Will Women Priests Change the Church?

Catholic women priests are an oxymoron for the Vatican. It considers them automatically excommunicated before the holy oil is dry on their hands. Other Catholics accept them as sacramental ministers and are delighted with the innovation. Still, others, myself included, want far deeper structural changes in the Catholic Church such that priesthood loses its baked-on charm and ministry becomes the expected task of adult members. This is an important theological conversation that the Vatican wishes would go away. Memo to them: it is just starting.

Pink Smoke Over the Vatican is a new documentary that is making the rounds at film festivals (it will debut in New York on February 12 at the Athena Film Festival, hosted by Barnard College). The title refers to protests held at churches around the country during the Conclave in 2005 that elected Pope Benedict XVI where women created pink smoke—instead of the traditional white smoke that heralds the choice of a pope—to draw attention to the fact that the election was a men’s club affair. (Only Cardinals under the age of eighty may vote and no women are cardinals yet.)

Catholic women have been working on eradicating sexism from the Church for decades; in this well-made film, director/producer Jules Hart describes some of the history of this struggle, focusing on one aspect in particular. I only wish the film told more of the story—it is a complex and rich one that deserves a fuller airing.

Apartheid at the Altar

The film tells the tale of women who have chosen to be ordained as part of what is called the Roman Catholic WomenPriests (womenpriests is all one word) movement, whose mission is to create “a new model of ordained ministry in a renewed Roman Catholic Church.” But there are many models of women’s leadership in Catholicism; I think it is important to frame the film in the context of the larger movement for change that characterizes 21st-century Catholicism, lest viewers are left with an incomplete picture.

Part of the movement is indeed focused on women’s ordination, the lack of which is one of the most obvious signs that institutional Catholicism relegates women to second-class citizenship. In the movie, many wonderful women describe their priestly vocations from childhood, their calls to ministry, and how they have struggled to fulfill them. Patricia Fresan, now a bishop with the RCWP group, speaks matter-of-factly about being a professor of homiletics in a seminary while being barred from preaching on account of her gender. She connects apartheid in her native South Africa with this apartheid at the altar. Alta Jacko draws on Sojourner Truth as part of her inspiration to become what she was forbidden to be by a patriarchal Church. Victoria Rue laughingly tells about distributing Necco Wafers to the children in her neighborhood when they played Mass.

There is a lot of footage of ordination ceremonies with women in colorful vestments laying hands on one another to confer the sacrament—all of the familiar Catholic “smells and bells,” but with women in charge. Interspersed throughout the film are comments by Ronald P. Lengwin, priest spokesperson for the Diocese of Pittsburgh who has a weekly radio show called Amplify. He repeats and repeats the institution’s position that it simply cannot ordain women because Jesus did not do so, that the “deposit of faith” does not include it, that the “unity of the church” will be broken, and various other theologically discredited notions. He does so with the patience and equanimity of someone who has been mouthing these same old ideas for some time, come what may. I can imagine that he might, at a later date, just as easily say, “As we have always and everywhere taught, in the fullness of revelation, women are called to the ordained priesthood” if so instructed by higher-ups.  

That hierarchical system is at the heart of the problem. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few (ordained) men, and thinking for oneself is not a criterion for an ecclesial job in Catholicism. Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeoise, excommunicated for preaching the homily at one of the contested women’s ordinations, shows that it can and should be done especially by those who already enjoy clerical privilege.

The film includes some relevant historical matters. Dorothy Irvin’s study of catacomb frescoes that contain images of women is of interest. So, too, is the story of Ludmila Javorova, who was ordained a priest in 1970 by Bishop Felix Davidek of the underground Church in Czechoslovakia. With many priests and nuns in prison, that community needed sacramental ministers. The Vatican obviously recognized her ordination enough to ban Ludmila from priestly functions in 1990 when male priests became more plentiful again. What escaped them is contemporary sacramental theology that holds that a community, and not the presence of an ordained person, is what is necessary to celebrate the Eucharist. But that theology would put the Roman officials out of business.

In 2002, seven women were ordained on the Danube (to avoid the jurisdiction of a German or Austrian bishop) by a bishop whose own episcopal status as “valid but illicit” was enough for the women to claim to be in apostolic succession. Two of those women were eventually ordained as bishops by still-unnamed male bishops. The women bishops have gone on to ordain dozens of women priests and bishops in similar ceremonies. This is the beginning of what is referred to in this film as the ordination of Catholic women. However, the movement is so much older and more diverse that such telescoping does not convey the full picture.

The Origins of the Fight for Women’s Equality in the Church

St. Joan’s International Alliance, a suffrage group founded in London in 1911, was the first to raise the ordination question. According to Belgian writer Anne Marie Pelzer,

the Alliance put to the Holy Father its first official request for women to become deacons (1961), then for lay men and women to be present at the Council, as observers and experts (1962). In 1963, it presented a very cautious and respectful resolution to the Pope on the admission of women to the priesthood. 

