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Presentation by Women for Faith & Family to the Bishops’ Commission on the Pastoral Letter for Women

 O’Hare Hilton, Chicago
August 24, 1985

Introduction -- by Helen Hull Hitchcock, 11/30/2005

Women for Faith & Family was organized in 1984, in direct response to the decision of the US bishops' conference to write a pastoral letter on "women's concerns", and to hear from women.

The Bishops Committee on Women (BCOW) was formed to undertake the writing of this pastoral letter. In preparation, "listening sessions" (patterned after the feminist movement's "consciousness-raising" sessions of the 60s and 70s) were held throughout the country to gather information about "women's concerns".

The BCOW also conducted two formal hearings in 1985 with leaders of several Catholic women's groups. In early 1985, Women for Faith & Family had sent a letter to the BCOW, along with the first 7,000 names of signers of the Affirmation for Catholic Women -- a statement of fidelity to Church teachings first circulated in late 1984. WFF was then invited to the second of these official hearings, held in Chicago, where we met with the bishops and the "women consultants" to the Committee. WFF was represented by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Sherry Tyree.

Members of Committee, who served throughout the nine-year process: Chairman, Bishop Joseph Imesch (Joliet), Bishop Alfred Hughes (Auxiliary Boston), Bishop Matthew Clark (Rochester), Bishop William Levada (Auxiliary Los Angeles; Portland), Archbishop Edward McCarthy (Miami). Women consultants included theologians Sister Sara Butler, Pheme Perkins, Ronda Chervin and two others.

Following is the written testimony presented at that hearing, along with a list of documents included. (The second part of the presentation, not included here, consisted of reading excerpts from a few letters from Catholic women that were randomly selected from several thousand letters contained in a large mailbag.)


1. Computer list of approximately 16,800 (of more than 20,000 received) names of signers of the Affirmation for Catholic Women (Note: one copy only, to Chairman, Bishop Imesch)

2. Response to Questions of Commission — Helen Hull Hitchcock

3. Report on Activities of Women for Faith & Family — Sherry Tyree

4. Copies of Letters from Women (selected at random from among more than 3,000 received)

5. Excerpts from Letters

6. Picture of Preliminary List of 10,000 Names and Affirmation being presented to His Holiness, Pope John Paul II

7. Copy of Affirmation for Catholic Women

8. Copy of August, 1985, Women for Faith & Family Newsletter.


Response to the Questions of the Pastoral Commission
*1. What contributes most to the "reconciliation(harmony, affirmation, dignity, and healing) of women in society and in the Church?

2. What contributes most to the "alienation (abuse, divisiveness, dehumanization) of women" in society and in the Church?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

In our brief presentation to you today we will attempt to do two things: first, to respond to the specific questions posed by the committee in your letter to us; and second, to communicate to you, as best we can, the testimony of the many Catholic women who have responded to your call to hear from them, by their signing the Affirmation for Catholic Women, and by their thousands of letters to us.

We would like to say, at the outset, that we find the first two questions disturbing. Both the tone and terminology of these questions reflects the bias of a vocal, disaffected minority within the Church, and seems to proceed from a perspective of self-preoccupation which tends to color the discussion from the beginning.

The terms ‘reconciliation’ and ‘alienation’, in fact, imply a state of oppression, or at least exclusion of the group said to experience these qualities -- in this case, ‘women’. It is simply untrue that ‘women’, in the collective sense used, are ‘alienated’ from the rest of society or the Church; or are, therefore, in need of ‘reconciliation’ with society and the Church. Such an idea or concept is in itself ‘divisive’, literally dividing, separating women from full participation in the common experience of humanity in which women share equally, if differently, in some respects, with men.

Given our difficulty with these questions, then, we will nevertheless attempt to answer them.

I. Response to Questions on “reconciliation” and “alienation” of women 

1. Our response to the first question posed by the Committee would be this: that what contributes most to the “reconciliation (harmony, affirmation, dignity, and healing) of women”  in society and in the Church (and also of men) is that combination of Grace and will which leads to a constant deepening of our understanding of the Christian Faith, to responsible and active participation in the Divine Plan for humanity as revealed in Holy Scripture and through the Apostolic teaching of the Church, and to continual maturing in the knowledge and love of God, in whom we live and move and have our Being. For all human beings, men and women, true faith is the only source of true freedom.

2. What contributes most to the “alienation (abuse, divisiveness, dehumanization) of women”,  in society and in the Church (again, we would add, also of men) are those conditions and attitudes, revived in contemporary culture, though not unknown in history, which lead women and men to forget their own distinct nature as beings made in God’s image in their pursuit of false ‘freedom’ and ‘self-fulfillment’.

This grave spiritual error has already had disastrous effects on our society, as evidenced by the disintegration of families, by permissive abortion, by the pornographic mentality of the ‘sexual revolution’, leading to violence, homosexuality and child abuse, and by excessive materialism.

