Monday, February 28, 2011

Roman Catholic Womenpriests: Differing Perspectives

Following are (at least) two differing perspectives on Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The first is from National Catholic Reporter columnist Jamie L. Manson. It was first published February 15 on the NCR website.

The second perspective is from Tony Equale and was first published February 21 on his blog in response to Manson's NCR piece.

The Progressive Catholic Voice offers both perspective in the hope of facilitating respectful dialogue on the topical issue of ordination in Roman Catholicism.


Women Priests Demonstrate
Profound Faithfulness to God

By Jamie L Manson

National Catholic Reporter
February 15, 2011

Late last week, a new iPhone app designed to help Catholics prepare for the confessional made its debut. The app tailors its questions to a person’s gender and vocation. So if you punch in both “female” and “priest,” you immediately receive the message “sex and vocation are incompatible.”

The women and men featured in the new documentary Pink Smoke Over the Vatican would beg to differ.

This weekend Pink Smoke had its debut as part of the Athena film festival hosted by Barnard College in New York. The film had been screened previously at the national Call to Action conference last November. The documentary chronicles the fight against the injustice of the ban on women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church.

The film’s title refers to the action taken by the Women’s Ordination Conference in the days leading to the elevation of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. Imitating the Vatican’s symbol of white smoke sent into the air after the election of a pope, the activists burned Pink Smoke to raise awareness of the critical lack of women in the papal election process.

Attendees at the Barnard screening were treated not only to the film, but also to a panel discussion featuring filmmaker Jules Hart, Good Catholic Girls author Angela Bonovoglia, Roman Catholic Womenpriest (RCWP) Jean Marchant, and Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who received a letter from the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in 2008 warning him of excommunication for refusing to recant support for women’s ordination.

These latter three panelists are also featured in Hart’s film, along with a variety of players in the women’s ordination movement. Interestingly, Hart herself is not a Catholic.

For those who have invested time and energy into supporting the movement, the film serves as a helpful review of the highlights in the struggle for women’s ordination. Those who are less knowledgeable about its history will benefit greatly from this hour-long introduction into the key historical moments and theological convictions behind the effort to achieve the full inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

The film touches on the verse from Romans 16:7 where Paul refers to a woman named Junia as an apostle. Archeologist Dorothy Irvin’s explorations into the evidence of women “presbytera” in the early church, found in frescos in catacombs, is also highlighted briefly.

Irvin’s research indicates that images of women in ministerial positions were eradicated after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 CE.

A segment is also dedicated to Ludmila Javorová, who was secretly ordained in 1970 by Bishop Felix Maria Davidék so that she could serve the underground Roman Catholic Church during Czechoslovakia’s communist rule.

Javorova remained silent about her ordination until 1995 -- six years after the fall of communism -- when she told her story to Miriam Therese Winters who published the interview in the book Out of the Depths.

But the heart of the film really belongs to the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Their movement is traced back to the 2002 ordination of seven women on a boat that sailed the Danube River, avoiding the jurisdictions of German and Austrian bishops.

One year later, an unidentified male bishop in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church ordained two of the original seven women as bishops. The RCWP believe that their ordinations are valid because of their unbroken line of apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church.

The RCWP believe that, because their ordinations were performed by bishops, they were ordained in a line of unbroken apostolic succession. The ordinations continued -- in 2005 on the St. Lawrence Seaway, which borders the U.S. and Canada, and then on the three rivers in Pittsburgh in 2006.

Several of the women who were ordained in these ceremonies, including Victoria Rue and Juanita Cordero, are interviewed in the film. Cordero’s late husband, former Jesuit Don Cordero, also lends humor and wisdom throughout the film.

Interestingly, the voice that is probably heard most throughout the documentary belongs to a male Catholic priest.

Bourgeois speaks movingly about his calling to follow his conscience when a long time friend and fellow activist, Janice Sevre-Duszynska, decided to pursue her life-long call to ordination through the RCWP. Bourgeois concedes that many priests fear losing their jobs, pensions and sacramental power if they speak out about the ordination of women.

But says Bourgeois: “I’d rather eat at a soup kitchen and be free rather than not do something that I’m called to do.”

During the panel discussion after the screening, Bourgeois admitted that he is embarrassed that it took him so long to speak out against this injustice. He says that he longs to speak about it to his priest friends and to bishops. But when he raises the issue, they immediately shut him down and refuse to talk about it.

“It is a power issue for them…there is a fear of losing privilege,” says Bourgeois

One of the film’s finest contributions is the way it evokes the sorrow of women who have been denied the ability to fully serve the church that they call home. Without a hint of anger, it depicts the longings of these women -- longings that can only come out of a deep commitment and even deeper love for the church.

