Cover story -- Ordaining women
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Issue Date:  December 7, 2007

-- Karen Elshout

Rose Marie Dunn Hudson and Elsie Hainz McGrath kneel as Bishop Patricia Fresen reads words of blessing at their ordination Nov. 11 at a synagogue in St. Louis. Fresen is one of four bishops in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.
Though church bans women priests more and more women are saying, 'Why wait?'

St. Louis

“What a day. What an occasion. What a rabbi!”

The speaker was Patricia Fresen, a bishop in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. The day, Nov. 11; the occasion, a jubilant ceremony at a Jewish synagogue, during which Fresen would ordain two women -- the latest of a series of such ceremonies, aimed at helping women to fulfill what they say is their calling: to serve the church as Catholic priests.

Fresen, presider and homilist at the event, is a former Dominican nun of 45 years and a former seminary professor in South Africa. As a native English-speaker, she oversees the movement’s formation program for candidates in English-speaking countries and has quickly become its best-known bishop in the United States.

Though still a small organization, Roman Catholic Womenpriests has grown exponentially since it began just five years ago with the ordination of the so-called Danube Seven -- seven women ordained on a boat on the Danube River in 2002. The growth -- its leading edge in North America -- has surprised some, met expectations of others, and is clearly worrying some members of the church hierarchy.

Their mission
“Roman Catholic Womenpriests is an international initiative within the Roman Catholic church. The mission of Roman Catholic Womenpriests North America is to spiritually prepare, ordain and support women and men from all states of life, who are theologically qualified, who are committed to an inclusive model of church, and who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to minister within the Roman Catholic church.” --

“We have a lot of new applicants,” Fresen said in an interview the week before the ordinations. “I now have five assistant program coordinators, and we can barely keep up. It has amazed me. We never thought it would take off like this.”

Given the international dimensions of the movement and the increasing frequency of ordinations, tracking the numbers has been a bit tricky, but Bridget Mary Meehan, U.S. spokeswoman, finds it “a nice problem to have.” By Fresen’s count, since those first ordinations in 2002, 50 people -- including six men -- have been ordained, bringing the total to 37 in the United States and Canada and 50 worldwide. Leaders report that another hundred or so have entered the movement’s formal pre-ordination training program. In the United States, the rising numbers prompted a decision last fall to divide the country into five regions to deal more effectively with the demand.

In many cases, the women who have been ordained, and many now coming forward, are the very women dioceses and parishes have relied on to fill ministry gaps as numbers of Catholic clergy have declined. These are women “of a certain age” -- often in their 60s -- who have faithfully served in parishes, archdiocesan offices, health care settings and educational institutions for years, even decades, while they watched their hair turn gray. A common theme is one of women who long felt called to the priesthood and have tried to live out that call by serving where they could, putting any hope of ordination on hold. But as they looked down the road at the church they would leave for their children and grandchildren, some said they decided it was now or never, realizing they had little to lose.

-- Pamela Schaeffer

Acolytes Megan Heeney, DAnielle Mackey and Shantha Ready prepare to lead the procession at the women's ordination in St. Louis.

Particularly in the United States, many Catholic women have studied theology -- ­a prerequisite for being ordained by the movement, and the reason some are not surprised by the growth. Also required is a year- or two-year-long training program involving study of sacramental theology and a liturgical component that calls for mentoring by a priest. Ordained men, including former priests and active priests who support the movement, have stepped in to serve as mentors, Fresen said.

Fresen noted that numerous inquiries had come from women religious in the United States, some of whom have long harbored hopes of ordination or of seeing other women ordained. “Some congregations have discussed this at the top level,” Fresen said. “It is one of my deepest hopes that women religious will move toward this,” despite personal and collective risks, such as upsetting donors or losing jobs, particularly in cases where sisters work for the church.

Women priests cite a variety of events that fueled their courage to violate a law they find unjust: the church’s law that only celibate men can be priests. For Fresen, the struggle against apartheid in her homeland played a major role. Her religious congregation, the King William’s Town Dominicans, joined with others in the 1970s to challenge laws of apartheid. Inspired to resistance by Nelson Mandela, then-Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, and other courageous leaders, they illegally integrated their schools and sheltered activists of all races, enduring terrifying police raids in their convents and risking their lives.

