Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
February 5, 2001
Edmonton women paved way for change
Local group wrote 1971 brief that began expansion of women's role in the Church
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The status of women in the Canadian Catholic Church has improved significantly in the past three decades. And it all started with a group of concerned Edmonton women.
Ann Dea and Kay Feehan were part of a group of 40 Catholic feminists who, concerned about the role of women in the Church, wrote to the Canadian bishops 30 years ago demanding equal status.
"This initiative helped raise the consciousness of the Canadian bishops" and led to greater awareness among both the clergy and laity about the value of the inclusion of women, noted Feehan, a retired professor of social work at Grant MacEwan Community College.
It also led to inclusive language, altar girls, women lectors, women who administer parishes, women's presence in the formation of seminarians and the removal of discriminatory barriers against women in canon law, which before its 1983 revision even barred women religious from singing in church.
"We certainly have not achieved everything we wanted but we have made significant progress," said Dea, a housewife and community activist. The efforts of the Edmonton women are illustrated in With Respect to Women, a recently published 86-page history of Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops' initiatives concerning women in the Church and society from 1971 to 2000.
The booklet also illustrates the progress made on the women's front and contains selected bishops' interventions on women's issues and several pastoral statements concerning women. The booklet clearly notes that the dialogue between the Canadian bishops and women "began in 1971 with the reception of a brief from a group of women in Edmonton."
Dea and Feehan would like all Catholic women to read the booklet so they understand the struggle for women's rights has not been easy. "A lot of women who are involved today don't know how it began," Feehan said. "We set off the chain of events."
It started in June 1970, when the local Catholic Women's Group wrote to the Canadian bishops asking that their concerns be placed on the agenda for the bishops' next plenary session.
Their letter asked the bishops to declare women full and equal members of the Church with men as well as to press the Vatican to reform canon law in relation to women.
Following consultations with local women, the group sent the bishops a brief with 10 specific recommendations.
In response, the bishops called 60 women from across Canada to Ottawa to discuss their concerns. Using the Edmonton brief as a basis for their discussion, the women, including Dea, Feehan and two other Edmonton women, agreed on 10 recommendations, which they submitted to the bishops' April 1971 session.
At the session the women requested more women's involvement on all Canadian Church committees, the elimination of all discriminatory barriers against women in canon law and tradition, the ordination of women, and a clear declaration that women were full and equal members of the Church.
"As a result of it, the bishops made a declaration saying women were equal members of the Church with the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as men," Feehan recalled.
The bishops also began pressing the Vatican for changes in the Code of Canon Law. Revised in 1983, the new code abolished, among other things, discriminatory provisions that kept institutes of women under male protectorship.
Slowly Canadian dioceses began giving women a larger role in Church bodies and more of a say in decision-making. Finally women could be altar girls and lectors and could occupy positions of responsibility in the parish and the diocese.
Despite opposition, inclusive language has been accepted and in most
Canadian seminaries women are on the formation team.
Over the past 30 years the Canadian bishops have become staunch supporters of the rightful place of women in the Church. Even when Pope John Paul ended discussion on the ordination of women in 1994, the bishops said they would not allow the papal ban to become an obstacle to involve women more and more in the structure of the Church.
"A lot has improved, especially in this diocese," Dea said, noting that in the Edmonton Archdiocese women participate in most bodies, from the sexual abuse committee to the seminary formation team.
"Things have changed but we still have not changed to the point we wanted," Feehan said, noting that most Vatican organizations are still run by men, particularly clergy.
"Women must be included in all bodies that make decisions. And we have not yet been allowed into the real decision-making bodies such as the priesthood and the diaconate."
Dea agreed, saying, "Yes, the ordination of women is still part of our agenda."
In his 1994 apostolic letter, Pope John Paul reaffirmed the Church ban on women priests and declared that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." He added that "this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."
The Catholic Women's Group, now with about 25 members, has continued to meet over the years and plans to mark the 30th anniversary of its initiative with a private celebration in March.
With Respect to Women can be ordered through the CCCB's Publications Service at 90 Parent Ave., Ottawa, K1N 7B1.
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