Ring-side seat for Jesuit

October 25, 2011 in General, News

gwhelan_01Gerry Whelan SJ was recently appointed ecclesiastical assistant to the “World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations” (WUCWO) by the Vatican. His day job is teaching theology in the Gregorian University in Rome. WUCWO is comprised of almost 90 member organizations from more than 60 countries, representing more than five million women worldwide. “I am a kind of chaplain to the board of the organization with a ring-side seat, witnessing this impressive organization at work.” On its webpage it states: “WUCWO’s aim is to promote the presence, participation and co-responsibility of Catholic women in society and the Church, in order to enable them to fulfil their mission of evangelisation and to work for human development.” Gerry is fascinated to learn about  more about this organisation and to support its efforts. Below his reflections about what he has been learning.



One of the expressions of the emergence of lay movements within a wider Catholic action ethos was the emergence in the early 1900’s of Catholic “women’s leagues.” In these organizations women found new ways to involve themselves in their parishes, to deepen their spiritual lives, and to receive support in their vocations in the realm of family life.

Women’s leagues also engaged in direct assistance of the poor, and in the  cultural and political involvement of the public life of their nations. It was especially this concern with the public sphere that prompted  women’s leagues in a number of countries to form, in 1910, “The International Union of Catholic Women’s Leagues.”

The countries represented in the organization at this early stage were: France, Germany, England, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, Lorraine, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay. All too soon after the founding of this union the First World War broke out. Suddenly women’s groups, especially in Belgium and France became heavily involved in humanitarian work that included medical care on the front lines, care of soldiers’ families, and the care of displaced children and orphans.

Immediately after the war, the Union’s profile grew as a major public organization. Once again members of the Union involved themselves in direct humanitarian work, including having English women’s groups organize the receiving of orphaned children from the continent.

Building on a strong reputation as a provider of this kind of direct assistance, the Union soon became engaged in wider affairs of international politics. This Catholic organization joined forces with other non-Catholic and non-religious women’s groups to form a “Disarmament Committee of Women’s International Organisations.”

As part of their contribution to this committee, the Catholic union collected the signatures of more than 26 million Catholic women on a petition for peace. In 1932, this petition was presented at the opening of the World Disarmament Conference which had been convened in Geneva by the League of Nations. Mrs Steenberghe-Engheringh, the President of the Union at the time, was the only official Catholic delegate to address the Conference. Sadly, of course, disarmament is exactly what did not happen in the 1930’s and the League of Nations turned out to be a dismal failure.

When Europe descended once again into a World War in 1939 the members of the Catholic women’s union once again found themselves focusing on a humanitarian care. This time, however, the work of the groups in Nazi territory included resisting government policies such as the proscribing and deportation of Jews. The Union was officially closed by the Nazi authorities and, in one example, the priest chaplain of the Union in Holland was jailed for his activities and died in prison.

In the post-War reconstruction the Catholic women’s league once again found itself involved in rebuilding structures of international cooperation. This time a story of success unfolded as the United Nations was created. The Catholic women’s union was a force in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and played a vital role in having member nations of the new UN organization accept the principle of representation by non-government bodies.



Soon after the war, the membership of the Catholic women’s union began to expand significantly, not least with organizations from Africa, Asia, and Oceania joining. The Union reorganized itself in 1952 and took on its current name: “The World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations” (WUCWO).

This reorganization included clarifying its identity in cannon law and its close relationship with the Vatican Curia. Membership of the constituent organizations of WUCWO at this time amounted to no less than thirty-six million women. This was not a centralized organization. Rather, the international office of WUCWO, in Paris, concentrated on animating national leaderships especiallyregarding the formation of their members. This formation continued to be in the line of what we can call the “Catholic action ethos”: encouraging members to take up their responsibility as baptized adults participating in the mission of the Church.

As one would expect, a moment of major importance for WUCWO was the advent of the Second Vatican Council. When Pope John XXIII asked that non-bishop auditors be invited to the Council the president of WUCWO of the time, Miss Pilar Bellosillo from Spain, was one of the first to be approached. Miss Bellosillo was then part of the delegation of observers chosen to assist at the solemn opening of the Council.

During the course of the four-year council Miss Bellosillo played a prominent role, both informal and formal in engaging with the fathers of the council. She played a direct role in the preparation of Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”).  She sensed that not just this document but all of the Council documents taken together constituted a kind of fulfilment of everything that WUCWO stood for. Nevertheless, even for WUCWO, Vatican II brought new things. Bellosillo described it as involving “the painful stripping of the obsolete” and “joyful reception” of new things.



Many women feel that there is a value of having distinct organizations for themselves within the Catholic Church and this was the case with WUCWO. Nevertheless, WUCWO has continued to experience the tension of just how to help in the post-Vatican II process of “striping the obsolete” and the “joyful reception of new things.”

Pilar Bellosillo remained as president of WUCWO from 1961 until 1974 and in a parting speech she commented on changes in WUCWO that she had witnessed after the council. She identified three major characteristics: that WUCWO now was becoming ever more international in its make up; that it exercised a commitment to ecumenism; and that in its social commitment it was increasingly using an inductive methodology of “See,” “Judge,” and “Act”.

WUCWO, during these thirteen years was always a bit advanced and has evolved continuously since without fanfare, although at times some normal tension was felt. I could say that during these years WUCWO has become less European in its international responsibilities, more open to the effective participation of other continents; within the reformist movement of the Church, WUCWO has become more ecumenical, more open to dialogue with other Christian denominations.

