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Letters to the Pope by Josefa Theresia Münch

Josefa Theresia Münch

“ Letters to the Pope”, The Catholic Citizen, Journal of St. Joan’s International Alliance, vol 72 (1991) no 1, pp. 18-29, translated from the German by Sr. Kira Solhdoost, here re-published with permission of the author and The Catholic Citizen.

"From when I was young, I felt called to be a priest!"

When I wrote my first letter to a Pope, on 5th January, 1953, I was just 22 years young, a school teacher, in my first teaching post at Baindt. At that time Pius XII was the head of the Catholic Church. The example of St Catherine of Sienna - whose letters to popes and princes I had read - must have contributed in part to make me pick up courage to write to Pius XII.

In my letter I expressed my desire for the ordination of women to the priesthood to which I felt myself called. I received no reply. My second letter to Pius XII, which incorporated the same wish, is dated 26th January, 1954. When in reply I received an envelope with a beautiful Vatican stamp and a readyprinted card inside, I was blissfully happy. Complete with the papal coat of arms, it read,

“The Secretariat of State of His Holiness is supremely commissioned to inform you that the Holy Father thanks you for the mark of loyalty offered him, as for the assurance of prayer, and in token of the unsurpassible Grace of God, and with paternal affection, bestows the Apostolic Benediction.”

From the Vatican, 2nd February, 1954
Stamp and coat of arms. Secretariat of State of His Holiness

Inside the pretty envelope was also a folder with a picture of Pope Pius Xll alongside another picture, that of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, and on the back page, the prayer for the Marian Year.

For a long time I kept everything secret, not only my letters to the Pope, but also my concern for the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood - because I was afraid of being considered a lunatic. Only a short time before going to study theology, I confided it to my confessor and Parish Priest of my home parish.

Many more letters to popes followed: to Pius XII, to Cardinal Montini (his name had appeared on one of the post cards from the Vatican), to Pope John XXIII, to Paul VI, as well as to Pope John Paul II. Added to these, there were my Conciliar requests which I addressed simultaneously to the Pope, to the Council, respectively to one of its Commissions, but always in separate envelopes. If I received a reply from the Vatican, I became increasingly aware that all reference to the contents of my letters was absent.

In my later letters to the Pope I had not only pleaded for the official admission of women to the priesthood, but I had also taken a stand in the cause of women, on more general lines: the position of women in the church, in Canon Law; in the liturgy too, that women should be explicitly addressed in the liturgical texts. Some side issues in my letters concerned the use of the vernacular, and other liturgical questions.

Theology Studies

In November, 1955, I began to study Theology. I wanted to prepare myself for eventual ordination to the priesthood, should it become possible for me to be a woman priest. But I was quite prepared to get set right if serious theological reasons stood against it.

The Council in View

It was during the period of my theology studies that Pope John XXIII announced a General Council. The last Council had lasted from 1869 to 1870. One can well imagine that this announcement was a great event. Now, after 90 years, there was to be another General Council at which all bishops - at least all the Bishops in residence - of the Church throughout the world, would come together. A mood of change, of innovation, overcame many in the Church; some justifiable, some exaggerated hopes were awakened. I read in the Catholic Sunday paper that a reform of Canon Law was foreseen.

Should I appeal to the Council for the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood?

Ever since the beginning of my studies I had become increasingly aware of two things: one, the conviction that there are no theological reasons that can be seriously alleged against the ordination of women; the other, the growing perception of the magnitude of resistance to the priesthood of women. I learned from follow students, women who had studied theology, how difficult it was for a woman to be accepted as a religious education teacher at all - no use dreaming of diaconate or acceptance in a seminary. I was told of the many disadvantages one had to be prepared to put up with in order to find a post in theology anywhere, or even to find employment as a woman teacher in religious education. In Germany, no clergyman employed as a R.E. teacher would be expected to be subject to such disadvantages, nor any teacher employed in the civil service. And this is the experience we had to make at a time when there was actually a great shortage of staff in teaching. So it was not due to an over-supply of R.E. teachers, on the contrary, not even the shortage of R.E. teaching staff could serve to open the door for women, wider and faster.

If even the R.E. teacher found such hurdles barring her way, where could I find the courage to go as far as to ask the Council for the priesthood for women? Although I was becoming aware, in many areas, of the mood of change coming from the Council, I noticed very little of it in the area concerning ‘women and Church’.

