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Female priests defy Catholic Church, hope to change it

Call To Action, a Chicago-based pro-ordination group, reported 25,000 members in 50 chapters nationwide last year, up from about 500 members when it was founded in 1978. Last year, it collected about $800,000 in donations, compared with about $10,000 that first year.

Meanwhile, the Church is increasingly cracking down on those who support women's ordination. Last spring, the Vatican informed the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization of Catholic sisters based in Silver Spring, that it would look into the organization's teachings and views on women's ordination. The conference says it represents an estimated 95 percent of the 60,000 nuns and sisters in the United States. The group, a church-approved membership organization, has not taken an official position on the ordination of women, but the Vatican thinks that some of its members have been vocal enough to warrant an assessment.

In August, a nun with the Sisters of Charity was barred from teaching in Cincinnati parishes after she appeared as an adviser on the Women's Ordination Conference's Web site and refused to retract her position.

Advocates had hoped for a breakthrough after the Second Vatican Council convened in the early 1960s to renew and modernize the Church. The council said sexism had to be eradicated and gave laywomen more opportunities to work in their parishes.

Women also began to do more scholarly work in theology in the late 1960s and 1970s, and many thought a decision to ordain women would come soon. But in 1976, the Vatican said women couldn't be priests, in part, because of the belief that Jesus chose only male disciples. It also said the priest represents Jesus during Mass, so only a man can fill the role.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1994, Pope John Paul II issued a letter solidifying the Church's stance. The next year, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that the position was based on "doctrine taught infallibly by the Church."

But advocates for women's ordination say the Church's position isn't theologically sound. Fiedler, the radio host, said the argument that only men can represent Jesus during Mass because Jesus was male is "totally untenable."

Representing Jesus is not a matter of physical characteristics but of spiritual ones, said Fiedler, 67, who noted that, according to scripture, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. "You have to look at the behavior of Jesus and how he regarded women," Fiedler said.

Additionally, many nuns already take on the role of priests, often because there aren't enough priests available to perform sacraments such as confession, anointing the sick or offering Communion, Fiedler said. "Let me put it this way," she said, leaning forward and whispering, "it's going on all over the place by women."

Sylvia Mulherin, 69, a former nun married to a former priest, said that Jesus was progressive in his treatment of women but that, over time, men unjustly pushed women out. "Maybe the women don't have to come in the back door, but we still have to sit in the pews," said Mulherin, who lives in Fairfax County.

Amy Hoey, 79, a nun living in Silver Spring, agreed. "It's not fair. It's not just. But it's the current reality," she said, adding, "Sometimes it is only the promise of Jesus, that he will be with the Church until the end of time, that helps you to hang in."

The Rev. Anne Weatherholt, 57, one of the first women ordained in Maryland after the Episcopal Church authorized their ordination in 1976, is a role model to many would-be priests.

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