Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP)

Jane Via

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ROMAN CATHOLIC WOMEN PRIESTS (RCWP) TIMELINE

Late 1950s–Early 1960s:  A small international group of women from Switzerland, Austria and Germany worked on women’s issues in the Roman Catholic Church.

1963–1965:  During the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, German theologians Dr. Ida Raming and Dr. Iris Müller conducted a letter-writing campaign to Vatican congregations and lobbied bishops at the Council for women’s ordination.

1965–1979:  Many Catholic clergy around the world left the priesthood and married with the hope of returning as married priests.

1974 (July 29):  Eleven women (known as the “Philadelphia Eleven”) were ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church by three bishops (two retired, one resigned). Two years later, the Episcopal Church sanctioned the ordination of women.

1975 (November 28–30):  A national meeting was held in Detroit, Michigan with close to 2,000 people in attendance. The Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) was founded in the United States to advocate for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church.

1978 (October 16):  Cardinal Karol Józef Wojtyła, from Poland, was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He took the name John Paul II.

1979–1992:  Ignoring women’s issues, the Vatican focused on fighting communism and supporting conservative Catholic organizations.

1994 (May 22):  Pope John Paul II issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis, an apostolic letter stating that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” that this view was “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” and that the matter of women’s ordination was closed for discussion.

1995:  The sexual abuse scandal in Austria involving Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer provoked the church reform movement, “We Are Church” (Wir sind Kirche), in Austria, Germany and South Tyrol. The movement included pursuit of women’s ordination.

1996:  We Are Church became an international association.

1996 (July):  Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) was founded at the First European Women’s Synod in Gmunden, Austria.

1999:  Roman Catholic priest James Callen and theologian Mary Ramerman, who had left their diocesan parish Corpus Christi in Rochester, New York, founded a non-canonical parish they called Spiritus Christi in Rochester. They were excommunicated by the Vatican shortly thereafter.

2001 (November 18):  Mary Ramerman was ordained a Catholic priest by Bishop Peter Hickman of the Old Catholic Church in Rochester, New York.

2002 (March 24):  Six women, all from Austria and Germany, were ordained deacons in Pettenbach, Austria.

2002 (June 29):  Two additional women were ordained deacons, and seven of the eight deacons (known as The Danube Seven) were then ordained as Roman Catholic priests in a boat on the Danube River.

2002 (August 5):  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, excommunicated the Danube Seven. After an attempted appeal, Ratzinger finalized the decree on December 21, 2002. Final copies were delivered to Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster in January 2003.

2002 (October 20):  Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster were consecrated bishops in Pettenbach, Austria.

2003 (August 7):  South African Dominican Sister Patricia Fresen was ordained a priest in Barcelona, Spain.

2004 (June 26)Two native U.S. women, Victoria Rue and Jane Via, along with four European women, were ordained deacons on the Danube River.

2005 (January 2):  Patricia Fresen of South Africa became the first English-speaking woman priest to be consecrated a bishop in the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. She was tasked by the bishop who consecrated her with ordaining women priests in North America.

2005 (April 19):  Cardinal Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger of Germany was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church and took the name Benedict XVI.

2006 (January 7):  The Roman Catholic Women Priests–USA, Inc. became a nonprofit corporation.

2006 (June 24):  Three women from the U.S. (two priests, one deacon) were ordained on Lake Constance off Swiss shores.

2006 (July 31):  Four U.S. women were ordained deacons and eight U.S. women were ordained priests on a riverboat near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first ordination in U.S. waters.

2006 (October 22):  Judith McKloskey was ordained a deacon in Minneapolis, Minnesota in a Roman Catholic parish church in Minneapolis in the first (and possibly only) ordination of a woman in a Roman Catholic parish church.

2007 (February 3):  RCWP-USA Constitution was ratified, creating multiple regions, in recognition of the growing number of candidates for ordination and ordained clergy. Each region was to be led by its own bishop.

2007 (July 14):  Two U.S. women were ordained priests and two U.S. women were ordained deacons in New York City, New York. This was the first public ordination of women in the United States on land.

2007 (July 22):  One U.S. woman was ordained a priest and one a deacon at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, an Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles ministry, in the Santa Barbara, California area. This was the first public ordination in the United States hosted on a property owned by a historically Catholic facility.

2007 (November 11):  Ree Hudson and Elsie McGrath were the first women to be ordained priests in a synagogue in St. Louis, Missouri and the first (along with Bishop Patricia Fresen, who officiated at the ordination) to be handed excommunication papers at ordination site.

