A few days after Pope Benedict XVI announced he was stepping down as shepherd of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. suggested that the best candidate for the job is a nun.
He quickly conceded his proposal is but a dream, since, according to the Vatican, only a baptized male can be ordained a priest.
“Nonetheless,” Dionne wrote, “handing leadership to a woman—and in particular, to a nun—would vastly strengthen Catholicism, help the church solve some of its immediate problems and inspire many who have left the church to look at it with new eyes.”
But when the 115 cardinals began meeting Tuesday, March 12, in the Sistine Chapel to elect the successor to St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome, no women were eligible. Since women cannot be ordained Roman Catholic priests, they have no chance of formally leading the church.
“It’s not going to happen in my lifetime,” said the Rev. Denise Donato, pastor of Mary Magdalene Church, in East Rochester.
She did not wait for the Vatican’s blessing. Donato is among about 120 women who have been ordained priests in ceremonies the Roman Catholic Church considers illicit and invalid. The women and many of their supporters are considered excommunicated.
That’s an archaic punishment, Donato said, and it shows the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to accept the movement of the Holy Spirit. She first felt called to ordination in 1987. She was ordained by Bishop Peter Hickman, who belongs to the Old Catholic Church, which cut its ties to the pope in the 19th century.
Donato formerly ministered at Spiritus Christi, in Rochester, a community that split from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester in the late 1990s over its inclusion of women and gays. Four years ago, Donato started Mary Magdalene, a congregation that draws about 50 people to its Sunday service.
“We place limits on God when we say women cannot be ordained,” she said Monday, March 11, a day after celebrating the 10-year anniversary of her ordination. “God does not go by the rules of humans.”
A similar perspective spirit underlies the 1996 novel Pope Joan. Syracuse writer Donna Woolfolk Cross has described her story of a ninth-century woman who disguises her gender and eventually ascends to the papal throne as a “struggle against restrictions her soul cannot accept.” The female pope’s undoing comes, the story goes, when she gives birth during a papal street procession.
Cross’ novel became a movie, released in Germany in 2009 to popular acclaim.
(Actors included John Goodman, Johanna Wokalek and David Wenham.) A soldout crowd at Syracuse’s Palace Theatre previewed the film in April 2011. (Watch the trailer on YouTube.)
Historians and Vatican officials dismiss the story of Pope Joan as an urban legend. But a 2005 ABC Primetime episode noted that the story of Pope Joan might have been created as a cautionary tale:
“The lesson to women: Don’t even think about reaching for power or you will end up like her: exposed and humiliated.”
Donato is familiar with the story of Pope Joan, and she’s not surprised at church leaders’ reaction.
“There may be truth to it. I do not know for sure,” she said. “There is selective vision in looking in the past. There is all kinds of evidence, archeological and documentation, about women being ordained. There’s biblical evidence that women served as deacons and leaders in the church. St. Paul called some of the women he ministered with apostles.”
Although Cross stresses that her book is a novel and not a historic account, she makes a convincing case for why Joan might have disguised her gender. Medieval life was tough for women and girls.
Parents valued boys more. Girls were discouraged from learning to read; they were treated first as their father’s property, then their husband’s. They were expected to be silent and submissive. Their bodies were unclean.
In Cross’ account, the future pope’s father greets Joan’s birth with derision and disappointment. “Sin came through a woman,” he says.
Despite Joan’s obvious intellectual curiosity and aptitude, her tutor condescends and criticizes. Reason, he asserts, is essentially male and “as it is well known, women are innately inferior to men.”
"God does not go by the rules of humans."
Recent comments from church leaders suggest outdated views of women remain. In January, the papal theologian, the Rev. Wojciech Giertych, told Catholic News Service men are better suited to the priesthood because they “are more likely to think of God in terms of philosophical definitions and logical syllogisms.” Priests, Giertych said, love the church in a characteristically “male way” when they show concern “about structures, about the buildings of the church, about the roof of the church which is leaking, about the bishops’ conference, about the concordat between the church and the state.”
Shortly after becoming pope, Benedict reaffirmed that the priesthood is open only to men, because Jesus Christ chose men as his disciples. In 1994, the late Pope John Paul II issued a letter that said, in effect, discussion of women’s ordination is closed.
Benedict’s actions, too, have made crystal clear the church’s unwillingness to consider opening the priesthood to women.
In October, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (which was once known as the Office of the Inquisition and overseen by Benedict when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) dismissed Ray Bourgeois from the priesthood for participation in the “invalid ordination of a woman” and “a simulated Mass.” Under canon (church) law, the longtime Maryknoll priest committed apostasy and heresy, which leads to automatic excommunication.
All of the women ordained by the group supported by Bourgeois, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, are considered excommunicated.
Catholic News Service reports that a Jesuit in Wisconsin recently lost the right to perform priestly duties because he celebrated a liturgy with a woman who called herself a Catholic priest. A third case involves a Redemptorist priest facing a Vatican investigation for his support of women’s ordination.
Italian police last week detained Janice Sevre-Duszynska, the female priest at whose ordination Bourgeois participated, for demonstrating at the Vatican in the runup to the papal conclave. News accounts reported that Sevre-Duszynska wore clerical garb and carried a red and white banner reading “Women Priests are Here.” Officers questioned her “right to wear those vestments,” Agence France Press reported.
In defending the church’s opposition to ordination, Benedict often said that women possess a special gift of grace that defines their role in the church. But the crackdown in spring 2012 on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) was broadly interpreted as an attack on Catholic nuns.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the same group that removed Bourgeois from the priesthood and has recently disciplined several female theologians—accused the nuns of “radical feminism” and questioning church doctrine on issues such as abortion, women’s ordination and homosexuality.
The timing of the LCWR investigation, not coincidentally, dovetails with the passage of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. The landmark health care reform was supported by a large group of LCWR members, but not U.S. Catholic bishops, who continue to battle the administration over its contraception mandate.
Church leaders no doubt underestimated the reaction to the LCWR assessment. Internet and letter campaigns exploded, supporting the hands-on efforts of nuns to feed the hungry, house the homeless, comfort the afflicted. In Syracuse, more than 125 people attended a prayer vigil at St. Lucy’s Church to show their support for nuns."as it is well known, women are innately inferior to men."
Both the crackdown on nuns and the reaction to people supporting women’s ordination reflect the Vatican’s attack on women, said the Rev. Fred Daley, pastor of All Saints Church, in the Syracuse University neighborhood.
“There’s no way a global institution will be able to function in the 21st cen tury if it continues to ignore the voices of women in the church,” he said. “We are living in a transition between a monarchical, medieval, patriarchal structure to a new paradigm. We are about to witness a group of 115 mostly elderly, primarily white, celibate males elect the next leader of the 1.2 billion-member church with absolutely no official input of the church.”
The absence of women as priests and church leaders hurts the whole church, Daley said. “We’re missing the significant complement on every level of the church. It’s a matter of justice.”
There are also practical contributions women make. Many women are more comfortable working with a woman in pastoral counseling, Donato pointed out.
Despite their misgivings, Daley and Donato are optimistic the cardinals will choose a visionary leader who is pastoral and open to modern ideas, perhaps even paving the way for a female pope.
Christiane Page, a member of All Saints, was born in 1964 and has witnessed great changes since the historic Vatican II sessions intended to modernize the church. Married and the mother of four, Page wonders if the church will ordain women by the time her daughters are grown.
“Each generation has to reinvent the wheel a bit,” she said. “Who is to say it is not going to happen in our lifetime?”