Female and Catholic: An interview with Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L.

According to Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., Catholic women don’t want to receive an award for best supporting actress if they’re not allowed to help play the lead roles.

This U.S. Catholic interview with Sister Mary Luke Tobin, S.L., one of only 15 women—and the only American woman—to serve as official observers, or “auditors,” at the Second Vatican Council, originally appeared in the April 1987 issue.

As she accepted the 1986 U.S. Catholic Award for furthering the cause of women in the church, Tobin told this story:

“Awards were given out on that final day of Vatican II. There were four artists who marched forward and received a little certificate from the Pope. There were four musicians who marched forward and received a certificate. They were followed by four literary figures and then four philosophers. Finally, four women marched forward to receive certificates. I turned to a friend and said, ‘That’s all wrong. Women shouldn’t be receiving some special honor from the church. Women and men make up the church. If they’re going to give women awards for being women, then they should be giving men awards for being men. Women are not a category in the church; along with men, we are the church.”

Tobin, the author of Hope is an Open Door, manages the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange in Denver, Colorado.


You were one of fifteen women—and the only American woman—to be chosen as an official observer to the Second Vatican Council in Rome. How were you selected?

From 1958 to 1970 I was president of my religious community, the Sisters of Loretto; and I belonged to what is now called the LCWR—or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. In 1964 I was elected president of the LCWR.

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, though, the members of the LCWR 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. 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.

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,” I remember 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?” 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.

How are women second-class citizens?

Women are part of the church, but they’re not recognized as full, participating members of the church. Jesus, on the other hand, recognized that women had a major role to play in carrying out his message. And Saint Paul, in Galatians 3:28, says that Christians are “neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, but are all one in Christ.” This Galatians verse is the biblical text on which Christian feminism is based. Why? Because it says that in the Christian faith, all persons are equal before God and are to be recognized as such. They are not to be seen as anything less than full persons: they are not to be denied dignity because of their nationality, race, gender, or anything else. Fully recognized personhood is what the whole women’s movement in the church is based on.

I think that Christian feminists are saying a simple thing. They want people to realize that the Catholic Church is a church for all of us. Women have to speak up and say that they are working toward a church that will include men and women equally and in every aspect of the church. Because as soon as you leave women out of any aspect of the church, it’s no longer a complete church.

Are Christian feminists the first to stress this gospel view of human equality? It sounds like an idea that’s too important to ignore.

Indeed it is. It’s the basis of so much of what we believe as well as the source of many of our problems in today’s world. Karl Rahner, the great Catholic theologian and an important influence on Vatican II, has given a wonderful definition of human identity. He says that “every human person is an event of the absolute, radical, free self-communication of God.” Today we ask for contemporary language. We know the terms “event,” “radical,” “free,”“communication,” and “self”—so when Rahner says that each of us is a happening of God’s own self-communication, we have a neat explanation of the wonder that is a human being. Our greatness is freely God’s gift. Why should we then limit it for one another? God’s own self, not some other object or thing, is what is given to us. We share the divine life itself. All this, of course, is a matter of faith.

When Rahner says that every human person is a self-communication of God, he means it. He’s not talking about just Catholics or Christians: everyone is created to receive God’s own self- communication. Simply by virtue of being created a human being, we are the recipients of God’s own self.

This ties in with a saying of Thomas Merton’s: that God is in our center, and that because of God’s self-communication to us, we have everything we need. Of course, that’s not pantheism. We’re not God, but we certainly share in God’s life; and that makes our human dignity very high.

I love to tell a story about Thomas Merton’s last words. He went to Bangkok to speak with a group of Asian monks and nuns in 1968. Since this lecture is on film and he died in his room shortly after the lecture, you hear all this talk about the lecture containing Merton’s famous last words. But those weren’t his last words. On the way back to his room from the lecture and lunch he was accompanied by a priest who gave him some of the audience’s reaction to the talk. They were asking: why didn’t he talk more about converting people to Christianity?

Merton answered in a way that very much explains what I’ve just been talking about. He said something like, “I think that what we’re asked to do today is not so much to speak about Christ or God. The point is to let Christ act in us. Then, people can find God by feeling how God lives in us.”

And Merton, of course, was in good company: Saint Paul himself says, in Galatians 2:20, “I live not now, but Christ lives in me.” A statement like that makes me think twice about putting down Paul for being sexist in his writings. I’d prefer to think that something like “wives, be submissive to your husbands,” Ephesians 5:22, came from someone else who was later writing or editing his letters for him—and not from Paul himself. Can “wives, be submissive to your husbands” conceivably come from the same man who said, “neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, but we are all one in Christ”? I have to wonder. Maybe Paul did write all that himself. All I have to say about it is that we cannot tolerate his words against women as being handed down by Jesus—not if you watch Jesus and the way he included women, reached out to them, at a time when it was not customary or popular to do so.


