In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood | KERA News

In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood

Sep 16, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 5:04 am

Sunday morning services at St. Mary Magdalene Community in Drexel Hill, Pa., look different from a typical Roman Catholic mass. The homily is interactive, there's gluten-free communion bread, and the priest is a woman.

Caryl Johnson calls herself a priest, but technically she was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. That happened automatically in 2011 when she was ordained by the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

The organization acknowledges that it's violating church requirements but says the ban on female priests is unjust. So far the group has ordained 188 women around the world.

For many Catholic women, there's a big gap between what they believe and church dogma. Birth control is an example: The church bans it, but a recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows nearly 79 percent of Catholic women think they should be allowed to use it. Also, 58 percent think the church should ordain women.

Johnson says for more than three decades she struggled with the church ban on female priests. She tried to live within the rules — taking on expanded ministry roles as women were allowed to perform them. But it wasn't enough. Johnson says she felt a spiritual call to become a priest that she couldn't ignore any longer.

"I had a decision to make," says Johnson. "Am I going to follow the spirit of God and do what God asks no matter what the cost? Or am I going to follow a rule?"

These days the Catholic Church has difficulty recruiting enough men to be priests. Johnson is among those who believe opening ordination to women and married people could help address that problem.

Pope Francis, though, has flatly rejected opening the priesthood to women.

And there are women in the church who oppose it, too.

Referring to female priests like Johnson, Rebecca Woodhull, president of the National Council of Catholic Women says, "They are not Catholic priests. They can call themselves that, but it would be — maybe — with a small 'c' and not a capital 'C.' "

Like Pope Francis, Woodhull says she supports gender equality in issues such as workplace pay. But she says in the Catholic church, men and women have different roles, and she believes there are good reasons for that.

"Women have special 'charisms' — special talents — that are just endemic to the female person," Woodhull says. "Pope John Paul called it 'the feminine genius.' "

Woodhull says those include sensitivity and tenderness, traits well-suited to roles set aside for women in the church, such as becoming a nun. That said, she does support recent moves to put women in other leadership positions.

Last year Pope Francis appointed Luzia Premoli, superior general of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, to a high-ranking missionary group called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It's the first time a woman has held such a high position in the church.

Moves like that have made Pope Francis popular with the more liberal wing of the Catholic church.

Outside St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston, Ill., after a recent Sunday Mass, Barbara Marian, 73, interrupted a reporter who asked her about Pope Francis, saying, "Oh, don't we love him? Don't we love him?"

Marian is a longtime activist in favor of ordaining women. She and her husband drive nearly two hours to worship at "St. Nick's," which is widely seen as one of the more liberal parishes in the region.

Even though Catholic dogma hasn't changed much under Pope Francis, Marian says he has changed the tone of dialogue, and she thinks that's a good start.

"The funny thing is when the tone opens the door and we can sit down and listen to each other, we both go away smarter, more humble, more understanding," Marian says. And she hopes that will lead to change in the church.

When Pope Francis visits the U.S. later this month, he's not scheduled to speak specifically about the role of women in the church, but some hope he will. Just a few days before he arrives in Philadelphia, the group Women's Ordination Worldwide will hold its annual conference there. Organizers expect hundreds of activists who want the Catholic Church to ordain women to attend.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The coming U.S. visit of Pope Francis will underline a stark reality. It's the difference between church doctrine and the views of many American Catholics.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The difference is notable when it comes to American women. Consider birth control, which is banned by the church. Almost 80 percent of Catholic women in America who regularly attend mass think women should be able to use it.

INSKEEP: The widespread excitement about the pope is partly a sign of such differences because Francis has shifted the tone of the church. But underlying church doctrine has not changed. And in one city that Francis plans to visit, some women are making their own roles. They spoke with NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Sunday morning mass looks different at this church outside Philadelphia. The homily is interactive. There's gluten-free communion bread, and the priest is a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARYL JOHNSON: Mother and father God, you have entrusted to us the riches of your lot.

BRADY: Caryl Johnson calls herself priest, but technically she was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. That happened automatically three years ago, when was ordained by the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The organization acknowledges that it's breaking church rules but says the ban on female priests is unjust. So far, the group has ordained 188 women around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: (Singing) Christ has died, hallelujah. Christ is risen.

BRADY: Johnson says for more than three decades, she struggled with the church ban on female priests. She tried to live within the rules, taking on expanded ministry jobs as women were allowed to perform them. But it wasn't enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Let's now go forth and be God's love in the world.

BRADY: After Sunday's liturgy, as worshipers visit with each other, Johnson says she felt a spiritual call to become a priest that she couldn't ignore any longer.

JOHNSON: I had a decision to make. Am I going to follow the spirit of God and do what God asks, no matter what the cost? Or am I going to follow a rule?

BRADY: These days, the Catholic Church has difficulty even recruiting men to be priests. Johnson argues opening ordination to women and married people could help address that problem. Pope Francis, though, has flatly rejected opening the priesthood to women. And there are women in the church who oppose it too. Rebecca Woodhull is president of the National Council of Catholic Women. She does not mince words at the prospect of female priests.

REBECCA WOODHULL: They are not Catholic priests. They can call themselves that, but it would be maybe with a small C and not a capital C.

BRADY: Woodhull says she supports gender equality in issues like workplace pay. But she says in the Catholic Church, men and women have different roles. And she believes there are good reasons for that.

WOODHULL: Women have special charisms (ph), special talents that are just endemic to the female person. Pope John Paul called it the feminine genius.

BRADY: Woodhull says those traits include sensitivity and tenderness. And they're well suited to becoming a nun. That said, she does support recent moves to put women in other leadership positions. For example, last year, Pope Francis appointed a nun from Brazil to a high-ranking missionary group called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It's the first time a woman has held such a high position in the church. Moves like that have made Pope Francis really popular with the more liberal wing of the Catholic Church, even if dogma remains unchanged.

BARBARA MARIAN: Don't we love him? Don't we love him because...

BRADY: Barbara Marian is 73 years old and a longtime activist in favor of ordaining women. Outside St. Nicholas Church in Evanston, Ill., she says as Pope Francis has changed the tone of the Catholic Church, she hopes barriers to the priesthood will be relaxed too.

MARIAN: Well, the funny thing is, when the tone opens the door and we can sit down and listen to each other, we both go away smarter, more humble, more understanding. So I think first comes the tone.

BRADY: When Pope Francis visits the U.S. later this month, he's not scheduled to speak specifically about the role of women in the church. But there are many hoping he will. And hundreds of advocates for allowing women to become priests are scheduled to meet in Philadelphia for their annual conference just days before the pope arrives here. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.