In her the panel presentation, Marchant offered some insight into this pain.

Prior to her ordination, she served as director of healthcare ministry for the Boston Archdiocese. More than 70 percent of the members of the Catholic Chaplains Association are women. As chaplains, they build deep relationships with the sick and the dying. And, yet, when the time for last rites approaches, these women are forced to call a priest.

Typically, he does not know the patient and often fails to involve the female chaplain in the prayers and ministrations. For Marchant, offering the sacrament should be the culmination of the chaplain’s journey with the patient.

The one weakness of the film is its lack of younger voices. With the exception of a few scenes of an interview with NCR columnist Nicole Sotelo, who speaks powerfully about the importance of struggling for justice in the Catholic Church, all other interviewees appear to be baby boomers or older.

When I asked Marchant about the interest in the RCWP among young Catholic women, she said that she get many inquiries from newer generations.

“One of the dilemmas they face is that they are either working in the church and cannot afford to those their jobs, or they are over-committed by their careers and raising families.”

Currently 120 women in the U.S. have been ordained as RCWP.

Though members of the RCWP are considered excommunicated, many of them look forward to a future when they can be reintegrated into the Roman Catholic Church, should the church ever open the sacrament of holy orders to women.

But some critics of the movement have argued that the RCWP tests one of the great tenets of feminism, articulated by the late Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Scholars such as Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Mary Hunt believe that Catholic women should think beyond ordination and seek a church that functions more like, in the words of Schüssler-Fiorenza, “a discipleship of equals.”

Most womenpriests identify themselves as “worker priests.” Though they carry on their professions in fields as various as teachers, non-profit workers, artists and architects, on weekends they celebrate liturgies in homes, non-Catholic university chapels, and Protestant churches.

These womenpriests dwell in the liminal space between the established, clerical world of the church and the revolutionary, risky world of the prophet. And, like many prophets before them, they find themselves in exile from the religious structure that they call home.

The womenpriests are manna for many Catholics who, too, are in exile; these communities of Catholics are clearly manna for the womenpriests as well.

Though it does not ask the question, Pink Smoke left me wondering to what extent this liminality actually gives birth to and maintains the integrity and faithfulness of the RCWP.

In many ways, their movement reflects the early Christian Church before it was accepted by the Empire. The risks that many womenpriests take infuse their ministries with a deep sense of commitment.

Their willingness to sacrifice the privileges and securities of paid ministry demonstrates a profound faithfulness to the God who has called them.

If womenpriests are one day permitted to reenter the established church, how much of their holy creativity and prophetic edge would be lost in the transition back into the institution?

Pink Smoke leaves you hoping that all of the grace received through their living as marginal church communities will be remembered and sustained when women are welcomed finally into the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church.

Jamie L. Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her columns for NCR earned her a first prize Catholic Press Association award for Best Column/Regular Commentary in 2010.


Women Priests

A response to the Jamie Manson article
in the NCR, 2/15/2011

By Tony Equale

February 21, 2011

For many Catholics who are seeking church reform, the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is a settled subject. How could there possibly be any disagreement? Women are working in every career choice open to men, including the police, and the army. Why not the priesthood? There is no reason.

I am not challenging women’s rights. I accept the principle of egalitarianism for all humankind, and of course that would apply to any role in any organization. But I would not want the defense of that principle to obscure what is at stake with Church reform. For me the question is not whether women should be priests in the Roman church, but whether in a christian com­mu­nity there should be any priests at all.

I claim that the institution of the “sacramental” priesthood as we know it in our times, is a greco-roman elitist innovation that did not exist until well into the 2nd century, a hundred years after the founding of the church. It was designed precisely to eliminate christian egalitarianism, create a hieratic caste, mystify the ordinary people and concentrate power in the hands of the upper class. It represented the unwarranted transformation of a legitimate ministerial role — the presbyter — into an ontological caste that did not previously exist in the christian scheme of things, and certainly not in the mind of Jesus. It was an essential step in bending christianity to the cultural requirements of the class-based society run by the Roman Empire. It makes the people themselves complicit in their own impotence by making it seem impossible for a christian group to have the eucharist unless it be performed exclusively by the magical hands of a representative of the (upper class) bishop.

The earliest accounts of the life of christian communities portray a fellowship where fixed caste status for the clergy grounded in ritual alchemy, was not in evidence. Likewise, infrastructure (buildings) if they existed, were a secondary feature of the community. It’s not insignificant that the two phenomena seem to have arisen together, suggesting that “buildings,” i.e., property and wealth became a factor requiring the creation of new “sacramental structures” that would insure that control stayed in the proper hands. These developments were exactly what made christianity an attractive choice as the “new” Religion of the empire. An egalitarian group of slaves and tent-makers operating out of homes and storefronts just would not do for “divine Rome.”

