“Women’s Experiences” and Sacramental Theology

As the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of Vatican II approaches, I have been asked to reflect on developments in sacramental theology and practice with an emphasis on the practices of women – and that in the worldwide church no less. This obviously is a daunting task. To begin with, there are more than 600 million women around the globe who self-identify as Roman Catholic. These women form, for the most part, a silent majority in the life of the church; we are able to hear their voices only through multiple mediations. Moreover, Roman Catholic women worldwide have as many different experiences and visions of sacramental life as there are individual women; 2 X chromosomes simply do not suffice to establish globally shared “women’s experiences.” Finally, the theological, ecclesial, and cultural developments of the last 50 years – especially as they pertain to women – have been quite complex, and anything but linear.

So much for the difficulties. Here are some of the joys of my research: First, I have been able to read and re-read much about Roman Catholic women in the mid-twentieth century. What a spirited, diverse, and committed group of women is visible. I have appreciated anew, for example, the life and work of Christine Mohrmann, the famous Dutch scholar of ecclesial Latin, who was at the height of her scholarly powers as Vatican II opened. I have looked again at the women auditors at Vatican II and at what propelled them to prominence in the Catholic Church of their time. And I have thought back into my own childhood, remembering how in my parish church we were given little prayer leaflets, with a photos of the pope and of the council in session, and a prayer for the Holy Spirit to move in this gathered assembly. I was convinced, as a six-year-old, that my prayers contributed mightily to the council.

And then, after Vatican II, there are the dramatically changing lives of women developing together with substantial changes in liturgical practice. Once again, a complex picture emerges. Not all liturgical changes spelled positive change in women’s lives. And some sacramental practices become particularly contested sites in ecclesial life after Vatican II (e.g., questions about altar girls, women’s ordinations, struggles with language, feminist visions of sacramental theology).

One fact seems clear, namely that women who after Vatican II entered the world of scholarly theological conversation for the most part did not find “sacraments” a subject that garnered their passion and interest. I am taking a new look at the reasons for this.

I am also reading broadly about contemporary women and their “different temporalities of struggle,” both in the worldwide church and in the global village we inhabit. I keep thinking about the roughly 160 million women who (statistically) should be here, but who are not – due to son preference and selective abortions, female infanticide, abuse, and neglect. In a world where 2 X chromosomes can spell such danger to one’s very existence, I want to re-think sacraments and sacramentality with the flourishing of all, particularly the most vulnerable, in mind.

And I would be very interested in any thoughts any of the readers of this blog might have on the vast subject I am thinking through.


  1. This is a great project, Teresa! Christine Mohrmann is indeed very important. Liturgical historians ought to be considered too. One thought I had in response to your comment about sacramental theology is that it would be a good idea to look at the catechetical movement of the twentieth century. There were women who were deeply influential in how the sacraments are experienced; they were original thinkers who thought deeply about sacraments but did it from the vantage point of pastoral/catechetical work. I am thinking of the enormous influence of Christianne Brusselmans and Sophia Cavalletti — who were very much interpreters of the liturgical (and scriptural!) revival and sacramental praxis flowing from the Council. In adult catechesis, the field has grown, and women are important in this area; liturgy is now considered integral to it (see the GDC). Many women have contributed to this dimension. Good luck with the project!

    1. This is very helpful, Rita. Obviously, women were and continue to be enormously influential in sacramental formation; they have not been as influential in the writings of sacramental theology itself.

  2. I remember reading Carmel E. McEnroy’s Guests in their Own House, The Women of Vatican II. I don’t think much has improved since John XXIII and Paul VI…
    You are right, so much has been written, explored, tried. Many of us have left the Roman Catholic Church and many of us are barely hanging on at the margins, waiting for the great Pendulum to swing back, or the Holy Spirit to do some spring cleaning in our Church, open the windows, shake out the carpets, etc…
    Good luck with your research and your findings.

