On Monday, 12 women in bright white robes will board the Majestic, the flagship of the Gateway Clipper fleet, at the Station Square dock in Pittsburgh. The ship will become a floating church -- and the stage for what might be the most central controversy in Catholicism today. The robed women are in the vanguard of the growing womenpriests movement, the most flamboyant and incendiary challenge to the Roman Catholic Church's unrelenting discrimination against women. Declaring herself "present" (in Latin, ad sum), each of the 12 will be ordained priests or deacons by women bishops -- themselves secretly ordained to the episcopacy by active Roman Catholic male bishops whose names will remain locked in a vault until they die. This ceremony is totally verboten: Women's ordination or even advocating for it is forbidden by the Catholic Church, under pain of excommunication, which means no sacraments, ever, not even a Catholic burial.
By their visibility and accessibility, a small band of women are forcing a confrontation. They are asking, Is sexism a sin? How does the church reconcile its teaching that women and men are created in God's image, that once baptized, there is "no male or female" and "all are one in Christ Jesus," with its contention that women cannot represent the ultimate sacred or hold ultimate power through ordination because they are, literally, the wrong "substance"? The statement from the Diocese of Pittsburgh condemning the ordinations asserted this argument against women's ordination: that priests must resemble Jesus physically. That belief is based, in part, on the notion of the substance of a sacrament: in the case of the Eucharist, bread and wine; and of holy orders, a man. Comparing people to food, the press release said: "Just as a priest cannot consecrate the Eucharist if he uses something other than unleavened white bread and wine from grapes, so too a bishop cannot confer Holy Orders on anyone other than a baptized man."
The organizer of this event, who will become a priest Monday, is Joan Clark Houk, 66. With a wide smile and cropped salt-and-pepper hair, she is a cradle Catholic who remembers May crownings, daily rosaries and Catholic Daughters. Like many other Catholic women -- myself included -- her love for the faith, the Eucharist and the Mass, the rituals and traditions, is deep and indelible. "From my birth as a Catholic through this day, I have never doubted my Catholicism, never been away from the Church. I am Catholic, and will always be Catholic, " she wrote in her letter to Bishop Donald W. Wuerl, then head of the Pittsburgh Diocese, telling him about her upcoming ordination. She also took aim at Canon 1024, which restricts ordination to baptized men. "It is a sin for the Church to discriminate against women and blame God for it," she declared. "In obedience to the Gospel of Jesus, I will disobey this unjust law."
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The Roman Catholic womenpriests movement came into public view on June 29, 2002, when seven women were ordained priests on the river Danube between Austria and Germany, out of any bishops' clear jurisdiction. Presiding was the controversial Argentine Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi. Though no longer in good standing with Rome, he had been ordained a bishop and could therefore provide the apostolic succession required for ordination. In church speak, the new women priests consider themselves ordained validly but illicitly (because of canon law). Within two months, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, excommunicated all seven women and publicly chastised them for having "wounded" the church.
That action did nothing to quell the movement, which advocates "a new model of priestly ministry," a servant rather than an imperial priesthood, and seeks no break from Rome. In the years since the first ordinations -- as Muslim women have boldly led prayer services and the first female bishop has risen to head the U.S. Episcopal Church -- another 32 women (including today's 12) have been ordained Catholic deacons or priests, and 120 more are in training. These events have taken place on the Saone River near Lyon, France; Lake Constance between Germany and Switzerland; the St. Lawrence, between the United States and Canada; and in Barcelona, Spain. Secret "catacomb" ordinations have been held, too.
Today's ordinands are both longtime activists and more sedate recruits. One of the most notorious in church circles is Janice Sevre- Duszynska, to be ordained a deacon today (the step before priestly ordination for these women). She once presented herself at the ordination of a male seminarian at the Cathedral in Lexington, Ky., asking Bishop Kendrick Williams to ordain her, too. Sevre-Duszynska crashed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Washington in 2000, taking over the mike to read her "Statement for Justice for Women in the Church" until her power was cut off. An ardent peace activist, she has served time in the federal prison for civil disobedience. She thinks Catholic clerics should be out there doing the same. As she said to me, "Why aren't Catholic bishops out in front of the Senate Office Building or the Pentagon in sackcloth and ashes crying out for an end to the Iraq war?"
Houk's history in the church is lower key. Active in parish ministry for 30 years, she has prepared Catholics to receive the sacraments, conducted Christian education classes, and pastored two parishes without resident priests. Her call blossomed when she got her master of divinity degree at Notre Dame University in Indiana, sitting side by side with male seminarians, learning how to preside at Mass, celebrate Eucharist, hear confessions and anoint the dying.