However, this spirit of change was also subject to fluctuations. Here is an example among many.

One of my favourite Professors of Theology was repeatedly called to Rome for the preparation of the Council. At first, I heard my professor complaining about the difficulties he encountered with super-conservative elements from Italy, Ireland and the USA. with whom he was to collaborate in the preparatory work, and how he stood in danger of being “hereticized” by them. After a while the tables turned, and my professor came back from Rome, remarking, “Well, if the Council business goes on like that, then I’m afraid whether I’ll still be able to die as a Catholic”.

So, to start with, I just dared one thing first: I wrote to the Second Vatican Council and very circumspectly requested the alteration of Canon 968§1, to the effect that it should no longer read, “Only a baptised man can validly receive priestly ordination.” but, “Only a baptised person can validly receive priestly ordination.” I hoped somehow that some armoured opponent would not notice what I was really after, and, that as long as he believed that it was merely a question of reformulation of wording, he would agree to the alteration. I received no reply to this request.

Theology Studies Completed with Great Success! What Next?

The council was already in preparation when in 1960, I completed my theology studies with a fine Diploma! What now?

(a) Three of my professors advised me to go on for a doctorate. The fact that my Professor for Mediaeval and Early Modern Church History was among the three who encouraged me, was for me a sign of his appreciation of my work and of his own change of mind; a few years earlier, he had vehemently opposed against the promotion of women to the doctorate of theology.

But I considered: what was I to do with a doctor’s hat? One of my supporters, Prof. Tüchle had thought that once I had a doctorate and habilitation, there might be an opening in view for me among the professorial posts at the new College of Higher Education, soon to be created. He offered, of his own accord, to make an initial approach to the competent chairperson at the chancery of my home diocese of Rottenburg, who also happened to be his colleague of student days. Afterwards, he did not even dare to inform me about the reply he had received. The snub must have been thorough. It was for the sake of priesthood that I had been ready to study theology, and then, if I were not accepted by the Church, to return to the Volksschule teaching. (In Germany children between 6 and 14 years were obliged to visit this school, called Volksschule, if they didn’t go to a special school). But I was not ready to take up additional graduate studies without any professional prospects. After all, I had had to finance the 5 years of theological studies in Munich out of my own resources. At least another 3 years were required for a doctor’s degree. My savings had long been exhausted. For the doctor’s hat I would have run too seriously into debt, without the slightest prospect of subsequently finding an even half-way appropriate post.

( b) At the end of my studies I experienced personally what other women theologians had lived through before me. A few clerical advocates are not strong enough to move the great barrier that exists against woman in Church ministry!

To be a teacher of religion in a secondary school was hemmed in by so many difficulties, that I preferred to return to primary school teaching. After some time, and in accepting some financial forfeiture, I was re-admitted to civil service from which I had had to seek release when I went to study theology. From October, 1960, I was settled in Neukirch, a small village school in the area of the Lake Konstanz, and had 56 children, aged 6 - 10 years in my class.

Important Connection found through Service in Small Village School

When I had been in Neukirch for two years, the date for the opening of the Council was announced: October, 1962.

I can still see it today as an act of God’s Providence that, precisely at Neukirch, I should meet a Salvatorian priest, Fr Leone Ruess, who at that time was working in Rome. There did not seem to be much of a chance to get admission to the Council through his good offices, but he promised that if there were entrance tickets available, possibly for the opening worship, he would procure one for me.

From the point of view of the school programme the prospects were favourable for my journey to Rome in October. Neukirch is situated in the hop-growing area; the children were needed for hop picking. So there was every chance that one or two weeks of the autumn holidays would fall into the period when the Council would be taking place.

Again and again, the thought occurred to me, “Should I not petition the Council for the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood?” Then I would quickly rebuff such an idea, because I was afraid that this request might engender more negative reactions than allow me to accomplish anything positive.

Another Important Junction

Then, in September, 1962, I received mail from my former student chaplain of Munich, Fr George Waldmann, S.J. He had been allowed to have a holiday in Switzerland, he wrote. Just at that time he discovered in the Swiss newspaper “Vaterland” an announcement that would interest me, he thought. He sent me the cutting: it was the report about a Frau Dr Gertrud Heinzelmann who had sent a petition to the Second Vatican Council, requesting the admission of women to the priesthood. This Swiss lawyer based her demands principally on equal rights for women.

