In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood Caryl Johnson calls herself a priest, but technically she was excommunicated after being ordained. Johnson is one of many Catholic women who see a gap between what they believe and church dogma.
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In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood

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In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood

In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/440254032/440770732" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The coming U.S. visit of Pope Francis will underline a stark reality. It's the difference between church doctrine and the views of many American Catholics.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The difference is notable when it comes to American women. Consider birth control, which is banned by the church. Almost 80 percent of Catholic women in America who regularly attend mass think women should be able to use it.

INSKEEP: The widespread excitement about the pope is partly a sign of such differences because Francis has shifted the tone of the church. But underlying church doctrine has not changed. And in one city that Francis plans to visit, some women are making their own roles. They spoke with NPR's Jeff Brady.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Sunday morning mass looks different at this church outside Philadelphia. The homily is interactive. There's gluten-free communion bread, and the priest is a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARYL JOHNSON: Mother and father God, you have entrusted to us the riches of your lot.

BRADY: Caryl Johnson calls herself priest, but technically she was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. That happened automatically three years ago, when was ordained by the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The organization acknowledges that it's breaking church rules but says the ban on female priests is unjust. So far, the group has ordained 188 women around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: (Singing) Christ has died, hallelujah. Christ is risen.

BRADY: Johnson says for more than three decades, she struggled with the church ban on female priests. She tried to live within the rules, taking on expanded ministry jobs as women were allowed to perform them. But it wasn't enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNSON: Let's now go forth and be God's love in the world.

BRADY: After Sunday's liturgy, as worshipers visit with each other, Johnson says she felt a spiritual call to become a priest that she couldn't ignore any longer.

JOHNSON: I had a decision to make. Am I going to follow the spirit of God and do what God asks, no matter what the cost? Or am I going to follow a rule?

BRADY: These days, the Catholic Church has difficulty even recruiting men to be priests. Johnson argues opening ordination to women and married people could help address that problem. Pope Francis, though, has flatly rejected opening the priesthood to women. And there are women in the church who oppose it too. Rebecca Woodhull is president of the National Council of Catholic Women. She does not mince words at the prospect of female priests.

REBECCA WOODHULL: They are not Catholic priests. They can call themselves that, but it would be maybe with a small C and not a capital C.

BRADY: Woodhull says she supports gender equality in issues like workplace pay. But she says in the Catholic Church, men and women have different roles. And she believes there are good reasons for that.

WOODHULL: Women have special charisms (ph), special talents that are just endemic to the female person. Pope John Paul called it the feminine genius.

BRADY: Woodhull says those traits include sensitivity and tenderness. And they're well suited to becoming a nun. That said, she does support recent moves to put women in other leadership positions. For example, last year, Pope Francis appointed a nun from Brazil to a high-ranking missionary group called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It's the first time a woman has held such a high position in the church. Moves like that have made Pope Francis really popular with the more liberal wing of the Catholic Church, even if dogma remains unchanged.

BARBARA MARIAN: Don't we love him? Don't we love him because...

BRADY: Barbara Marian is 73 years old and a longtime activist in favor of ordaining women. Outside St. Nicholas Church in Evanston, Ill., she says as Pope Francis has changed the tone of the Catholic Church, she hopes barriers to the priesthood will be relaxed too.

MARIAN: Well, the funny thing is, when the tone opens the door and we can sit down and listen to each other, we both go away smarter, more humble, more understanding. So I think first comes the tone.

BRADY: When Pope Francis visits the U.S. later this month, he's not scheduled to speak specifically about the role of women in the church. But there are many hoping he will. And hundreds of advocates for allowing women to become priests are scheduled to meet in Philadelphia for their annual conference just days before the pope arrives here. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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