What Color is Vatican Smoke?

Yesterday the eyes of the world were fixed on a chimney over the Sistine Chapel, eager to see the color of the smoke that would pour out. And at 6:45 PM, the smoke that they saw was black, indicating that the current conclave of cardinals had failed to elect a new pope. (As of Wednesday morning, a decision has yet to be made.)

From a balcony across the square, however, smoke of a different color rose—pink smoke—generated by women priests and ordination activists. Their action, announcing that women deserve to be recognized as Catholic priests—and eventually as cardinals and popes—replicated “pink smoke” demonstrations held in front of US cathedrals during the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

And even as these two clashing shades of smoke were rising over the Vatican, reform Catholics in various parts of the U.S. were coming together to view Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, a documentary film about the movement for Catholic women’s ordination, and, in particular, about Roman Catholic Womenpriest (RCWP), a group that began with the 2002 ordination of seven women on the Danube River and has expanded to include several hundred women priests and bishops and the communities they lead.

Pink Smoke is a well-made film, and I found parts of it genuinely moving, especially the testimonies by women priests, bishops, and ordination activists regarding their feelings about being excluded from ordination by the institutional Church. I myself have never felt “called” to ordination but have never doubted the harm this exclusion does to all women, not just those who feel called. The filmmakers also do a fine job of weaving into the narrative the history of women’s ordained ministry—early Church mosaics of women celebrating the liturgy and such—and horrific misogynist statements by bishops and theologians.   

At the heart of Pink Smoke are the stories of a number of women priests, bishops, laywomen, and male clerics. Two figures get the most coverage, though, excommunicated Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois and RCWP bishop Patricia Fresen.

Fresen, a former Dominican nun who was expelled from her order for being ordained, is a memorable figure. In particular, as she speaks about her process of moving toward ordination she comes across as a truly humble human being—something that can be said all too rarely about Catholic bishops.

She is also a genuinely heroic woman, having being been arrested for allowing black children to enroll in the South African Catholic school she headed during apartheid. When she speaks of how frightened she was as she was taken to jail, I believe her completely. And she did not back down.

Nevertheless, I fear that Fresen’s heroic resistance to racial injustice provides the justification for certain seriously problematic assertions made in Pink Smoke. Early on in the film, Fresen narrates how, as a seminary professor, she was allowed to teach preaching to seminarians but was forbidden to preach herself during the Catholic liturgy. She then revisits her realization that the passage in canon law that excludes women from the priesthood is “the same as the apartheid laws…” That Church law, she tells viewers, is “just the same as saying only white people can live in the cities… that only white children can go to white schools… and it’s just as wrong.”

While I do not doubt that there are certain similarities between apartheid (as well as US segregation) and the exclusion of women from Roman Catholic ordination, and while I can believe that Fresen’s feelings about these two injustices are similar, it is not ethically acceptable to say that they are “just the same.”

Candor requires me to admit that I heard Fresen make much the same argument at a 2005 conference in Philadelphia marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Detroit women’s ordination conference. At the time I thought perhaps Fresen didn’t understand how ethically problematic such a comparison is: according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, seven thousand black South Africans were killed under apartheid, and the number imprisoned was far higher. The Catholic Church neither kills nor imprisons ordained women and their supporters; excommunication, while painful, is not at all the same, even when financial losses accompany it.

In 2007 I published an article in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion explaining in some detail why highly educated white women simply cannot say that these two injustices are “exactly the same.” I have no doubt that Fresen has seen that article. I’m shocked that she’s still making this unacceptable argument.

The rest of Pink Smoke expands on the analogy between the exclusion of women from Catholic ordination and the horrors of slavery and apartheid. The filmmakers are careful to include one black womanpriest, Alta Jacko, who compares her decision to become ordained to Sojourner Truth’s resistance to slavery.

What an African-American woman says about ordination and slavery is none of my business. And I have no problem with white women’s ordination activists stating, as some do in Pink Smoke, that their courage to stand up to the Vatican and the bishops is inspired, in part at least, by the example of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

But putting one African American woman priest into a film does not justify a group of almost exclusively white, highly educated women, employing the analogy used here to make their point. (And if you have any doubts about this, take a look at the slide show on the Roman Catholic WomenPriests webpage and count the black faces—then count the number of graduate degrees after the names of the almost exclusively white women interviewed in Pink Smoke.) As the African-American students at the black seminary I attended used to say to the liberal white women who cross-registered there, “Who ‘we,’ white girl?”

The pity of all this is that the exclusion of women from Roman Catholic ordination really is an injustice, one directly linked to other injustices that do indeed result in thousands of women’s deaths. This truth is acknowledged briefly in a reference in Pink Smoke to the African deaths caused by the Church’s prohibition of condoms. In general, though, I guess ethically complex arguments just don’t have the same appeal as graphic, unnuanced comparisons. Maybe the smoke being generated by the women priests and bishops in Pink Smoke over the Vatican really should be white after all.