  3. Sacramental? Does that include the Liturgy of the Hours? Or are we going to have another fight about who does what and what occurs at the only hour of the week which seems to matter to many people at this blog?

    As someone whose Divine Office is nourished in public only by the local Orthodox Church, I would like to assemble on Saturday and/or Sunday evenings with a ecumenical group of laity who draw their Divine Office from the Anglican, Byzantine, and Roman traditions. The celebration would employ a monastic baptismally equal model rather than the cathedral hierarchal orders model. Clergy would be welcome but would have to check their collars at the door, and could do only what the lay leadership allowed them (cf. the Rule of Benedict).

    Afterwards there would be an opportunity for fellowship that would be centered around important issues of Christian life in the world (jobs and family) but not congregations.

    I am firmly convinced that Vatican II was a call of the laity to exercise our baptismal leadership, especially in the world, and that the call to pray daily, the Divine Office, flows from baptism not ordination.

    I have been to many FutureChurch events in this diocese, and I admire their attempt to create a more comfortable place for women than is found in the parish. Unfortunately the “spiritually” used to promote this is hardly liturgical or traditional. I went to one well attended event that emphasized “feminine spirituality.” I was almost the only guy there. While I felt very at home, an average guy who wondered in was deeply confused, disoriented, and not at home.

    The Ohio public mental health system where I workded was transformed by a group of women. They simply set out to make the system better for the mentally ill and their families, and empowered women in the process by their many good ideas and deeds. I am all for the empowerment of the Christian laity, especially in society. If women lead that, ordination will follow.

    1. You are running in open doors with me! I think one of the not-so-positive (and somewhat unintended) effects of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms has been the concentration on the Sunday Mass, with many other key liturgical celebrations, together with more popular devotions and “sacramentals” fading from view (at least in the so-called first world).

    2. Dorothy Days collaboration with Virgil Michel is evident in both the Divine Office (she was reported to the Archdiocese for having Compline) and in the integration of liturgy and social justice.

      The Catholic Worker Movement provide a rich and varied diet of spirituality (Monastic, Franciscan, Jesuit, etc) and philosophical, historical, and literary developments that cannot be found in many Catholic parishes today, or in many Catholic Colleges for that matter! The Zwicks book The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins is a very comprehensive and readable source of information on all this.

      The book has the added advantage that it does not neglect her collaboration with Peter Maurin and his role in the movement. A Day scholar once told me that Dorothy really knew how to handle men whether it was the clergy and hierarchy or the many men who collaborated with her within the Catholic Worker movement.

  4. This is interesting indeed! As a girl/woman who has lived her entire life within the post-Vatican II Church, I have often wondered what the fuss is about.

    As one now in middle age, my biggest regret is that the Church I grew up in seems so devoid of the riches of her past.

    I have never felt left-out or inconsequential. We (my daughters and I) laugh when we hear of women’s “lack of power” in the Church. It is not my experience. We cannot confect the Sacraments (and I surely would NOT include the Liturgy of the Hours in the Sacraments!) but we teach the children and the neophytes. Sometimes we teach the priests. We sing the Mass. We schedule the events. We feed the masses (not Masses). We participate in Masses. We dent the kneelers. We can give the Bishops a poke in the ribs when it’s needed. We blog our feelings and ideas. We can lead the Liturgy of the Hours and encourage its observance.

    I tend to get a little nervous when I hear about “feminine spirituality”. My experience of what often passes for feminine spirituality is being up against something that is outside Christian teaching and thought. I have never felt the need to “go there”. But of course, as a woman my spirituality is definitively feminine. Correct? I’m not sure that grouping all women together to try to figure out that spirituality does women any good. We are individuals.

    1. May I quote you, please?! — One of the problems in mapping “women’s experiences” and sacramental developments post-Vatican II, at least to me, is that a particular set of voices has received more of a hearing than voices like yours. And yet, there are many women who feel like you do. This is part of the diversity of Catholic women’s voices and experiences I was referring to.

