CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)–Alice Iaquinta’s classmates, all men, had left her behind.
After studying together for six years at Saint Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, Iaquinta attended the ordination ceremony of one of them, a close friend, in 2006 at the city’s cathedral. She noticed a corona of thorns circling the crucifix hanging above the altar.
"As they were called forward, he said, ‘Here I am, I am ready,’" she recalled. "I just felt like I’d been stabbed in the heart."
She was ready too, but the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women.
Iaquinta considered converting to another denomination, but one night, after several hours of research, she closed her computer and told God, "Sorry, I’m Catholic. I’ll do whatever you want. You make it happen."
The next day she received an e-mail from a stranger telling her about Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Composed of communities in the United States, Canada and Europe, the group represents an international initiative within the church to ordain women without the blessing of Rome. The group’s bishops, including both men and women, have ordained about 25 women as priests since 2002 and another eight as deacons.
Through them Iaquinta was ordained on Aug. 12 in Minneapolis, as was Judith McKloskey of Minnesota.
Iaquinta admitted to still being a little overwhelmed five days later when she arrived in Chicago for Women-Church Convergence, a three-day gathering of female Catholics, sponsored by a coalition of more than 30 groups from across North America, including Mary’s Pence in Metuchen, N.J., Catholics for a Free Choice and DignityUSA, both in Washington, D.C.
But she was among like-minded company. For those who attended the Aug. 17-19 conference, women’s ordination constituted just one of many struggles to discuss and pray over. There were liturgies praising divine wisdom, workshops on ministering to immigrants and eradicating heterosexism, and keynotes delivered by womanist theologians.
The movement to ordain women as priests in the Roman Catholic Church began in the 1970s and continues today with leaders pursuing a dual approach.
While groups like Roman Catholic Womenpriests forge ahead with ordinations, some organizations try to engage the Vatican, which asserts women are theologically unfit for priesthood.
Women’s Ordination Conference, an advocacy organization based in Fairfax, Va., operates a "Ministry of Irritation," which writes letters to bishops, protests their meetings and invites them each March to World Day of Prayer, an ecumenical observation for women around the globe.
Three main obstacles exist to women’s ordination.
The first, Canon Law 1024, part of the church’s official law, says only baptized men can be ordained.
The second is a 1994 apostolic letter by Pope John Paul II, which declared an end to the official debate over female ordination.
The third and still most controversial is a teaching published in 1976 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a body charged with safeguarding the church’s faith and morals. Inter Insigniores–titled in English the "Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood"–said women could never be priests because Christ and his 12 apostles were all men.
"It is saying the most important thing about Jesus is that he was male; not his message, not that he was fully human and fully God," said Aisha Taylor, executive director of Women’s Ordination Conference, which supports women who discern a priestly vocation, whether they choose to wait for the abolition of Canon Law 1024 or to move forward with ordination. The group operates a scholarship fund for women to pursue religious education and connects the ordained with communities ready for them to serve.
Heartened by Vatican Interference
Taylor said the organization was cheered in July when the Vatican interfered with an ordination scheduled to take place at a Lutheran church in New York.
A Vatican adviser told the church’s pastor that hosting the rite would result in "very serious damage to the relationship" between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Roman Catholic Church, according to a secretly forwarded memo.
"It’s showing that they’re taking us seriously," Taylor said. "It’s showing that, first of all, they know about it and, second of all, they care about it. Because I think they know Catholics are accepting the women as priests."
That acceptance presents a problem for the Vatican because canon law instructs that custom is the best interpreter of the law, Taylor said. If large numbers of Catholics accept female priests, supporters can make a canonical argument for their legitimacy.
The Catholic hierarchy has applied penalties for ordination unevenly, often depending on the temperament and sympathies of the local bishop.
To move forward with ordinations, Roman Catholic Womenpriests needed a bishop in the line of apostolic succession who was willing to ordain women. They found Romulo Braschi of Argentina, who ordained seven women in June 2002 aboard a ship on the River Danube, since bodies of water are technically outside an archdiocese. They subsequently became known as the Danube Seven. The church deems Braschi’s orders "valid but illicit."
Only the Danube Seven have been publicly excommunicated.
Others report receiving letters from bishops saying their actions have triggered "latae sententiae," or an automatic, private penalty that takes effect upon completion of an offense.
The bishops’ letters generally say the woman’s actions have separated her from the church. She is not supposed to engage in pastoral care or seek the sacraments, the seven Catholic rites which confer divine grace.
Warnings Ahead of Ordination
Some women receive warnings before they are ordained. Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote to Iaquinta prior to her ordination as a deacon (a necessary step preceding priestly ordination) and said she would incur "the gravest canonical penalties" should she continue.
"You should not be exercising any liturgical or pastoral ministry in the Catholic Church lest confusion or scandal arise among the people," he wrote.
The lataes and warnings are sporadic. Half of the eight women ordained as priests in the summer of 2006 received them, Taylor said.
The latae often is meaningless because women continue to receive the sacraments, said Bridget Mary Meehan, author of 20 religious books and an ordained priest since 2006. Some priests don’t know, others don’t care and other times women create new Catholic communities, such as house churches.
But other costs are very real.
Meehan’s mainstream Catholic publisher, Liguori Publications, based in Liguori, Mo., dropped her books immediately after the ordination. She now sells them herself through Amazon.
Patricia Fresen, ordained in 2003, lost her teaching post at a Catholic university in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was forced out of the Dominican religious order.
Women involved in the movement said they wanted to remain in the Catholic Church because the church is their spiritual home and, as Meehan said, "You can’t change something by leaving it."
Claire Bushey is a freelance journalist based in Chicago.
For more information:
Women’s Ordination Conference:
Roman Catholic Womenpriests:
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