After the festive opening of the Vatican Council in October of 1962 I sought to share my excitement and hope with a friend who, like me, was a graduate student in theology. To my great shock she looked at me over her glasses and replied,' 'I am not interested in what a bunch of old men will have to say; it will not have any significance for me but will just re-assert their power and repeat their condemnations." At the time I could not comprehend her unwillingness to expect any good to result for women from the council. The council seemed to prove her wrong. The bishops who gathered in Rome took seriously Pope John XXIII's vision of a "pastoral" council that would not condemn but would encourage; that would "open the windows" so that fresh air -- the Spirit of life -- could blow through the church; that would set free the church's energies for advancing God's reign of truth and justice, love and peace. The past twenty years proved that these were not just lofty words, but that they were acted upon by countless Catholics, especially by women who have come to experience a new self-identity as women and as church. While the council taught us to value our human and Christian dignity and rights, the women's liberation movement enabled us to act upon them. As we reflected upon our own experiences as women engaged in the struggle for liberation, we developed a feminist theological perspective that recognized domination and dehumanization in any form as structural evil and personal sin.
However, in view of the repressive actions in recent years against theologians of the first and third world, against clergy and nuns in politics, the ban of girls from the altar and of women from preaching, the investigation of bishops; the punitive reaction of SCRIS (Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes) against the nun-signers of the New York Times ad, the institution of the Marshall commission to investigate seminaries and theological schools especially with respect to women as students, faculty, and spiritual directors, and countless other attempts to silence responsible dissent in the church, I often wonder whether my friend might have been right after all and I might have been wrong all along. For many women committed to the renewal of the church, excitement seems to be turning into disillusion; hope is endangered by despair. The silent' 'exodus" of women from active participation in the Roman Catholic church will continue if the coming synod does not recognize that the hierarchy, especially in the Vatican bureaucracy, has failed to implement the teaching of the council on human rights and dignity within the institution of the church.
Liberation theology has reminded us that history and its interpretation is written by the historical winners. Since women will have no voice in the reinterpretation of the council at the synod, it is important to write our own interpretation of the council's impulse and reception among the people of God who are women. Although the last twenty years were a period of struggle, women have most faithfully sought to put into praxis the spirit of the council for the benefit of the whole church. To be sure, this would not have happened if the women's liberation movement and if the conciliar movement for the renewal of the church had not coincided. Women’s struggle for the renewal of the church in the spirit of the Gospel strengthened women's struggle in society for justice and truth, and vice versa.
Already before the council Pope John recognized that women's struggle for justice and wholeness ought to be recognized by the church. In his encyclical Pacem in Terris the pope remarked that "the signs of our times" are: the economic and social advancement of the working classes, the equality of colonial peoples and races, and the participation of women in public life. The more we women become conscious of our human dignity, the more we must claim the rights and duties which accord with this dignity as human persons. Just as women and men suffering from the evil of racism must claim their rights as signs of their dignity, so all women must insist that others have the duty to recognize and value women's rights.