Last weekend, I attended a conference at the Gannon Center at Loyola University in Chicago. The conference, “Still Guests in Our Own House? Women and the Church since Vatican II,” looked at women and the church and explored just how much their 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. Plus, I had never been to Loyola Chicago. My very talented sister-in-law, Diane, also decided to go to the conference and we had a Girls Take on Chicago Weekend. What’s not to like? So, I braved a theology conference.
The conference began on Friday night with a keynote address from M. Shawn Copeland. Copeland’s presentation set a very good tone for the next day. We heard about the gender and racial disparity in Catholic theology and what we might think about to, well, do better. 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 set the tone by asking why did women’s ordination matter when the millennial generation of women were not showing up to church (I paraphrase…)? Cummings is a historian, while Copeland is a theologian. And there was the running joke of the next twenty-four hours. “I’m just a historian, but…”
Some highlights for me 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, to have conservative and liberal voices hear one another. Mary Henold 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 who found Vatican II removed their voice within the Church. Henold’s paper, “Does Anyone Miss the Junior Catholic Daughters?: Assessing the Response of Laywomen’s Fraternal Organizations to the Second Vatican Council” was for me, the Best Paper of the Conference. But, I am just a historian…. As is Henold who wrote the very important book about Catholic women and feminism. However, besides the keynote, 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 do we mean by Vatican II and why, why, why do we only think about it in Western context. Yes, why?
There were other panels and other presenters, like Jill Peterfeso and Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and Jeanine Viau‘s paper “Not Guests, Still Handmaids: An Analysis of Catholic Feminist Vocations after Vatican II” that were, well, dynamic.
Ultimately, an important question, however, is 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 traditional throwbacks to the nineteenth century?
There is more to understand and learn from this conference. That is for another day and another post! Stay tuned.