2008 (April 9):  Sibyl Dana Reynolds was consecrated the first U.S. woman bishop in Stuttgart, Germany. Reynolds served as bishop for the entire United States until April 2009.

2010 (October 21):  The original Southern Region separated from RCWP-USA and formed the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP). It incorporated as a separate nonprofit organization in the United States.

2009–2019:  Women were ordained in locations around the world including Canada, South America, the Philippines, and South Africa.

2013 (March 13):  After the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J. of Argentina was elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church and took the name Francis.

2020 (February 1):  Kori Pacyniak, the first, known trans, non-binary person, was ordained a priest  in San Diego, California.

2020:  From 2002 to 2020, 235 women have been ordained: 203 priests (sixteen now deceased); nineteen bishops; nineteen deacons preparing for priestly ordination; and eighteen candidates preparing for ordination to the diaconate.

FOUNDER/MOVEMENT HISTORY

The Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) women’s ordination movement has no single founder. Multiple women in Europe and, subsequently, in the United States participated in the birth of the movement. (Much of the historical narrative provided here comes from Mayr-Lumetzberger 2018 and 2019. See also Roman Catholic Women Priests N.d.: “History.”)

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Catholic women in Europe began working on women’s issues in the Roman Catholic Church, [Image at right] although the issue of women’s ordination had already arisen in the early twentieth century in the United States during the women’s suffrage movement (Cordero and Thiel 2014). Among these women were Gertrud Heinzelmann of Switzerland, and Gertrud May and Theresa Muench of Germany. When Pope John XXIII (p. 1958–1963) called the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, which began in 1963, women’s efforts expanded. Theologians Dr. Ida Raming and Dr. Iris Müller conducted a letter-writing campaign to various Vatican departments advocating women’s ordination. They also lobbied bishops who were attending the council. At the conclusion of the council, there was real and seemingly justified hope that the pope would approve married priests and female deacons. (Both deacons and priests are ordained by bishops.)

By the mid-1970s, the North American feminist movement evoked a women’s movement in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The originally unauthorized ordination of eleven women as priests in 1974 by three bishops in the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, became a potential model for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. A national meeting regarding women in the Catholic Church, with nearly 2,000 in attendance, was held in Detroit, Michigan, November 28–30, 1975. The conference saw the establishment of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) in the United States to advocate for the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church (Women’s Ordination Conference n.d.). Many women who were members and/or leaders of WOC over the years were among the Roman Catholic women who were eventually ordained in the 2000s.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Pope John Paul II (p. 1978–2005) shifted Vatican interests to fighting communism. He wanted to establish democratic governments influenced by the Church; supported conservative Catholic organizations globally; and invested money in Polish liberation movements. Uninterested in the problem of clergy sexual misconduct within the Catholic Church, he was actively hostile to women’s issues. For example, in 1994 the pope issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone), an official papal pronouncement stating that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” The document further stated that this view was “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” and thus any further discussion of women’s ordination was forbidden (John Paul II 1994).

At the First European Women’s Synod, held in Gmunden, Austria in 1996, Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW) was founded to pursue women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church (Women’s Ordination Worldwide n.d.). Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, an Austrian, and Dr. Ida Raming, a German, became founding members of Women’s Ordination Worldwide. WOW brought together individuals and national organizations with the same purpose. At the First European Women’s Synod, Mayr-Lumetzberger and Raming met advocates for women’s ordination from multiple European countries, from England, and from the United States. As a result of the conference, Mayr-Lumetzberger agreed to draft a program to prepare women for ordination. WOW also began to offer workshops for women to explore ordination and take steps toward ordination. Three groups of women in Austria, led by Mayr-Lumetzberger, began preparing for ordination.

In the United States, the Women’s Ordination Conference continued its advocacy. Individual WOC groups had sprung up in cities across the nation. In 1998, a Roman Catholic laywoman and theologian, Mary Ramerman, and Roman Catholic priest Jim Callan left their canonical Roman Catholic parish in Rochester, New York. Callen supported women’s ordination and had permitted Ramerman to be at the altar and assist at Mass during the consecration of the bread and wine used in the Eucharist by holding sacred vessels. After Callen was ordered by his local bishop to cease and desist, Callen and Ramerman left the parish and founded Spiritus Christi, an independent Catholic community, in 1999. Both Ramerman and Callan were excommunicated by the Vatican shortly thereafter (Newman 2019). Callen’s support of women’s ordination and Spiritus Christi became known throughout the western Roman Catholic world. In November 2001, Ramerman was ordained a priest by Peter Hickman, a bishop of the Old Catholic Church, before a crowd of 3,000 in Rochester, New York, who attended despite the threat of excommunication by the local bishop (Bonavoglia 2001).

