(WOMENSENEWS)–Moni McIntyre loved teaching and her life with the Roman Catholic Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters, but one thought kept emerging in her meditations. She wanted to serve as a priest, a desire she’d had since age 13. But following that call meant wrenching change. Sister McIntyre asked friends and counselors to talk her out of it. They didn’t.
“I waited for years and the last three years were very hard,” McIntyre says. “I’d talk to mynun buddies and they’d say, ‘Moni, you don’t have a choice. You hear this too clearly.'”
McIntyre was ordained an Episcopal priest two years ago, after 25 years as a Roman Catholic nun. Today she serves as priest-in-charge at Holy Cross Episcopal church in Pittsburgh, teaches at Duquesne University’s Center for Social and Public Policy and ministers part-time to the U.S. Navy.
“I believe this is right. It is and was of God,” McIntyre says.
The church hierarchy’s refusal to ordain women, she predicts, is “not going to change, not during my lifetime.”
Some Believe Pope Has Not Ruled Out Women Priests
Christine Schenk calls it the “stained glass ceiling.” The executive director of the Catholic reform group FutureChurch says while women have moved into positions such as diocesan finance director, the church’s chief decision-making powers remain reserved to the ordained: priests, deacons, bishops and cardinals, a tradition that has driven some women away and others to press for change.
Women’s ordination advocates say they have no count of how many women have left the Catholic Church to be ordained, but know that many go to Episcopal and Lutheran churches, which have ordained women for about 30 years, as well as Methodist and Unitarian denominations.
“We have teachings that say women are equal but we have structures that don’t allow them to exercise that equality,” Shenk says. The church, she says, has officially banned discussion of the topic.
For example, many bishops prohibit the Women’s Ordination Conference, a 27-year-old Catholic reform group, from leaving its brochures on church property. The U.S.-based group and its international affiliates lobby for the ordination of women as priests and bishops and to overcome “all forms of domination and discrimination in the Catholic Church.”
“Our tactic is ‘keep it on the table,’ make sure it’s out there so people in the pews know women want to be priests,” says Erin Hanley, the conference’s spokeswoman. Despite bans on the group’s literature on church property, Catholics continue to call, asking for information and speakers, Hanley says.
Church teachings and the Pope John Paul II’s statements have failed to absolutely rule out ordaining women, several Catholic theologians say, though other Church authorities claim the issue is settled.
“I know there are women who pray every day for the pope to allow women to be ordained as priests or as deacons, or to be able to talk about it,” Hanley says. “Then there are women who stand in protest at U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings with signs saying, ‘I am a woman called to the priesthood.'”
Priest Shortage Presses the Issue
Official opposition to women priests continues as the church grapples with what many describe as a priest shortage. The number of priests in the United States has declined from 58,632 in 1965 to 44,874 this year, according to data provided by the U.S. bishops, while the country’s Catholic population rose during that same period from 45.6 million to 62.2 million. Not surprisingly, the number of parishes without a resident priest increased in those years from 549 to the present 2,928.
Mary Gautier, senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which provides the bishops’ data, says the United States may simply have enjoyed an unusually high number of priests in the 1950s and 1960s, with the decline bringing the country more in line with parishes in other parts of the world such as Africa and South America.
With the decline in priests at parishes, Catholic women and male deacons have stepped in to provide many ministerial and managerial services, but still may not perform certain key roles, such as saying Mass, that are reserved to priests. Hanley says women comprise 80 percent of the workforce in the Catholic Church.
One response by bishops to the shortage of priests, she says, has been to close or “consolidate” churches, often against parishioners’ wishes.
Nearly 3,000 U.S. parishes–15 percent–do not have a resident priest, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, though it does not provide figures on consolidations.
Schenk describes “mega-parishes,” such as Pax Christi in Eden Prairie, Ill., with 10,000 Catholics and one priest. She says consolidation is being considered “in virtually every diocese in the United States.”