Furthermore, this flawed view of the nature of human Being does not bring about the desired freedom and fulfillment. In fact, it leads inevitably to an increased sense of personal isolation, malaise and despair. Persons most afflicted with this basic error in self-knowledge see themselves as victims, and tend to fix the blame for their profound unhappiness on something outside themselves -- on a political or economic system, on their cultural traditions, or on religion -- especially on the Catholic Church.

We know that the legitimate desire for self-knowledge can only be fulfilled through faith in God. But when people, especially those who were ever religious believers, have allowed themselves to fall into this kind of fundamental error about the nature of human beings and their relationship to God, the results are especially devastating -- both to themselves, and to those whom they may influence.

Alienation from God, and the unbearable anguish it causes, nearly always leads to guilt, resentment and rebellion. Rebelliousness and anger is commonly directed at that which makes us feel guilty. In the case of adolescent children, rejection of the parents is the usual form this guilt-misplacement takes. In the case of former religious believers, the Church, as the source of truth about God and humanity, is deemed to be the source of all that “oppresses” them.

A few of these afflicted individuals have convinced themselves that the essential nature and very structure of the Church is intrinsically evil (alienating, abusive, divisive, dehumanizing), and must be, as such, so radically changed to conform to their desires that it is, in essence destroyed.

If we no longer believe that the Church is, or can be, what it says (and has always said) it is, namely, the divinely instituted Body of Christ, the communion of all those made holy by the Grace of Christ; if we can no longer give assent to the authoritative teaching function of the Church or to the Truth which she teachers, we are undergoing a “crisis of faith”. When those individuals undergoing this crisis of faith are in positions of influence within the Church or in society, the effect is to cause widespread confusion and divisions and anguish among the faithful.

Some among those who are experiencing this crisis of faith are women who call themselves “feminists”. One source of confusion fostered by a minority of these women, some within religious orders, is their claim to speak for all women. When they use the word ‘women’, they actually mean ‘feminists’. Their claim has, in fact, so skewed the perception of women in the Church that fruitful discussion of issues affecting women becomes increasingly difficult.

The influential feminist theologian, Rosemary Ruether, comments on this difficulty in a column titled “Meetings, but not of Minds”, which appeared in the National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 1985. The two-year dialogue between women and bishops in which she participated “drew a blank”, she says, because “we represented fundamentally different ecclesiologies” and views of Christ. “We are not only talking differently about the same things”, she observes, “but in some very basic ways we are really talking about different things when we use words such as ‘Christ’ and the ‘church’. In a sense, many of us in the Roman Catholic Church… talk at each other across different centuries from entirely different worldviews.”

She states that “the one ambiguous result” of these dialogues “may have been the recent effort to write a bishops’ pastoral on women.” She further comments that “My own suggestion is that women should write a pastoral on bishops.”

Although it may be argued that such radically dissident views as she describes represent only an extremist faction of even “feminist” women, it is, nevertheless, clear that these views do not represent those of women-in-general, as she implies. 

II. Recommendations for the Pastoral Letter

There are, in fact, issues in society and in the Church today which deeply affect women, and which need to be addressed further by the Church. Issues such as abortion, education of children, all matters relating to family life, and the expanding roles of women in the Church and in society are of particular concern to women today.  Women, who by their God-given nature are both psychically and physically linked to maternity, hence to children, and thus to the future of all human society and to the future of the Christian faith, are profoundly affected, in their very being, by the radically disordered attitudes towards these matters within contemporary society.

Many women who write to us do feel isolation and anguish. Not because the Church has “alienated” them, but because they, as faithful believers, have been marginalized by women within the Church who represent an alien philosophy, and have been undermined in their efforts to practice their faith or to transmit it to their children.

1.  A Pastoral Letter on women’s issues should include teaching on “reproductive rights”, which belong to all people, not only to Catholics. These rights include the right to choose to marry, to bear children, to raise and educate them in the context of social approval, encouragement and support. These rights do not include the “right to choose” to kill unborn children. The Catholic Church guarantees these rights in the Charter of the Rights of the Family, promulgated by the Holy See in 1983; and in a more detailed form in the Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. Both these documents contain powerful sources of help for Catholic women and their families, but both have been widely neglected in this country.

2.  Because of women’s special nurturing role with regard to children, the right of Catholic parents to expect support from the Church and society for their primary role as educators of their children, and to expect authentic Catholic catechesis of their children are also primary concerns of women who are mothers or teachers; and these rights are similarly guaranteed by the Church in these documents, as well as in the documents of Vatican II.

3.  Many women in our society are victims of divorce, of abandonment and abuse by the men in their lives. Once again, the Catholic Church has explicitly taught, throughout her history, that marriage is sacramental in nature -- an indissoluble union in love of a wife and husband. The Christian view of marriage, and of the proper nuptial relationship between a man and a woman has been given recent and detailed expression in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in Familiaris Consortio, and in Pope John Paul II’s catechesis on the Book of Genesis, Original Unity of Man and Woman.