Inline with its desire to participate,it has become less specifically “feminine”, seeking to collaborate with individuals, groups and associations of the other sex; according to its objectives of human promotion of women, it has become an agent of development; according to its pedagogy, which stems from life, it has gone from a deductive to an inductive pedagogy, which involves a reflection on action. We could examine all facets of WUCWO and discover that in these thirteen years it has tried to be consistent with its aims and objectives, in accord with the progressive development of society and the Church.


After 1974-83 WUCWO underwent a period of Irish leadership. Mrs. Elizabeth Lovett Dolan, a Dubliner, became president, having been involved with WUCWO previously as a representative of past pupils of schools run by the Sacred Heart Sisters in Ireland. During this time the ecclesiastical assistant was the Irish theologian Fr. Dermot Lane (who is currently the President of the Mater Dei Institute of Education in Dublin).

The following decades witnessed the growth of WUCWO and in Africa it was particularly vibrant as is he case today. But there was one additional issue to note about the experiences and policies of WUCWO as it moved through the 1970’s and 1980’s  and that concerns its addressing of feminist issues.

As we all know, feminism arrived as an important dimension of culture during these decades, first in the developed North but also, increasingly, within the South also. As WUCWO always sought to play the role of a kind of think-tank for national women’s associations the question of how to relate to the new feminist consciousness became of central importance. Briefly put, successive WUCWO approaches have emphasized the need for discernment and the need to make distinctions between what is authentic and inauthentic in the feminist project.

Without a doubt, WUCWO finds much in modern feminist consciousness that is close to the ideals that the organization always struggled to realize. As Pilar Bellosillo stated in 1974, WUCWO had always been a “reformist movement” promoting equal respect for women both within society and within the Church. During her presidency Bellosillo founded a working group named “Women in the Church” which sought to publicize the discrimination suffered by women within the Church, in order to make it evolve.

This having been said, both during Bellosillo’s time and after, WUCWO has consistently protested about an unbalanced portrayal of the Catholic Church in some feminist circles. Furthermore, it has criticized the portrayal of women’s sexuality in some aspects of feminist thougth, which they deem not to be  in women’s best interest.

They note with appreciation Pope Paul VI’s critique of the effect of a “contraceptive mentality” in culture which tends to be associated with a break-down in family life. They agree with that pope that in many modern cultures, practices of the expression of sexuality often tend to favour the selfish needs of men. They point out that women tend to seek committed, long-term, relationships and are put at a disadvantage in a culture which does not support marriage. They add that this problem extends to cause suffering for children who have needs of stable family life with the presence of both a father and a mother.


A further point to note here is that WUCWO has continued to play an active role in the United Nations as one of the earliest non-governmental organizations to be involved with it. Its primary commitments are with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); the “Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); “The Food and Agriculture Organization” (FAO); “The International Labour Organization (ILO); and the “Human Rights Council” (HRC). We can note that there is an orientation toward poverty alleviation in many of these organizations. In this way we witness how national memberships from poor countries, such as those in Africa, are influencing the WUCWO agenda and how women’s concerns as experienced in developing countries will not always be identical with those articulated in the developed world.



In 1974 Pilar Billosillo had spoken of how “at times some normal tension was felt” as WUCWO struggled to find an appropriate response as Catholic women to the issues of the times. It can be said that such tensions did not get less as WUCWO struggled with questions of just what balance to strike in engaging with feminist ideas.

This debate is experienced particularly keenly when WUCWO holds its international assembly every four years. In 1996 a discussion began about moving the organization to a closer union with the Holy See by changing its status in canon law from being a “private international association” to being a “public international association” (see Canons 312-320). This shift involved WUCWO becoming unambiguously a voice of the official Catholic Church and led to a decision by some constituent groups to shift from full membership to associate membership. Such groups remained “private associations of the faithful” and thus held a certain greater autonomy. Thus, while the overall number of associated women’s groups in WUCWO has increased in the last few decades, there has actually been a certain amount of traffic in both directions.

If we have already described how feminist thought brought challenges for WUCWO from the 1970’s onwards. We can add that from the 1990’s to today it has been increasingly clear that the phenomenon of globalization is the next big influence on culture. WUCWO is ever-more convinced that  globalization makes its work ever more relevant. In their turn, national women’s associations increasingly acknowledge how important it is for them to “think globally while acting locally” and so take on board the animation coming from WUCWO.

We might note that instruments of WUCWO’s influence include a web-page that includes a “monthly message” and a newsletter published three times a year. Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that member organizations of WUCWO hold regional conferences every one or two years where ideas agreed upon at international level become promoted to delegates actually attending these conference.

We might say that more important again are the international assemblies of WUCWO held every four years and which set policy. The most recent general assembly occurred in Jerusalem in 2010 and, in the twelve resolutions it made, we can witness how WUCWO now seeks to respond to challenges to the well-being of women that increasingly have a globalizing dimension:

These resolutions included:

1.    End the Use of Information Technology in Sexual Exploitation of Children
2.    Promote a Covenant between Human Beings and the Environment
3.    Rescue the Children of the Street
4.    Campaign for a Culture of Life
5.    Work to Abolish Forced Marriage
6.    Strengthen Training of Catholic Leaders
7.    Defend and Support Migrants
8.    Commit to Ecumenical and Interfaith Dialogue
9.    Produce a Statistical Evaluation of Poverty According to Sex

— Gerry Whelan SJ