Catholic Women Claim Ordination as Priests

More than a dozen Roman Catholic women in the U.S. who claim to have been ordained as priests during a ceremony on July 31 are now facing the threat of ex-communication and public condemnation. Critics say the women are not only breaking church law, they're undermining the women's movement in the church.

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Outside Washington, D.C. in a suburb called Falls Church, Virginia, about 40 Roman Catholics gathered this week to hear mass. They were not in a church and the person delivering the sermon was not a man. Fifteen American women claim they were ordained as Catholic priests this summer. Church leaders say the women are heretics and may be excommunicated.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

The congregants mill around the driveway at the home of Bridget Mary Meehan. They sip iced tea and make small talk. Some wear gold cross pendants. Others carry well-worn bibles. When it's time to start, they walk two by two into the backyard accompanied by Meehan's 81-year-old father on the saxophone.

(Soundbite of song, Amazing Grace)

MARTIN: As insects buzz in the trees, 58-year-old Bridget Mary, wrapped in white robes, delivers her message to the ad-hoc congregation.

Ms. BRIDGET MARY MEEHAN: Jesus was a rule-breaker. Jesus challenged the religious leaders, so do we. All are welcome at this table.

MARTIN: She says a prayer over a plate of bread and a glass of wine, then issues a sacramental blessing to each person who comes forward. Meehan and fourteen other women say they were ordained as priests or deacons through two ceremonies earlier this summer, one in Europe and another in Pennsylvania. The women say their ordinations were conducted by three European women and these women were ordained in a secret ceremony by male bishops who are in good standing with the Vatican, which makes all their subsequent ordinations legitimate. For Bridget Mary Meehan and the other self-described priests this is the realization of a lifelong calling.

Ms. MEEHAN: I feel called to be a Roman Catholic priest. It's in my DNA. I'm Irish born, Irish Catholic. We're here because we love the Catholic Church and we're called to make it a better church, to make it a church where we're all equal, women and men. So we are really practicing holy disobedience to an unjust law.

MARTIN: According to canon law, only men can be ordained as priests and conduct the primary rituals of the Catholic Church. Phil Lawler, an editor with Catholic World News, says the women's claim to ordination makes a mockery of Catholic doctrine.

Mr. PHIL LAWLER (Editor, Catholic World News): They do tremendous harm, first of all to themselves and to whatever people are following them into this sort of break from the church. And they do a tremendous harm in terms of muddying the water and confusing people about what the Catholic Church is and does.

MARTIN: Three of the women received letters from their bishops saying their actions are grounds for automatic dismissal from the church. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee wrote a letter to the Vatican suggesting all the women be excommunicated. Bridget Mary Meehan has written several popular books on religion and spirituality. Her Catholic publisher has now dropped her, saying Meehan's actions put her at odds with the church.

Dolores Leckey is with the Woodstock Theological Society at Georgetown University. She says the women have not only distanced themselves from mainstream Catholicism but their actions undermine real improvements in the church on women's rights.

Ms. DOLORES LECKEY (Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Society, Georgetown University): Twenty-five years ago, women were not in the positions of leadership that they are today. And they have a voice and an influence on what happens in the actual day-to-day life of the church.

MARTIN: But for many at this backyard mass, like Barbara Fiske(ph), the all-male priesthood is the last front in the fight for gender equality in the church.

Ms. BARBARA FISKE: It's a day of rejoicing. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime, but I am happy to be able to rejoice today.

MARTIN: Her friend, Mary Lou Sleevey(ph), shows off her t-shirt emblazoned with the word heretic and a list of names including Joan of Arc and Galileo.

What does that mean?

Ms. MARY LOU SLEEVEY: That means some of us are considered fringe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SLEEVEY: You know, you...

MARTIN: Is that a bad word?

Ms. SLEEVEY: Not for me it isn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: A study out of Georgetown University in 2000 showed that 70 percent of American Catholics surveyed would support women priests if the church approved. Religious scholars say that's not likely to happen anytime soon.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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