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Lecture discusses NCCW, Vatican II

Jillian Barwick | Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mary J. Henold, associate professor of history at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, gave a lecture at Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night titled “Teaching Vatican II: How Change Reached the Woman in the Pew.”

Henold is also an author whose first book is centered on Catholic feminists in America. Her next publication, which is in the works, is about the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), the Feminist Movement and the Second Vatican Council.

“I can’t speak definitively about all lay women,” Henold said. “The women in pews are much too diverse.”

Since her research has been based on the NCCW, Henold has found that Catholic laywomen have been viewed as the “least important” people in the Church. Women expected to be excluded from the liturgy and priesthood, she said.

“Why discuss the reality of the Church if half of the Church is not here?” she said.

Henold noted that the Second Vatican Council charged these laywomen to become more active about their roles within the Church.

“These women coached themselves – they knew something monumental was emerging,” Henold said. “The people who go down in history are always the loved ones, but what about those who weren’t so obnoxious [about their opinions]?”

While it did not become a feminist movement for these women, Henold emphasized that they “flirted with feminism without claiming it.”

“They were quiet agents in the army of Christ,” she said.

Henold noted that bishops studied laywomen who were claiming their right to leadership in the Church.

“These persons were possessing full dignity,” Henold said. “Their identity won’t be submerged by roles as a wife and motherhood.”

Organizations like Catholic Daughters of America (CDA) and Daughters of Isabella (DI) began to emerge for women at the turn of the 20th century, Henold said.

“CDA and DI even had secret passwords for its members,” she said. “They had crazy customs and pageantries as well. They shredded ideological diversities.”

Laywomen in these groups were constantly warned of impending doom and a “spiritual black death,” Henold said.

“They operated on words of fear and threat,” she said. “They looked to the future to see loss and feared change.”

Paradoxically, obedience to these groups and those around them gained them power and elevated their status in the Church, Henold said.

“It was like an episode of ‘Mad Men;’ the Catholic women in the 1950s and 60s doted on the priests,” she said. “There was an awkwardness of celibate clergy and married women working in close proximity, but with a mutual admiration.

“The world was on the verge of a moral and spiritual death,” Henold said. “Women were responsible for saving it. They were the silent but active form in Church affairs.”

The implementation of Vatican II was spotty at first and women in the pew received mixed messages, Henold said.

“Loyal women judged the spirit of Vatican II and chose for themselves the degree of their transformation,” she said. “These laywomen were the middle of the road people. The more educated they were, the more radical.”