Meanwhile, in Europe, a number of women had begun to plan for the ordination of a group of women as priests on a boat on the Danube River as early as 1998. [Image at right] The Danube River was chosen since it was considered international waters between Germany and Austria and was not part of any Roman Catholic bishop’s diocese. In 2002, Mayr-Lumetzberger sent out a press release announcing the event before the women had found a bishop to ordain them, “trusting that God would provide.” Somewhat miraculously, in their view, Dr. Gisela Forster, a woman in the ordination preparation program, received a phone call from the wife of retired Argentine Bishop Rómulo Antonio Braschi indicating that he would ordain them. An ordained Roman Catholic priest, Braschi was forced by the then-dictatorial regime of Argentina to flee to Germany, as many other priests had. In Germany, however, he married his wife Alicia. Braschi was ordained a bishop in Munich by Roberto Garrido Padin, an ordained Roman Catholic priest and bishop of the Brazilian Catholic Apostolic Church, and Hilarios Karl-Heinz Ungerer, a bishop of the Free Catholic Church in Germany; Braschi himself claimed that he was ordained bishop a second time because the first was considered invalid. Prior to the 2002 Danube ordination, Braschi consecrated a former Benedictine monk and ordained Roman Catholic priest, Rafael (Ferdinand) Regelsberger, as a Roman Catholic bishop.

Braschi and Regelsberger privately ordained six women from Austria and Germany as deacons on Palm Sunday, March 24, 2002. (Ordination as a deacon is the first step taken before receiving ordination as an elder/priest in the Church.) Because of Vatican pressure on its bishops, private ordinations (which came to be known as “catacomb ordinations”) were necessary at that stage.

The priestly ordination on the Danube River was set for June 29, 2002. An anonymous Catholic bishop, known as Bishop X, traveled to Passau, Germany for the ordination. According to unconfirmed reports, he stopped along the way at a monastery to spend the night. Somehow, the monks learned the purpose of his trip and locked him in his guest room to prevent him from attending. Thus it was that Bishops Braschi and Regelsberger ordained two additional deacons, and then seven of the eight women as priests on the Danube River following the Roman Catholic Rite. The women ordained as priests were: Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Adelinde Theresia Roitinger, Gisela Forster, Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Pia Brunner, and Angela White (the pseudonym for Dagmar Celeste, an Austrian-born woman who had married a U.S. citizen and became a U.S. citizen).

On July 10, 2002, all of the women ordained on the Danube, with the exception of “Angela White,” received a warning (“Monitum”) from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican, threatening excommunication; on August 5, 2002 all seven women were named in an excommunication decree (“Decree of Excommunication” 2002). The excommunication decree also declared: “In order to dispel any doubts about the canonical status of Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi, who attempted to confer priestly ordination on several Catholic women, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith confirms that, as a schismatic, he has already incurred an excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.” Despite the excommunications, once the news of the ordination of the Danube Seven reached women in the United States, some began to inquire about possible ordination.

On October 20, 2002, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster were consecrated bishops in a catacomb rite, in the small chapel of a private home, in Pettenbach, Austria, by Bishop Rafael Regelsberger and another bishop whose identity is unknown. Because there were questions regarding their episcopal ordinations, Mayr-Lumetzberger and Forster were then consecrated bishops sub conditione (conditionally, in case their previous ordinations were invalid in some detail) in Seibersdorf, a suburb of Vienna, on May 19, 2003 by the Roman Catholic bishop known in the RCWP movement as Bishop X and Bishop Regelsberger.

On August 7, 2003, a South African Dominican Sister and theologian, Patricia Fresen, [Image at right] was ordained a priest in Barcelona, Spain. Fresen had been both a university professor and a seminary professor. In 2004, two native-born U.S. women, Victoria Rue and Jane Via (aka Jillian Farley) were ordained deacons on the Danube River, along with women from France, Latvia/Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Canada: Genevieve Beney (France), Astrid Indricane (Latvia/Germany), Monika Wyss (Switzerland), and Michele Birch-Conery (Canada). Birch-Conery later left the RCWP community to join the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, which formally separated from RCWP on October 21, 2010. Birch-Conery was subsequently ordained a bishop in that movement.

In 2004, Bishop X met privately with Patricia Fresen, the South African (and by then, former Dominican Sister) who spoke English. According to Fresen, Bishop X told her, “the future of this movement will not be in Europe. It will be in America. Therefore an English-speaking bishop is needed” (Fresen 2019). He urged Fresen to be ordained a bishop so she could ordain women to the priesthood in the United States. Fresen recalls his words:

[Y]ou won’t get anything out of being a bishop: you won’t get a diocese, nor a bishop’s house, nor a car, nor a bishop’s salary. . . . I will pass on to you my apostolic succession and, standing in that line of apostolic succession, you will ordain people. After that, your main ministry will be to take care of the priests you have ordained . . . until you find people to take over the bishop’s functions from you (Fresen 2019).