What about those who say, “Well, Jesus was a man. And he ordained his male disciples to continue his work”?

Jesus didn’t “ordain” anyone in our sense of formal ordination. It wasn’t until much later in the church that priests and bishops were ordained at all. Not until the second century did the church begin to say, “An institution is necessary to keep the Christian faith all together:’ Jesus wouldn’t have even known what you or I meant if we had been able to ask him what kind of bishops he wanted to have for his church. We also know that the whole first century of the church’s formation was largely unformed. But there were women who did some leading in those years. One just has to read the letters of Paul to realize that.

I have pity for the people who so fully buy into the clerical state that they value clerical conformity over full participation of all people in the church. Women have to witness to and struggle for that equal participation. That’s why women, if they are ever to be ordained, should not uncritically accept that kind of clerical state. They should do something to change it. But a lot of men have to help them out on this, especially those men who already have a voice in the church. As long as nobody in a position of hierarchical power says that anything’s amiss, as long as nobody in the upper echelons supports women on this, who’s going to believe women—even excellent women theologians? After all, women gave the first report of the Resurrection, and who believed them?

I wish that we Catholics would hear something positive from the bishops about the possibility of women’s ordination. Instead of giving a flat-out no, I wish some bishop would say, “My dear people, there’s been a great deal of talk about ordaining women. Now, we’re not yet ready for it. We have psychological barriers, and we have fears. We have to work to overcome these, though, because everyone knows that in the eyes of God, men and women are equal. Let us work on overcoming these fears and psychological barriers; let us work on those, and then we will have a time in the not-too-distant future when, little by little, we can introduce women into the full ministry:”

We know that Jesus was a man, but can we talk about God as being either male or female?

I have a little story to tell here. It has nothing to do with feminism directly, but it says something about who God is to us.

I was at a weekend retreat with some people when a man came up to me and said, “I have a lot of trouble understanding how God is personal. That’s always a struggle for me.”

Karl Rahner’s words came to my assistance at that point. I said, “Well, you know this: you don’t want to relate to a stick of wood, do you? Or tell your troubles to a radiator? Can you recognize the Great Plains as the source of your being? Whenever we speak of relating to another we have to speak somehow of a person, don’t we?” He said, “Yes, people do want to relate to a person; but we don’t know how God is a person.” He’s right; we don’t. We know that there’s something about God that is a person, but we don’t know how God is a person. That is the mystery that God knows and we don’t know. All we do know is that, yes, we are dealing with a person—not a stick of wood— when we turn to God. I can’t tell you much more than that, though, because it is not really possible to describe God within the range of human comparisons.

Is God a man or woman? We know we can’t limit God to those descriptions. I also know that plenty of people think about God without having to think of God as either a man or woman. Some people go to great, deliberate pains to make sure that when they talk of God they don’t use the word “Father” or even simply “he.” I include myself in that, though I still make many mistakes with it. To use these words would be to limit God to a male personality. I know many people who use “God” in place of any pronoun—like “he” or “she”—that would limit God to the categories of human gender. And since we’ve just talked about how important it is to experience God as a person, we know we can’t conceivably use the pronoun “it” to name our creator.

I know people who, in wanting to emphasize a personal God, use both “he” and “she,” who use “Father” but also “Mother,” when they talk about the infinite love that God offers us. I think it’s all right to use “he” or “she” for God, by way of analogy, but I think it’s absolutely crucial to be clear that God is beyond human categories, beyond human grasp. I don’t mind it when people say “God is a loving father” or “God is a loving mother.” These, you see, are primarily analogies; and we do need analogies to at least partially understand and approach our God. Don’t forget, though, that analogies are only attempts to describe the fuller reality. Rahner consistently calls God the “Holy Mystery,” which for me is a much better word to describe God.

I’ve come to the point where I can’t give in to the exclusively God-as-male language anymore. If you’re talking about Jesus, well then of course it’s a different story. Jesus walked among us as a man.

But didn’t Jesus himself call God “Father”?

He did. And I think it’s a marvelous example of Jesus’ true understanding of God: that God is a personal God, a loving and protecting and forgiving parent. Jesus says that God is like the parent in the prodigal son parable, which, for the people of that time and for all of us, is a new way to think of God. More than assigning a particular gender to God, Jesus offers us a personal and loving relationship with our creator.