“Those were dangerous years, but they helped to prepare me for the present struggle for justice for women in which I have become involved,” she said.

Key moments

Other historic events more directly linked to women priests include ordinations of the “Philadelphia 11,” the 11 women ordained irregularly as Episcopal priests in 1974, resulting in that denomination’s swift, if still controversial, decision to approve women priests. There was the public revelation in the 1990s that women had been secretly ordained priests to serve in underground churches behind the Iron Curtain. The story of one such woman, Ludmila Javorova, became the subject of a book by Miriam Therese Winter, published in 2001.

That same year, in December, after protracted tensions with Catholic authorities over liberal practices, the Spiritus Christi community in Rochester, N.Y., ordained a woman, Mary Ramerman, in a ceremony that drew participants from faraway states and overseas. A harbinger of the sorts of communities the Womenpriests’ movement would create, Spiritus Christi supported priestly roles for women, celebrated gay unions and offered Communion to non-Catholics in violation of church law. Then, in a startling development, the rigidly traditional Greek Orthodox church decided in 2004 to restore the order of the diaconate for women, citing authoritative sources that the church had ordained women as deacons at least through the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, in Europe, some women who had begun meeting in the late 1990s decided their own time had come and, with ordination in mind, began enrolling in universities to study theology. A major stumbling block was overcome when Bishop Romulo Braschi of Argentina (regarded by the Vatican as schismatic) agreed to ordain them. That ordination, on the Danube River near the town of Passau on the border between Germany and Austria, marked the beginning for Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

-- Karen Elshout

Rabbi Susan Talve, spiritual leader of Central Reform Congregation, welcomes worshipers gathered for the ordinations of Elsie Hainz McGrath and Rose Marie Dunn Hudson.

Each year, the numbers of ordained have leaped upward. In 2003, three were ordained, including two of the movement’s four bishops. In 2004, six were ordained; in 2005, 13; in 2006, 17; in 2007, 23. The ordained include both priests and deacons. The diaconate for Roman Catholic Womenpriests is transitional, as it is for men becoming Catholic priests. Fresen became a priest in 2003 and a bishop in 2005.

The numbers include the six men -- men who, like the women, could not otherwise serve as Catholic priests. Two are married; two are openly gay; two were denied entrance to Catholic seminaries because of physical handicaps.

Besides its commitment to inclusiveness, the Womenpriests movement discourages titles for priests and bishops and requires no vow of obedience.

Hierarchical rumblings

Among Catholics generally, reactions to the movement range from elation to eye rolling; from tears of joy to expressions of disdain. Even church officials have reacted inconsistently to a trend that flies in the face of the church’s official stance that women cannot be priests. The first ordinations resulted in formal excommunication by the Vatican for the Danube Seven. The decree, signed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) was dated [July 10, 2002], ironically, some noted, the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, sometimes called “apostle to the apostles.”

Subsequent ordinations have so far failed to elicit a Vatican response, leaving it to local dioceses to decide whether silence or public warning is the best approach. In St. Louis, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke warned of excommunication latae sententiae for Elsie Hainz McGrath and Rose Marie Dunn Hudson, the two scheduled to be ordained, along with their supporters, meaning that even without a formal decree, their actions put them outside the church. (Burke’s 1,750-word statement can be viewed at, archbishop’s column for Nov. 9.) After the ceremony, McGrath and Hudson were served with a summons to appear before a church tribunal Dec. 3. McGrath, a former editor at Liguori, a Catholic publishing house, labeled it “a canonical kangaroo court,” and both women said they would not appear.

The women priests tend to regard such hierarchical rumblings with a mixture of amusement and regret. “Burke is a paper tiger,” said Gerry Rauch of St. Louis, a board member of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which supports a variety of forms of priestly roles for women, ranging from ordination to a “discipleship of equals,” in which all symbols of power, including ordination, would be obsolete. The women priests say many male priests support the movement privately and contend that three bishops in good standing have taken the extraordinary step of ordaining women bishops. Fresen said supportive priests are more common in Europe than in North America, where most of the future ordinations are expected to occur.

Watch a video clip of a July 31, 2006 news conference concerning the ordination of Womenpriests in the Roman Catholic church. Journalists ask the leaders of the Womenpriests movement some tough questions.

