Solving the Mystery of Decree 14: Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society

By Margo J Heydt

As a Protestant feminist social work professor at a Jesuit University in the heartland for almost 20 years, Decree 14 has presented a mystery to me from my first encounter with it in 2003.  I was asked to assist an administrator with some diversity issues related to the showing of Vagina Monologues on campus and searched the internet for anything related to Jesuits and women.  What to my surprise came up?  Decree 14 from the Jesuits 34th General Congregation.  At the time, this short 1995 document did not turn out to be as helpful as I had hoped.  But the finding kept nagging at me. 

Decree 14 is a solidly feminist document apologizing in writing to women for Jesuit oppression of women and calling for Jesuits to actively listen to women’s experiences in order to act in solidarity with women.  It states, in part:

The dominance of men in their relationship with women has found expression in many ways. It has included discrimination against women in educational opportunities, the disproportionate burden they are called upon to bear in family life, paying them a lesser wage for the same work, limiting their access to positions of influence when admitted to public life and, sadly but only too frequently, outright violence against women themselves. . . . . Church social teaching, especially within the last ten years, has reacted strongly against this continuing discrimination and prejudice.

From my perspective, words like these did not seem to be a document that would emanate from an international Catholic order of religious men with approval from the Vatican. It also did not seem that the decree, which was almost ten years old at the time, was very well known.

The disconnect between the existence of Decree 14 and some of the ongoing struggles related to women’s issues on Jesuit and other Catholic university campuses made me “curiouser and curiouser,” in the words of Alice in Wonderland.  A few years later, I was fortunate enough to be a faculty member on an Ignatian pilgrimage through Spain from the birth place of Ignatius of Loyola to the apartment where he died in Rome.  Learning more history about the Jesuits and women through this and other endeavors only contributed to this curiosity.  Ultimately, I was awarded a Xavier University Jesuit Fellowship Sabbatical to solve the mystery of the “W” questions:  I wanted to know who wrote what, when, where, and how did it move through the Jesuit General Congregation to be issued as a Jesuit decree.  From my first reading of the decree, my gut told me that women were involved in this process somehow and somewhere, but I could not imagine how that could happen ever, much less in 1995. And then there was the question of why this came about.

Starting with the “who” question was more challenging than anticipated.  None of the Jesuits on the Xavier campus had attended GC 34 or had any idea about who was involved with the Decree. But Ken Overberg, S.J., provided some leads to other Jesuits who “might know something.” Simultaneously, upon discovering that the Jesuit archives in Rome would not be available, a research librarian finally located the information in a National Catholic Reporter of March 31, 1995 that boldly announced “Jesuits Pledge Solidarity with Women” and named the chair of the subcommittee of the GC Justice Commission.  Amazingly, all three primary Jesuit authors of Decree 14 were located, alive and well and still Jesuits. I interviewed all three in person as well as others who were engaged in the GC 34 process.

The three main co-authors came to the assembly in Rome from Ireland, Australia, and the USA and are still in those locations today.  Gerry O’Hanlon, S.J., in Dublin is credited by the others as driving the Decree 14 bus.  Patrick Howell, S.J., in Seattle and Bill Uren, S.J., in Melbourne served as co-editors and supporting cast members. The link between Decree 14 and Vatican II comes from the Signs of the Times lay persons groups that developed in various parts of the world due to Vatican II’s increased emphasis on the role of lay persons in the church.  Gerry credits Phil Harnett, SJ, with bringing Signs of the Times groups to Ireland from South America.  Within some Signs of the Times groups in Ireland, Gerry O’Hanlon reports beginning to listen to women’s concerns. But Gerry admits he did not listen enough, at first. 

In 1991, Gerry and three Irish co-authors published a booklet, Solidarity, based on the Irish Signs of the Times seminars to engage Jesuits and lay colleagues to come together to “read the signs of the times.”  During 1991-1994, several women participating in those groups challenged the authors of the booklet about why no women’s issues were included even though they had been discussed. Two of those strong women’s voices belonged to Cathy Molloy and Edel O’Kennedy, who pointedly asked why there was no talk about solidarity with women.  Engaging in the writing of a second edition of the booklet incorporating solidarity with women prompted Gerry, who was one of the two delegates from Ireland to GC 34, to strongly urge the official assembly of the 223 Jesuits from 80 countries for consideration of the role of women. Five other Jesuit provinces in the preliminary meetings leading up to the Congregation had also urged consideration of justice for women in the church.

And, my gut was right. These men working on the sub commission on women decided that, as men, they should not presume to write a document concerning women without women’s voices.  All three told me that they did not know of any other General Congregation at which anyone outside the assembly had been consulted on any commission, much less women religious or women lay persons. Cathy Molloy and Edel O’Kennedy of Ireland as well as Sister Helen Clarke of Australia and others were asked for their input on some of the ten drafts of Decree 14.   

My research thus far solved Decree 14’s mystery of who, what, when, where, and how. But, as the 20th anniversary of the document is marked, it still seems to collect dust on the shelf.  Some events and writing occurred immediately after the Congregation in 1995 and then again in the United States on the tenth anniversary. But little else appears to be known about its contributions or effects. My lingering question now has become: what needs to happen for that to change? My hope is that dusting off Decree 14 can contribute to that change. The following conversion statement from Decree 14 can become an empowering call to action for women and men to work towards change:

In response, we Jesuits first ask God for the grace of conversion. We have been part of a civil and ecclesial tradition that has offended against women. And, like many men, we have a tendency to convince ourselves that there is no problem. However unwittingly, we have often contributed to a form of clericalism which has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction. By making this declaration we wish to react personally and collectively, and do what we can to change this regrettable situation.

Decree 14 should be widely shared among lay persons as well as in theology, women’s studies, and other classes in which social justice issues and religion are a part. As more attention is paid to Decree 14, it can be used to influence policy and procedures in many settings, as alluded to in the decree:  

It would be idle to pretend that all the answers to the issues surrounding a new, more just relationship between women and men have been found, or are satisfactory to all. In particular, it may be anticipated that some other questions about the role of women in civil and ecclesial society will undoubtedly mature over time... In this context we ask Jesuits to live, as always, with the tension involved in being faithful to the teachings of the Church and at the same time trying to read accurately the signs of the times.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of Decree 14, would be a good time to advance these recommendations.

Decree 14, GC 34 is available on many sites.  Here’s one:


Dr. Margo J. Heydt is Chairperson and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work of Xavier University in Cincinnati. She received the MSW from West Virginia University, and the Women’s Studies Certificate and the Ed.D. in counseling from the University of Cincinnati.