that she intuits herself as someone meaningful not only to such restricted societies as the family but to society at large. Society tells woman that she is an excellent value communicator. From her questioning stance, she now counters, “Why then am I not equally capable of discerning and articulating values, of collaborating with men as a peer?” “Have I not also talents for decision-making?”

Look at another specialty of woman, i.e. her sensitivity in religious matters. Today woman finds more problems than compliments in man’s attitude. For if woman is more religious than man, why is man (even young boys) more appropriate to worship ceremonies, why must woman enter the sanctuary as an invader? How explain the fact that the Church (and churches) have so few women visible in official roles?

In April 1972 in a report to the National Council of Churches, the United Presbyterian Church stated that of 103 ordained women 29 are not yet placed, and the majority hold lesser jobs than do men in ministry. A survey of Sisters Councils, made just prior to the National Assembly’s 1972 convention, could not report one woman, religious or lay, participating in a diaconate program with any commitment to future ministry. Yet women are known to have applied and to be preparing for eventual service.

In the Catholic Church of the U.S. today, women religious more than double the combined total of priests and religious brothers in church service. According to Kenedy’s 1971 Official Catholic Directory, there are 153,645 sisters as compared to 58,161 priests (diocesan and religious) and 10,156 brothers. Considering the investment of women in the working Church, one wonders how church officials can realistically question whether or not society is ready for women in pastoral ministry. Would not a more reasonable response be, “How can we prepare society for full participation of women in every area and on every level?” A gloomy reflection might even be: “How much longer will women tolerate such oppression in the community of Jesus Christ?”

This shift from a “why” to a “why not” is perhaps the most hopeful sign of change in the world of woman. Women are consciously moving from dependency to independence, emotionally as well as intellectually, and a lead group is trying to initiate interdependence. Woman’s liberation at its deepest level is human liberation, responsible growth for man and woman; for so long as any human person is not free, every human being is to some extent enslaved. It should be a cause of excitement among believers to see emerge from the total flesh of humanity a yearning for what religious intuition confided to Judeo-Christian tradition (at least as we know it) in the early chapters of Genesis, i.e. that the Creator having made them male and female saw that they were very good. When man is able to ratify this respect of the Creator for every living being, the Kingdom may be present in history as never before.

Where is the woman of the Church in this process of man’s growing consciousness of woman’s personhood and social power? To speak as an American sister, remembering past history, one must admit with certain awe, “She’s up front pushing,” as she listens to a few bishops, priests, lay men and women say, “Keep pushing.”

How is it that religious find themselves in the role of facilitator for renewal in the Church, agitating for social justice in the Church and a more human face of Christ toward the world? How is it that women religious are initiating dialogue in the Church with regard to new dimensions of ministry? To respond I would like to discuss briefly in this Foreword two aspects of contemporary religious experience: 1. the phenomenon of sisters coming together in national groups designed to direct church action toward renewal and service; 2. the discovery and sharing of professional competence of sisters in inter-community fashion.

1. Sisters Uniting. For years the American sister lived within the domain and concerns of her own religious congregation. Communities knew about one another more often from refectory reading concerned with foundresses than from personal contact and collaboration.

The first means of inter-community action was due to the formation in 1952 of the Sisters Formation Conference, which aimed at assuring that sisters were professionally prepared for their tasks. In 1956, at the suggestion of the Congregation for Religious, the Conference of Major Superiors of Women came into existence and held its first national meeting. Latecomer to this group of organizations occupied with the health and maintenance of the body corporate is the National Vocation Conference, established in 1967, which has in these latter days become a force for bringing together both young and retiring in a renewed vision of religious life.

Generally speaking, the rank and file sister met her peer in other congregations either at Sister Formation colleges or at summer institutes or through membership in professional societies, e.g. National Catholic Education Association, Catholic Hospital Association, etc. While these groups gave some sense of setting professional policies, rarely did a sister have the satisfaction of pulling her weight, even when sisters greatly outnumbered masculine members. Tokenism was the most women religious could hope for.

In the mid-1960’s movement along diocesan lines began to emerge. The Sisters Council (or Senate or Conference or Association), patterned on the Priests Senate, came into being. In 1963 Kansas City, Mo. appears to have established the first. By 1968, when the first national meeting of sisters was convoked by the Sisters Advisory Council of Portland, Me., there were approximately a dozen groups which could be identified.

This meeting at Portland drew some 400 sisters from the U.S. and Canada. If some questioned the participation of so many sisters as mere listeners, all credited Portland with starting something and voted unanimously for a second meeting and for research into the feasibility of a national organization of sisters. The second meeting, held in Chicago in May 1968, attracted 1500 sisters from 41 states. By the time the resolution was passed unanimously, approving the establishment of what became the National Assembly of Women Religious, two national organizations were underway. A social action forum at the Chicago convention identified several hundred sisters interested in an organization preoccupied with social justice now. In response the National Coalition of American Nuns was launched through Trans-Sister in July 1969.Not until April 19, 1970 did the National Assembly of Women Religious present itself for approval to the 2000 sisters attending the third national meeting of sisters. By acclamation NAWR became a reality, a complexus of individual members, diocesan councils and other sister organizations.