This way of argumentation worked in me like a motor. Up to now I had been afraid that an un-polemic, theological, pastoral justification for the ordination of women would only unleash increased resistance among the authorised circles in Rome; now I tried to imagine how much more vehement a resistance would be provoked if the question be approached from the aspect of women’s rights as in the Council contribution of this Swiss lawyer.

Although it was getting late for contributions to the Council, this incident became a decisive moment for me, and I made up my mind there and then to still dispatch a petition for priesthood of women to the Vatican Council, but on the justification that had always been of prime importance for me: for years the Church has been complaining about the shortage of priests, a good number of parish communities no longer had their own parish priest - that is where I wanted to step into the breach, so that despite the lack of male priestly vocations, people could be led to the Faith, to Christ, to the Church, that they may attain salvation. This motive was to emerge strongly from my petition.

My First Conciliar Petition

Fortunately, I did not have to start from zero point. I could refer back to letters I had written to the Pope, also to a prelate in Munich, who had been commissioned by Rome to discuss the topic of priesthood for women with me (meaning: to dissuade me from it). So I was able to reach back to a part of the argumentations and formulations which I had already worked out in these letters. Alongside my school duties, I composed my petition for the High Second Vatican Council within a few days and nights. On twelve DIN A4 pages, typed in single spacing, I pleaded for the ordained ministerial priesthood for women. On two further pages, I asked that in public worship, women should be specifically addressed, that they may serve Mass, that women trained in theology may be represented at the Council; and then I dealt with other juridical questions regarding the position of women in Church and society.

I wrote a covering letter to the Pope, another for the Council secretariate, and a third to the bishops from German speaking territories. What made me circulate the petition, which I sent to the Council and the Pope, additionally to the German speaking bishops? Although I did get a sign from the Vatican now and then that my mail had been received, I did not know what actually happened to my letters, and what would be the fate of my petition. Did they wander into the waste paper basket? Or collect dust in the archives? Perhaps this danger could be countered by an additional mailing to bishops. I also hoped that among the bishops there might be a few supporters of the ordination of women - just in case the Council ever came to a consultation on this matter. After all, it was precisely the German bishops I had heard complaining about the shortage of priests, in their joint Pastoral Letters. It was not news to them, for the problem had been urgently recommended to us, the faithful, by the Catholic press, from the pulpit of the parish church, also in the prayers on Priests’ Saturday.

I received unexpected help in my mailing project from the Catholic Sunday paper. It published, as if to order, just when I needed it, a list of the names and sees of all German bishops, perhaps the exact address was given too. My local community of Neukirch owned a duplicator, used for the community newsletter that went to all the households. Upon my request, I was allowed to borrow the copier; the mayor’s secretary instructed me in its use and also gave me (for remuneration) a number of stencils, carbon fluid, duplication paper and all that I needed for the job.

On top of school duties - and the composition of the text - there was the work of typing the stencils, multiplying, stapling together, addressing envelopes, taking the letters to the post office. My colleague, Rösle Hettich, helped me with the duplicating, without even asking what it was that I was multiplying. Everything was done in hectic haste, within a few days and nights. The sections of the petition and the accompanying letters bear the dates of 3rd, 4th and 5th October. The Second Vatican Council opened on 11th October, 1962. I wanted to be in Rome for that date.

I did not give my Council petition to the press, so I don’t know how it came about that the French journal, “Informations Catholiques Internationales” could carry a report on it. Neither do I know how a missionary in South Africa got the information. He wrote to me concerning my request to the Council. At that time I had no idea of press and press agencies. I was waiting in suspense for how I would fare in Rome!

Before the Beginning of the first Council Press Conference in the German language

Shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the first Counciliar Press Conference for all German speaking journalists was held at the Generalate of the Salvatorians in Rome. Fr Leone Ruess SDS, whom I had met at Neukirch, (the village near the Lake of Konstanz where I was teaching) invited me to it. I was happy to avail myself of this opportunity. Before the start of the press conference, Fr Bonaventura Schweizer, the then Father General of the Salvatorian Order, told this little preamble to a small group of guests about an unexpected hurdle.

