Sister Mary Luke Tobin had a look in her eyes I don’t see often enough. She was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. I mention her in my book, God’s Patient Pursuit of My Soul. She was a friend of the famous monk, Thomas Merton, who gave a few lectures to novices and visited the infirmary at her convent once the doors between her Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Kentucky and the Trappist Abbey in Gethsemani – 13 miles away – opened in 1959. She handed me some of the notes she typed up from his talks at her convent and I included my favorites in my book.
Merton’s writings on racism, the Vietnam war, and the possibility of nuclear holocaust helped shape Tobin into an antiwar activist; an international lecturer against rising militarism; and an advocate for justice, peace and human rights around the world. She once walked into a Honeywell annual meeting with a plowshare.
Feisty. Fearless. What’s not to like?
Like many of our wise elders in the United States, Sister Mary Luke Tobin told quite a few stories about some pretty amazing
experiences. This is the first in a series of facts and opinions she shared in her own words about the role of women in the Catholic Church. We need more voices like hers.
Find out what they’re saying about women.
“Nineteen sixty-four was an exciting time to be a part of the Catholic Church. Pope John XXIII had invited a new openness to the modern world, one that many other theologians and workers in the church sensed was long overdue. My own religious community was ready for such openness. Vatican II probably would have been a disappointment for many of us had it not moved in the direction it did.
“But then John XXIII died before the Council ended. Pope Paul VI carried on to the end. In the meantime, the members of the LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) thought that I should go over to Rome to find out what was happening at the Council. The executive committee said,
“Go over and listen. Find out what you can. Find out what they’re saying about religious communities. Find out what they’re saying about women.”
“I had no idea that I’d be officially invited until I got over there, Mary Luke Tobin continues. “The organizers had chosen 15 women—seven laywomen and eight women from religious communities, including myself—who were already in leadership positions within their church-affiliated groups.
Listen, but don’t speak, he told Mary Luke Tobin
“Once I was in Rome, I was interviewed by the man who issued the identification cards for attendance at the Council proceedings. He explained to me, “Now, you understand that the women have been invited to attend these sessions as auditors. So you listen; you don’t speak.” Incidentally, the Protestants also had observer status; they, too, could observe but not speak.
“The interviewer also said I was invited to attend any sessions which were of special interest to women. “So I decided right then that I wouldn’t miss a single session.
If women weren’t allowed to speak, was it really significant that women were there?
“Oh, it was significant. It was only at the end of the second session of Vatican II, however, that Cardinal Suenens stood up and said, “It is strange that here we are talking about the church, and half of the church is not here.”I’ve often pictured those bishops looking at each other and asking, “Who didn’t show?”
“While the women were not allowed to speak before the assembly, three of us were officially appointed to commissions that prepared the documents the bishops voted on. Theologian Bernard Häring—one of the big influences behind Vatican II and one of those who had suggested that women be included—pushed through the idea
that women should at least work on the commissions if they couldn’t speak before the assembly.
“Each commission resembled a caucus. Officially these were not caucuses, but they did give the three of us women some freedom to express our thoughts. We could say whatever we wanted, and we were encouraged to speak up. People did listen to us. All three of us were appointed to the commission that put together the document on “The Church in the Modern World.” And I was also appointed to the commission on the laity—which was fitting because, technically, I am laity. I’m a nun, but in the church nuns are classified as laity since they’re not clerics.
Women had some input, then, on the Vatican II documents we read today?
“Yes, depending upon the commission they worked on. I remember, for instance, that one day—during the preparation of the document for “The Church in the Modern World”—we, on the commission, were discussing the place of women in the Catholic Church. A great Dominican theologian prepared parts of this document for us.
“Now this is what I think should be in there about women,” Mary Luke Tobin remembers this expert saying. “Then he read off this long, beautiful, flowery sentence and asked, ‘What do you think of that?’
“He looked at [the Australian theologian Rosemary Goldie, who was] one of the other two women on the commission and said, ‘Rosemary, you’ re not saying anything about that. What do you think of that sentence?’
How women wish to be treated…
“She answered him in a sentence that has since burned itself into my memory over all these years. She said, ‘You can leave out all the flowers, all the pedestals, all the fancy words. Just leave all that out. Simply say that women wish to be treated as the full human persons they are in the church. That’s enough.’
“I don’t know if that man, to this day, really knew what she was talking about. But what Rosemary said is what women continue to say today. Women are not asking for any special compliments; they just want to be recognized as the full human persons they are. You don’t want the ice cream if you haven’t got the meat and potatoes, after all!
“To say that women are created by God—equal with men in the sight of God—but then deny them full participation in the church is only a flowery way of trying to say something when the real thing isn’t there. No matter what’s said with the compliments, there’s still the basic message given that women are somehow not equal to men. In the Roman Catholic Church, therefore, women are still treated as second-class citizens. And until more men recognize this, too, the struggle to get a fair female voice in the church is going to continue.”