  5. A question of fact occurs to me: Was it even possible for women to get a higher degree in Catholic sacramental theology in the 1940s or ’50s? I remember a religious sister who taught me in high school recounting how she had studied in Rome. She took all the same course work and passed all the same exams as the men, but was not given a degree because she was a woman. I forget which university it was, but it was a new concession that she was allowed to study there at all, and this was in the 1960s. I ask this question because such exclusion could be a factor in doing advanced studies in sacramental theology. Teresa mentioned “women who after Vatican II entered the world of scholarly theological conversation for the most part did not find “sacraments” a subject that garnered their passion and interest.” But could it be that their interest had been artificially suppressed by limited access to the educational institutions that would best prepare one for such work? A generation is usually needed to “break into” a discipline that was formerly closed to women. Whereas ancient languages, philosophy, and education were disciplines in which women could get higher degrees. Kim Belcher would know more, but I think women number among sacramental theologians quite frequently today. However, I do not have hard data about that, come to think of it. And I am speculating about the state of education in sacramental theology for women on the eve of the Council, so I would welcome information.

    1. As far as I know, the first PhD in liturgical studies awarded to a woman (there is no doctoral track in sacramental theology as such, it’s either in theology or liturgy) was given to Irmgard Pahl, who in 1965 defended her dissertation at the University of Munich. The point here is a broader one than, simply, the entry of female bodies into a field of scholarly inquiry traditionally linked with priestly ordination and/or a religious vocation. This entry meant access to a particular material practice, with its own scholarly protocols and possibilities, including sustained access to important libraries, academic networks, employment opportunities, and professional status and voice. I myself was the first woman who in 1991 defended her “Habilitation” (a post-doctoral degree) in liturgical studies and received the “venia legendi” for the field.

      1. “This entry meant access to a particular material practice, with its own scholarly protocols and possibilities, including sustained access to important libraries, academic networks, employment opportunities, and professional status and voice.”

        I so much agree, Teresa. And I honor you as one of our pioneers! (Interesting that we are still producing “firsts” in this realm as late as 1991…)

        There is around the time of the Council also the phenomenon of “invisible women” — who did extremely valuable work but “disappear” while the men remain famous. One of the women I am curious about, for instance, is Noele Maurice Denis-Boulet, who taught at the Institut Superieur de Liturgie de Paris (d. 1969) and wrote most of the (excellent) volume on the Eucharist for A G Martimort’s series l’Eglise en Priere. Martimort himself honors her highly in the preface: “It was to her that I had entrusted the formidable task of expounding the Mass in l’Eglise en Priere, at a time when Dom Bernard Capelle, feeling his strength decline, asked to be discharged from the work. Mme Boulet had already, in association with her husband, published a book on the Mass in which the most precise historical science was combined with personal spiritual experience–two qualities that are equally manifest in her various studies in Christian archeology.”

        Now here was someone capable to carrying on with distinction a work that had been entrusted to no less eminent a figure than B. Capelle–whose name everyone knows–and her name does not even appear on the cover of the book.

    2. Actually, Rita, at Notre Dame I was told that there were very few liturgists in sacramental theology generally who graduated with the Ph.D. between 1980 and 2010. Thus the absence of women in that time period might be symptomatic of a larger decline, if the intuition of those there is correct. There has been a great increase in interest in sacramental theology among American liturgy students recently, largely following the publication of Chauvet’s 1995 work in English. I don’t know what proportion of these students will go on to work in the field, or what proportion are women, but it would be interesting to know.

      I don’t know whether this helps you, Teresa, but I look forward to your work.

  6. When I joined the church I didn’t think much about the roles women had within it, but the longer I’ve been a Catholic, the more aware I’ve become about what seems to me to be a srcond-class citizen status of women in the church. You don’t have to go outside Catholicism to find proponents of women’s spirituality or feminism …. Sister Sandra Schneiders, a professor of BT studies at the Jesuit School of Theology has written a lot on this ubject …..