Gautier says consolidation isn’t caused by a shortage of priests but by Catholic migration. In the Northeast, she says, older churches merge when younger Catholics leave cities for the suburbs, while consolidation in the South and West is caused by a growth so rapid “they can’t build churches fast enough.”
But Hanley thinks the practice is alienating Catholics, turning prevailing opinion in favor of ordaining women and married men. Schenk adds that roughly 800,000 nuns and about 100,000 priests worldwide left active ministry over the last 40 years to marry.
“It’s going to come from the grassroots,” Hanley predicts. “The strategy is people saying, ‘I want a parish priest and if that means it’s a woman or a married priest, then that’s what it means. It’s not OK with me that we’re having forced consolidations.'”
In 1970, under communist rule in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Ludmila Javorova was ordained a priest, serving Catholics under religious repression. When communist control ended, the Vatican forbade her to continue as a priest, Hanley says.
More recently, seven Roman Catholic women were ordained in Austria in June by a bishop the Vatican claims to have excommunicated. (He denies it.) In July, the Vatican announced the seven women were also excommunicated.
Male Leadership Has ‘A Hard Time Seeing Jesus in Women’
The Women’s Ordination Conference urges that women be ordained deacons, too, says Hanley. Catholic deacons perform baptisms, marriages and other ministries, but not Mass. Many are married; all are men.
Advocates for women’s ordination point to early church texts describing women preaching, serving as deacons and even heading congregations. They note married priests were common until the 12th century, when the pope dissolved priestly marriages and imposed celibacy, though Catholicism’s allied Eastern branches continued to allow married priests.
“It’s still unofficially answered whether women can be ordained deacons,” says Deacon Bill Ditewig, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Diaconate (deacon office). But Jesus’ male apostles, plus recent centuries of male priesthood, are interpreted as strong traditions against women priests or deacons.
FutureChurch and other advocates of women’s ordination say biblical scholarship shows at least one woman apostle, Mary of Magdala, who announced Christ’s resurrection. (Scholars say the Gospel’s repentant prostitute named Mary has been confused with this Mary).
The key issue, Ditewig explains, is whether a woman can serve “in the person of” a male Christ.
“You’re ordained to serve as an icon [image] of Christ and the functions flow from that identity,” says Ditewig, a Navy veteran pursuing a theology degree. He explains that Catholics who feel called to ordination first undergo “discernment,” a counseling process to determine whether the call is valid.
“Within the Catholic Church, it’s one thing to say, ‘I have a call from God,’ another to test that call, and still another to be selected by the community to serve in that role,” Ditewig says. “Ordination is not a right. That’s the painful truth.”
Women never have the chance to go through that process, says Diana Wear, a Women’s Ordination Conference board member with a Master’s degree in divinity from California’s Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, who describes herself as “trained and educated for the Roman Catholic priesthood.”
“They don’t let women have the process of discernment,” Wear says.
A Catholic theology student, mother and teacher in the Midwest who has wanted to be a priest since childhood agrees.
“They have a hard time seeing Jesus in women,” the woman said, asking that her identity remain anonymous. She says Catholic women will be ordained, but not in time for her. Unlike McIntyre, however, she has no plans to leave the Church.
“Catholicism is lush with brilliant minds and powerful, compelling spiritual truths,” the woman says energetically. “The best spiritual bath you can imagine . . . in spite of the fact that there are these errors floating in the pond.
“I know the errors impact me personally and impact others about whom I care deeply.” She pauses. “A better word than errors is wounds: It’s wounded thinking. Not whole.”
Suzanne Batchelor has written also for National Catholic Reporter, the national science series “Earth and Sky” and on health and medicine for Medscape Health, Web MD and the Texas Medical Association’s “Healthline Texas.”
For more information:
Women’s Ordination Conference:
Women’s Ordination–Catholic Internet Library:
U.S. Catholic–“Call Waiting: The stories of five women who
want to be priests”: