Meet The Women Priests Who Are Defying The Catholic Church

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
It’s unsociably early on a Saturday morning, and the coffee is in short supply. Rainbow-colored streamers and cheerful chrysanthemums adorn a Philadelphia conference room. This cardigan-toting crowd of women could easily pass for Hillary Clinton supporters at a breakfast rally — but instead, the group is here for a sunrise liturgy, led by radical excommunicated female priests. It’s the Women’s Ordination Worldwide Conference (WOW), a gathering of Catholic groups campaigning for a major change in church doctrine. And they’ve got a message for Pope Francis, who arrives in Philadelphia this weekend. They want the pontiff to amend the Catholic Church’s official position to allow women to be ordained into the priesthood. “We need women in the mix; their voices as strong as the men's,” says 31-year-old graduate student Katie Greene, who’s traveled from Massachusetts to attend WOW.

They’re here for a sunrise liturgy, led by radical excommunicated female priests.

Some of these women are even prepared to be arrested to get the Pope’s attention. In Washington, DC, on Wednesday, WOW protesters lay down in the street outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where the Pope was visiting. Retired lawyer and excommunicated female priest Jane Via was arrested at the demonstration. She explained why she’d asked police to handcuff her — in order to highlight the issue. “To my knowledge…[the Pope] has said not one word about women’s ordination, about the injustice of ordaining only men…. It’s his blind spot.” Via added, “It was exciting, it was a little bit scary, but I really felt that it was super-important to do it.”
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibbons Schuck.
An April 2015 ordination in Morristown, NJ.
Pope Francis touched down in the United States on Tuesday. His six-day tour has included stops in the nation's capital and New York. His visit culminates in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families this weekend, where more than a million people are expected to gather. But not everyone coming is coming out only to show their support. Jennifer O’Malley, a 43-year-old female priest with Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP), said she respects this Pope immensely, but is eager for dialogue. She explained why for her the ordination of women is such a crucial topic, “When an institution [like the Roman Catholic Church] does not recognize women as full enough humans to participate in all sacraments, then the leap to trafficking of girls, and rape, and abuse of women is much shorter.” Pope Francis has displayed a progressive, reformist streak during his Vatican tenure. Notoriously low-key, he’s prioritized tackling global poverty and softened the Catholic Church’s tone on women’s issues, divorce, and homosexuality. But the church remains deeply traditional and, so far, the Pope has ruled out the ordination of women. In July 2013, Francis told the media, “The church has spoken and says no…. That door is closed.”

Pope Francis said "The Church has spoken and says no…. That door is closed.”

That lack of progress is provoking female activists like Katie Greene to fight back. “The church itself is really the battlefield. The institution is creating a lot of the pain and the suffering,” she said. Caryl Conroy Johnson knows this pain firsthand. Johnson broke with her traditional Catholic ministry because she was forbidden from performing priestly duties, such as leading funerals and anointing parishioners. She was ordained by RCWP in 2011, a journey she describes as tough, yet rewarding. “There’s been so much struggle throughout, and yet so much joy. And the pain that I felt from being excluded…it has been transformed...into a new way of being,” said Johnson. Public opinion in the United States weighs in WOW’s favor. In a 2000 Gallup poll, 68 percent of Catholic respondents backed women in the clergy. Among respondents across all faiths, that number rose to over 70 percent. So why do these women persist with the Catholic Church? Why not break away and join another denomination that ordains women? “If you really love something, it’s important to fight with it and fight for it,” explains 24-year-old Martha Ligas, a graduate theology student and WOW attendee. “If you really care about something, you shouldn’t walk away.”

If you really love something, it’s important to fight with it and fight for it.

Catholics have long agonized over the role of women in their church. The Old Testament says Jesus chose 12 apostles — all men. Prominent female acolytes, like the steadfast Mary Magdalene, did not count among them. Supporters of the church’s official position argue that Jesus therefore intended an all-male priesthood. In 1994, Pope John Paul II formally settled the question. He penned an apostolic letter to his bishops, declaring the church had no authority to ordain women. Sister Sara Butler, professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, argues that John Paul’s letter took the issue off the table. “Catholics may no longer regard this as an open question or publicly advocate for a change in church practice.” In her book The Catholic Priesthood and Women, Butler says the church has precedent on its side. “This teaching regarding the priesthood is not a new doctrine, and the reservation of priestly ordination to men is not a new practice.” The Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not respond to our repeated requests for comment. The prevailing attitude of the church — including Pope Francis' — shows no appetite for amending that doctrine and giving women an official seat at the table. That leaves WOW’s female priests in breach of canon law. They’ve effectively been excommunicated (or expelled) from their own church.

They’ve effectively been excommunicated (or expelled) from their own church.

Jennifer O’Malley has been excommunicated but says it doesn’t worry her. “We are part of the church, and a statement of a broken institution does not have an effect on it. We don’t accept our excommunication.” WOW congregants share O’Malley’s unrepentant view, although they’ve not been cast out of the church. “I say bring it on!” exclaims 59-year-old Mary Ann Valikonis, from Edinburg, NY. “I’m not afraid. If they tell me that I’m excommunicated, I’ll just disregard it.”
Photo courtesy of Kathleen Gibbons Schuck.
Many of the women in attendance preside over their own congregations back home. At St. Mary Magdalene Community, Caryl Johnson holds services every Sunday, complete with Eucharist, or Holy Communion, and what she calls an interactive Homily, where everyone (not just the priest) has a chance to speak. That spirit of communalism and doing things differently was present at the liturgy last Saturday, too. “All are welcome…” announces the WOW presider, a purple-pink streak of hair framing her face. And, of course, the sacramental bread here is gluten-free. As the congregation celebrates the liturgical Peace — when ordinary churchgoers often offer their neighbor a simple handshake — there are hugs and even a few tears. They also allow non-ordained members to hold leadership positions, and invite everyone present to take the sacrament.

I hope for a church where the call of everyone, regardless of their gender, is respected.

The inclusivity doesn’t stop at Holy Communion. Roman Catholic Women Priests adopt a more accepting position on subjects such as abortion, IVF, and adultery. “We have women with many views on these issues,” explains O’Malley. “But…in general, we say that the woman has to be fully respected and have a voice in what’s happening in her life, and be able to make that choice…freely.” Their approach is progressive on marriage equality, too. “Several of our priests have witnessed gay marriages,” O’Malley adds. Here at WOW, the sunrise liturgy draws to a close, punctuated with applause. A “Song of Celebration” evokes a new, more diverse church, where men and women share “God’s delight.” The presider leaves her followers with a characteristically inclusive message: “Remember that God loves us, each and every one.” As the congregation scatters, Jennifer O’Malley remains optimistic. She hopes Pope Francis will listen to WOW and open a dialogue on women priests. “I…hope for a church where the voice of everyone is heard, where the call of everyone, regardless of their gender, is respected. Where everybody is lifted up with dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race.”

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