After the Vatican Council had been announced by Pope John XXIII, the Curia proceeded with preparations according to the directives of the then valid Code of Canon Law, the Codex Juris Canonici of 1919. In this it was foreseen that for a Council all bishops were to be invited, as well as the superiors of all the older religious orders of men, namely those established in Canon Law of 1919. This meant that the more recently established orders would not be invited, although, in many cases, they had more professed members than some of the older orders, e.g. Benedictines or the Cameldulese. But because they were newer orders, they had not found mention in Canon Law. Not to be invited to the Council for this reason was felt to be a case of discrimination. They petitioned the competent authorities at the Vatican for admission to the Council, with the justification: “We have many more professed members than the older orders and accomplish much good and devoted work in the Church.” But the request was rejected. The superior generals of the orders concerned would not let themselves be defeated and presented another petition. Without success. The process was repeated several times. A fortnight before the opening of the Council they had still not been admitted. Another push forward helped. The superiors of orders counting a given number of professed members (1000 ?) received an invitation just a few days before the Council opened.

According to the old - and presumably the new - Code of Canon Law, superior generals of women’s orders are not invited, regardless of their being old or more recent orders, having many professed members or few, no Council participation was foreseen for women, whether they lived inside or outside of convents, not even as observers, certainly not with any right of voice, vote or motion. My request, “that women too may be represented at the Council, in particular, women trained in theology”, as I had submitted to the Council in my petition of October, 1962, had very likely not yet been read in Rome.

A Question to Stimulate Thought

As the Council’s first German press conference began, Bishop Kampe, Auxilary Bishop of Limburg, at that time the Bishop to the Press, gave a lecture; he spoke at length but said little of concrete value.

The press conference really became interesting when the journalists men and women alike, were allowed to ask questions, some rather trivial and just practical, e.g. where do you get tickets for the opening service? - when does it start? - when and where will journalists get their information about the course of the Council’s progress? ...

I sat there and was conscious of a division within myself. On the one hand, I had to give my full attention in order to remember the questions asked and answers received. On the other hand, I was considering with pounding heart: could I, as a guest of Fr Leone, dare - as I was a non-journalist - was I allowed to bring a problem to the attention of this crowd of people filling the hall? If yes, how should I tackle it skilfully? I raised my finger, and - surprise, I was called on. Although I knew perfectly well that women had not been invited to the Council, and although I had learned from the Salvatorian Superior General that the superiors of some of the men’s orders had had to make a strong plea to be granted a place and voice at the Council I put this question: “Have women also been invited to the Council?” There was a deadly silence - you could have heard a pin drop. The problem was on the plate. I had a feeling that many were happy that Bishop Kampe had been given a nut to crack. All were curious to see how he would react. He replied cleverly, his joke meaning to give a comforting sound: “Perhaps to the Third Vatican Council!” Roaring laughter like an applause to a successful joke! I had the feeling: now he has got the laugh on his side. Was the answer comforting? The First Vatican Council took place in 1869 - 1870; if it were to take another 93 years for the next Council (1869 - 1962) then women would have to wait rather a long time for their “possible admission”.

When the laughter had died down, there were more questions and answers back and forth. After a while I had another occasion to ask, “I have heard that the superiors of some men’s orders were only invited to the Council at the last minute. How about the women’s orders, many of whom have more professed members than the men’s orders? Were there any last minute invitations?” The bishop replied in the negative. The listeners accepted it rather calmly.

After the First Press Conference

I had drawn considerable attention to myself with my question, ‘Have women also been invited to the Council?" Later, a Benedictine priest, a Fr Placidus Jordan, came over to speak to me. He told me about a Swiss woman lawyer, a Dr Gertrud Heinzelmann who had petitioned the Council for the admission of women to the priesthood. I told him that I already knew about her and that I myself had also addressed a like petition to the Council. At his request, I gave him a copy of the same. I took Fr Placidus to be a guest at the conference as I was, not a journalist.

A question from the President of St Joan’s International Alliance, as to how my Council contribution came to be published, awakened a suspicion in me, (as I was writing these lines in January, 1991), that it may have been Fr Placidus who passed on my text to the Informations Catholiques. But he had not asked me if I agreed to it; we have never talked about it. Perhaps my question, which had only been meant to be thought provoking, caused me to be taken for a journalist and that I had free access to the Stampa, the Vatican Press Office, that I could go in and out of it in the manner of all journalists; it is here where, divided as to language groups, the journalists daily received the latest news of the Council’s proceedings. While in Rome, I went there daily at 1 o’clock to get the summary of the Council’s day ‘piping hot’, delivered by Mgr Fittkau for the German speaking journalists. I also helped myself to the typed and multigraphed summaries of the different Council days.

