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Catholic Women Priests: The Unnecessary Women in a Patriarchal System

 

It was during the Parliament of the World’s Religions held in Salt Lake City in October 2015 where I first met a member of Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement. Born in a traditional Catholic family in Mexico, I learned that women couldn’t be priests because Jesus called just men, and those women who dared to pursue priesthood, would be automatically excommunicated.

So, when I met Rev. Suzanne Thiel, a member of Roman Catholic Woman Priest, an opportunity to see the other side of the coin was given to me. My curiosity led me to hear her story because I wanted to know more than what my Church had taught me. I wanted to hear the outcasts, the heretics, and the rebellious women who dare to challenge an ancient teaching.  I wanted to know why they challenged the Church in such a way and why the Church was so adamant in keeping a patriarchal tradition of just ordaining men.

Seal of the Roman Catholic Women Priests organizationAccording to Rev. Thiel, Roman Catholic Women Priests is an international movement that began in Germany with the ordination of seven women on the Danube River in 2002. Keeping the apostolic succession, they were ordained by two male Catholic bishops. Nevertheless, Catholic hierarchy excommunicated them arguing that their ordination was invalid. RCWP members believe that women are called to priesthood because Jesus called both men and women to be his disciples and keeping women away from priesthood is a women’s inequality issue because women have the right to be ordained.

In an interview during the Parliament of World’s Religions, Rev. Thiel stated that, “It is very clear in the early church, that in the first couple of centuries there were women priests, deacons, and even bishops and [RCWP members] are taking back what is rightfully [theirs]; it is not just a matter of being ordained, but a matter of suppressing oppression against women in the Catholic Church” (Magick TV, “PWR – Rev. Suzanne Thiel”).

Picture of Rev. Suzanne Thiel

Rev. Suzanne Thiel, RCWP

There are approximately 215 RCWM members around the word serving in at least 75 communities. They do believe that God called them to serve God’s people through priesthood and this call is rooted in the biblical tradition where it is recognized that women have leadership positions in the early church.

For example, Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the Risen Lord. She was appointed by Jesus to spread the good news of his Resurrection among his disciples (La Biblia Español & English, John 20: 1-18). Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, acknowledges Phoebe, a deaconess from the Church at Cenchrea, (La Biblia Español & English, Romans 16:1). He also states in his letter to the Galatians that, “Here there is no longer any difference between Jew or Greek, or between slave or freed, or between man or woman: but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (La Biblia Español & English, Galatians 3:28).

Picture of Rev. Jennifer O'Malley

Rev. Jennifer O’Malley, RCWP

In a documentary published by PBS in January 2013, Saul Gonzales interviewed two RCWP members: Rev. Jennifer O’Malley and Rev. Jane Via. He described them as rebels, but when asking them why not joining a different church where female ordination is accepted they expressed their love and commitment to the Catholic Church. Rev. Via indicated that “leaving the Catholic Church   would be “an act of irresponsibility [because] if everyone who is progressive-minded, progressive thinking, and willing to stand up to the Vatican leaves the church, the church will never change” (PBS, “Roman Catholic Women Priests”). Rev. O’Malley, on her part, expressed that being excommunicated by someone who didn’t even know her was hurtful. Nonetheless “[her ordination was] a call from God, and [she] believe[d] it to be a true call, so those other things [had] to be put aside. And if that [meant] breaking a law within the church, [she knew within herself], within [her] intellect and emotionally, that it [was] the right thing to do” (PBS, “Roman Catholic Women Priest”).

Picture of Rev. Jane Via

Rev. Jane Via, RCWP

As a matter of fact, RCWP movement bases their assertions in the tradition of the Church as well as in the Bible, as it was stated above. The most recent research that proves that women were in leadership positions during the early church, are the frescoes in Santa Priscilla catacombs in Rome.  In her article, The Secrets of the Santa Priscilla Catacombs, Amanda Ruggeri reports that “Catacombs of Santa Priscilla remain, in some ways, just as dangerous to traditional Church teachings. The discoveries there have sparked controversy over the role of women in the Church, and helped scholars re-evaluate the importance of the Virgin Mary in early Christian history” (P.P 2). One of the frescoes depicts a Eucharistic banquet and it is controversial because the people depicted there are not men. They seem to be women and one of them is the presider breaking the bread which is what a priest does during the Eucharist. Scholars are working to identify whether it is a woman priest or not, but at the moment some deny the fact that it can be a Eucharist celebration and that they are women.Throughout history, the catholic hierarchy has denied everything that goes against what it has already established but probably these frescoes will bring new discoveries about the early church and its traditions and, hopefully, one day the Church will admit that women can be ordained because it is a divine right and not a decision socially constructed based on a patriarchal mentality.

