In Memory of Them

The Women Drafters of Gaudium et Spes

by Elaine Catherine MacMillan

Hwr1Mother Suzanne Guillemin, D.C., then-Superioress General of the Daughters of Charity, with other auditors, including Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, S.L. (Photo: Fotografia Pontificia Giordani/Fotografia Felici,Rome)

Catholic women made Church history during 1965. From January to December that year lay women, both single and vowed religious, worked diligently on the drafting commissions and sub-commissions of Gaudium et Spes. References to their participation can be found in footnotes to standard histories and commentaries of Vatican II, and they are also represented in Carmel McEnroy’s book Guests in Their Own House: The Women of Vatican II, as well as by their own memoirs and writings. But the stories of these women risk remaining a footnote to Church history if we do not remember them by name or remember what they contributed to the Council. The purpose of this article is to remember three of the women “auditors,” Pilar Bellosillo, Rosemary Goldie, and Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., who participated on the drafting commissions that prepared Gaudium et Spes for the last session of the Council. The work of these women on Gaudium et Spes also influenced the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.

Who Were the Women Drafters?

Space does not permit full consideration of all the women who worked as drafters of Gaudium et Spes. I’ve chosen Bellosillo, Goldie, and Tobin because these three repeatedly found themselves in the “inner circle” of drafters and translators of the text throughout 1965. Bellosillo, a Spaniard and physician by training, was, at the time of the Council, president (1961–’74) of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Associations (WUCWO) an organization then numbering approximately 36 million Catholic women worldwide. Goldie, an Australian by birth, was the executive secretary of the Comitato Permanente dei Congressi Internazionali per l’Apostolato dei Laici (COPECIAL) from 1958–’67. Of the three, Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., remains the best known to Catholics in the United States. Tobin was the superior general of the Sisters of Loretto during the Council and had been recently elected president of the then Conference of Major Religious Superiors of Women’s Institutes of America—now the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Hwr2Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., seated next to Rosemary Goldie during a meeting of the Church in the Modern World drafting commission (Photo: The Loretto Heritage Center Archives)

Strong bonds developed between the women who arrived during the third session of the Council. As 1965 progressed and they were immersed in the work of the Council, these bonds deepened. Goldie and Tobin, for example, spoke highly of each other in interviews granted after the Council. In many ways there were greater affinities between the laywomen Goldie and Bellosillo, and Tobin, a sister, than there were between Tobin and the other sisters at the Council. For this, Tobin credits her community’s general chapter in 1964. It prepared her for the work of the Council just as Goldie’s work on COPECIAL and Bellosillo’s work with WUCWO had prepared them.

All the women had to have a strong sense of humor. None of these three heard about their formal invitations to the Council through regular channels. Bellosillo’s hairdresser broke the news to her. Tobin was already crossing the Atlantic, mandated to hang out in the halls of the Vatican and learn what she could, when a reporter informed her that she’d been invited. And Goldie, though living and working in Rome, received her invitation shortly before the Vatican made the formal announcement that women would be invited to the third and fourth sessions. Tobin’s irrepressible humor surfaced immediately upon arriving in Rome. When she went to receive her credential to attend conciliar sessions she was told that she could attend “sessions of interest to women.” “Hmmm,” she said, “I’ll go to all of them!” And she did.

Hwr3Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L. (center) and Rosemary Goldie (far right, in profile) with other women auditors at Vatican II (Photo: The Loretto Heritage Center Archives)

The women also needed a sense of humor to weather slights such as clergy who shielded their eyes to avoid having eye contact with them and men who refused to share their coffee bar with them. A coffee bar had to be hastily created for the women after Tobin, at the invitation of two male auditors, took her first coffee break with the men. For the remainder of the Council the women were segregated at their own coffee bar, which they, tongue in cheek, called the “Bar None” to distinguish it from the all male “Bar Jonah” and “Bar Abbas.” Though the Swiss Guard ensured that the women did not breach the bounds of the male coffee bars, some brave men chose spend their coffee time at the “Bar None.”

Many of the women auditors had been influenced by the Catholic Action movement, which, in the pre-conciliar days, had provided them with a strong sense of their role in the apostolic mission of the Church. They did not let slights such as these daunt or dissuade them. Robert McAfee Brown, a Protestant observer at the Council who was known for his limericks, penned an ode for Tobin that could easily be applied to all the women. “And if the Curia thought that Sister Mary Luke would remain obscurely docile/ It just shows how little they understood her conception of what it means to be an apostle.” These women were not going to squander their opportunity to contribute to the work of the Council.

From Auditors to Drafters

How did these women, who were invited as “auditors” to the Council, end up contributing to the commissions and sub-commissions of Gaudium et Spes? The participation of these women on the drafting commissions was not assured by any means. According to Tobin, while some bishops appreciated the presence of women at the Council, most were indifferent and ignored them. Others were openly hostile. Archbishop Ildebrando Antoniutti, Prefect of the Congregation for Religious, exemplified this hostility toward the women.

In Guests in Their Own House, McEnroy tells the story of how Antoniutti refused to allow women religious to participate in the drafting of The Decree on the Adaptation and Renewal of Religious Life: he told them, “You may try again at the Fourth Vatican Council.”