Her own ordination, she said,was duly documented and notarized, with a record of those present, along with copies of the three bishops’ apostolic successions (with her name at the end) signed and sealed in a bank vault whose location, in Da Vinci Code fashion, is known only to a few.

Some say conflicts are bound to increase as the ordination ceremonies move increasingly to land from boats, where several of the ordinations have taken place. Advocates cite two points in favor of using boats. First, in most cases, it has put participants outside the jurisdiction of local bishops. Second, the symbolism links the events to New Testament stories involving Jesus and water. Increasingly, though, candidates are seeking local sites, Fresen said, because travel costs to out-of-town events can be prohibitive for friends and families, and the cost of renting boats has proven high.

Others in the movement dismiss conflicts with church authorities as irrelevant. “I care about the people in the parishes, not about making a statement,” said Andrea Johnson, a former coordinator of the Women’s Ordination Conference and a former employee of a Catholic parishes where she performed a variety of roles. “As more and more parishes are forced to close because there are fewer priests to staff them, while the hierarchy refuses to call even already ordained married priests to serve, many dioceses are building bigger churches so they can hold fewer Masses. People in those parishes are being asked to pay for their own oppression,” she said. “We” -- the women priests -- “are not just about doing something we’ve always wanted to do. It’s about the people.”

Meehan said women in the movement, if once angry at church authorities, for the most part no longer are. “We are not complaining. We are on the ground doing the ministry of priests, continuing the work we have espoused for the last 30 years, working in the grass roots, creating a new inclusive model of church. This offers the church a moment of great hope.”

Paying the price

Such pioneering for some has come with a hefty price. Were women priests to compose a litany of emotional and financial costs, it would include the following: Fresen, fired from a prestigious teaching post and expelled from her religious order; Jane Marchant, forced to resign her position as head of health care ministry for the Boston archdiocese; Meehan, facing income losses now that Liguori, a Catholic publishing house, has removed her books from its lists.

-- Karen Elshout

The Rev. Jeff Bert of Metropolitan Community Church congratulates Elsie Hainz McGrath, right, and Rose Marie Dunn Hudson on their imminent ordinations.

Even for some outside the church, support has had its costs. In New York City a Lutheran pastor who had agreed to host an ordination earlier this year reluctantly backed down after being warned of “serious damage” to Lutheran-Catholic relations. The ordination was moved at the last minute to the less encumbered Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square.

In St. Louis, Rabbi Susan Talve, spiritual leader at the hosting Central Reform Congregation and a former president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, stood firm, though Catholic officials excoriated her and other Jewish congregations distanced themselves. Talve was disinvited from a program on Judaism at Fontbonne University, a Catholic institution where she had been scheduled to talk about her faith, and Catholic leaders said they would decline to participate in any future interfaith event in which Talve had a leading role.

The brouhaha did little to dampen the upbeat mood at Talve’s synagogue. Indeed, more than 600 people turned out on a Sunday afternoon -- Catholics, Protestants and Jews -- in support of an event designed to put Catholics pro and con into a swoon, if for different reasons. Disdainful non-participants would focus on its defiance of church laws, not only against ordaining women, but also against intercommunion with members of other denominations and faiths, while those in favor would focus on what they described as prophetic expression of the church at its visionary best, the church, perhaps, of the future. Some noted, too, a tinge of sadness, given that, as one Jewish participant put it, “the relationship of these two women and their church will be very different come Monday morning.”

All worshipers were invited to follow Fresen in the “laying on of hands” -- the ancient liturgical symbol for ordination -- and many did, including at least a dozen non-Catholic clergy who had joined the opening procession to the altar and lined up again to receive Communion.

A different calling

Admittedly, women priests say, they can’t serve Catholic parishes directly. Many of the women celebrate the Catholic sacraments where they are invited, often saying Mass in people’s homes. Some meet regularly with communities ranging from a few participants to a couple hundred.

Ordination timeline
Eleven women are ordained irregularly as Episcopal priests, prompting that denomination to approve women priests.

Public revelations surface that women were secretly ordained priests to serve in underground churches behind the Iron Curtain.

Book about Czech woman priest Ludmila Javorova, ordained during Communist years, is published; also this year, the Spiritus Christi community in Rochester, N.Y., ordains Mary Ramerman.

Roman Catholic Womenpriests begins when a male Roman Catholic bishop ordains seven women in a boat on the Danube River.