Bishop X emfphasized that Fresen’s consecration as bishop was not for her but for the women she would ordain. Fresen consented and was consecrated a bishop on January 2, 2005 to help ordain women in North America.

In 2005, several North American women were ordained on the St. Lawrence Seaway near Ganonoque, Canada following a conference held on Women in the Church in Ottawa, Canada. Victoria Rue was ordained a priest at that time, along with other women ordained as priests and deacons. In 2005, Rue and Phillip Faker formed an organization they called Roman Catholic Womenpriests–U.S.A. and applied for nonprofit status. Faker met Rue at the 2004 diaconate ordination on the Danube at which Rue and Faker’s wife, Jane Via, were ordained deacons. In 2006, Roman Catholic Womenpriests–USA, Inc. received official nonprofit status.

On June 24, 2006, German-born U.S. citizen Regina Nicolosi, Jane Via (U.S.), and Monika Wyss (Switzerland), were ordained priests on the Bodensee (known as Lake Constance to English speakers) where the Bodensee connects with the Rhine River in central Europe off Swiss shores. In the same ordination rite, Andrea Johnson, a former WOC president, was ordained a deacon. On July 31, 2006, several women in the United States were ordained on the Monongahela River, off the shores of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, (Merlene) Olivia Doko, Joan Clark Houk, Kathleen Strack Kunster, Bridget Mary Meehan, Roberta Meehan, Sibyl Dana Reynolds, and Kathy Sullivan Vandenberg were ordained priests, while Cheryl Bristol, Juanita Cordero, Mary Ellen Robertson, and Janice Sevre-Duszynska were ordained deacons. [Image at right]

By 2007, many women in the United States were seeking priestly ordination. The demands on European women bishops (including Patricia Fresen, a South African who was living in Germany) to ordain U.S. women became so great that the need for a bishop in the United States became evident. On April 9, 2008, Sibyl Dana Reynolds was ordained in Stuttgart, Germany as the first Roman Catholic woman bishop of the United States. Reynolds took over the work to ordain women all over the country. Meanwhile, a women’s ordination movement emerged in Canada with the priestly ordination of Michele Birch-Conery in 2005. Marie Bouclin became the first woman bishop of Canada in 2011. The organization Roman Catholic Women Priests-Canada was incorporated in 2014.

Additional female bishops were ordained in 2009 to serve the widespread geographical needs of women seeking ordination in the United States. Andrea Johnson was ordained the first woman bishop of the Eastern Region; Regina Nicolosi, the first woman bishop of the Mid-Western Region; Joan Houk, the first bishop of the Great Waters Region; and Bridget Mary Meehan, the first bishop of the then-Southern Region. Reynolds became the bishop of the Western Region until she was succeeded by Olivia Doko. Nicolosi was succeeded by Nancy Meyer. Doko was succeeded by Suzanne Thiel and Jane Via [Image at right] who were elected co-bishops to serve the widespread geographical needs of the Western Region of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. In the RCWP movement, women bishops may retire when ready to do so, a major renovation in traditional Roman Catholic practice.

Between 2004 and 2008, only two ordained Roman Catholic men in the United States publicly championed women’s ordination, Rod Stephens and Roy Bourgeois. Like Roman Catholic priest Jim Callan, and all of the women priests, they were excommunicated for their “grave sin” of participating in the attempted ordination of a woman.

Of the many milestones occurring in the history of the RCWP movement, the ordination of two women as priests in St. Louis, Missouri in 2007 was particularly notable. With six hundred people in attendance, a woman rabbi hosted the ordination in her synagogue. Despite pressure from then-Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke, hosting Rabbi Susan Talve attended the ordination and gave the welcome address. Immediately after the two women were ordained, they were excommunicated by the Vatican, as was Bishop Patricia Fresen, who officiated at the ordination. This was the first time excommunication had occurred on the site of an ordination. Several people in attendance were subsequently excommunicated.  On July 22, 2007, one U.S. woman was ordained a priest and one a deacon at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, an Immaculate Heart Community of Los Angeles ministry, in the Santa Barbara, California area. This was the first public ordination in the United States hosted on a property owned by a historically Roman Catholic facility.

In October 2010, Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan and the women of her Southern Region seceded from RCWP and formed the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP) (see Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests n.d.). Meehan describes ARCWP as a separate stream within the movement.

