A Local Life: William Callahan, 78

The Rev. William Callahan, progressive priest removed from Jesuits, dies at 78

Rev. Callahan was a Jesuit priest forced from the order in 1991.
Rev. Callahan was a Jesuit priest forced from the order in 1991. (Courtesy Of Dolly Pomerleau)
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By Lauren Wiseman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Rev. William Callahan was a physicist by training, a Jesuit priest by vocation and a nonconformist by temperament.

In 1976, he started the nonprofit Quixote Center, now based in Brentwood, as an independent group promoting such iconoclastic ideas as the ordination of women in the Catholic Church and ministry to gay people.

As idealistic as his center's name implied, he devoted years to a succession of progressive causes.

He first challenged the church on gender equality with the formation of the Washington-based Priests for Equality in 1975 and became a vocal supporter of women's ordination.

He further rankled church authorities in 1979 when he urged male clergy to refrain from distributing Holy Communion at Masses during Pope John Paul II's United States visit because women were excluded.

"Perhaps this is not a human rights issue because women are not human or they do not have rights," Rev. Callahan was quoted as saying at the time. (He later claimed he was citing another person's comments.) Yet he continued to challenge the church on women's issues, including artificial birth control.

Because of his work with the Quixote Center and his propensity of attracting headlines, Rev. Callahan emerged as one of the leading dissenters of the Catholic Church, a description he didn't entirely agree with.

"We are often labeled dissenters," he once told an interviewer, "but we care profoundly about the church."

In 1979, he was warned by Father Pedro Arrupe, then worldwide head of the Jesuits, to sever ties with the Quixote Center and to "refrain from any public advocacy of priestly ordination of women."

Rev. Callahan took a leave of absence but returned a year later. He later started a group called Catholics Speak Out to defend the right of Catholics to criticize the church.

During the 1980s, he was involved with Quest for Peace, a program run by the Quixote Center that sent aid to Nicaragua and opposed U.S. support to the anti-Marxist rebel group known as the contras.

"U.S. citizens are fed up with the illegal policy of our government toward Nicaragua, which has made the United States an international outlaw," he said.

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