Pioneering feminist scholars—including Mary Daly, Catherina Halkes, Gertrude Heinzelmann, Joan Morris, and Ida Raming—were affiliated with the Alliance. Their writings laid the groundwork for the later movement. American member Mary B. Lynch posed the question of women’s ordination to her Christmas card list in 1974. Her friends’ enthusiastic responses led scholars and activists to plan a national gathering to discuss this idea, then still considered outlandish. 

In November of 1975, the Women’s Ordination Conference took place in Detroit, Michigan; the eponymous organization arose from that spirited event. WOC sponsored another meeting in 1978 in Baltimore where women were very specific about the kind of renewed priestly ministry they would accept: one without clericalism, without mandatory celibacy, without hierarchy, but with the inclusion of all and a focus on social justice.

WOC became the go-to organization on these matters, holding subsequent meetings and consultations, publishing theological and ministerial resources, and working with women on a range of ministerial options. The Vatican issued various documents against the ordination of women, each one successively more defensive than the last. Bishops’ committees met to ponder these matters and blow off steam about how scandalous the whole idea of women priests really was. Women simply went ahead with their ministries. Feminist theologians laid out the intellectual contours of a renewed Church. Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) emerged as national and regional movements sprang up in many places.

I found it odd that almost none of this history—especially the work of WOC, and very little of the theological spadework—was included in the documentary. Granted it may not make great video, but it is an integral part of the story. And there is more.

Thinking Beyond Ordination

Some Catholic women were so scandalized by the institutional Church’s rejection that they got ordained in other traditions. I like to think of them as Catholic priests too. Still others simply left the Catholic Church disgusted. Lots of Catholic women went to seminary and completed graduate programs in theology, discovering along the way that ordination was not a magic bullet, that ministry takes many challenging forms, and that a hierarchical model contradicts Christian claims to equality and mutuality. For many women in canonical religious communities, nuns or sisters, the questions became even more complicated as the contradictions piled up: how to be a member of a group that is connected with a structure that relegates women to inferior status, how to value the Eucharist knowing women cannot decide where and when to celebrate it licitly, how to feel any allegiance to an institution that shows blatant disdain for women, their talents, insights, and decision-making.

Many women, myself included, began to think beyond ordination to new forms of Church that approximated what theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza so aptly named “a discipleship of equals.” These women-church groups, as they are known, form loose networks of small base communities (in the U.S., the Women-Church Convergence). They function quite nicely without benefit of clergy and with broad participation by their members. There are many other house churches, unaffiliated parishes, even the occasional creative affiliated parish that are gathering places for postmodern Catholics. Many see ourselves as much in “catholic,” small-‘c’ terms, as part of widespread religiously motivated efforts to love and do justice, as we do in “Catholic” terms. Catholicism is changing.

There are many issue-specific Catholic groups. The coalition that is called the Catholic Organizations for Renewal (COR) includes Dignity (with a focus on LGBTIQ people), Catholics for Choice (reproductive justice workers), Call to Action (working for justice and equality), WOC, Women-Church Convergence, among others. No doubt the Vatican has cause to be worried by more than women priests. The whole Roman house of cards is collapsing as the extent of sexual abuses becomes clear, with fingers pointing upward to the top officials who were complicit. There is another movie to be made here in which the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) will play a starring role.

Ministry as Community Challenge

It is important to see women priests in the company of these many colleagues who love the Catholic community enough to challenge and change it. Otherwise, despite their admirable intentions and their determination to change a sexist system, I worry that women priests risk being reduced to the 21st-century answer to a shortage of male priests (as their fore-sister was in Czechoslovakia). I fear they will be co-opted by the same officials who now denounce them. Already the churchmen use them. Instead of ignoring the women and letting the chips call where they may, Roman officials have found that by excommunicating women priests they have a convenient way to distract from the criminal activity of priest pedophiles and bishops who covered up their crimes.

Note that while every woman priest has been excommunicated, not one of those men has been.

Contemporary understandings of priesthood are changing. Outmoded biologistic understandings of apostolic succession—the hands that laid the hands that laid the hands—are giving way to fuller understandings of the whole community following in the spirit of the Jesus movement. Eucharist belongs to everyone, not just to the priests who confect the sacred mysteries. Liturgical leadership is but one component of ministry. Teaching, preaching, organizing, even lobbying and social change work are part of the job description. No one person can do it all; ministry is a community challenge.

Symbols are changing too. Individual ordinands prostrating themselves are hard to square with this new theology. Priesthood in the old model—with vestments, clerical collars, and claims to special status—is rapidly going the way of the dodo. Women do not need to resurrect or reinforce it.

The crying needs of a multi-religious world, not the narrow needs of any one religious group, now set the agenda for ministers. Many feminists work as chaplains for more than Catholics in hospitals and hospices. They minister in universities and prisons with all who need their attention. This is the new “priesthood of all believers” that has a far broader mission than ever before.   

A lot of the same people involved in the struggle for Catholic women’s equality are also part of other movements for justice and peace. School of the Americas Watch, reproductive justice, LGBTIQ issues, anti-poverty and anti-war efforts count on their leadership. Shelters for the homeless, safe houses for abused women and children, and meal programs are just a few of the places where these people work. This is the new face of Catholicism—it is not ringed by a clerical collar.

So do enjoy the movie—but please stay tuned for the sequels.