4.  Women’s rights, along with men’s, to a just wage and to dignity in their work have been guaranteed most recently in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical,  Laborem Exercens. It is also important, in a society which sees value in primarily materialistic terms, to restore dignity and worth to women whose work is in their homes. The Holy Father has also emphasized this.

5.  A Pastoral Letter for women should also include suggestions for developing a vital and active spiritual life or prayer and devotion, bearing in mind the particular gifts, insights, responsibilities, as well as the particular needs and problems, of women. Especially in our self-indulgent age, the need is great for understanding about the salvific aspects of suffering, of the meaning and redemptive value of sacrifice and humility, and of the unity and peace which come only from obedience to God.

6.  Many voices of confusion have been raised, recently, about the role of women in the Church. Feminists, whether male of female, have raised loud voices of dissent from the Church’s constant teaching on the matter of the ordained priesthood. So energetic has this group been in questioning the teaching that ordained priesthood is restricted to males, so determined are they to persuade people that the issue of ordination can be reduced to an issue of “justice” or “equality”, that many Catholics have become thoroughly confused, and believe the assertion, repeated ad nauseum, that there are no theological reasons why women may not be ordained, and that the restriction of ordination to men is the result of “cultural conditioning” which regards women as unworthy, deficient and altogether second-class humans.

These charges are false, of course, but the effect these ideas have is to undermine the authority of the Church, to damage the effectiveness of the Magisterium, and to weaken the Catholic faith. (These criticisms about the priesthood leveled at the Church are not new, as feminist scholar, Elaine Pagels makes clear in her recent book, The Gnostic Gospels,  which is sympathetic to the Gnostic heresy of the 2nd Century.)

In addition to the constant tradition of the Church, which has binding authority, recent statements make the Church’s teaching on the sacramental nature of ordination clear. Among these are the statements of Pope John Paul II, expanded in his catechesis on the nature and meaning of human sexuality mentioned earlier, a letter from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the bishops of the world, dated August 6, 1983, called On the Question of Admission of Women to the Priesthood, and in the Pastoral Letter, Do This in Memory of Me, by Gerald Emmet, Cardinal Carter, of Toronto.

Because of the current controversy about Holy Orders, any Pastoral Letter on women’s issues would be seriously deficient if it did not include, for the instruction of the faithful, explicit statements enunciating the Church’s teaching on this subject, including the theological bases for it.

To omit such a critical topic from any official statement by the bishops, or from any “plan of action” which would discuss and suggest roles for women in the Church, would be to perpetuate the confusion and malaise, the alienation and divisions, which a Pastoral Letter, by definition, intends to heal. Worse would be to hint that this teaching may be merely a matter of discipline based on custom, hence subject to change at some unspecified time in the future.

7.  An allied controversy, equally current, is that of the so-called “sexist” language of the Scripture and the Liturgy of the Church. Care must be taken, in a Pastoral Letter for women, to explain the meaning of the nuptial imagery in the covenant of God with Israel, of Christ with His Church, and of the meaning of sexuality in the created order. This is necessary both for the benefit and instruction of those who genuinely do not understand the distinctiveness and complementarity of the sexes which is part of the Divine Plan for humanity, as well as address clearly the charges made by some theologians (and others) whose ideology seeks to obliterate all sexual distinctions.

The role of women in the Church and in society is expanding today. Because of this, and because of the genuine confusion among many women, whether Catholic or non-Catholic, about what our role is and should be, there is a great need for teaching from our bishops. For to you has been given the responsibility for defending the Word of God as embodied in the perennial teachings of the Church against whatever error may arise, from whatever source or motive.

Our purpose, in the efforts we have undertaken in support of the Church by circulating the affirmation for catholic women was and is to provide an opportunity for Catholic women to express their faithfulness to Catholic teaching in an explicit way, and to let her leaders know of our support. It did not occur to us that this effort of women to express unity with the Church and her bishops could be in any way construed to be “controversial”. The magnitude of the response — over 20,000 signatures and nearly 3,000 letters (excerpts from some of these are included in the materials given to you) — indicates that Catholic women do recognize very clearly that far from being a source of “alienation” and “oppression”, it is from the Church that we draw our strength to live our lives and to follow our vocations according to the plan of God, who created human beings in His image as both men and women.

A Protestant scholar very recently observed that the hour has come when only the Catholic Church can heal the cosmic confusion in the world. With her “ever ancient, ever new” message of salvation through the sacrifice of the Divine Son of God, the true Messiah, the Catholic Church, now more than ever standing as the “sign of contradiction” to a fallen world, must clearly sound her ‘certain trumpet’ — that all may hear and believe.

We would like to request that the bishops of this committee convey to all the bishops of America  our gratitude for their labors for the Church, and our promise of continual prayers. We would also like to ask for your prayers that all Catholic women may grow in the knowledge and love of God, and that we may constantly follow the example of love and devotion set for us by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and His mother, Mary.

Helen Hull Hitchcock  
Women for Faith & Family
August 24, 1985  

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