Fresco from the Santa Priscilla Catacombs showing figures around a banquet table Fresco from Santa Priscilla Catacombs showing a figure that looks like a woman presiding
Frescoes at Santa Priscilla Catacombs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Throughout history, the catholic hierarchy has denied everything that goes against what it has already established but probably these frescoes will bring new discoveries about the early church and its traditions and, hopefully, one day the Church will admit that women can be ordained because it is a divine right and not a decision socially constructed based on a patriarchal mentality.

Last February, I again encountered Rev. Thiel at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress held in Anaheim, CA. She was there with some more women priests and supporters to protest and make them known at that catholic event. I observed people’s reactions. Some laughed at them, others asked questions, took selfies and showed support. Male priests look at them from afar but when passing by close to them, they walked like nobody was there. It seemed to me that they were afraid to encounter the enemy, in other words, they seemed afraid of facing the unwanted.

After some time of observing I approached Rev. Thiel and told her that I was observing people’s reactions because during the Parliament of World’s Religions, people from other religions showed support. However, there in Los Angeles all the community was catholic. She told me it was surprising how Catholics were not as supportive as people from other denominations. But still, they were there to tell people that women need to be recognized in this patriarchal church.

Picture of protesting RCWP members

RCWP members protesting outside the Anaheim Convention Center during the LA Religious Education Congress

But what are the arguments that the Church gives in opposition to female ordinations? The Code of Canon Law # 1024 – the system of laws created by the hierarchical authorities in the Church to organize and regulate activities within it– states:  “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly” (Title VI, Chapter 2). It bases this declaration refuting that in the Gospels Jesus called just men to be his disciples and at the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, just men where present. Hence, Jesus “continued Israel’s tradition of a male priesthood in reserving the Office of Apostle to men” (Gregson, par 2). Saint John Paul II, in his encyclical Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) declared that “the

Political cartoon showing Catholic priests and bishops in a treehouse with "Boy's Club" on it. Woman priest looking on. Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” (Gregson, par 1). Twenty-two years later, in 2016, Pope Francis appointed a commission to study the history of female diaconate, opening a door to consider women for diaconate and possible priesthood. However, shortly after he announced this, he ruled out any possibility when a journalist asked him about women’s priesthood. He said, “For the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds” (Meehan, P.P 1). When Pope Francis was elected, it seemed that the Church would move in a different direction. He looked promising to many Catholics who wanted a change of direction in the way the hierarchy administered the Church but so far, few changes have been made, especially those concerning women. He may think that extolling women comparing them with the Virgin Mary is enough. Sad to say, it is not enough.

Many Catholics around the world are in need of more compassionate leaders rather than cruel administrators judging and deciding what is right and what is wrong for the rest of humanity. Those #OrdainWomen poster using "She Persisted" memeleaders must be women and men working together to bring up life and “life in its fullness”, as Jesus proclaimed. (La Biblia Español & English, John 10:10). RCWP members live the prophetic mission of Jesus and, in this sense, fidelity to the Church and Jesus Christ means to denounce oppressive systems even when the oppression happens to be within the institution itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Gregson, David. “Priesthood – Reserved to Men.” EWTN News, https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/priesthood_men.htm. Accessed 04 Apr. 2017.

Liberia Editrice Vaticana, Code of Canon Law. 4 Nov. 2013, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_INDEX.HTM.

Meehan, Bridget Mary. “Open Doors For Women Priests, “La Civilita Catholica”. Bridget Mary’s Blog, 07 Feb.2017, http://bridgetmarys.blogspot.com/2017/02/open-doors-for-women-priests-la.html.

“PWR – Rev. Suzanne Thiel.” YouTube. Uploaded by MagickTv, 21 Nov. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmYUrUfRlWE.

“Roman Catholic Women Priests.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. Uploaded 11 Jan. 2013, http://www.pbs.org/video/2324471488/>. Accessed 04 Apr. 2017.

Ruggeri, Amanda. “The Secrets of the Santa Priscilla Catacombs.” BBC News. BBC, 25 Feb. 2015. Web. <http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150224-the-secrets-of-the-catacombs>. Accessed 04 Apr. 2017.

Sociedad Bíblica Católica International. La Biblia Español & English, Editorial Verbo Divino, 2012.

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