I took my seat for one of the final panels of the day at Sunstone West in early February expecting an interesting discussion. After all, the panel, which featured women from a number of religious traditions talking about the challenges they faced as feminists among the faithful, was planned by Exponent’s own Caroline, whom I knew to be bright, creative and thoughtful. What I didn’t expect was an epiphany of sorts.
Panelists representing the Islamic, Evangelical, Jewish, Catholic and Mormon traditions spoke about what happens when religious feminists confront those in their communities “who lack a basic understanding of feminist ideas, rely on assumptions about feminism rather than facts, or are hostile to feminist thought.” (“Challenges Feminists Face in Different Religious Traditions,” 2012 Sunstone West Symposium Program Abstract) Many of the experiences they articulated were achingly familiar—that is, until the Catholic panelist mentioned that a series of rogue ordinations of woman had taken place in her church and that these female priests and bishops were currently celebrating mass and ministering to their congregations. I was stunned. Who were these women? How and by whom had they been ordained? Was the church hierarchy aware of them, and, if so, had they been disciplined—particularly given the recent backlash against advocates for women’s equality in the Catholic church? Or had they simply been ignored? As a nearly life-long advocate for female ordination in the LDS Church, I wanted to know more.
With a little help from Google, I discovered the Women’s Ordination Conference as well as the Roman Catholic Women Priests. Both organizations call for the ordination of women and their equitable inclusion in the administration, governance and ministry of the Roman Catholic Church. While the Women’s Ordination Conference, founded in 1975, actively advocates and prays for female ordination, the Women Priests, weary of waiting and no longer asking for permission, spiritually prepare and ordain women who feel called by God and their communities to priestly ministry.
They claim their right through Apostolic Succession. In 2002, seven women were ordained as priests on the Danube River by an anonymous Roman Catholic bishop. The following year, two of the women were ordained bishops, and they continue to ordain female deacons, priests and bishops–sometimes privately, in what are called catacomb ordinations, sometimes publicly. That the male bishop involved in the initial ordinations remained largely unknown not only protected him from institutional reprisal, but it also allowed the women to remain the principle actors in the struggle for their equitable inclusion in the church.
While these ordinations were soon decried by the Vatican, it took several years for the church hierarchy to respond dramatically and decisively, in part because it couldn’t deny that the women had been ordained by men having authority. In 2008, however, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued a decree declaring that “women priests and the bishops who ordain them were excommunicated latae sententiae.” (The very act of ordaining or receiving ordination meant automatic excommunication.) In response, the Women Priests declared that the church would eventually “find this action shameful and unworthy,” and they reaffirmed their conviction that God had called them to ordination and ministry.
We don’t often talk about feeling a personal call to ministry in Mormonism, particularly as women. I don’t think it’s just a question of religious vocabulary or organizational structures in which ever-changing callings are determined by lay male priesthood leaders and extended to members. Denied ordination, which is available to all LDS men, we’ve learned to curtail our aspirations.
As I sat in that conference room last February inspired by the courage and conviction of these Catholic women, I noted that the idea of, for lack of a better term, rogue ordinations—father to daughter, husband to wife, friend to friend—had never occurred to me.