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.