Conference Recap

“Still Guests In Our Own House? Women and the Church Since Vatican II” 

Conference Recap by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

In November the Gannon Center at Loyola University in Chicago hosted “Still Guests In Our Own House? Women and the Church Since Vatican II,” a conference that looked at women, the Church, Catholic theology, and explored how much women’s lives have changed since the Second Vatican Council.

This conference was first and foremost a theology conference. As a historian of American Catholic women, I have a particular interest in Vatican II and how women’s lives changed. Vatican II factored heavily into my book about the Chicago Sisters of Mercy. I went to learn more context and consider an enlarged perspective of this period of recent women’s history.

The conference began on Friday night with a keynote address from M. Shawn Copeland, whose presentation on gender and racial disparities in Catholic theology, as well as how we might do better on both fronts, set the tone for the next day. Kathleen Sprows Cummings responded to Copeland’s talk and gave a different type of context, one that challenged our thinking both generationally and historically. Copeland and Cummings asked: Why does women’s ordination matter when declining numbers of millennial women attend church at all? Cummings is a historian, while Copeland is a theologian. This difference in discipline enlivened the discussion that followed with the audience.

Some highlights from the conference were Emily Sammon’s paper, “Womanhood in the Church: Natural Ideal, Theological Decoration, or Unacknowledged Reality?” Sammon challenged her audience to engage in open dialogue with the Church, and to have conservative and liberal voices hear one another. Mary Henold, with her paper “Does Anyone Miss the Junior Catholic Daughters?: Assessing the Response of Laywomen’s Fraternal Organizations to the Second Vatican Council,” pushed her audience to consider what happens when women lose their access to a “pulpit” (voice), as in the case of the Catholic Daughters of America. Other dynamic presentations included Jill Peterfeso on the Roman Catholic Womenpriests group and Jeanine Viau, who presented the paper, “Not Guests, Still Handmaids: An Analysis of Catholic Feminist Vocations after Vatican II.” 

Many papers challenged those present to consider the development of Catholic theology since Vatican II, pushing at the place of women in the discipline of theology itself. For that reason, the most challenging panel was the last one I heard, “Doing Catholic Theology in a Multigenerational Context of Women” and more specifically, Susan Abraham’s paper “Mentoring (in)hospitable Places: Collegiality in Catholic Academic Contexts.” Abraham asked her audience to think hard about what we mean when we say “Vatican II,” and whether we think about it only in a Western context. Her questions were difficult and went unanswered.

Where exactly do women fit within the Catholic Church? That’s a big question. Is the challenge to the traditional church purely a liberal/feminist one? What happens when there are no options for laywomen outside traditionalist throwbacks to the 19th century? Most conference participants were academically minded people studying theology. Some attendees, however, had more pastoral questions at the forefront of their work. While the conference provided much food for thought, it did not explore where women fit within Catholic ministry, nor did it raise the question of how theology feeds ministry. Henold’s paper about the Catholic Daughters who lost their pulpit springs to mind. How is the Catholic Church making room for women’s voices and how are Catholic women claiming space in that house?

Mary Beth Fraser Connolly is a lecturer in history at Purdue University North Central.

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