Vatican II and the Report of the Task Force on the Role of Women in the Church of Southeast Wisconsin

In November 1982, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee issued a report submitted to him by a Task Force he had established to examine the role of women in the Church in Southeast Wisconsin. The Task Force, composed of sisters, priests, and laypeople, reported on “Listening Sessions,” held throughout the diocese, and on their own opinions and recommendations.

The following discussion was submitted in March 1983 to the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and was rejected. It was carefully written to exclude any more than a few statements of opinion, as the Archbishop had written that “we are not in a contest.” At this point, however, it is fair to note that although Archbishop Weakland noted the report’s conflict with Church practice and teaching on one point (it favors the ordination of women), he evidently found too inoffensive for comment a quite distinct feature of the report, its systematic misrepresentation of the teaching of Vatican II regarding the permanence of the hierarchy, its nature, the function of the priest, and much more.

It will occur to any charitable person that if the Task Force’s interpretation of Vatican II is amiss, the error is honest. This is a kind thought.

The reader can judge for himself why none of the Task Force’s citations of the “vision” of Vatican II is anchored to a quotation from the Council, or why the Task Force so favors woolly expressions like “focused on,” “based in,” and “marked by.” He might also note, for what it is worth, that in these few paragraphs it happens that the Task Force never uses the words “faith,” “charity,” “teaching,” “governing,” “sanctifying,” or “sacred,” while the Council never uses the words “vision,” “role,” or “equal.”

The Task Force writes: “Pre-Vatican II theology focused on the Church as an institution with a strongly centralized authority based in Holy Orders and arranged in a hierarchical structure (pope, bishops, priests, religious, laity). With the advent of the Council, this vision gave way to one which focused on the Church as the People of God, a community based in the sacrament of Baptism whose members embody different roles and responsibilities in an interaction marked by participation, collegiality, and mutuality.” (These and all other italics added.)

Elsewhere, the Task Force says: “In the present structure of the Catholic Church final decision-making power at parish and diocesan levels rests exclusively with persons ordained to the priesthood and to the episcopacy . . . . . Thus, while Vatican Il’s theological vision of Church as People of God is inclusive, in fact Church life is still given direction by a centralized system of authority based in Holy Orders and arranged in hierarchical manner.”

Also: “(T)here is a widespread need for formation which will allow Church members’ attitudes to catch up with Vatican II’s vision of Church as People of God. Laity and clergy alike need help in altering attitudes which assign full or even chief responsibility for the Church to members of the clergy.”

The Task Force also writes: “Some women view the official Church as not only lagging behind society in its perception of women but also as failing its own vision as expressed in the documents of Vatican II. They observe that, in reality, full and equal participation in decision-making, liturgical and ministerial roles is limited to all-male clergy and that, although Vatican II defined the Church primarily as the People of God, in fact attitudes and practices are still primarily based in the sacrament of Holy Orders and not in the sacrament of Baptism.”

In these paragraphs, the Task Force indicates:

a) that the present hierarchical nature of Church authority is inconsistent with Vatican II’s notion of the Church as the People of God; and

b) that some women the Task Force heard believe that Vatican II taught that governing and liturgical functions should be fully and equally shared by all the People of God, not distinguished between the laity and those in Orders.

In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican II began with a statement that it wished to repeat all of the teaching of Vatican I concerning the Papacy: “(Jesus) placed Peter over the other apostles, and instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and fellowship. And all this teaching (of Vatican I) about the institution, the perpetuity, the force and reason for the sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible teaching authority, this sacred Synod (Vatican II) again proposes to be firmly believed by all the faithful . . . (The Pope’s infallible) definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly styled irreformable . . . (T)hey need no approval of others, nor do they allow an appeal to any other judgment.”

In the same Constitution, in the chapter called “The Hierarchical Structure of the Church, with Special Reference to the Episcopate,” the Council taught that “the order of bishops is the successor to the college of the apostles in teaching authority and pastoral rule; or rather, in the episcopal order the apostolic body continues without a break.”

The Council also said: “(E)piscopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the offices of teaching and of governing. (These however, of their very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.) . . . (T)he college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is simultaneously conceived of in terms of its head, the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, and without any lessening of his power of primacy over all, pastors as well as the general faithful. For in virtue of his office . . . the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme, and universal power over the Church. And he can always exercise this power freely.”

Concerning priests, the Council said: “By the power of the sacrament of orders, and in the image of Christ the eternal High Priest, they are consecrated to preach the gospel, shepherd the faithful, and celebrate divine worship as true priests of the New Testament.”