Movement among rank-and-file American sisters has not stopped here. Other national groups include the Association of Contemplative Sisters, the National Black Sisters Conference and Las Hermanas, a grouping of Spanish-speaking sisters, each of which has specific membership determined by the restricted life-style or mission to which members feel called. Sisters have not been slow to see the advantage of effective communications and so in February 1971 there came into existence Sisters Uniting, an enabling group representing six of the national groups (LCWR, NSFC, NVC, NCAN, NAWR and ACS) and sharing information with NBSC and LH at their request. To complete this survey one must mention the Consortium Perfectae Caritatis, described as “a fellowship among Major Superiors of Women Religious Institutes in the United States of America.” Until dialogue is established with other sister groups, CPC can only be indentified as a communication mechanism for those religious who wish to preserve the traditional forms of religious life.

Sisters Uniting is an attempt by American sisters to model pluralism in today’s world by acknowledging the autonomy and raison d’ etre of diverse, complementary organizations. Since there are more than 150,000 sisters in the U.S., women with a wide variety of gifts and styles for action, it appears wise to resist the temptation to unify sisters In an umbrella-type supergroup. Thus Sisters Uniting has the appeal of collegiality in this post-Vatican II era as it works toward a system of effective, inexpensive (as regards personnel and money) communications.

2. Inter-Community Collaboration. The phenomenon of sisters coming together to share faith, competence, ability to project a future by initiating a process toward more meaningful involvement in the Church and world has had several notable results. Sisters today are far more aware of their identity as “women of the Church” than when they were described as Sisters of Charity, of Mercy, of St. Francis or St. Dominic, etc., much as they venerate their foundresses and founders. Sisters today are more at ease in making demands of one another’s time, expertise, support. Sisters today are more conscious of the unexplored potential within them, and sensitive to the fact that the majority as women and as women religious need one another’s support to work through their negative self-concept. At least this has been the experience of those sisters who, on diocesan and/or national levels, have been propelled by a sense of mission beyond the confines of cloister.

Since 1970, when the National Assembly became officially part of the U.S. sisters’ movement, NAWR has become a clearinghouse for data regarding sisters. In September 1970 it issued its first publication, Probe: what are sisters thinking? Within eight months Probe had collected and processed information from sisters on religious life, education, the Church in the city, new roles for women in the Church, and peace. Between 1970 and 1972, in the process of identifying the specialization and interest of its members (4600 individual sisters in 1970, 3000 sisters in 1971), NAWR has facilitated committee action and foresees the possibility of special-interest caucuses at future national meetings. Noting the concerns of regional NAWR meetings is an effective means of discerning trends, e.g. the shift of emphasis from education to pastoral ministry between 1970 and 1971.

Women in Ministry: a sisters’ view grew out of the expressed concern and experience of sisters in Denver, Kansas City, Detroit, Toledo, New Orleans and elsewhere that new forms of pastoral service were “happening” while no one seemed to know exactly why or how or where it would all be going. In February 1971, a Committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America, reporting to the Bishops Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, raised the question of the changing role of women in society and the ancient tradition of women deaconnesses. NAWR at its Denver Assembly two months later addressed a resolution to the American bishops that the diacon-ate for women be restored in the Church. In June a group of women theologians spent two weeks at Milwaukee’s Research Center on Women to reflect on questions women might raise in theology and directions theology might take were women theologizing with men. These are merely highlights from discussions that have taken place in the U.S., Europe and throughout the world.

The 1971 World Synod of Bishops gave world-wide coverage to the lively discussion on woman In civil and ecclesiastical society, an item not on the original agenda. During the discussion of the Relatio on Ministerial Priesthood, Archbishop Plourde spoke for the Canadian Conference in calling attention to the omission of priestly ministries for women. Cardinal George Flahiff, several days later, classified as sociological rather than theological the Interpretations of scripture which have stood traditionally in the way of the ordination of woman to the priesthood.

During the debate on Justice and Peace, Archbishop Leo C. Byrne intervened on the part of the American hierarchy to denounce all discrimination against woman in civil and ecclesiastical law and custom. Seconding Cardinal Flahiff’s recommendation that the Pope establish an international, mixed commission to study the role of women, the chairman of the NCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women In the Church and Society made his own strong appeal to local episcopal conferences. To achieve justice in the Church regarding women, Archbishop Byrne proposed: 1. that every conference undertake serious studies of national culture, church law and practice, to eliminate all forms of infringement on women’s rights in civil and ecclesiastical life; 2. that the Church recognize the dignity of woman and her Christian self-understanding In its attitudes toward sex, marriage, family planning, etc.; 3. that the Church seek to give woman greater representation and more meaningful participation in the liturgy, Church activities and organizations, etc.

Women in Ministry: a sisters’ view is a first statement, by way of response to this public dialogue concerning status and roles for women. The book was conceived, written and assembled in the space of four months because of a shared intuition that “now is the hour.” Its editor is deeply grateful to each contributor: to Rev. Jan Kerkhof S.J. for permission to reprint Pro Mundi Vita’s report on the movement of women in Church and Society as experienced in the world at large; to Bishop Walter J. Schoenheer of Detroit, for a pastor’s vision of women in church service; to the nine sisters who contributed their points of view on ministry, which express their varied experiences of life. Together, they provide the reader with sufficient insights and questions to stir her/his imagination and forestall hasty conclusions.

Women in Ministry: a sisters’ view as book and fact responds to a deep concern of the women observers at the Synod, i.e. that women might be swifter to speak about rights than to accept a freedom which carries with it such social responsibility. Included in these chapters are reports of two workshops, one involving women theologians and another women in pastoral ministry; each group was brought together by some who felt the need for corporate reflection and initiated the process. Women in Ministry will achieve its goal if it stimulates a process among religious women, lay and women religious, which leads to deeper understanding of the service women may render to the Church and more meaningful partnership of women and men in the work of hastening the Kingdom.


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