    The Effects of Women’s Experience on Their Spirituality
    Did Jesus Exclude Women from Priesthood?
    The Sisters of Mercy aren’t MacDonald’s
    Why they stay(ed)

  7. I am someone who just remembers the introduction of Vatican II and has witnessed the growth of the involvement of women within the sacramental/liturgical part of the Church. I would not deny the involvement of women in the pastoral role of the Church – without women, pastorally, the Church would collapse although the ability of the Church to recognise this is something for concern.
    The development of women in ministry was something that continued apace and then stopped dead. We have been allowed to study and the women religious have grasped the responsibility of speaking out in faith. I cannot think of any non-religious Catholic women with the same authority. remember, when the permanent diaconate for the laity was introduced, I asked my parish priest if I could be consider – fool that I was and fool that I was made to feel. The Vatican II avowal of the dignity of the vocation in the laity leaves a great deal to be desired. The work of the Sacraments is often to bless what happens in pastoral care. How often do lay people as part of their own ministry find themselves listening to confession and sharing eucharist and accepting the natural sacramentality of it – it is the Church that does not recognise it. Why study something you cannot take part in except perhaps to find ways of subverting the status quo.
    I wish I could celebrate a happy Jubilee but there is a long way to go.

  8. I endorse the suggestions above, but I hope you will also look at people like Chiara Lubich, Carmen Hernandez and even Mother Angelica. They have beenprominent in movements (Focolare, NCW and EWTN) that have a rich sacramental focus. And people like Mary Douglas who have helped us understand ritual. Edith Stein and Sr Faustina, two favorites of JP2, provide interesting insights and contrasts on how God speaks to us.

    Why do you think the sacraments did not arouse much “passion and interest” in some after Vatican II? And I guess I mean that question both ways, though I formed it wondering what motivated the post-V2 women, but I now see it can also refer to the evidence for their lack of passion.

    Oh, Dorothy Day sounds vital for your subject!

    1. Yes, the women you mention are all part of the picture! As to why “the sacraments” have not been top concerns of Catholic women theologians — I am currently mapping what I think are the reasons for that. Stay tuned; my paper will be published by the summer.

  9. Teresa, thank you for taking on this daunting research task. There are really very few RC women theologians who specialize in sacraments (don’t forget Susan A. Ross and Susan K. Wood).

    I have been struggling for years to craft a viable sacramental theology that makes women’s authority and witness fully co-normative. I’ve given papers on the topic since 2004 in the U.K., including one for the Women’s Seminar in Constructive Theology at CTSA in June 2010, entitled “Women’s Prophetic Sacramentality.” I haven’t published substantial material from these papers because the vision never seemed quite ripe.

    I do place a good deal of emphasis on women as full human persons, and on the dignity given to persons in baptism, as a theological category transcending gender. I’ve experimented with different metaphors. One of my doctoral students, a young priest, is researching the “priesthood of all the faithful” in a way that I think will contribute fruitfully to the discussion.

    And Rita, about Christiane Brusselmans: like the sister you knew, Christiane was allowed to take some theology courses at Louvain in the 1950’s, although a few professors refused to allow a woman in class. But because she was a woman she was never informed of her grades! and was never granted a degree of course. After several years she transferred to the Institut catholique in Paris, and finished her Ph.D. in Washington at the CUA in 1964.

    1. Susan, if you are still reading, I have a question for you. (And many thanks for that story about Christiane. What a world. Talk about claiming one’s vocation in the teeth of opposition!)

      Anyway, my question is this: has your research uncovered anything on the subject of women and the paschal mystery? I have long imagined there is a vital connection here, but have not come across anything explicitly devoted to this subject. I raise it because of the centrality of the paschal mystery for the liturgical reform.

