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Vocation story of Gertrud Heinzelmann

Gertrud Heinzelmann

The following text is based on a press release by Dr. Ida Raming and Dr. Iris Müller on the occasion of Gertrud Heinzelmann’s death. Translation by Mary Dittrich.

Gertrud Heinzelmann, a great pioneer in the struggle for equal political rights for Swiss women and for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church, died on 4th September 1999.

In her memory, we point to important stages in her life, and to her life-long work for the liberation of women.

Gertrud Heinzelemann was born in Switzerland in 1914. From when she was young, she became aware of the need of women priests. Children were made to go to confession at an early age. For Gertrud it was a traumatic experience. “Already when I had to make my first confession, I felt a deep desire for a woman priest. I knew I would have revealed myself so much more easily to a woman than to a man since a man does not understand the fears and worries of a small girl . . . The woman whom I sought in my spiritual need did not exist.”

After matriculation, she read law and politics at Zürich University. She would certainly have wanted to study theology, but at that time it was not yet possible for women to study Catholic theology. In connection with work on her 1943 thesis on “The basic relationship between Church and State in the Concordats”, she became more precisely conversant with the status and valuation of women in theology and church. In the course of her scientific research, as she wrote later, she came across many a misogynistic text in patristics and medieval scholastic theology depicting woman as “merely inferior, non-cerebral matter, and therefore temptation .... Instead of the uplift which I had naively expected from theological thought, I found misunderstanding, humiliation and oppression ....”

“With growing horror” at such a devaluation of women, she compiled a copious documentation, chiefly of texts on women by Thomas Aquinas, which was later to be the basis of her submission to the Second Vatican Council, which was a world-wide first.

Gertrud Heinzelmann was extremely exercised, not only by discrimination against women in the Roman Catholic Church, but also in particular as a budding lawyer, by the low status of women in the Swiss State, where they had no political vote. On this she writes: “Women lawyers simply did not count in the society of those times. Men trained in the law, it appeared, could get anywhere. As for me, in all that range of opportunities nothing was left but a small open crack. I got a job as a lawyer in a legal and insurance association. The general absence of political rights for Swiss women bore down on me like a serious form of suffering from which I was demanding to be healed. The battle for women’s political rights was my road to recovery.”

As time went on, Gertrud Heinzelmann devoted herself to this fight. For years she was Vice-President of the Swiss Association for Voting Rights for Women; she was President and Vice-President of the Zürich Association for voting rights for Women; and she was a prolific publicist. So she played an important part in achieving equality for Swiss women in politics and civil law.

However, she never lost sight of the position of women in the Catholic Church, because in her experience “discrimination against women in State and society is only a part of the far greater discrimination against them imposed by Christianity .... especially in the Catholic Church familiar to me since my youth.”

So at the crucial moment, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, she was able publicly to claim that women in the Roman Catholic Church should have access to the diaconate and priesthood and thus to full equality, and to argue in support of this.

Her submission to the Council was first published in July 1962 under the title “Frau und Konzil-Hoffnung und Erwartung” (Woman and the Council - Hope and Expectation) in “Die Staatsburgerin” (the organ of the Zürich Association for voting Rights for Women).

In a roundabout way, we (Iris and Ida) got a copy of this journal. As no other Catholic woman raised her voice with such demands, we felt the decisive initiative by Gertrud Heinzelmann for the full equality of women in the Church to be a liberating sign of hope. At that time we were theology students, so we confronted the professors of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Münster University with this submission to the Council. The reaction was mainly surprised displeasure, and there was even mockery! The sole exception was Peter-Josef Kessler, at that time professor of Canon Law, who later made it possible for one of us (Ida Raming) to write a thesis on the legal and dogmatic bases of the ecclesial law (canon1024 CIC) which excluded women from ordination and thus from all the so-called ordained ministries (diaconate, priesthood, episcopate).

In 1963 Gertrud Heinzelmann and we met in Münster. This led to collaboration which developed into the first critical analysis of the status and valuation of women in the Roman Catholic Church. It was a compendium of several Council submissions and articles containing and substantiating the claim to access to all ecclesiastical offices, the call for reform of liturgical language, etc. The title of this German/English brochure was: “We won’t keep silence any longer! Women speak out to Vatican Council II”. The book was published in 1964 by Interfeminas-Verlag, set up by Gertrud Heinzelmann because at that time no Catholic publisher would touch the book!

Thanks to the active help of the Benedictine priest Dr Placidus Jordan, journalist and theologian, Gertrud Heinzelmann’s Council submission and “We won’t keep silence any longer!” became known to the Church’s public. There were counterblasts, there was hurtful mockery and abuse - because within the Church’s sphere these claims were held to be revolutionary. Unfortunately, a number of women, including theologians, also reacted aggressively and insultingly to this publication.

Although Gertrud Heinzelmann was able to gather the fruits of her labours in the political-social field (the vote for Swiss women) it was, sadly, not granted to her to see similar progress for women in the Church. Things could certainly be hastened but for the fact that too many Catholic women are either indifferent to the disenfranchisement of women in the Church, or refuse to show the necessary solidarity in the battle - because of the professional disadvantages and the efforts that would entail.

Fighters for the ordination of women, and thus for full equality of women the world over, feel a debt of gratitude to Gertrud Heinzelmann, because by means of her clear demands, founded in theology and law, she has set not only standards for the progress of Catholic women, but also an important milestone. We, who have known Gertrud Heinzelmann personally, shall continue to work as she would wish us to for the freeing of women from unworthy shackles.

Books by Gertrud Heinzelmann:

  • “Wir schweigen nicht langer! Frauen aussern sich zum II Vatikanischen Konzil.”, Zürich 1964.
  • Die getrennten Schwestern. Frauen nach dem Konzil”, Zürich 1967.
  • “Die geheiligte Diskriminierung. Beitrage zum kirchlichen Feminismus”, Interfeminas Verlag, Bonstetten 1996.

Iris Müller and Ida Raming

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