DOCTRINES AND BELIEFS

Roman Catholic Women Priests are committed to renewed priestly ministry in a renewed Roman Catholic Church. The primary commitment of RCWP is to ordain women, although the movement ordains some men as well as LGBTQ persons. By ordaining women according to the Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, RCWPs hope to model the Roman Catholic Church of the future while opening the hearts and minds of practicing Roman Catholics to women priests. RCWPs also lead liturgical communities for progressive Roman Catholics who have long been ready for women’s ordination and are disillusioned with the canonical Church. According to RCWP’s mission statement:

Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA, Inc. (RCWP-USA) is a prophetic organization within an international progressive movement in the Roman Catholic Church. Its mission is to prepare, ordain in apostolic succession, and support primarily women who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to a renewed priestly ministry rooted in justice and faithfulness to the Gospel (RCWP Constitution 2007:1).

Roman Catholic women priests hold that women and people of all genders are created equal by God and can equally represent Christ in ministry. This ministry is grounded in belief in a common baptism and in the call of the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus as the model for empowerment, inclusivity, generosity, and service. Roman Catholic women priests attempt to follow the spirit and teachings of the Second Vatican Council by practicing a renewed theology, liturgy, and pastoral presence. This means they attempt to operate on principles of subsidiarity (that is, operating at the lowest or least centralized level of administration) and democracy. Women priests and their supporters do not see any intrinsic connection between celibacy and the priesthood. They feel continually called to encourage and uphold the next generation of women and people of all genders in their pursuit of Roman Catholic priesthood (RCWP Constitution 2007).

RITUALS/PRACTICES

Non-liturgical RCWP gatherings begin and conclude in prayer. They often open with a reading from Scripture, a meaningful quotation, or poem followed by a period of contemplative silence.

Some communities have rendered traditional Roman Catholic prayers in inclusive/contemporary language, such as The Lord’s Prayer (the Prayer of Jesus), the Hail Mary, the Rosary, the Memorare (a prayer to the Virgin Mary), and so on. The movement also relies on prayers by contemporary authors. Below is a version of the Prayer of Jesus used routinely at the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, California.

Loving God, in whom is heaven,

May Your name be honored everywhere.

May Your Kin-dom come.

May the desire of Your heart for the world be done,

In us, by us and through us.

Give us the bread we need for each day.

Forgive us. Enable us to forgive others.

Keep us from all anxiety and fear.

For You reign in the power that comes from Love,

which is Your glory,

Forever and ever. Amen (Author unknown)

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA, Inc. is an entirely volunteer organization dependent upon the generosity of its supporters for income. RCWP-USA, Inc. is a nonprofit organization, which requires a board of directors under nonprofit law. Service on the board is open to any ordained RCWP-USA, Inc. member and, in particular circumstances, to non-ordained RCWP supporters of any gender. Bishops have a non-voting representative on the board selected by the bishops. RCWP bishops primarily serve as pastors to the pastors (priests) and their communities, rather than as administrators.

At the national level, the work of the board is informed by a number of program and leadership circles such as the Program Preparation Circle; Vision Keeper Circle; Bishops Circle, along with advisory circles such as the Compassion Circle (persons with expertise in mediation and conflict management); the Fund Development Circle (persons with expertise in fundraising and grant writing); the Media Circle (persons versed in writing press releases, public speaking, and other media relations); a National Gathering Circle (persons willing to plan and execute national retreats, meetings, and gatherings); and a Publicity and Website Communications Circle (persons with expertise in website management, advertising, promotion, and publicity).

Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA, Inc. is divided into large geographical regions in the United States: the Eastern Region, the Mid-West Region, the Great Waters Region, [Image at right] and the Western Region. Women from southern states who join RCWP are included in one of these regions. Leadership roles within each region include an administrator, a director of the preparation program, a chief financial officer, a representative to the national board of directors, a representative to the national Vision Keepers Circle, and a regional bishop or bishops. All leaders are elected.

A Leadership Circle (generally consisting of an administrator or administrators, the regional representative to the national Vision Keepers Circle, the regional bishop/s, the regional representative to the national board of directors, the regional program coordinator/s, and the regional financial officer) meets monthly to make routine business decisions for the region in consultation with interested, participating members of the region. Some regions are sub-divided into geographical clusters. Each cluster nominates a representative to a monthly meeting of the cluster representatives with the administrator and the bishop/s. Other circles, such as the regional Compassion Circle, participate in the life of the region. Each region gathers at least once annually for time together, retreat or education, social interaction, prayer, liturgy, and business as needed.

