The middle of the last century brought with it an upheaval in social order that quite literally threw society out of kilter. Common sense became the enemy, and liberation from established authority became the battle cry in the name of freedom. The changes in society were vast and sweeping, taking with them much of what people knew to be foundational and secure. Some of the changes were appropriate and necessary -- the raising of the dignity of all men as equal under the law as part of the civil rights movement, for instance. Other changes, questionable in necessity, ripped through our culture so quickly that few had time to assess, adjust and make sense of what was happening.
Abortion was one of those changes that entered the scene with break-neck speed, and like an out of control freight train, continues its chaotic course killing millions of babies a year -- elevated to a personal right, just not for the unborn victim. Vatican II was another change that came in response to a rapidly progressing culture that many people either, love, hate or just simply never took the time to understand; the latter reason being why so many people have no idea what they are supposed to believe and why as a practicing Catholic.
Vatican II was propagated as a means for the Church to clarify the fullness of doctrine, as well as, to reach those who were being pulled from the Church's moorings by the rip-tide of cultural enticements. Pope John XXIII recognized the need to address this cultural unrest that had been brewing for decades. His vision for the Council was to allow the Church to express herself and her doctrines in a way that could combat the egregious onslaught of sin that was taking hold and developing in such movements as Planned Parenthood (founded1942), and those that were to come in NOW (founded 1966), NARAL (founded 1970), etc. Secular humanist ideals were washing away the need for God, the sense of sin, personal dignity and formation of conscience.
Women, in a very aggressive and undignified way, determined that they no longer needed to be feminine; equality with men meant to cast off their compatibility with men and take on both a masculine role and nature. Obviously, this was a ridiculous notion that has lead not only to a loss of feminine identity, but confusion among society with regard to appropriate gender behaviors. The sense of chivalry is gone, and women are often left quite confused when a man hasn't the skills or the sensibilities to be honorable or polite in use of the social graces. She still holds those expectations of the male, but doesn't wish to admit that she would enjoy being a recipient of them. It is woman, who once again, is confusing the male and tempting him to a position in nature that is unnatural for him. (Cf. Gen 1)
Vatican II, then, took on the task of presenting Church doctrine -- not changing doctrine, but presenting doctrine -- in a way that sought to understand and speak to variants occurring in the culture. The Church saw the need to make inroads and protect the faithful from the harm of what was rapidly becoming the culture of death. In so doing, the Council issued a document in 1965 that outlined the role of the laity, Apostolicam Actuositatem - Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People. Contained in its pages are the rudiments of the Church’s mission and our valued role as laity in that mission.
This is particularly important for women, especially those women who are still caught in the mindset that the only way to achieve any success or to be recognized as having any value in the Church, or otherwise, is to usurp the role of the male; it is specifically for those women who can see no other vital role for themselves in the Church without entrance into holy orders.
St. Paul reminds us that snatching at equality with God is something that Jesus did not deem necessary primarily because He is God, but also because His dignity remained in His Person -- fully and perfectly complete in Who He Is. (Cf. Phil 2: 6-8) Are we not also supposed to imitate this example of Christ, right down to His obedience even unto death on a Cross? Why is envy such a problem if clearly we are supposed to empty ourselves and imitate Christ in both His dignity and obedience? Just because women have the ability to recite the words and go through the motions doesn't mean the charism belongs to them.
Here is what the Church says in her wisdom about the lay apostolate and women:
The laity carry out their manifold apostolate both in the Church and in the world. In both areas there are various opportunities for apostolic activity. We wish to list here the more important fields of action, namely, church communities, the family, youth, the social milieu, and national and international levels. Since in our times women have an ever more active shale in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Church's apostolate. (AA 9 -- emphasis added)
The Church is not telling women to sit down and do nothing but be good little girls -- not at all. She is saying very precisely, you have been given a role in society, one that is increasingly opening up to you -- USE IT WISELY. The Church is specifically sending women out to be active not only for the secular needs of community, but for Christ in her community. Women have a far broader reach in spreading the word of God in their surroundings than a priest ever could. He is there to provide the means for spiritual worship and the sacraments to the faithful. We, the lay faithful are the workers in the vineyard. We have a grand responsibility to bring Christ out into our everyday lives and witness to Him.
The document goes on to offer:
...centers of documentation and study not only in theology but also in anthropology, psychology, sociology, and methodology should be established for all fields of the apostolate for the better development of the natural capacities of the laity-men and women, young persons and adults. (AA 32 -- emphasis added)
Does this sound like a Church that wishes to subjugate women; an institution that wants to keep its women cooking, cleaning and doing nothing but the busy work? I believe the statement above advocates for higher education for all of the laity in areas that will help to increase their ability to know, love and serve Christ in society and on a deep personal level.
The Church goes on to empower the lay faithful:
Finally, the hierarchy entrusts to the laity certain functions which are more closely connected with pastoral duties, such as the teaching of Christian doctrine, certain liturgical actions, and the care of souls. By virtue of this mission, the laity are fully subject to higher ecclesiastical control in the performance of this work. (AA 24 -- emphasis added)
These are indeed vital functions! The Church depends on the assistance and participation of the laity in performing these pastoral duties. Often, these types of apostolates are lead and sustained in vitality by women. The Church not only condones the idea that women are able to perform these duties, but encourages them to do so.
When women begin to believe again that their dignity lies not in what they are able to achieve, but in how they were created as women, they will come to desire less those things that snatch at equality. Rather, they will embrace the gifts that God has given them as women and develop them to their fullest in society and in the life of the Church.