In these documents, the Council taught that some in the Church do have a special office or function which flows directly from their reception of Holy Orders, not from Baptism alone or from the consent of the laity. This function, according to the Council, while distinct from the membership in the People of God which is shared by all the baptized, is not inconsistent or in conflict with it. The Council emphasized the role of the laity in a new way, by emphasizing the different roles of the laity and the hierarchy as members of the People of God.

Because this is not a debate about the opinions of the Task Force, there is no danger of disagreement or conflict. In reflecting on the words of the Task Force and the Council together, there can be only an increase in unity and increased understanding of what the Council intended.

Some women whom the Task Force listened to (quoted above) expressed concern because there is not, in the Church today, “full and equal” participation in all liturgical roles. Two facts were objected to:

a) that only those in Holy Orders can preside at the Eucharist;

b) that only men receive Holy Orders.

These facts were said to show that the Church is failing to live up to the vision of Vatican II. The Task Force shares these women’s opinion, for it recommends that liturgical roles be more equally shared between those who have and those who have not received Holy Orders. And the Task Force shares the views of women who wish to be ordained, for it refers to them as wishing to take “their rightful place,” and later directly proposes that ordination be offered to women.

The Task Force also writes: “The two central liturgical roles, that is, the proclamation of the gospel and presiding at the Eucharistic table, are always reserved for persons who have received the sacrament of Orders which, according to present Church practice, means they are always reserved for men. The poverty of this practice and its potential psychological damage were mentioned time and time again during the Listening process.”

Regarding the distinctions of liturgical functions, the Council spoke directly, as in the passage on the function of priests, quoted above. Its statements are too many to quote fully, but two other passages make the Council’s teaching clear:

In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “Norms Drawn from the Hierarchic and Communal Nature of the Liturgy,” the Council said that “liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern individual members of the Church in different ways, according to the diversity of holy orders, functions, and degrees of participation.”

In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Council said: “Though they differ from one another in essence and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated. Each of them in its own special way is a participation in the one priesthood of Christ. The ministerial priest, by the sacred power he enjoys, molds and rules the priestly people. Acting in the person of Christ, he brings about the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and offers it to God in the name of all the people. For their part, the faithful join in the offering of the Eucharist by virtue of their royal priesthood. They likewise exercise that priesthood by receiving the sacraments, by prayer and thanksgiving, by the witness of a holy life, and by self-denial and active charity.”

Thus, it is clear that the Church’s present practice conforms to the vision of Vatican II. The Council taught that the laity and those in Orders participate, not equally, but to different degrees, in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and that their participation also differs in kind. Only those in Holy Orders exercise a ministerial, hierarchical priesthood, in union with their priesthood shared by all others in the People of God.

The separate subject of the possible ordination of women is a controversial one, and the Council was silent on this question. Therefore nothing can be said about it here. But all can agree that only those who understand and assent to the Council’s teaching on Holy Orders can engage in a fruitful discussion of further questions about Holy Orders.

There are other areas of concern which the Council’s words can shed light on, even though the Task Force did not mention the Council in connection with them. Regarding liturgical language, the Task Force again quoted the women who expressed the belief that present liturgical practices fail to implement the teaching of Vatican II: “Women who shared with the Task Force expressed gratitude for Archbishop Weakland’s leadership in removing the word ‘men’ from the official prayer of consecration. However, it was pointed out that some liturgical leaders (priests — VF) fail to recognize and apply the principle involved in such a change. While they omit the reference to `men’ in that one particular instance, they proceed to use non-inclusive language in the rest of the liturgy.”

Vatican II spoke specifically on this subject, in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (section 22): “Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop . . . Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.”

The women who expressed the fear that these priests were not faithful to the teaching of the Council were needlessly anxious. The Task Force notes the suffering these women feel. Charity clearly requires that when the Task Force, or any Catholic, encounters such needless suffering, efforts should be made to clarify that these priests are obeying the Council.

Regarding the language of the liturgy, the Council also said: “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” The Council also said: “(S)teps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

The women the Task Force listened to will certainly continue to be concerned that the desires of the Council regarding the liturgy will be implemented in the parishes of the diocese.

It has been eighteen years since the Council ended. The bishops at Vatican II wished to renew the Church, and gave special attention to pastoral matters. The documents present much of their teaching in direct quotations from Scripture, and are written without difficult theological jargon. Catholics who are concerned with renewing the life of the Church today will find much in the Council’s words to clarify their reflections and their efforts in that direction.

  • Vincent Fitzpatrick

    J. Vincent Fitzpatrick was with the Nestle Coordination Center of Nutrition, Inc. when this article was published in 1983.

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