The Catholic University of America
Monsignor Kevin Irwin, dean of CUA's School of Theology and Religious Studies and the Walter J. Schmitz Chair of Liturgical Studies, is quoted in the following story from The Washington Post.

Reclaiming the Feminine Spirit in the Catholic Priesthood

From: The Washington Post
Date: July 30, 2006
Author: Michelle Boorstein

Tomorrow afternoon, Bridget Mary Meehan, a nun and former television producer from Falls Church, will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. At least that's how she sees it.

Meehan, 58, is among 12 American women who will board a chartered boat at 3 p.m. at Gateway Clipper dock in Pittsburgh and shove off for a floating ordination ceremony -- the first in the United States since an international group of women's ordination activists formed four years ago. The group has held five ceremonies in Europe and Canada and counts five female bishops and 40 priests and deacons. In the pipeline are 120 students, 80 of whom are American.

The women say they are reclaiming a proper, equal role for women in leadership, one they believe existed in the earliest centuries of the church, before the ordination of priests as we know it today was clearly defined, in which women had prominent roles. Eight of the newly ordained will call themselves priests; the other four, deacons. Deacons baptize and witness marriages but do not hear confessions or celebrate Mass, as priests can.

The ceremony is being dismissed as invalid by national and local Catholic officials, including Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, who told Meehan in a letter that the service will be a "mockery" and that he fears for the "salvation of your soul." Church historians and even feminist theologians who support the ordination of women say the river ceremony flies in the face of a priest's basic task: serving as an extension of a bishop as part of a unified Catholic community.

"One is not ordained to priesthood and then sent out into thin air," said Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate at Hofstra University and author of the book "Holy Saturday: An Argument for the Restoration of the Female Diaconate in the Catholic Church," about female deacons in the early church.

Pope John Paul II wrote in 1994 that the church "has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women," partly because Jesus chose only men as apostles. His statement came after the Church of England allowed women to become ordained priests, prompting debate over the subject.

The Pittsburgh ceremony is being ignored by prominent Catholic publications on the right and left, although the women are being slammed as heretics on many Catholic blogs, which tend to lean conservative. A writer on http://christusvincit.blogspot.com/ said the women were "like a bunch of young girls in a dollhouse 'playing school.' "

But many people who have watched the debate about women's roles in the Catholic church say the Pittsburgh ceremony is part -- albeit on the fringe -- of an unsquelchable movement for women's equality in leadership.

Women have risen in recent decades to unprecedented roles of leadership in the Catholic church, partly because of a shortage of priests. The number of lay people who serve in such positions as parish administrators, youth ministers and directors of religious education has doubled since 1990, and 80 percent are women.

Some believe this could lead to women becoming clergy as the contemporary culture influences church leadership.

Lisa Cahill, a Boston College theologian who advocates women's ordination, notes that Catholic women perform pastoral duties in hospitals, prisons and colleges, among other places, and that people tend to view them as priests. "There is a transfer of loyalty, and I think it will happen at the grass-roots level first," she said.

Although positions of spiritual leadership in the first few centuries of the Catholic church were "fluid," said Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin, Catholic University's dean of theology, no evidence exists that women functioned as priests once the term took shape and began to be defined in the 3rd century.

"I think this present position is highly influenced by the fact that many other churches are ordaining women," he said.

Polls have found that the majority of Catholics support women's ordination. In a 2000 poll of rank-and-file Catholics by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 70 percent said they were in favor; 17 percent said they were opposed.

Others dismiss the polls, noting that younger Catholics tend to be more traditional.

"I think this movement is dying out," said Rocco Palmo, 23, who writes a popular blog, http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com/ . "Women's ordination groups are made up of older women. The younger generation doesn't see this as an issue. They know the place of the church is to serve and not tinker with these kinds of things."

But members of Roman Catholic Womenpriests -- the group holding tomorrow's ceremony -- say excluding women from the clergy is sexist.

"It's not the same at all to run a parish as to be a priest. There is a glass ceiling, and women are second-class citizens. I think the church would be happy to go on forever to let women do much of the work but not in the form of priestly ministry," said Patricia Fresen, a Dominican nun from South Africa who will preside over the ceremony as one of five Roman Catholic Womenpriest "bishops." "This glass ceiling is almost bulletproof."

Meehan was born in Ireland and moved as a girl to Arlington, where she recalls having "this tie, this thirst, this hunger for Christ." She became a nun but left that order and went on to found an independent religious community. She later joined a community of consecrated women who are not recognized by the Catholic church as an official order. She also was a pastoral associate at Arlington National Cemetery's chapel and ran a cable television talk show called "GodTalk." These days, she runs ministry groups in Falls Church and in Florida, where she lives part of the year. Here, she has one group for women and another for senior citizens that meet in her basement. About 15 people are in each group.

Tomorrow, Meehan and the 11 other women will lie prostrate before an altar, be presented with goblets and priestly robes -- just like men, except the service's language has been rewritten to be inclusive. As the women who have participated in such ceremonies have done, Meehan will continue to minister to her communities, but she says she will celebrate Mass at her home or with people who are too sick to go to church.

"I think we are returning to the Gospel of Jesus's equality, not this idea that you are tied to an institution that has to give you approval," she said.

The group she belongs to began in 2002, when a renegade bishop ordained seven women in Germany. The Vatican quickly excommunicated the women. The next year, another bishop in good standing but who was never identified secretly ordained two women as bishops, saying he disagreed with the church teaching on women. More ordinations have taken place since, and the number of women in training for the priesthood has climbed to 120 today, Fresen said.

There have been no further excommunications since the first seven, which the women believe reflects a softening of the church's position.

That doesn't sound likely to Irwin, of Catholic University.

"Rome has spoken, so why keep going back to this?" he said.

Meehan and others in the group seemed to hold contradictory sentiments about approval from church authority. On the one hand, they say the ordination ceremonies are legal because of the involvement of the bishop in good standing. On the other hand, they say the current rules are illegal and should be ignored.

"I grew up in apartheid years in South Africa, and I learned that when a law is unjust it must be changed," said Fresen, 65. "If you think of Nazi times, people said they just did what they were told. If you can't get it changed, you must break it."

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