It was late afternoon at the end of July 2006. The sunlight slanted in and ricocheted unpredictably off the water of Pittsburgh's three rivers—the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny. Boarding the riverboat Majestic, 400 people attended the first ordination in the United States of Roman Catholic women to the priesthood and diaconate. In doing so, the Catholics present aided in breaking canon law 1024, which states, "Only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination." This act of ecclesial disobedience was punishable by excommunication.
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As the boat motored into deeper waters, a few protesters appeared on the wharf. Their signs read: "Women obey priests" and "Jesus was a man." Aboard ship, in the open central gallery, bright banners hung from the balcony proclaimed, "Nothing new! Women reclaiming priesthood." Iconic images of ancient female Christian leaders adorned the altar—Mary of Magdala, apostle to the apostles; Phoebe, the deacon in Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2); and Junia, who Paul calls an "outstanding apostle" (Romans 16:7).
The ceremony was held by the international organization Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which has held five ordination ceremonies since 2002 in Europe and Canada and claims five female bishops and 40 priests and deacons. In the pipeline are 120 students, 80 of whom are from North America. Aboard the Majestic, three female bishops from Europe prepared to ordain eight U.S. women to the Catholic priesthood and four to the diaconate.
Gisela Forster, a Roman Catholic Womenpriests bishop from Munich, was dressed simply and elegantly in a white alb with a bright yellow silk chasuble that floated lightly as she moved. "The church should not only be a church for men or with a male hierarchy," she said, "because men cannot do everything. It's very important that the women who are feeling called should be welcomed into this church."
"We speak of priestly service, not priestly office," Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, a founder of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, said at a previous ordination. "We advocate a servant priesthood and exercising power with people, not power over them."
A buoyant spirit swept the congregation as 12 women stepped forward at the bishops' call, answering "Here I am. I am ready." Mary Ellen Robertson, a spiritual director and hospice chaplain, asked her brother—a diocesan priest—to be her witness to the diaconate. "She attended my ordination 45 years ago," he said. "It only seemed fair that I should attend hers."
Recent polls have found that the majority of U.S. Catholics support ordaining women. Seventy percent of U.S. Catholics were in favor of ordaining women in some sacramental ministry, according to a survey conducted in 2000 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
The pressure to ordain women to the Catholic priesthood and permanent diaconate is growing. Between 1993 and 2004, reports CARA, the number of Catholic parishes in the U.S. led by someone other than a priest has doubled. Because of the priest shortage, many U.S. Catholic parishes are experiencing the "reverse mission" phenomenon. Priests from the global South—primarily Africa and Asia—are tending to the needs of underserved parishes in the United States.
"The goal of Roman Catholic Womenpriests," states its founding documents, "is to bring about the full equality of women in the Roman Catholic Church. ... We desire neither a schism nor a break from the Roman Catholic Church, but instead are rooted in a response to Jesus who called women and men to be disciples and equals in living the gospel."
The group grew out of a 1998 gathering of European Catholics to discuss the issue of women's ordination. Within a year, 14 women were preparing for ordination. "Those who needed more theology," recalls Patricia Fresen, a bishop in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, "enrolled at various universities for further study. A program of preparation for ordination was created, and the women met regularly to plan for their ordination and future priestly ministry."
But according to the tradition of apostolic succession (an unbroken chain of the laying on of hands since the time of the apostles), priests can only be ordained by a bishop—and there weren't many Catholic bishops lining up to defy Rome by ordaining women. However, Romulo Braschi, a renegade Argentinean bishop, agreed to celebrate the ordinations. He was joined by Bishop Ferdinand Regelsberger, two Roman Catholic priests, and women pastors from the Old Catholic, Lutheran, and Dutch Reformed churches. Seven women were made priests in 2002.
After the widely reported ceremony, the Vatican gave the women a period of time to retract their vows. When they did not, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief guardian of theological orthodoxy and now the pope, issued a statement. "Because the women … gave no indication of amendment or repentance for the most serious offence they had committed," he said, "they have incurred excommunication."
"That the Vatican took this very seriously," said Patricia Fresen, "is shown by the subsequent excommunication of the seven women. ... If it had been of no consequence, the Vatican would have simply ignored it."
Two of the seven ordained women, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster, were later secretly ordained as bishops—by Roman Catholic bishops in good standing—so that they could perpetuate the apostolic lineage of women priests. Forster explained, "We were ordained by several male bishops, whose names can not be revealed [to avoid Vatican reprisals]. We had a notary there to witness it and put the names in a safety deposit box, but we cannot say their names openly."
These ordination ceremonies weren't the first for Catholic women. Even in modern times, extreme situations have motivated Catholic bishops to ordain women to the priesthood. The most noted example is Czech Catholic leader Ludmila Javorova, one of five women ordained by Bishop Felix Davídek in 1970 to serve the Catholic Church under the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. In 1996, the Vatican formally prohibited her from exercising her priestly office. In a 1999 interview, Javarova said that Bishop Davídek acted out of necessity. In the absence of guidance from Rome, she said, "He acted according to his conscience."
In November 2001, Mary Ramerman was "irregularly" ordained a priest in a Catholic parish in Rochester, New York, after the bishop—under pressure from the Vatican—removed a popular male parish priest. Ramerman continues to serve the thriving Spiritus Christi Church, which is no longer recognized as a Roman Catholic parish by the diocese.