      Looking at the scriptures, one sees the women at the cross and the women at the empty tomb. One reads the sociology of women’s traditionally intimate relationship to events of birth and death, etc. All this is paschal stuff. The theology of the paschal mystery would seem to be a natural place for feminist insight to emerge, but I have yet to encounter any. I am thinking that maybe, with your more extensive and long-lived engagement with the subjects you mention here, you may have discovered something more. (You can e-mail me if the answer is too long for a blog post!)

      Thank you.

  10. I am beginning to wonder whether there is not a book project emerging here, a volume in which different authors both trace some of the women who have shaped sacramental life and reflection since the Council (like the one Rita mentioned in her latest post!) and also highlight newer approaches.

    1. This could make for fascinating reading, Teresa, and contribute to the Church’s future flourishing. An idea worth thinking about, and I’m sure nothing has been done on this subject. Another pioneering effort!

      1. Rita: there actually was a little collection of essays brought out by women theologians in Germany in 1998 sub-titled something like “the sacraments in the lived lives of women” (edited by my friend Regina Ammicht-Quinn; the main title is “Kraftfelder”). But you are right that there is nothing like it in English (as far as I know).

  11. Teresa, thank you for you insights and thought provoking questions. Indeed thanks to Rita and all of the previous commenters. I’m wondering (thinking aloud really) about how the lack of reflection on women’s sacramental experience, and the seeming scarcity of women theologians laboring in the sacramental field might relate to the issues raised by Patricia Wittberg in her article “A Lost Generation?” in the new issue of America. I teach 11th grade theology in an all girls’ (Sacred Heart) school. I’ve been discussing the Wittberg article with my students for the last 2 days trying to gain their perspective on ways I may be dropping the ball in their pastoral care at the micro level, and why the Church isn’t reaching them at the macro level. The bottom line seems to be that we won’t be able to foster the next generation of women in sacramental theology if we are running out of young women approaching the sacraments at all.

    1. I apppreciate you pointing out this essay, which I just read. It is always good to have concrete evidence and figures for what is happening on the ground, and I applaud your discussion of this essay iwth your students. Your “bottom line” undoubtedly is true — the question remains how to display for young women (as well as young men, together with everybody else) that their own lives’ flourishing is linked to a vision of faith and the Gospel, lived in the church.

  12. This is a great conversation! I hope it continues in print! Teresa, I have students read your chapter in the Oxford history in my courses on worship precisely because of the problem you’ve identified in this thread and that Paul and others have illustrated. I look forward to your work, because I want all of my students to find themselves IN the conversation rather than feeling like outsiders looking in. Historically the field has been dominated by men working in a scholastic mode. If the scholasticism has waned since the council, women’s experience is still hidden. But, as Kim points out, a new conversation is growing in sacramental theology as more doctorates in the field are completed. That conversation has very different methodological commitments, much of them deriving from Chauvet’s foundational work. I think Margaret Kelleher’s contribution to your research would be significant, especially her foundational methodological studies of liturgy as an ecclesial act of meaning.

    1. Thank you for your input and also for the words of encouragement. From this thread I have realized that the blogosphere is a valuable site for thinking through some of these issues, in community.

  13. To Rita on Feb 14th, “Anyway, my question is this: has your research uncovered anything on the subject of women and the paschal mystery?”

    This is a crucial question for the credibility of Christian belief. Keep in mind that while women were present on the implementation layer, so to speak, of the Liturgical Movement, we were hardly present at all on the theological layer and would not have been taken seriously.

    Then too, we now have a body of research on the concept of sacrifice beginning with anthropologist Nancy Jay (+1991) demonstrating that in religions that practice sacrifice or retain a sacrificial theology in their ritual(s), overwhelmingly it is males who practice sacrifice to affirm patrilineality. Women are entirely excluded because sacrifice is, in Jay’s words, “the remedy for having been born of woman.” Chapter 8 of her Throughout Your Generations Forever (1992) applies this to the Eucharist.

