Womenpriests in a patriarchal church: Facing punishment, yet providing pastoral presence – and the Eucharist
What do the abortion debate, patriarchal authority, the Eucharist (or Holy Communion), and the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement have in common? All are at the core of infighting in 2021’s Roman Catholicism. And all provide hints of possible splits (or schisms) in the coming years.
If you’re following Roman Catholicism in the mainstream news lately, you’ve probably heard that American bishops spent considerable time this June debating whether to issue new guidelines that could ultimately allow priests to deny communion (the Eucharist, in Catholic terms) to Roman Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. This would of course include President Joe Biden, himself only America’s second Roman Catholic president. When American Catholics are split on abortion
rights and almost exactly half
of American Catholic voted for Biden, one wonders why the bishops would consider a decision that would alienate as many Catholics as might applaud this move. (That they have somewhat “walked back
” this threat brings little comfort.)
If you look beyond the American church toward recent Vatican action, you will see more patriarchal entrenchment in updates to Canon Law
, which will go into effect this December. While many of these changes add language that criminalizes priests who sexually abuse children or adults – a step in the right direction, for sure – these edits also formally punish any woman who attempts to receive ordination and any person who attempts to ordain her. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law
, women’s ordination was prohibited by canon 1024, “Only a baptized man can validly receive sacred ordination.” Now, as of these 2021 updates, add canon 1379 to church laws banning ordained women: “Both a person who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive the sacred order, incur a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; a cleric, moreover, may be punished by dismissal from the clerical state.” A latae sententiae
excommunication is one that is automatic, and not requiring official notice.
These developments are deeply painful to liberal Catholics – but they are not surprising. Progressive Catholic women, especially, have known for decades what these examples most reveal: ordained members of the Roman Catholic patriarchy can, do, and will place control of women’s bodies
over and above pastoral care and presence, even to the point of denying some Catholics the Eucharist – the literal body and blood of Jesus, the most holy, grace-giving sacrament in which a Catholic can partake.
All of this makes the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) movement so fascinating. Since 2002 (in Europe) and then 2005 (in North America), a group of Catholic women have adopted a provocative new strategy for contending with the church’s adamant “no” on women’s ordination: instead of asking nicely or continuing to make theological arguments for ordaining women, these women have simply and defiantly gotten ordained. They found male bishops to lay hands on them, passing down the Holy Spirit using formal Catholic rituals. When it became dangerous for male prelates to ordain them, the movement consecrated its own bishops. Now RCWP has over 250 members worldwide.
For their efforts, they are all excommunicated. Their response? Excommunication is a man-made law and says nothing about their relationship with God. You see, these womenpriests are not just activists provoking an intractable Rome; they are not just banging on the Vatican’s door, wanting to be admitted to the system as it currently exists. Rather, womenpriests are, first and foremost, ministers of the Gospel, and they are out to change the system. For all the pain the patriarchal church has caused – the horrifying, ever-unfolding sex-abuse crisis as the most poignant example – RCWP seeks to help. Womenpriests believe they can save the church for future generations by offering the kinds of sacramental, pastoral care and presence that a patriarchal (and increasingly mean-spirited) priesthood cannot and will not.
I have studied RCWP since 2007, following the movement as it strengthens and stretches its reach to serve more and more people. This group of women is powerful and significant in so many ways: they are redefining priesthood as they reimagine it in feminine forms; they modify liturgies and share sacramental authority to spiritually empower the laity; they study feminist theology and stand up for social justice, bringing those issues to their homilies and their community activism.
At a time when about half of American Catholics have left the faith
, while the American bishops are closing doors and defining members out of Catholicism, womenpriests are inviting people back in. While American bishops want to withhold communion from democratically elected Catholic Democrats, womenpriests use the refrain “All are Welcome” for their open-table Eucharists. While the Catholic liturgy tells mass-goers that they are “not worthy” to receive Christ, womenpriests modify the prayer: “I am
worthy to receive you.” While the bishops want to control women’s bodies, preventing women from embodying priesthood and ensuring women fulfill their proper roles as mothers, womenpriests – many of them mothers and grandmothers themselves – proclaim with their priesthoods that they, too, as women
, can stand in persona Christi
– in the person of Christ, before God and a Roman Catholic congregation.
Despite having been raised Catholic and deeply valuing the faith and frameworks Catholicism gave me, I cannot stomach the patriarchal Roman variety of Catholicism any longer, in large part because of the malarkey described above. But Roman Catholic womenpriests give me hope. Their masses inspire me intellectually as well as spiritually. While the institutional church seems to want to be rid of people like me – progressive, feminist, deeply informed about church history and theology – womenpriest liturgies and ministries provide sanctuary.