The Feuerreiter (The Fire Rider), a Catholic illustrated journal, reported the incident of the First Conciliar Press Conference under the subheading, “The Provocative Question.”. Ferdinand Örtel enlightened his readers, “Many of the journalists are not Catholics and so ask questions that are taken for granted by Catholics:" “were any women invited to the Council?” It seems that the writer could not imagine that such a question could stem from the mouth of a Catholic theologian who knew very well, and regretted very much, that no women had been invited.

A Year Later

Pope John XXlll died on Whit Monday, 1963. The Council adjourned. The question was: “Will the Council continue?”. The Cardinals elected a Pope who was ready to risk the continuation, Pope Paul VI. When the Second Session began, it was time for hop-picking again, so I was able to make my way to Rome. When I arrived, the press conference was nearly over, the opening address by Bishop Kampe and the ensuing discussion. Council Fathers, clergy, journalists, were standing around chatting. As soon as I stepped into the hall (again the Generalate of the Salvatorian Fathers), I was greeted with loud ‘hellos’ by Fr Leone and others who recognized me from the previous year. They said, “You are arriving precisely today, the day on which something memorable has happened. The highly esteemed Council Father, Cardinal Suenens of Brussels spoke up today and said, ‘Half of humanity is made up of women. The Church too, at least half of it, is made up of women; here at the Council, where are the women?’ - he received tremendous applause.”

This was balm for my soul. And behold, something happened: Paul VI picked up this appeal and announced that women should be invited to the Council as “auditors” (observers); he nominated first one, then more auditors, to the total number of 16.

Two Years Later

When I came back to Rome during the autumn holidays of 1964, I was able to admire the photographs of the Council’s first women auditors, exhibited among others at the Stampa. Unfortunately, they were all women of whom I had never heard as having supported the admission of women to the Council. Women who could have followed the Council’s debates with the necessary theological training and competence had not been asked. There was no one either from Belgium, Cardinal Suenens’ own country. My impression: those who are called, harvest what others have sown. Although, as a teacher, I should not have been free to attend one entire, and even less, several Council sessions, I was still hurt that not one single woman theologian had taken part. It required several ‘Suscipe’ prayers to get over this.

I was still in a corner, fighting off tears, wiping a few from my face, when a gentleman approached me, and introduced himself as Dr Klein, representative of German South West Radio. He asked me if I would like to write something for SW Radio. I would like it all right, but I had to be assured that he, on his part,would be ready to ‘come under fire’. He agreed, but asked, if - for a start - I would write something about the women auditors at the Council. I interviewed two out of the 16. My article, “Women at the Council” was broadcast on Sunday, 8th November, 1964, by Church Radio.

In 1965 there followed my book review of “The Forgotten Partner” by Elizabeth Schüssler, and a slightly longer broadcast on the theme of “Should Women in the Church be Silent?”

In 1966, Radio Germany (Deutschlandfunk) took two contributions of mine: “Women in Judaism” and “Women in the New Testament”; however, they abbreviated the latter considerably - so as to allow a gentleman Professor of Theology, to also get a word in.

Looking Back

Considering that

( a) in November, 1962, already, the first Catholic layman

( b) toward the end of the first Council Session already, 40 non-Catholic men were admitted to the Council as observers, theologians, representatives of non-Catholic churches,

( c) that in September, 1962, Pope Paul V1 had already announced the establishment of a secretariat for non-Christian religions (to date there is still no secretariat for Catholic women),

While it was not until the third Council Session that women were allowed to take part as observers, not a single theologian among them, (compared with 40 non-Catholic male observers), then one gets some idea of how low Catholic women rank in the eyes of our churchmen.

Nevertheless, there is a little comfort: what did Bishop Kampe say in reply to my question at the first press conference? “Maybe at the Third Vatican Council.”

After all, 16 women had been admitted to the third Council Session, not after 93 years, only after 2 years waiting!

In 1987, at the Synod of Bishops in Rome - even if a Synod does not have the same rank as a Council - women were even allowed to speak! I shall never forget how one laywoman auditor, at the offertory of the closing worship, carried the chalice to the papal altar, she carried it with such great dignity, and a face radiant with joy.

Looking at the discriminating barriers against women that still exist today, I can, and I want to, appreciate the progress that has been achieved; effectively considered, it is minimal, but when measured against the obstacles that had to be overcome, there has, after all, been considerable progress.

Josefa Theresia Münch Laupheim 1991


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