Like many of the other women being ordained today, Houk is not celibate. She has been married for 30 years and has six children and five grandchildren. One of today's ordinands is divorced. Another describes herself as "lesbian by birth." Bridget Mary Meehan, a petite woman with a tight cap of blond hair, cheerily declares herself a "freelance nun" because her order is out of the pope's jurisdiction. She also heads Women-Church Convergence, a national association of women's worship communities, many of which have been quietly ordaining women priests for 30 years, since the founding of the U.S.-based Women's Ordination Conference.
In fact, the womenpriests movement did not spring out of whole cloth but has its roots in the worldwide movement for women's ordination in the Catholic Church. The women who launched the U.S. movement in the 1970s were energized -- as are women today -- by the legendary "Philadelphia 11," who in 1974 forced open the doors of the priesthood in the U.S. Episcopal Church. They were "irregularly" ordained by retired and resigned Episcopal bishops, an action that resulted in the denomination's approval of women's ordination the following year.
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As I've traveled around the country talking with women about the church, why they stay, what they love, what they're fighting to change, invariably a woman --sometimes young, most of the time older -- will rise and share her great dismay at the thought of women priests. Indeed, the Catholic Church is steeped in a rich sacramental tradition, and some cannot separate that tradition from the men who have claimed to exclusively represent it. But that has been changing. While in the 1970s, 29 percent of Catholics supported women's ordination, today some 60 percent do. In addition, as Peter Steinfels, author of "A People Adrift: The Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in America," explains, "the burden of proof has shifted." It used to be that advocates had to explain why women should be priests; today, the hierarchy has to explain why not.
Frankly, in attempting to defend the church's ban on women's ordination, Catholic spokespeople sound a little like used-car salesmen. They have a lot full of old models. You don't like this argument? No problem. What about the one over there? The Last Supper used to anchor a central argument. There, the teaching holds, Jesus commissioned the 12 male apostles to be the only leaders of his church, from whom all other leaders, male too, had to proceed. The idea of ordination came much later. The problem is, no one knows who was at that Passover meal. And, as theologian Elizabeth Johnson once said in a lecture, do we really think that Jesus, who was so welcoming to women followers, decided that night to leave all the women, including his mother, out in the cold? To which I would add another question: If women were allowed at the meal (which they had probably prepared), then when Jesus said over the bread and wine, "Do this in remembrance of me," did he also say, "only you guys"?
The hierarchy insists that the church has a constant tradition of ordaining only men. But what about Junia the apostle and Phoebe the deacon, in the Epistle of St. Paul to Romans? What about those tomb inscriptions for "Leta presbitera" and "Guilia Runa, woman priest"? What about Bishop Theodora, über-apostle Mary Magdalene, and Ludmila Javorova, who is still alive? In 1970, the late Bishop Felix Davidek ordained Javorova as a Catholic priest to serve in the underground church in communist-occupied Czechoslovakia, which she did until communism fell and the Vatican banned her ministry.
Here things get really sticky, with the church fathers essentially declaring that when applied to women, "apostle" doesn't mean apostle, "bishop" doesn't mean bishop, "priest" doesn't mean priest, "deacon" doesn't mean deacon, and "ordained" doesn't mean ordained. They, in fact, turned Junia into Junias, a man, until theologian Bernadette Brooton restored her to her rightful gender, and they dismiss the others as "wives of." Says Kathleen Strack, who has a master's degree in divinity and will be ordained a priest today, "The emperor has no clothes. It's clear that women have been ordained. Is [what the hierarchy does] a deliberate lie? Is it that no one remembers? I don't know, but they continue to perpetuate a falsehood."
Not surprisingly, church spokespeople vigorously denounce the movement for women's ordination. William Donahue of the Catholic League has dismissed the ordained women out of hand and declared their supporters to be "mad feminists" from "the asylum." In an e-mail response to my specific questions, director of communications Robert Lockwood called the rich concrete evidence of women's ordination "archaeological myth-making of the Da Vinci Code variety" and "hardly relevant." Perhaps the most ironic condemnation came from Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, the home diocese of Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, to be ordained a priest on Monday. He accused her of causing "confusion and discord," and said if she dared celebrate a sacrament, she would "further exacerbate the public scandal." Ironic because the Philadelphia Diocese has one of the most horrific histories of child sex abuse of any diocese in the country. The list of crimes by more than 60 priests against hundreds of children uncovered in District Attorney Lynne Abraham's 2005 grand jury report is almost too unbearable to read -- a teenage girl groped by her priest while she lay immobilized in traction, a boy who awoke intoxicated in a priest's bed to find the priest "sucking his penis while three other priests watched and masturbated," and a priest who told a 12-year-old boy that his mother had agreed to the priest's repeated rape of her son. The report clearly implicated two high-profile cardinals, John Korl and Anthony Bevilacqua, for keeping abusive priests in ministry long after their perverse predilections were known.