Roman Catholic women priests in Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA, Inc. from around the United States gather every three years at national assemblies.

RCWP-USA, Inc. takes its name from the German word for “womanpriest” (priesterin) used early in the European movement. Although the movement originated in Europe and spawned the movement in the U.S., Canada, and other parts of the world, the movement did not flourish in Europe. This was largely due to the lack of separation of church and state there. European women who were ordained were not able to do things that women in the Americas could do (e.g. rent space from a local Protestant church for services). They were able to provide private sacramental services (e.g. baptisms and weddings) but it was difficult to gather a worshipping community together. This may have been why Bishop X told Patricia Fresen that the future of the movement was in the United States (and then Canada). As a result, the number of active women priests in Europe is very small. There is a disproportionate number of bishops in Europe due to the need for European bishops to ordain U.S. women early in the movement and later the need to ordain American women bishops.

RCWP-Canada traces its beginnings to the ordination of the first priest in Canada in 2005 when Michele Birch-Conery was ordained near Gananoque, Ontario, Canada on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Canada’s second priest, Marie Bouclin, was ordained in 2007. Bouclin was ordained a bishop in 2011. The vastness of Canada geographically has resulted in a center of women priests in Western Canada and a center of women priests in Eastern Canada. In 2018, Bishop Marie Bouclin retired, and Jane Kryzanowski was elected Bishop of RCWP-Canada.

RCWP-Canada was incorporated by the Government of Canada in 2014 as follows: Roman Catholic Women Priests of Canada, Femmes prêtres catholiques romaines du Canada. The non-profit uses the abbreviation RCWP-Canada for everyday matters. The governance of RCWP-Canada, like that of RCWP-USA, is based on a circular model. Their structure incudes: a nonprofit Board of Directors, a National Leadership Circle with representatives from Eastern and Western Canada and the bishop; a program coordinator (who oversees the preparation of candidates for diaconate and priestly ordination); and an administrator, who organizes the work of the organization. RCWP-Canada has a separate constitution adapted to Canadian experience and currently functions as a single region sensitive to cultural differences. RCWP-Canada and RCWP-USA share the same vision, mission and values.

On October 21, 2010 the former Southern Region separated from RCWP-USA and formed the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP). Although women in the movement disagree regarding how and why the separation of ARCWP from RCWP-USA occurred, many would agree that it involved different understandings of educational requirements for ordination, legal organizational structure, differences in personalities and style, and commitments to social justice-related ministries. Despite the separation, women in both organizations see themselves as two streams of one movement. ARCWP is an association that became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. ARCWP has a constitution similar to the RCWP-USA constitution, but also different. For example, ARCWP’s Vision Statement reads: “The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is committed to a renewed model of ordained ministry in an inclusive community of equals in the Roman Catholic Church.” The RCWP-USA Vision Statement reads “A new model of ordained ministry in a renewed Roman Catholic Church.” Although the language of self-description is articulated differently in ARCWP and RCWP-USA, the actual manner in which the two communities function is quite similar.

As a nonprofit corporation, ARCWP is required to have a Board of Directors. In ARCWP, the Board’s role is primarily finance. Board officers are elected. ARCWP uses a consensus process in creating guidelines and resolving issues. Ideas are discussed within committees, then sent to the membership via surveys for their suggested edits and revisions. When a final draft is ready, it is presented again and all members vote. The vote is determined by majority.

ARCWP is not divided into regions. As of spring 2020, ARCWP had approximately 90 members. A three-tiered, three-person, elected Circle Leader Team handles general administrative work in conjunction with committees. The tiers include an incumbent, a leader, and an advisor. Each serves a six-year term, two years in each role. In this way, continuity is preserved. The Program Coordinator Team, also three-tiered and elected, handles requirements for applicants, candidates, and ordinations. Any member of ARCWP can take coursework arranged by the Program Coordinator Team. Any member can propose a committee and invite other members to join, with notice to the Circle Leader Team.

Some members of both ARCWP and RCWP-USA envision a day when perhaps the two communities will become one. Many members of both already experience unity in vision, mission, and values.

As of April 2020, there are nineteen bishops in the worldwide Roman Catholic Woman Priest movement; 197 priests (in addition to sixteen deceased priests); nineteen deacons; and eighteen candidates for diaconate ordination.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

The opposition of the canonical Roman Catholic Church to women’s ordination is a major challenge to the RCWP movement due to its hierarchical and patriarchal culture, its inherent misogyny, and the privileges and benefits that male clergy enjoy. Although there are many Roman Catholic clergy who support women’s ordination to the priesthood, few acknowledge this publicly due to the punitive structure of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. Those who have done so have been excommunicated and defrocked. As a result, practicing Roman Catholics, who worship in parishes led by priests supportive of women’s ordination, rarely know that their pastor or priest supports women’s ordination. Many Roman Catholic clergy, however, are threatened by, and vehemently opposed to, women’s ordination.