By the 4th century, with the elevation of christianity to the status of State Religion of the Roman Empire, the connection between church property and the Roman upper class was such a conspicuous part of ecclesiastical reality that we see Constantine himself sending his legions in 316 to restore North African church buildings to their “rightful” bishops. What made this restoration so shocking, besides the use of imperial force, was that the “rightful” bishops were in most cases the same men who had “handed over” (traditores) the (sacred) books to the Roman authorities during the persecution of Diocletian, causing the “people” (afterwards called “Donatists”) to refuse to receive them back as their bishops. But Constantine had made a huge transfer of basilicas, temples and other buildings to christianity from the Roman polythesitic religions, and he would not abide having “his” imperial church buildings taken over by a mob of disobedient nobodies. Every facet of the empire was run by obedience to the Roman authorities. The Empire’s new Church would be no different. Precedent had to be set.

“Ordination” functioned in this context to insure a mystified control of the Church and its sacramental life by the upper classes. This is the “priesthood” that the RCWP is banging on the door to enter … rather than to eliminate in order to return the eucharist to the fellowship of equals. How can we support an elitist anachronism in the name of gender equality? It’s time, I think, to stop talking about the church and the “ecclesistical careers” that have been denied women, and begin talking about the kind of living community that Jesus encouraged his followers to form.

Just look at the ludicrous scenarios described in the Manson article. Imagine, mature adult christians, so mesmerized by the Roman sect’s absurd claims about apostolic fidelity being bound to mechanical legal ritual that they are ordained in the middle of rivers in order to avoid the reach of episcopal jurisdictions! This is not rebellion. It is a crass submission to the legalistic mystifications that have been developed to soli­di­fy power in the hands of those in control. It is to be complicit in the elevation of caste superiority into a christian category in utter contradiction of the egalitarianism preached by Jesus.

In the late sixties Ivan Illich was something of a guru to a group of Catholic people in the New York area interested in serving the poor and in serious church reform. Many of us learned spanish and the principles of pastoral acculturation at his feet in Puerto Rico and in Mexico. On one occasion we shared with him our enthusiasm for a married deaconate and perhaps the ordination of married men as a first step in the larger reform of mandatory celibacy and the ordination of women. To our surprise he told us he did not agree. “Until clerical culture changes,” he said, “the only thing you will accomplish will be to draw this new group of unspoiled laypeople into a dysfunctional clerical culture, effectively adding to the unchristian stratifications within the church. You will just perpetuate something that should not exist.”

I hear in those words the very same counsel as offered by Mary Hunt and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, mentioned by Manson, that “Catholic women should think beyond ordination and seek a church that functions more like … ‘a discipleship of equals’.” The depth of reform that this would entail is truly beyond imagination … but only because of the hierarchy’s insistence on clinging to power and to the ideological (dogmatic) props that protect it. Otherwise, it’s not unimaginable at all. It’s time to stop begging them for what they will never give … and at any rate do not own. It is not theirs to give! To seek ordination under these circumstances is to buy into the very system that debases us.

You want to celebrate the eucharist? By all means, do it! But don’t tie it to being ordained a “priest.” And that goes for us all!


  1. I am all for reclaiming sacramental authority from the Elite Class of bishops. However, one critical barrier exists. That barrier being that way too many people might wonder --- if we start considering Apostolic Succession less-than-necessary, by what do we call ourselves Catholic rather than Protestant?

    Those of us who are in favor of reclaiming the sacraments know the answer to this question intuitively. And some of us (such as the Dutch Dominicans) can even explain the article in a 50-page article or some other ultra-verbose form. But we need to find ways to communicate this information more concisely -- and in a manner that a common Catholic who is tired of the bullying from the pulpit but believes that he/she has no choice of he/she wants the sacraments can understand --- whether our audience is a parish that is threatened by the lack of a priest --- or a bunch of LGBT Catholics who are traumatized by being told from the pulpit that any legal rights they receive somehow constitutes a "persecution" of the Catholic Church. We need to explain such things in terms that they can understand.

    And we may even need new terminologies to explain in a concise and easy-to-understand way what it is all about --- and above all else - why it is still Catholic despite the fact that it may not have Apostolic Succession.

  2. Who cares-it's an irrelevant "profession" anyway. The churches that do ordain women are shrinking away faster than the polar ice caps-being in the clergy is becoming as irrelevant and disproportionately female a profession as librarian and social worker.