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A Brief History of Feminist Activism in the Church



The first call for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church came in the 1930s from a little-known British organization called the Saint Joan's Alliance. With utmost deference, the group submitted a petition to the Vatican that said, "Should the Church in her wisdom and in her good time decide to extend to women the dignity of the priesthood, women would be willing and eager to respond." The society has submitted similar petitions every year since.

In the United States the movement started in the mid-1960s when a New York woman, Mary Lynch, appended a little message to her Christmas cards: "Isn't it time that women be ordained priests?" Her card list was apparently extensive and included some strong voices, because the discussion has not died down since. It was also in the mid-1960s that Catholic sisters, obedient to the directions of the Second Vatican Council, began examining their own regulations, upgrading their educations, and emerging from the shelter of their cloisters. Since the sisters could not attend theology courses in the all-male Catholic seminaries, many found themselves by default at far more stimulating institutions, such as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago. Within a remarkably few years the U.S. church had a phalanx of sisters and ex-sisters who were better educated than their priests and bishops.

In 1974 the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) was born at a meeting in Detroit; the organizers expected a crowd of 600 and had to shut the doors when more than 1,200 women showed up. A series of dialogues took place in the mid-1980s between WOC leaders and a committee from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, but nothing concrete came of them. The women produced scholarly papers arguing that nothing in the scriptures prohibits women priests, and the bishops responded by producing the Vatican's discussion-closer: it's never been done, and women don't have what Jesus had.

WOC, which now has about 4,000 members, intends to continue the pressure, according to its coordinator, Ruth Fitzpatrick. But the treatment accorded people like Weind has a chilling effect even on longtime advocates. "I have to wonder," says Fitzpatrick, "if I will be the last in my generation to engage in the struggle." That's something most Catholic feminists ponder. Women have flocked to theology schools in the past 20 years and emerged with the intellectual qualifications to be pastors, only to be relegated by their gender alone to supportive positions such as pastoral associate. The official Catholic directory states that 241 parishes in this country are now "headed" by nonpriests--who must hire circuit-rider priests, when they can find them, for Sunday Mass. Better than 150 of these limited parish heads are women.

Some Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood have switched to other churches that have no sex barriers, such as the Episcopalian Church and the United Church of Christ. In October, for example, Julie Raino, a former chaplain at the University of Chicago's Catholic center, was ordained a minister in the nondenominational Saint Paul Community Church. Though her work is among Protestants, she still considers herself a Catholic. Her departure from the university was triggered by the arrival of a conservative priest-chaplain who essentially removed her authority to do her job.

In addition, a substantial body of Catholic women who have no personal aspirations to be priests have pulled out of the traditional church altogether. Some of these women turn to groups such as Women-Church to fulfill their religious needs; more often they don't choose any alternative. Mary Ann Savard, president of the Chicago-based Call to Action, says, "More and more, my Catholic women friends have written off the Catholic Church. They're working hard at being non-Catholics. They just don't want to be part of a church where their gifts are ignored."

The vast majority of Catholic women, of course, have not left the church. They are still out there in the pews on Sundays, teaching in the schools, organizing the fund-raisers, and heading vital parish committees. But, as sociologist Andrew Greeley's studies have established, a great many of them are seething with resentment. They do not accept the Vatican's rationale. They do not understand why the Roman Catholic Church remains virtually the only institution in Western civilization that still defends discrimination against women as a matter of principle. Ironically, the anger seems to be showing itself most forcefully in the refusal of young mothers to encourage their sons to enter the priesthood--the church's decision to keep the status quo intact is serving to cut off the supply of male priests at its critical female source.

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