Women seeking ordination have been the targets of criticism from some in the church reform community, too. Many reformers, for good reason, want to see the whole Catholic clerical caste system leveled to the ground, making way for what they believe Jesus intended, a "discipleship of equals." But how to get from the current monarchical structure to a discipleship of equals without opening up the structure to the exiled -- women, married men, homosexuals -- who bring egalitarian ideals is a question that anti-ordination Catholic feminists rarely address. The Roman Catholic womenpriests movement -- aiming for a participatory, nonauthoritarian structure -- is having its own conflict over how to make this transition. Struggles over who should be admitted to the program led one of the bishops not to attend today's ceremony. Other differences have emerged, such as the issue of how bishops will be selected or elected, which have led to the establishment of a transnational structure committee.
And there are people who strongly support women's ordination, but not the route these women are taking. "While I am fully sympathetic with the spirit that informs this latest initiative, I expect it to have a very short shelf-life in terms of media attention, and little or no long-term impact on the life of the Catholic Church," Fr. Richard McBrien, a University of Notre Dame theology professor, wrote me. "Women's ordination will happen when there is a pope who is open to it, or when the depletion of male priestly ranks becomes so acute as to demand it."
Steinfels, the author, thinks along the same lines. While describing the question of women's ordination as a major one in the church today, Steinfels believes that "events like this are very marginal, that they have little reverberation beyond rather radical sectors in the Church, that they are not particularly welcomed or taken seriously by many of the advocates for women's ordination ... and they have no reverberation among ordinary women in the pews."
But National Catholic Reporter editor Thomas Roberts disagrees. "Very serious women, scholarly women, women who are dedicated to the Church and who have done a fair amount of training, are making a very serious decision essentially to remove themselves from the mainstream of the Church and who have done a fair amount of training, are making a very serious decision essentially to remove themselves from the mainstream of the Church to push the issue. Some would see it as lunacy, but prophetic statements are often viewed as lunatic."
Loyola University Chicago theology professor Susan Ross supports that view, seeing what the women are doing today as "revolutionary," in the spirit of the Philadelphia 11. She doesn't know "what big difference this is going to make in the long run," she says, but the very fact that this is the sixth ordination event shows that "this is not going away." Besides, she adds: "You don't make change by saying, 'Please, your Eminence, could you please change your mind about the ordination of women'?"
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After they're ordained, some of these women will preside at the sacraments -- Masses, baptisms, marriages -- only privately. But others, like Jane Via, who was ordained on Lake Constance last month, will assume public sacramental roles as Catholic priests. Via serves the new Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, which she created. Unable to use a Catholic church, this new community found a home in a Methodist church in San Diego. The Methodists are supporting DiFranco, too. Undaunted by Rigali's letter of warning, she will celebrate her first Catholic Mass in a Methodist church in Philadelphia on Aug. 8. In fact, the validation of these ordained Catholic women as clerical representatives of the Catholic Church by other Christian denominations may prove over time to be the most vexing issue for the Catholic hierarchy.
Victoria Rue, luminous last summer in white chasuble and red stole after her ordination on the St. Lawrence, is just back from England. She could not celebrate Mass in a Catholic church, but was cordially invited to do so at All Hallows Anglican Church in Leeds. And Rue has been celebrating Mass regularly (with two other women in the program and a married male priest) in the nondenominational chapel at San Jose State University, where she teaches. Notably, once the San Jose diocese learned about Rue, it ran an announcement in every parish bulletin declaring that she was not a Catholic priest, the sacraments she performed were invalid, and Catholics should stay away. They haven't.
And Jean Marie Marchant, another woman ordained on the St. Lawrence, but under a pseudonym, chose to go public last week about her ordination and resign from her position as director of healthcare ministry for the Archdiocese of Boston, according to the Boston Globe. In her letter to Cardinal Sean O'Malley, she charged that change would not come because women are doing "a good and worthy job," but that "something more dramatic and drastic had to happen."
Despite all of the hierarchy's protestations, the threats, the silencing, the firings, the expulsions and the excommunicating, the conversation goes on. And the women priests keep coming, giving Catholics a new representation of the divine. I'm reminded of an action by the Women's Ordination Conference back in 2000, in response to a million-dollar campaign by the Archdiocese of Chicago to recruit more priests. The diocese mounted a billboard announcing its campaign, and WOC mounted a dueling billboard. Hung over a major highway in Chicago, WOC's billboard read: "You're waiting for a sign from God? This is it. Ordain women."