Everyone who was raised Catholic learned this fact: there are not, there never were, and there never will be women priests. Never. We were taught that this is what God decided, and so it isn’t something that can change. Despite statements from the Vatican reassuring women that we do indeed have value and we are indeed equal, all the recent popes have made it very clear that the Catholic church will never, ever, ever allow women priests. (1)
So what do people do when they run into a big obstacle that blocks where they want to go and what they want to do? They look for a way around the obstacle.
And what do Catholic women do when they feel God calling them to the priesthood but they’re told by their pope that the church will never let them be priests? They look for a way to do what they believe God wants them to do, in spite of what the popes tell them.
The Danube Seven
To be a priest in the Catholic church, one must be ordained by a bishop. And because anyone can call themselves a bishop, the Catholic church requires that its bishops be within the apostolic succession, meaning they were ordained within the line of bishops going all the way back to the original apostles.
In 2002, on a boat on the Danube River in Germany, seven women from Austria, Germany and the United States were ordained as priests by three Catholic bishops, at least one of whom was within the line of apostolic succession. Thus, according to the rules of the Catholic church and the tradition of the early Christians, the women became real priests.
What happened next is not a surprise. The women’s ordinations were not seen as valid by the Catholic hierarchy, and the whole lot were excommunicated, along with the bishops who had ordained them. (2)
Excommunication did not stop these women. Of course it didn’t. They knew they’d be excommunicated for daring to become priests (3). So they got ordained anyway, and then they got to work.
They created an international organization – Roman Catholic Womenpriests – and it’s still growing. There now are ten women bishops, and they are all within the apostolic succession, which makes them legitimate Catholic bishops. There are also 124 womenpriests worldwide (4). They’re saying mass, ministering at prisons, marrying people, doing funerals, and helping the elderly and the sick.
The Catholic hierarchy, of course, wants nothing to do with them, and so womenpriests cannot say mass or administer the sacraments or do anything else in a regular church. By “regular church,” I mean the kind of church you and I grew up with - a big fancy building, a house for the priest to live in, and maybe an elementary school. The congregation pays to build the church and the school, pays for the priest and his house, and pays for other church expenses, while the bishop decides who is going to be the priest and how long he will stay.
Because they have no access to regular Catholic churches, womenpriests say mass and administer the sacraments just like the early Christians did: they find places in their communities. Sometimes it’s someone’s home; sometimes it’s another Christian denomination’s church (5). Just like the early Christians, the point is not to own a big fancy building, or to accumulate wealth and power. For womenpriests, the point is to follow their calling and help those who need help.
For so very long, women have been asking the church for equality and an end to the church’s misogyny. And the church’s response has been straight out of a propaganda textbook: assure women that the church cares very deeply about them, tell them they already have equality, and maintain the status quo. When women stop asking and start demanding, tell them God wants them to accept the status quo - as though they can't understand what God wants them to do without priests and bishops and popes explaining it to them.
Womenpriests have figured out what oppressed people throughout history have learned: if you ask your oppressors to stop oppressing you, nothing will change. You have to find a way to stop the oppression on your own, like Gandhi did in India. So instead of leaving Catholicism and moving to a Protestant denomination that would allow them to be priests and ministers, these womenpriests have decided to stay with the church they love, and to force it to change by ignoring what the pope tells them, and following the calling of their higher authority.
By doing so, they’re raising a very important question: who owns the Catholic church? I was raised to believe the pope did, and the bishops, just like they own parish buildings and diocesan buildings and Vatican palaces. Just like they own the Vatican’s art collections and bank accounts. I was raised to believe that Catholics worldwide had to submit to the authority of the pope and the bishops and the priests, because if we didn’t, we’d go to hell.
These womenpriests are reminding us that Jesus would not have wanted his church to become a rigid, authoritarian hierarchy that accumulated vast wealth and controlled people by making them afraid of going to hell if they didn’t toe the line. These womenpriests are taking Catholicism back to the days of early Christianity, when the church wasn’t wealth and power, but people. People gathering wherever they could, to help each other and to celebrate their belief.
You'll find lots of information on the Roman Catholic Womenpriests website, about the historical precedents for women priests. You’ll also find some admirable, Gandhi-like attitude, like this: “We women are no longer asking for permission to be priests. Instead, we have taken back our rightful God-given place ministering to Catholics as inclusive and welcoming priests.” (6)
On their website you’ll find a map that will help you locate the closest liturgy led by a woman priest. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you’re still a Catholic or not, for women who were raised Catholic, attending a mass said by a Catholic womanpriest will be deeply, deeply satisfying.
(1) Recent papal statements against women priests:
(2) I was raised to believe excommunication was a simple matter that meant one was tossed out of the church. If a priest or bishop were excommunicated, their religious career was over and they’d have to get an ordinary job, like maybe go to work at the post office. But this is not true at all. Many excommunicated priests and bishops all over the world are still priests and bishops, and have founded or work in what are called independent churches and breakaway churches. These have varying degrees of fidelity to Catholic doctrine. Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi, for example, one of the bishops who ordained the Danube Seven, founded the Catholic Apostolic Charismatic Church of Jesus the King in Buenos Aires.
Excommunicated priests and bishops aren’t the only ones who form breakaway churches. Parishioners do it too, when they decide the Catholic church no longer works for them. Recently, for example, the parishioners of St Francis X Cabrini, a church in Scituate MA, broke away and formed their own congregation after the Boston archdiocese sold their church out from under them – a fiscally sound and thriving church the parishioners had built with their own money. For this new, underground congregation, mass is said and sacraments are performed by anonymous priests in community locations.
(3) Let us be grateful for just a brief moment that we don't live a couple hundred years ago, when the cost to these women would have been torture and execution, not just excommunication. See this article on the 40,000 - 100,000 women killed during the witch hunts, and this list of people burned as heretics.
(4) Roman Catholic Womenpriests is not the only place to find a woman priest. There are other independent churches that consider themselves Catholic that have women priests.
(5) Think about that for a moment. Lutherans, Unitarians, Congregationalists, all allowing the competition to use their church for liturgical services because they get the very simple calculus that people need help, and if women want to be priests so they can help people, well that’s great. How can we help these women? Unlike the Vatican, which is so deeply mired in misogyny that its response to women who are called by their Catholic God to be priests so they can help people is excommunication. Kicking them out and slamming the door to keep them out. After writing this article I have new respect for Protestant ministers, who apparently work for the God of ‘yes,’ not the God of ‘no.’
(6) In case you can’t get your head around what kind of women want to be women priests, check out the bios of two womenpriests who were ordained bishops in October 2017.