Bishops ordain three people in the Womenpriests organization.*

Six people are ordained in Womenpriests; also this year, the Greek Orthodox church decides to restore the order of the diaconate for women.

Thirteen people are ordained in Womenpriests; Patricia Fresen becomes a bishop.

Seventeen people are ordained in Womenpriests.

Twenty-three people are ordained in Womenpriests, including the two women ordained priests in St. Louis Nov. 11. By Fresen’s count, 50 people, including six men, have now been ordained worldwide by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. There are four bishops in the movement.

* Numbers listed for 2003-2007 include ordinations to the priesthood and the diaconate.

“Our ministry is largely to people on the margins,” Fresen said in her homily in St. Louis. “And it seems to us,” she added, “that the margins are getting bigger and bigger.” She referred to the huge numbers of Catholics who, if church law were strictly applied, would be barred from receiving the sacraments. These include men and women who have divorced and remarried without getting their first marriage annulled by the church; gays and lesbians living with partners; people who have received or supported an abortion; couples who are unrepentant about the fact that they use contraceptives to limit family size. Some bishops, such as Burke, would include those politicians who support keeping abortion legal.

Increasingly too, the church’s margins include the more liberal young (though it has often been noted that many young Catholics are of a conservative bent -- and not a few have raged against ordaining women on blogs).

One presently on the margins is Katie Wallace-Clare, 35, who, when planning her recent wedding in Baltimore, invited Andrea Johnson, a longtime family friend, to preside. Having a woman priest perform the ceremony reflected “my core values,” said Wallace-Clare, who describes herself as presently disenfranchised from the church, though she and her husband have agreed to raise their future children as Catholics. “I am really struggling with the integrity of the church,” she said, citing the sex abuse scandals and the church’s teachings related to women. She said her Catholic friends attending her wedding -- even some of whom remain church loyalists -- were uniformly excited to see a woman preside. “I got nothing but positive responses. My friends were all excited to see this shift,” she said.

Megan Heeney, 23, who recently graduated from St. Louis University, lives at a Catholic Worker house in St. Louis, and served as acolyte in the St. Louis ordinations, said, “I think young Catholics are looking at the world, seeing what the Catholic church teaches about social justice, and realizing this is really incongruent with women not having the opportunity to be priests. I went to a Jesuit school, loved every minute of it, and had I been a guy, the Jesuits would have recruited me. I would have had the opportunity to go through discernment weekends to process what is my calling is in life. So what I’m excited for in the movement is to see us go in a direction where young women can have these opportunities.”

Heeney said she and the two other acolytes, both around her age, had agreed that “the opportunity to bless these women” -- the two being ordained -- “was one of the powerful experiences of our lives.”

A question for some observers of Roman Catholic Womenpriests is whether and how the movement will reinvent itself as it grows. Fresen acknowledges that successive reorganizations may be needed as inevitable internal differences arise. Seeds of conflicts were present years before the movement began, when some prominent feminist theologians inveighed against women becoming priests, arguing they should instead promote a “discipleship of equals,” a church without clerics. Fresen herself envisions that “perhaps within a couple of generations” Christian communities will choose and ordain their own leaders, whether married men, women or gays, much as a group of Dutch Dominicans recently proposed in a document released in the Netherlands.

Victoria Rue, playwright, director and feminist theologian at San Jose State University in California, sought ordination, though she supports in theory a discipleship of equals, after determining that “visible leadership on the part of women” would further gender equality in the church. “Women priests serve as symbols of people’s hope that the church can change,” said Rue, a lesbian who lives with a partner.

“We are using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house,” she said, playing on an aphorism of African-American feminist poet Audre Lorde, who said such was not possible. At the same time, Rue feels strongly that women in the movement should study not only theology, but also feminist theology, so they will understand how power systems work and avoid getting caught up in them. “I think everyone is in a wait-and-see mode, hoping that women in the Womenpriests movement don’t take on the trappings of hierarchy,” she said.

“I hope in the future, offices might not be needed, but that, as in the early church, people will be ordained to use their various gifts -- ordained to do liturgies, but also ordained to feed the hungry, to visit the sick. But we’re not there yet. We need to use the structures as they are and transform them.”

Pamela Schaeffer is an NCR writer and editor. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2007   [corrected 01/11/2008]

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