Reclaiming the Feminine Spirit in the Catholic Priesthood

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Tomorrow afternoon, Bridget Mary Meehan, a nun and former television producer from Falls Church, will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. At least that's how she sees it.

Meehan, 58, is among 12 American women who will board a chartered boat at 3 p.m. at Gateway Clipper dock in Pittsburgh and shove off for a floating ordination ceremony -- the first in the United States since an international group of women's ordination activists formed four years ago. The group has held five ceremonies in Europe and Canada and counts five female bishops and 40 priests and deacons. In the pipeline are 120 students, 80 of whom are American.

The women say they are reclaiming a proper, equal role for women in leadership, one they believe existed in the earliest centuries of the church, before the ordination of priests as we know it today was clearly defined, in which women had prominent roles. Eight of the newly ordained will call themselves priests; the other four, deacons. Deacons baptize and witness marriages but do not hear confessions or celebrate Mass, as priests can.

The ceremony is being dismissed as invalid by national and local Catholic officials, including Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, who told Meehan in a letter that the service will be a "mockery" and that he fears for the "salvation of your soul." Church historians and even feminist theologians who support the ordination of women say the river ceremony flies in the face of a priest's basic task: serving as an extension of a bishop as part of a unified Catholic community.

"One is not ordained to priesthood and then sent out into thin air," said Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate at Hofstra University and author of the book "Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church," about female deacons in the early church.

Pope John Paul II wrote in 1994 that the church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women," partly because Jesus chose only men as apostles. His statement came after the Church of England allowed women to become ordained priests, prompting debate over the subject.

The Pittsburgh ceremony is being ignored by prominent Catholic publications on the right and left, although the women are being slammed as heretics on many Catholic blogs, which tend to lean conservative. A writer on http://christusvincit.blogspot.com/ said the women were "like a bunch of young girls in a dollhouse 'playing school.' "

But many people who have watched the debate about women's roles in the Catholic church say the Pittsburgh ceremony is part -- albeit on the fringe -- of an unsquelchable movement for women's equality in leadership.

Women have risen in recent decades to unprecedented roles of leadership in the Catholic church, partly because of a shortage of priests. The number of lay people who serve in such positions as parish administrators, youth ministers and directors of religious education has doubled since 1990, and 80 percent are women.

Some believe this could lead to women becoming clergy as the contemporary culture influences church leadership.

Lisa Cahill, a Boston College theologian who advocates women's ordination, notes that Catholic women perform pastoral duties in hospitals, prisons and colleges, among other places, and that people tend to view them as priests. "There is a transfer of loyalty, and I think it will happen at the grass-roots level first," she said.

Although positions of spiritual leadership in the first few centuries of the Catholic church were "fluid," said Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin, Catholic University's dean of theology, no evidence exists that women functioned as priests once the term took shape and began to be defined in the 3rd century.

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