The worldwide Anglican Communion and the U.S. Episcopal Church provide historical insight into the struggle for ordaining women. In 1944, Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained by the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong to serve Anglican Christians in China who were endangered by the Japanese invasion. She was the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion. This single incident was soon lost to history. Thirty years later, in July 1974, 11 Episcopal women were "irregularly" ordained at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia by three retired Episcopal bishops. The Episcopal Church declared the ordinations invalid and prevented the women from serving as priests.
In 1976, after intense struggle, the Episcopal Church voted to officially open the priesthood and episcopate to women. The first woman (and the first black woman) to serve as bishop anywhere in the Anglican Communion, Barbara C. Harris, was consecrated in 1989. In 2006, the Episcopal Church elevated Katharine Jefferts Schori to its highest office of presiding bishop.
The Roman Catholic movement to ordain women clearly hopes for similar success. But because the Catholic Church has a very centralized governance structure and no established mechanism for representing the desires of the laity, it may take longer.
"We would like to see the Church become much more a 'people's church,'" Patricia Fresen said. "As people become much better educated, even theologically educated, they need to have much more say in church structures and in the choice of leaders.
"The 'sensus fidelium' [sense of the faithful] was much respected in the early centuries of the church. This needs to be returned to," continued Fresen.
Many Roman Catholic organizations are pushing for change within the church: Call to Action, Women's Ordination Conference, and FutureChurch in the U.S.; a vibrant European We Are Church movement and Germany's Purple Stole organization; Japan's Phoebe Association. Such organizations advocate for more local ecclesial autonomy, for bishops to be advised and assisted by laity as well as priests, for removing the celibacy vow from diocesan priests, and for reinstating women to the permanent diaconate.
Even the monolith of the Vatican-controlled church shows signs of shifting, especially in the global South. "We must admit that there cannot be a participatory church with gender justice," Catholic Brother Verghese Theckanath said in an address last year to the National Conference of Religious Superiors in India, "as long as the church retains the assumption that female humanity is ontologically different and secondary to male humanity."
"We very definitely do not want to simply 'add women and stir,'" said Fresen. "We do not want to move into the present hierarchical power-structures. We have a new model of priesthood which we are trying to shape and to live."
This new model was powerfully demonstrated at the Three Rivers ceremony. Roman Catholic Womenpriests has chosen to hold its ordinations on boats—a very early symbol of the church. Bishop Gisela Forster, an artist, carved the bishops' crosiers in a design that includes the profiles of male and female figures. The crosiers are wide at the bottom to signify a ship's paddle. "We want it to be simple," Forster said. "No gold or silver. It doesn't need to stand out."
The ordinands prostrated themselves before the cross—not before the bishops. "This gesture," Fresen told the gathered community, "is the prayer; no other words are spoken. This is the model of community we seek—a discipleship of equals, who are servants to one another."
In anointing the women's hands for sacramental duty, a prayer was offered: "May the Holy Spirit anoint you and form you into a priest of Jesus Christ." The emphasis is on the Holy Spirit acting through the community of faithful.
"As more and more women are ordained in full apostolic succession," said Fresen, "they are finding increasing acceptance by an ever-greater number of Catholics. Eventually the sheer weight of opinion, the sensus fidelium, will break down the barriers of injustice."
For Fresen, the movement to restore to the Catholic Church the full dignity of women is similar to the struggle for freedom in her native South Africa. "In South Africa, during the apartheid years, there was a groundswell of resistance that eventually broke down the system of racial injustice," she said. "I believe the same will happen with regard to sexism in the church. There is already a great outcry to make the church more a people's church, if it is not to become irrelevant."
The struggle against irrelevancy isn't solved simply by ordaining women. Even in Protestant denominations with a longer history of ordaining women, the road has not been easy. Sociologist Adair Lummis commented on the United Methodists and Presbyterians marking, in 2006, 50 years of women's ordination, saying, "Just because you have more women and you're having these milestone celebrations, please remember that in some denominations ... there were more women ordained 50 years ago than there are now."
Aimee Semple McPherson's pentecostal International Church of the Foursquare Gospel was founded in Los Angeles in the 1920s with an emphasis placed on anointing women. In the mid-1970s about half of the Foursquare clergy were women, but by 2000 that number had dropped to 36 percent, according to church historian Ron Williams. The largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention, began allowing women pastors in 1963. In 2000, the SBC revoked the decision, leaving about 1,600 Southern Baptist clergywomen in an ambiguous position.
Current Department of Labor data estimates that 15.5 percent of clergy in the U.S. are women. But according to Lummis' research in Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling, "the numbers indicate that clergy women remain significantly underpaid and underemployed relative to men."
Still, when Christian churches authentically carry out their mission to be Christ's witnesses to the poor and oppressed, new needs arise. In traditional theology, the Holy Spirit calls forth gifts in the community in order to meet pressing needs of the church. For Roman Catholics, there is a marked rise in women with vocations to the sacramental duties of the priesthood. The institutional church structure may continue to refute these vocations, call them illegitimate, and excommunicate those who act outside the protocols of tradition. But eventually the wisdom of the people of God, the sensus fidelium, will rise to claim what it needs to live the gospel fully and authentically. This includes, as Patricia Fresen puts it, that "women and men are created equal and can equally act 'in persona Christi.'" The women ordained aboard the Majestic in Pittsburgh are one small boat in a rising tide.
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.