Although national surveys indicate that approximately two-thirds of all Roman Catholics in the United States support women’s ordination (a strong majority) practicing Catholics tend to love their parish communities and continue to support the institutional church despite its condemnation of women’s ordination (and other teachings with which they disagree). Lay Catholics have no voice in leadership in the Roman Catholic Church. All decision-makers in the Roman Catholic Church are ordained males: pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons. The options open to Catholics who love church, but disagree with it, are limited.

Other challenges for RCWP include: discerning how the RCWP movement will unfold in the future; the age of original members (young members are coming into RCWP but not as many or as quickly as desired); burnout in the all-volunteer organization; financial strength; ordaining an educated clergy; helping to make women’s ordination available to minorities and people of limited economic means given the cost of accredited theology or divinity programs; and resisting clericalism.

The Roman Catholic Church is a multinational, worldwide institution that has existed for almost two millennia. It is also an institution that explicitly (in its theology and structure) renders Roman Catholic women second-class citizens. Only ordained persons can participate in decision-making, and Canon 1024 reserves ordination for males only (Code of Canon Law 2016). Women have no official decision-making authority or roles in the Roman Catholic Church at its highest levels, although at the local level they may serve as parish administrators, or, in the case of some religious orders, they may operate hospitals, schools, and charities. Any authority a woman exercises on the local level in a Roman Catholic parish is entirely dependent on the good will and openness of the pastor or local bishop, whose authority is subject only to episcopal and/or Vatican oversight. According to the National Catholic Reporter, there are an estimated 1,280,000,000 Catholics worldwide (Wooden 2017). If half are women, then more than 500,000,000 women around the globe are subjected to second-class citizenship in the Church. Often, their status in the Catholic Church becomes the foundation for the restricted status of women in the wider society and culture. This is especially true where the Roman Catholic Church exercises major cultural influence, for example, in some South American countries.

If the Roman Catholic Church were to affirm the equality of women in the Church, this affirmation would transform not only the roles of women within the Church, but the roles of women in the wider social arenas in which the Church operates. This dramatic change from within would help liberate women for self-actualization and from abuses that result from second-class status, including psychological, physical, and sexual abuse within and outside of their families. The presence of women among Roman Catholic clergy would likely help prevent the sexual abuse of children and non-ordained people of all genders by male clergy.

As the oldest institutional embodiment of Christianity, the Roman Catholic Church is conservative in its theology and practice. If this powerful, conservative institution affirmed the equality of women, the place of women in other conservative Christian churches also might be changed.

In short, what would religion in the contemporary world be like if women were understood to be fully equal to men in all religious communities and institutions? The Roman Catholic Women Priest movement’s challenge to the Vatican is one step toward this transformation. In the interim, the women priests and bishops who undertake this work model a new vision of ministry for the Roman Catholic Church in its structure and its practices while retaining their Catholic identities.

IMAGES

Image #1: All U.S. Bishops in RCWP-USA, including two retired bishops, present in Santa Cruz, October 1, 2017, for the episcopal ordinations of Suzanne Thiel and Jane Via. Also present were three ARCWP bishops, one Canadian bishop, and one bishop from Germany. (Back row, L to R) Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger (Germany), Mary Eileen Collingwood (ARCWP), Michele Birch-Conery (ARCWP), Nancy Meyer (U.S., Midwest Region), Andrea Johnson (U.S., Eastern Region). (Second row, L to R) Jane Via (U.S., Western Region), Joan Hoak (U.S., Great Waters Region), Bridget Mary Meehen (ARCWP), Sybil Dana Reynolds (U.S. Inactive), Suzanne Thiel (U.S., Western Region), Bishop Marie Bouclin (retired), and Bishop Olivia Doko (U.S., Western Region). (Front center) Regina Nicolosi.
Image #2: Priestly ordination of the Danube Seven, June 29, 2002: (R to L): Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Pia Brunner, Dagmar Celeste, Adelinde Roitlinger, Gisela Forster, and Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger.
Image #3: Bishop Patricia Fresen (South Africa/Germany) extending hands in ordination ceremony.
Image #4: Diaconate Ordination, Danube River, June 26, 2004. Women to be ordained (kneeling L to R): Jane Via (aka Jillian Farley), Victoria Rue, Monika Wyss, Genevieve Beney, Astrid Indricane, and Michele Birch-Conery.
Image #5: Eucharistic celebration at Pittsburgh Ordination on a riverboat, July 31, 2006. Bishops Ida Raming (L), Patricia Fresen (C), and Gisela Foster (R) wearing yellow stoles. New deacons are wearing blue stoles, while new priests wear red stoles. The following are pictured, but names are not in order of appearance. Deacons: Cheryl Bristol, Juanita Cordero, Mary Ellen Robertson, and Janice Sevre-Duszynska. Priests: Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, Merlene Olivia Doko, Joan Clark Houk, Kathleen Strack Kunster, Bridget Mary Meehan, Roberta Meehan, Sybil Dana Reynolds, and Kathy Sullivan Vandenberg.
Image #6: Ordination to the episcopacy in Santa Cruz, California on October 1, 2017. Presiding-Ordaining Bishop Olivia Doko (center), with ordinands Suzanne Thiel (L) and Jane Via (R).
Image #7: Ordination of Kathryn June Rolenc to the diaconate, by Bishop Joan Houk, Great Waters Region, May 30, 2015. (Back row, L to R), Elsie McGrath, Susan Mielke, Mary Foley, Ann Klonowski, Mary Grace Crowley-Koch. (Front row, L to R) Dagmar Celeste, Joan Houk, Kathryn June Rolenc, Barbara Zeman, Paula Hoeffer, Lill Lewis.