People refer to human beings as “mankind” and “man” and “he” but often say they mean both men and women. Can’t I therefore call God “he” without limiting God to either a male or female gender?

Again, I have to say that God is infinitely beyond our gender designations. We may need to use pronouns or metaphors that suggest either a maleness or a femaleness, but God is necessarily beyond this sort of description.

I don’t use or excuse words like “man” or “he” to refer to both men and women, by the way. This constitutes the “sexist” language that you hear people complain about. Not only is it not accurate—women are not “men”—but it carries the ancient implication that it’s only the men who really count in this world.

Let me tell another story. It comes from a priest I know who’s learned to purge sexist language from his own vocabulary. Furthermore, he now says that he can no longer use “male only” references to God.

This priest told me that he visited his brother and sister-in-law one weekend. They have six children, three girls and three boys. One night the priest sat up with his brother, explaining to him just why he had to change sexist language in reference to both people and God. The brother said, “Do you even change the language in the Mass?” The priest said, “Well, yes. I’ve got to make it conform to what I know is right.” The brother replied, “I’ll bet you don’t even say a valid Mass .”

The priest didn’t get very far that night. The next morning, though, he had an idea as he went downstairs to breakfast. There sat the entire family—brother, sister-in-law, three daughters, and three sons—around the dining-room table; and in response to their “Good morning, Father,” he smiled and said, “Good morning, men!’ He said that his sister-in-law cracked up; she laughed so hard that she had to go out into the kitchen. But this man certainly got his point across.

Some women have stopped participating in the Catholic Church because they say it doesn’t allow enough of a feminine voice in its worship and decision making. Are they being too sensitive?

Well, we all have to follow our consciences, of course. But maybe they are confusing a pastor or a parish or even the Pope with “the church.” We’re all learning those distinctions better now, I think. I certainly don’t deny their experience or their anger. But unfortunately, people often identify the church with some petty or miserable representative of it in their lives.

I like what Rosemary Radford Ruether says in this connection. She says that the institution— the institutional church, for instance—has a value in and of itself and that we can’t just throw the institution down the drain. What would we have otherwise? Every generation has a certain number of insights; and even if those insights are great, they’re not going to be preserved without an institution to record and teach them.

I agree with Ruether, too, when she says that women have to create some of their own liturgies. They have to go off and create them by themselves. But then, she says, women can introduce what they’ve created back into the main body of the church. That way, the church can gradually incorporate the new examples.

But what if you’re a woman in a parish that isn’t so open to change?

There are really tragic situations in some parishes out there. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve always laughed along with my friends and said that if ever I hear an antiwoman homily preached at Mass, I’m going to get up, genuflect politely, and—I’m not going to walk out of the church— I’m going to go over to the first station and begin making the Stations of the Cross. The whole congregation would be looking at me, saying “What is that kooky lady doing?” But I would simply direct myself to my devotions while this homily goes on. I’d continue through all of the stations. Then I’d genuflect and leave the church.

And wave on the way.

Yes, wave on the way. Now that’s pretty drastic; but such homilies are inexcusable. I wouldn’t stay in such a parish. Thank God for Vatican II: because of it, I wouldn’t have to stay in a parish that violates my conscience.

The Gospels have plenty of support for the notion that everyone has an equal voice in the church. Simply look up that great text in Matthew 21, where Jesus says to the disciples, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them. But it shall not be so among you.” That’s a kind of democracy, and I think that’s an important part of what the Christian faith is all about. Christianity should be a democracy that comes from everyone participating in a circle with Christ as its center; believers should lead the Christian community together, having the communion of believers to help them do it.


How should parishioners respond if the bishop says that only men can have their feet washed on Holy Thursday?

Maybe it’s only the men who need it? Seriously, though: ours is a church for men and women. I don’t want to eliminate any men—they of course have just as much a right to be part of God’s church as women do—but women have been much more excluded. What I want is a church where men and women can more visibly worship together. And I’m happy to report that there are wonderful men who speak out on this, that this is not simply a concern of women.

Some people say that feminists have selfish motives, that they care only about getting power for themselves and other women. Do you think that’s true?

No. I don’t think that’s true at all. Feminists search for a deeper way of looking at some of the obvious problems of our world. They question many of our “accepted” cultural practices—like teaching boys violence. Most if not all feminists agonize over the fact that human beings are so violent, that we live in a violent age where the Rambos of this world are the ones to get the respect and loyalty of people.

