The signs of the times: whose reading counts? Gaudium et Spes 40 years on

This is the third in our series featuring the 40-year-old document of Vatican II which has arguably the most impact on the laity. This month Elizabeth Julian rsm explores what the document has meant for women in the church.

Elizabeth Julian

I was in my final year at primary school in Palmerston North when Gaudium et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World was promulgated in 1965. I don’t remember it. I was too caught up in being able to see properly. I had just got glasses and what a difference they made. What had been blurry now came into sharp focus. I wasn’t at all concerned with ‘reading the signs of the times and interpreting them in the light of the Gospel’ (GS #4) – the great call of this document to the Catholic Church.

Forty years later, my sight aided by bifocal contacts sometimes enhanced by reading glasses, I view the world through a Pakeha feminist lens. I try to ‘read the signs of the times’ with the Gospel in one hand and the newspaper in the other. As a Catholic woman in a country where women feature prominently in many leadership roles, I find myself reading certain signs very differently from the way the institutional church sees them. As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this historic document, I’d like to explain the mixed message I find in it.

It was Pope John XXIII who, in 1963, two years before Gaudium et Spes, urged us to ‘read the signs of the times’. One of the signs he identified referred specifically to women:

[I]t is obvious to everyone that women are now taking a part in public life. This is happening more rapidly perhaps in nations with a Christian tradition, and more slowly, but broadly, among people who have inherited other traditions or cultures. Since women are becoming ever more conscious of their human dignity, they will not tolerate being treated as inanimate objects or mere instruments, but claim both in domestic and public life, the rights and duties that befit a human person (Pacem in Terris: Peace on Earth (PT) #41).

The pope made no mention of women’s claim to equality in the Church, nor did he state that the Church or men were becoming aware of women’s human dignity – it was only women themselves. However, from the time of this document onwards, papal teaching has continued to emphasise the importance of participation in the decision-making processes of society for all human beings, describing it as a basic human right. This of course raises the question: Are basic rights not valid in the church?

The pope acknowledged that in the context of the family men and women have equal rights and duties:

Human beings have in addition the right to choose freely the state in life which they prefer. They therefore have the right to set up a family, with equal rights and duties for man and woman, and also the right to follow a vocation to the priesthood and religious life (#15).

While it would seem here that the pope is willing to re-examine traditional roles for women, this is only so to a certain extent because women are in fact denied the right to follow a vocation to the priesthood. The Vatican refuses to accept ordination as a ‘right’ in spite of PT #15. The Vatican continues to argue today that it is not denying a right because no right exists. Thus women and men have equal human rights but women’s rights are circumscribed by their nature in a way that men’s rights are not.

Vatican II made only five specific references to women, four of them in Gaudium et Spes. The first time women are mentioned it is in relation to a perceived problem:

As for the family, discord results from demographic, economic, and social pressures, or from difficulties which arise between succeeding generations, or from new social relationships between men and women (#8).

This section is headed ‘Imbalances in the Modern World’! This language and thinking reflects the way changes brought about by the increase in women’s consciousness are interpreted. A specific reference to women, however, continues to this day to give hope to many women who remain in the church. It is a prophetic statement:

Nevertheless, with respect to the fundamental rights of the person, every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent. For in truth it must still be regretted that fundamental personal rights are not being universally honored. Such is the case of a woman who is denied the right and freedom to choose a husband, to embrace a state of life, or to acquire an education or cultural benefits equal to those recognized for men (#29).

The theological term today for ‘contrary to God’s intent’ is sin. What the council taught is that discrimination against women on account of their sex is sinful. Furthermore, the actual example used by the bishops to illustrate the violation of human rights is that of a woman. Perhaps the bishops were very clear in their own minds as to what they were actually saying, ie, that women must be free to embrace a chosen state of life. This statement is, however, hardly consistent with the fact that the same church forbids women’s priestly ordination. The inconsistency is understood more easily when we realise that in the same year as Gaudium et Spes was issued, Paul VI said in an address to women that justice for them ‘did not consist in banal assimilation of your life into a masculine life-style’ but it was to be found instead in the ‘elevation of your femininity’ in a way that would complement the lives of men.

Here we are confronted with the dualistic theology of complementarity which pervades so much official church teaching today. The difficulty with complementarity is, as Sandra Schneiders explains, that women have been seen to complete men in the way that a second coat of paint completes a house, while men have been seen to complete women in the way that a motor completes a car. That is, women are additional or decorative rather than essential.

The next time women are mentioned in Gaudium et Spes, no differences in the actual activities of men and women are cited. Could they be the same?

For while providing the substance of life for themselves and their families, men and women are performing their activities in a way which appropriately benefits society (#34).

The answer is given in the negative several paragraphs later:

The children, especially the younger among them, need the care of their mother at home. This domestic role of hers must be safely preserved, though the legitimate social progress of women should not be underrated on that account (#52).

Women’s activities are to be found in the home. At the same time, this statement from the section on culture recognises the mutual responsibility of men and women:

In every group or nation, there is an ever-increasing number of men and women who are conscious that they themselves are the artisans and the authors of the culture of their community (#55).

In the following section we are again faced with the issue of women’s ‘special nature’:

Women are now employed in almost every area of life. It is appropriate that they should be able to assume their full proper role in accordance with their own nature. Everyone should acknowledge and favour the proper and necessary participation of women in cultural life (#60) (italics added).

Women’s nature, and therefore presumably their rights consistent with that nature, are different from men’s nature and rights. The concept is one of dual human nature: there is human nature which is equated with men’s nature and then there is women’s nature. The male is the norm.

It can be argued that Gaudium et Spes is a positive and optimistic document, with its encouragement of dialogue with the modern world, its vision of the human person made in the image of God, and its insistence on human solidarity, freedom, responsibility, vocation and destiny.

However, until church teaching today actually heeds the prophetic and courageous statement found in #29 above, Catholic women in Aotearoa New Zealand will continue to wonder who ‘reads the signs of the times’ and whose reading counts.