REFERENCES

Bonavoglia, Angela. 2001. “O Happy Day, When A Woman Is Ordained.” Chicago Tribune, December 5. Accessed from https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2001-12-05-0112050020-story.html  on 20 May 2020.

Code of Canon Law. 2016. “Those To Be Ordained.” Accessed from http://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib4-cann998-1165_en.html#THOSE_TO_BE_ORDAINED on 20 May 2020.

Cordero, Juanita, and Suzanne Avison Thiel. 2014. Here I Am, I Am Ready: A New Model of Ordained Ministry. Portland, OR: Roman Catholic Women Priests.

“Decree of Excommunication.” 2002. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. August 5.  Accessed from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020805_decreto-scomunica_en.html on 20 May 2020.

Fresen, Patricia. 2019. Email communication with author. August 23. (Some of the information from Patricia Fresen was received in personal interviews over the years. The August 23 email confirmed important aspects of the information.)

John Paul II, Pope. 1994. Ordinatio sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone), May 22. Accessed from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1994/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19940522_ordinatio-sacerdotalis.html on 20 May 2020.

Mayr-Lumetzberger, Christine. 2018. Personal interview with author. Santa Cruz, California.

Mayr-Lumetzberger, Christine. 2019. Personal interview with author. Boston, Massachusetts.

Newman, Andy. 2019. “A Dissident Priest Is Excommunicated.” New York Times, February 25. Section B: 56.

Roman Catholic Women Priests. n.d. “History of the International Roman Catholic Womenpriest Movement.” Accessed from https://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/history/ on 29 August 2019.

Roman Catholic Women Priests. 2007. “Constitution.” February 3. Internal document.

Swimme, Brian Thomas, and Mary Evelyn Tucker. 2011. Journey of the Universe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wooden, Cindy. 2017. “Global Catholic Population Tops 1.28 Billion; Half Are in 10 Countries.” National Catholic Reporter, April 8. Accessed from https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/global-catholic-population-tops-128-billion-half-are-10-countries on 20 May 2020.

Women’s Ordination Conference. n.d. “About Us.” Accessed from https://www.womensordination.org/about-us/ on 29 August 2019.

Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW). n.d. “About Us.” Accessed from http://womensordinationcampaign.org/ on 1 March 2020.

SUPPLEMENTARY RESOURCES

Daigler, Mary Jeremy. 2012. Incompatible with God’s Design: A History of the Women’s Ordination Movement in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Doyle, Dennis M., Timothy J. Furry, and Pascal D. Bazzell, eds. 2012. Ecclesiology and Exclusion: Boundaries of Being and Belonging in Post Modern Times. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Halter, Deborah. 2004. The Papal “No”: A Comprehensive Guide to the Vatican’s Rejection of Women’s Ordination. New York: Crossroad.

Macy, Gary. 2008. The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peterfeso, Jill. 2020. Womanpriest: Tradition and Transgression in the Contemporary Roman Catholic Church. New York: Fordham University Press.

Raming, Ida. 1976, 1977. The Exclusion of Women from the Priesthood: Divine Law or Sex Discrimination? Translated from the 1973 German edition by N. R. Adams. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976, and Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1977.

Publication Date:
26 May 2020

 

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