I like to repeat what poet Denise Levertov says. She maintains that what we need to do in peacemaking is to use fewer images of disaster and foster more imagination of peace. That’s where the poet comes in. And that’s where feminists also contribute: they ask, “How do we create a better awareness in the world, how do we create a peace consciousness?”

The poetry of feminists and peacemakers often has a very prophetic value. Much like the biblical prophets, they are the ones who call attention to the state of how things really are in the world. They wake us up to some things. But what do you do once you are awake? The challenge for the feminist or peacemaker seems to also be that of keeping hope alive in people. If people don’t have hope, I believe, then the work of the church is not done. If we don’t have hope, then our faith is of little help or comfort.

Do you have to be female to be a feminist?

No. Anyone can suffer from sexism; or at least they can see that it’s not consistent with the love and lifestyle that Jesus taught. Something like world peace is a human value; interest in it is not restricted to women, or more specifically, to women who would like their children to grow up in a nuclear-free world. I suppose you could also say that about sexism. Many fathers of families are right out there working for world peace and a world that’s free from sexism. As with mothers, these men don’t want their children to be deprived of the good things of the earth.

Is there a tension or rivalry between laywomen and religious women these days?

I don’t think that we should be preoccupied with whether or not people are vowed or lay, women or men. Christians measure other Christians according to the gospel values that we all stand for. Our common commitment to the Gospel is the reason for our common action. Instead of competing with each other, we have to study this commitment together; we have to help each other learn how we can best live out the words and actions of Jesus.

But even besides this shared fidelity to the Gospel, we Christians have to maintain a fundamental respect for each other as persons. What does it mean to be a person? It means to be someone who decides, who has both responsibility and freedom. The question of being either male or female, religious or lay, doesn’t even enter into that; these characteristics are decisive only after the more fundamental characteristics of personhood are already established.

If people take this as the primary definition of personhood—that one uses freedom and responsibility to form decisions—then their actions should somehow reflect that. Accordingly, I think that the church can’t be its absolute best unless there is full participation among Christians. To take responsibility as persons and as Christians, people have to help form their own decisions and participate in the actions that are going to influence their lives.

With the rise in lay participation in the Catholic Church, I believe it is the responsibility of nuns, priests, and brothers to step aside and make available more opportunities for young and able laypeople.

I know a wonderful woman administrator of a parish, for instance. She’s one of the best parish administrators I’ve ever seen. The pastor has his study where he sees and counsels people but has very little to do with the running of the parish. This woman does that, with the help of four other people she supervises. What’s wrong with that? Can’t a woman—a layperson—run a parish?

You see, there’s no superiority in vocations. Our common goal as Christians is to live the Gospel; and sometimes that is best expressed in a life of lay membership within the church, while other times it is best expressed in the vowed life. And if you think about it, the lay teacher in the church—just to take one example—makes sacrifices, too; he or she does not have to live a vowed life to make sacrifices for their faith.

How did you form your own views on feminism?

Although my parents were not liberals in the way that people often use the word today, I would first of all have to say that I received a fairly broad, liberal education. I went to public school in Colorado, and Colorado had liberal racial policies in those days.

A lot of changes came about, however, once I joined my religious community. Over the years, my community’s focus on a suffering world—on peace and social-justice concerns, for example— has fostered and strengthened my convictions.

In terms of feminism specifically, my community has helped me to see that the Catholic Church is a church for all of us. Over the years my community has come to model the full and equal participation that I would like to see exist throughout the entire church.

You’ve seen many disappointments in your years of service to the church. In spite of the changes you’d still like to see, what hopeful signs have you found along the way?

I see a lot of hope in the socialization of little girls today. They’re not raised in the restrictive roles that girls used to be raised in. Let me give you a cute example that I heard from a young woman recently. The woman has a 5-year-old daughter. Last year the woman and her husband took the little girl with them to an ordination ceremony. At one point, the 5-year-old piped up and asked, “Why aren’t there any women up there?” Five years old!

Most important, however, I have always believed in the potential of the church to accept change. Vatican II was probably a big lesson for me on that. I feel, in fact, that there is also a wonderful potential in the church to effect changes within society. Christ’s teachings propose the kind of change that should cause the world to step back from its frightening position on the brink of nuclear war, for instance. The church has had important things to say about what’s going on in South Africa and Central America. I think the church has had—and still has—an essential role to play in the creation of a better world, which is something that must engage all Christians.

This article appeared in the April 1987 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Image credit: Franklin McMahon