Women Finding Ways

By Batz, Jeannette | National Catholic Reporter, March 9, 2001 | Go to article overview

Women Finding Ways


Batz, Jeannette, National Catholic Reporter


Catholic tradition teaches young women to be receptive, to be patient, to wait for the angel's next visit.

But in a world where women are no longer considered inferior, hysterical vessels of procreation, that teaching is holding less sway.

After Vatican II, many Catholic women were convinced that change would soon be blowing through that open window, the aggiornamento promised by Pope John XXIII. They'd be ordained alongside their brethren, and the hierarchy would fade into an egalitarian, communitarian church of the people.

Over three decades, that hope turned to anger. And now even the anger has burned away. Nobody expects change anytime soon. If and when it does come, activists worry that it won't be a change born of repentance, but rather of expediency wrung from the shortage of celibate male priests.

Some women aren't waiting.

Some are entering interfaith seminaries, investing years of study without welcome or promise from their own church. Others are quietly assuming leadership roles in understaffed churches, doing a priest's work without benefit of a priest's authority. Once-staunch Catholics have abandoned parish life altogether, gathering in homes to break bread, sip wine and bless one another's struggles. Those who feel called to the priesthood are turning to the more congenial Lutheran and Episcopal churches that have ordained women for nearly three decades, draining potentially strong leadership from the church they left behind. (Neither the Episcopal church nor the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America keeps statistics on former affiliations of its women priests. Of 229 female priests responding to the Episcopal clerical directory's latest survey, at least 15 were raised Catholic.) Finally, those who refuse to leave their chosen faith are finding other ways: receiving ecumenical certification, for instance, then being consecrated to minister to independent Catholics.

Some cry a lot and shake in their sensible shoes. But they don't regret taking action.

They say they've had plenty of visits from angels.

No more nonsense

What makes a devout Catholic defy church authority by even considering the forbidden topic of women's ordination? For Genevieve O'Hara of St. Louis, who spent 17 years in a convent and now can't even bring herself to go to Mass, the turning point was a glorious, sunny Palm Sunday in Rome in 1985. She stood in St. Peter's Square, pressed in a crowd so huge it was almost frightening. She watched men in billowing vestments move through the crowd distributing the Eucharist. Not a single woman was allowed to help.

By Holy Thursday, when she watched Pope John Paul II bless the holy oils amid "all this wonderful pageantry, without a woman in sight" -- she was ready to start reading feminist theology. She read Rosemary Radford Ruether, Marija Gimbutas, the Lithuanian anthropologist, on goddess worship in ancient cutlures, among others. Soon she was furious, helping stage alternative liturgies on the steps of the Basilica of St. Louis, and refusing to go to confession until the church ordained women. Today, she worships informally, in groups of dedicated and deeply spiritual women who take turns planning, reading aloud and praying, before breaking bread together.

O'Hara's Catholicism is bred in the bone, as unchangeable as being a blue-eyed Irishwoman. "I was born to love religion," she says softly. "My mother always blessed the bread. She blessed the seeds before they were sown. We got a blessing on our forehead every night before we went to bed. Her whole life was a prayer. But, oh, the institutional church, I just basically renounce it." She stops short. "I'm afraid I'm shocking you. You see, I believe I am the church, too. But I take no part in a lot of the nonsense -- the hierarchical structure, the concentration of power. I think that's really, really wrong. So I am outside of it. I have said for many years, `The bishops don't have authority over me. …

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