The women’s key ally with respect to Gaudium et Spes was Bernard Haring, the Redemptorist moral theologian. He lived up to his nickname, “Haring the Daring,” when, in his capacity as coordinating secretary for the Central Commission, he personally invited six of the women auditors (Bellosillo, Goldie, Tobin, Marie Monnet, Marie Vendrik, and Suzanne Guillemin, D.C.) to participate in a drafting session between January 31 and February 6, 1965. All six women showed up, along with 30 council fathers, 49 periti and 10 male auditors. Haring’s risk paid off. None of the bishops objected—or dared object—to the presence of the women and, according to Haring, the women made excellent contributions. They were subsequently much sought after for participation on numerous drafting commissions for Gaudium et Spes and other conciliar documents. Of the six invited to theJanuary 31 meeting, Goldie, Tobin, and Bellosillo were invited to return the following week (February 8–13, 1965) and meet with members of the Central Sub-commission and the presidents of the sub-commissions. From this point on, these three women were part of the inner circle of the drafting and translating commissions of Gaudium et Spes for the remainder of 1965.

Women’s Contributions to Gaudium et Spes

Reflecting on the women’s contributions to Gaudium et Spes, Bellosillo argues that the women were, in many ways, better positioned than the bishops to discuss the Church in the Modern World. As leaders of global organizations, the women had an understanding of the universal Church and the Church in the modern world in a way that the bishops at the time did not. As the novelty of having women on the commissions and sub-commission wore off, the bishops began to recognize and accept the women as experts in this area. Bellosillo recounts that bishops asked her repeatedly, “How do you answer the call of Gaudium et Spes in the world?” As with any multi-authored text like Gaudium et Spes, it’s difficult to tease out the explicit contributions of the women auditors. Nonetheless, we can piece together from various sources at least three significant contributions.

First, the women resisted any Council statements that would either strictly limit or poetically define women’s roles in society and the Church. In the 2012 video The Faithful Revolution Vatican II: Inspired Awakening, Tobin recalls Goldie’s response to Yves Congar when he proposed what he thought was a flattering and positive passage about women: “Père Congar, I appreciate your efforts to say something nice about women. You can leave out all those flowers and compliments—Women want only one thing. They want to be considered as, and treated accordingly, as the true members of the Church that they are, the true human persons they are in the Church. Nothing else will satisfy them.”

Tobin argues that this response should be engraved in gold for all eternity.

Bellosillo was equally impatient with the poetic and flowery language used by well-intentioned men at the Council to describe women and equally vocal in stating her displeasure. “That imagery has nothing to do with the reality women live,” she said in McEnroy’s Guests in Their Own House. “This kind of language detached from life puts woman on a pedestal instead of on the same level as man . . . This does woman a disservice because it does not take seriously her equal dignity and humanity.”

Tobin resisted special consideration for women because she interpreted it as undermining women’s membership in the Church. At the end of the Council, when women were brought out onto the stage and honored for their contributions to the Church, Tobin interpreted it as yet another example of women being treated as a “category” in the Church rather than recognizing women as Church.

Second, the discussions by and about women found in Gaudium et Spes would have an impact on the development of the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, especially no 9. 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.” It is, however, not always as easy as this to determine which woman contributed which statements to Gaudium et Spes. Suffice it to say that without their presence on the commissions, and their input during the drafting, the document would have been very different.

A third contribution is found in Gaudium et Spes no. 90, another paragraph in which Goldie takes special pride. This paragraph discusses the role of Christians in international institutions—a topic on which these women were experts. Goldie argues that this passage laid the foundation for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Justice and Peace.

During the final drafting and translating of Gaudium et Spes between October and December 1965, Goldie describes the feverish conditions under which the drafters worked. As a member of the translation teams she and others had to ensure that each translation was consistent, one with the other and each with the Latin. As a result the women’s influence on the content of the final text diminished.

A Historical Curiosity? Remembering Women at Vatican II

One particular incident at the end of the Council must have come as a blow to the women. Having weathered slights when they first arrived at the Council, they had to do so again at the end. All the auditors had chosen Bellosillo to publicly thank Pope Paul VI for inviting them to the Council. But when they asked permission for Bellosillo to do so, they were told that it was premature for a woman to speak in the Council, and their request was denied. With this incident, the women auditors confronted what they had been able to ignore, albeit briefly, during the drafting of Gaudium et Spes. They had been invited to the Council as auditors/listeners and left the Council as such. But, throughout 1965, they did much more than listen—they spoke, and they helped shape Gaudium et Spes and other Council documents. They deserve to be remembered for this.

Rosemary Goldie closed her article on lay participation at the Council by voicing her concern that women’s participation at the Council will be remembered as little more than a historical curiosity. To ensure that the contributions of the women auditors at Vatican II are remembered as more than that, I invite you to keep alive the memory of their presence at the Council and their contributions to Gaudium et Spes and to do so “in memory of them.”


Elaine MacMillan teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. Our thanks to Eleanor Craig and Matteo Binasco for photo research.

This article appeared in the History of Women Religious section of the Spring 2016 American Catholic Studies Newsletter