Just Call Me Marie: When Women Become Priests

When Marie Evans Bouclin spoke to the interviewer on Canada’s national radio last week, her voice was calm and confident. It was the interviewer who was excited. This phenomenon of Roman Catholic women, highly educated in theology and of a mature age, getting themselves ordained to the priesthood was a new item for her.

“Well,” Marie said, “people need us, and we are going to model a new ministry in a renewed church.”

What she does, in addition to enraging church authorities, is accept invitations from estranged Catholics, individuals and families, to baptize children, consecrate marriages, and accompany the elderly to death. She leads a support group for women healing from clergy sexual abuse. She gives advice to Bishop Patricia Fresen, the central figure in this contemporary Catholic drama being lived out globally. And she has remarkable equanimity, born of feminist convictions and a rich contemplative practice. She also co-pastors a breakaway Catholic parish of 150 people called “Christ the Servant” in a town 300 miles from where she lives. Husband Albert is her main chauffeur.

“What shall I call you?” asks the interviewer. “It can’t be ‘father.’”

“No,” she smiles, “just call me Marie.”

Bouclin is one of three Canadian women ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood since 2002. Worldwide, the number is 69 and counting.

For the official Roman Catholic Church, this grassroots activity of women claiming their “baptismal calling” is a dangerous evil and enormous threat. It has elicited thunderous denunciations, immediate excommunication of the first group, the “Danube Seven” in 2002, and recent stern statements about the “illicit and scandalous attempted ordinations.”

Marie, a bilingual Ontarian in her mid-sixties who lives in the blue collar, nickel-mining town of Sudbury, was once a nun. Then she married, had children, and worked for her diocese for many years translating and administering in the bishop’s office. Her radicalization was slow and steady. In 1992, she was fired by the bishop for criticizing the low status of women in the church. She began to counsel women who had been abused by priests. She studied theology in French at L’Universite de Sherbrooke in Quebec, and her thesis was published: “Seeking Wholeness; Women Dealing with Abuse of Power in the Catholic Church.” She earned an M.Div and began preparing, mostly through online courses, for ordination.

Bishop Fresen’s is another dramatic story. A Dominican nun from South Africa with a doctorate in theology, she taught homiletics to Catholic seminarians in Johannesburg but wasn’t allowed to preach herself in Catholic churches.

“We in South Africa have learned that the response to an unjust law is to break it,” she says. Leaving her community, she moved to Germany, learned German, and was ordained bishop in a secret ceremony by a European bishop in good standing with Rome.

The movement has expanded rapidly. In America, there are now fifty ordained women, in Europe fifteen. It was as if Catholic women, after years of exposure to critical biblical scholarship and feminist interpretations of church history, were ready to take action. They maintain they have not “self-excommunicated,” the usual phrase used against them, and they reject Rome’s condemnation.

Marie Bouclin’s ordination took place in 2007 in Toronto, in a welcoming suburban United Church. It created a joyful atmosphere and included the participation of well-known Canadian Islamic feminist, Irshad Manji, in the liturgy. The presiding bishop was the troublesome but convincing South African theologian, Patricia Fresen.

When Marie celebrates mass, it is friendly and relaxed. She uses inclusive language: God is creator, Jesus is our brother, “He” who comes in the name of the Lord becomes “the one.” She critiques “Lamb of God” theology, and asks the musicians to select hymns that contain inclusive language. She encourages experimentation with contemporary creeds in place of the Nicene Creed. She preaches about Fotina, the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well.

Of course the Roman Catholic Womanpriest movement is not without its critics, in addition to the expected ones. Eminent feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza at Harvard thinks that it is actually playing into the hands of Rome, taking on a clerical culture and imitating clerical ways. And John Wiijngards, a respected British theologian, believes that change in Roman Catholicism must come from within, from convincing its leadership and people of the rightness and historical validity of women priests and bishops.

But in the untidy and ambiguous world of social and ecclesial progress, the fearless witness of the Roman Catholic women priests has a power of its own to hasten such change.