    Christiane of course was known not only as a pioneer sacramental catechist but a prominent implementer of the RCIA. Yet very little in her work points to the paschal mystery as such. In our posthumous Festschrift for Christiane, Mary Grey writes, “The eucharistic theme which Christiane Brusselmans called ‘Thanks for new life’ means exactly that: that the life which sprang from the Cross event–the murder of an innocent man–is the atonement seen as birthgiving, creating new and just forms of life, by rejecting all that is necrophilic or death-dealing, and embodying right relation in history. Thus, far from rejecting atonement, we liberate the whole process of Christ’s reconciliation from association with a wrathful God … reclaiming sacrifice, not as the death of a rightful sense of self, but as a voluntary living out of ideals in the service of the Kingdom of God.” (The Candles Are Still Burning, 1995, pp 9-10)

    [and see my next comment]

  14. And further regarding women and the paschal mystery: theology is not only thought, but done, and lived.

    My favorite locus theologicus for developing a woman-friendly theology of the death and resurrection of Christ has been the biennial Triduum retreat organized by Women Word Spirit (formerly the Catholic Women’s Network in the U.K.) at Noddfa Centre near Conwy, Wales.

    Here’s one example: 2001 was the year of a terrible outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain. TV news reports across the world showed huge burning pyres of dead sheep and cattle, destroyed by government order to prevent the spread of disease, and sobbing farmers grieving not only their livelihood but the loss of innocent animal life. We were able to integrate that powerful imagery into our outdoor Stations of the Cross walk on Good Friday. On the vibrant green hillside beyond, young lambs bleated to us from behind signs that read DANGER: QUARANTINE.

    As the years went on we learned better how to image “resurrection” from women’s perspectives. Relevant images of death and suffering were easy to find in the growing number of “Christa” art pieces on both sides of the Atlantic. But what would resurrection mean for a woman in her particularity? One time I intoned the Exultet from the 1998 Missal around the Paschal fire (and you didn’t think anyone had set it to music?), and participants heard its startlingly beautiful and balanced poetry for the first time. This past year the retreat made good use of the new theological work being done by Nicola Slee on resurrection and women’s bodies.

    Of course none of this work makes sense if women are seen as just a subdivision of “man” or “mankind.” One’s starting point must always be the full human personhood of women, women as active subject not merely receptive object, and the responsible moral agency of women in every sphere.

  15. Great discussion of an important topic. For me it all boils down to one question: are women created in the divine image and fully redeemed in Christ? If so, why discriminate when it comes to the sacrament of orders? In a highly clericalized Church, where only lip-service is paid to the centrality of Baptism and the Eucharist, the barring of women who experience a call to the presbyterate from having those vocations tested is just a form of sacralized sexism. There is no evidence that Jesus segregated his disciples based on gender, and it remains instructive that the first witnesses to his identity as Messiah and to his resurrection were both women. We wring every drop we can out of the Last Supper accounts and bend over backward to proclaim that Jesus “ordained” only men, yet the bare-faced fact of the stories of women in the Gospels and in the early church are simply ignored or re-imagined or diluted to suit the age-old interpretation that suits the male-dominated institution. Jesus didn’t ordain anyone; women as well as men participated in the fullness of discipleship and ministry; women were not baptized or initiated into the Church differently from the way men were; the prayer of women in the name of the community is just as pleasing to God as is the prayer of men. While not a fan of most of her theology, RR Ruether was correct: either ordain women or stop baptizing them. For me this is a simple matter of truth and justice and fidelity to the doctrines of Creation and Redemption…there are also practical, “utilitarian” reasons, including the growing irrelevance of the Church to so many young people, including and especially young women, who have a hard time figuring out why any institution should discriminate against them in such a far-reaching way…the skewed way in which the Church’s teachings on the dignity of life and sexuality are presented because of the absence of authoritative women’s voices…and so on.

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