Last March 29, the evening of Good Friday, Sister Teresita Weind presided over the services at Saint Catherine-Saint Lucy Catholic Church in Oak Park. She wore a long red cassock with a corded belt around her waist and a pendant around her neck. To her right and left and slightly to her rear, also garbed in vestments, stood the pastor of the parish and another priest who lives at the rectory. It was Weind (rhymes with "pinned") who led the special prayers that are said only on this day of the year--for the needs of all people, for the rulers of the world, for the unity of the church. It was Weind who lifted up the large cross, sang solemnly three times "Behold the wood of the cross," and urged people to come forward and kiss it. And it was she who later led the congregation in the "Our Father" and held the communion host, inviting the faithful to receive.
It should be noted that the Good Friday service is not, strictly speaking, a Mass, since there's no consecration of bread and wine; communion is provided from a Mass celebrated the previous day. Nevertheless, the whole ceremony, which commemorates the death and burial of Jesus, has a special solemnity about it. And the presider acts in a decidedly priestly way, leading the parishioners during this climactic moment of Holy Week in pondering the deepest mysteries of their religion. The church on that evening was almost full, even though Catholics are not obligated to attend the Good Friday service.
The structure of the service at Saint Catherine's differed little from those going on in hundreds of thousands of other churches all over the world on Good Friday. It was unique only in that a woman, a nonpriest, led the service, while two male priests occupied minor roles. The innovation should not have been shocking; this was the third year in a row that Weind had presided on Good Friday. She had been a pastoral associate at the parish for 12 years. She had instructed converts, prepared liturgical services, counseled the troubled, and visited the sick. She even preached once a month at Sunday Mass. Yet as she stood there before the people in special attire on Good Friday of all days, some members of the congregation were excited while others were troubled. Like the cross she held aloft, she had become a sign of contradiction.
"I've always been aware that there's a debate about women becoming priests," said Mark Deaton, a 36-year-old attorney and member of Saint Catherine's. "But when I saw Teresita vested and presiding on Good Friday, that was a kind of epiphany experience for me. It was no longer an intellectual debate. I suddenly saw how wrong it is to deny ordination to women. I realized the pain of women who are called to be priests and are not welcome. I felt deprived myself, deprived as a man of the gifts women like Teresita could offer all of us."
Weind's Good Friday activities also marked a turning point for Donna, a mother of five and a parishioner in her mid-40s who asked not to be identified by her real name. "When I attend the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified [the former name for the Good Friday service], I think I have the right to have a priest celebrating it," she said. "I don't have any personal animosity toward Sister Teresita, but a lot of things have been going on here that aren't right and aren't approved."
Her views were apparently shared by a visiting priest, Father Edward K. Braxton, who was attending the service out in the pews with his parents, Saint Catherine's parishioners. A theologian working with an educational publisher in New York, he was sufficiently offended by Weind's leadership role that he later contacted Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and complained. Following proper clerical protocol, Bernardin called auxiliary bishop Thad Jakubowski, vicar for the area in which Saint Catherine's is located, who in turn called the pastor of the parish, who then informed Sister Weind that the higher authorities agreed: she could not preside at the Good Friday service or any other formal church services when a priest is present. Women have their place in the church, they said, but this is not one of them. The rebuke drew no public notice at the time.
I don't see what sort of help woman was created to provide man with, if one excludes the purpose of procreation. If woman is not given to man for help in bearing children, for what help could she be? To till the earth together? If help were needed for that, man would have been a better help for man. --Saint Augustine, 5th Century
The woman is in a state of subjugation in the original order of things. For this reason, she cannot represent headship in society or in the church. Only the male can represent Christ. For this reason, it was necessary that Christ be incarnated as a male. --Saint Thomas Aquinas, 13th Century
Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God....They must do this because sin came into the world through them. Their heads must be covered in church in order to honor the bishop. In like manner they have no authority to speak because the bishop is the embodiment of Christ. --Officially approved church homily, 16th century
Jesus Christ did not call any woman to be part of the twelve [apostles], even his own mother. The apostolic church carefully carried out this exclusion of women from priesthood that was instituted by Christ. Moreover, it should be said that the maleness of the priest reflects the sacramental mystery of Christ and the Church. --Vatican Declaration on Women's Ordination, late 20th century
"The church has had a problem with women from the very beginning," says Rosemary Radford Ruether, "and it's not going to go away." Ruether is perhaps the leading Catholic theologian in the United States on issues of women through church history. Her academic record is impressive: author or coauthor of 22 books, she has ten honorary doctorates and has spent 24 years teaching and lecturing at schools that include Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. One might assume she would hold a top position at some major Catholic university. But she is, and has been for the last 15 years, a professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, an institution of the United Methodist Church. Ruether is not a Methodist; she simply feels freer working outside the institutional structures of Catholicism. And Catholic Church leaders no doubt feel more comfortable having her there.
At the seminary she occupies a garretlike third-floor office awash in books and manuscripts. Her latest work, to be published in 1992, is titled A Democratic Catholic Church: Resources for Structural Reform. Although her critiques are often devastating, she's a calm, cheerful woman who occasionally punctuates her statements with an ironic little chuckle.
Most religions, she contends, have tried to make sacred the status quo. "They have taken the existing social hierarchies of gender, class, and ethnicity to be divinely given. They pictured the heavenly world as a mirror image of this human social world. So to obey God is to accept one's social station." Biblical religion, she argues, breaks with that pattern because its "foundational myth" concerns "a slave people liberated by God from the most powerful ruler on earth at the time, the pharaoh. God "is not the sanctifier of rulers, but the one who takes the side of those who have been oppressed and forced into servitude." She says that insight runs through the Hebrew Scriptures and takes a dramatic twist in the New Testament, where freedom from servitude is supposed to lead to a new age in which peace will reign and equality will be the hallmark of human relationships.
Over the centuries Hebrew prophets, Jewish scholars, and Christian theologians have echoed that message, at least in theory. Yet it took more than 1,800 years for the idea to hit home that slavery was incompatible with the message. And only in this century did freedom from oppression begin to be widely seen as having something to do with women.
The reason, says Ruether, is that women "did not control the prophetic tradition," which was controlled by men who were shaped by the deeply rooted patriarchal system. Thus, she points out, even women who were central to the biblical story, such as Miriam in the Exodus or Mary Magdalene in the Gospels, have been degraded or explained away by the male-dominated tradition. "The key to the erasure of women in religious history, as in all patriarchal history, is not that they were inactive, but that they haven't been able to shape the tradition by which the story of what they have done is remembered and carried on." In her books she traces the triumph of the patriarchy over numberless incipient struggles for women' equality throughout church history.
Ruether is by no means the only current theologian to raise these issues. The book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven became a minor best-seller earlier this year after New York Cardinal John O'Connor publicly condemned it, even though he acknowledged reading only some promotional material about it. In this 350-page polemic against the church's suppression of women, German theologian Ute Ranke-Heineman writes, "Jesus was a friend of women, the first and practically the last friend women had in the Church. . . .The subordination of woman to man has remained a postulate of the theologians throughout the history of the Church; and even in today's male Church it goes on being treated as divinely willed dogma. The male Church has never understood that the reality of the Church is based on the shared humanity of man and woman."
Nowhere is male dominance more apparent today, Ruether contends, than in the formal structure of the church itself: a hierarchical model with only males at the top. The one pope, the 151 cardinals, the 3,100 bishops are all men; no women may enter their decision-making ranks because they are, by reason of sex alone, barred from the first rung of the ladder, the priesthood. Ruether argues that there's no biblical, theological, or rational foundation for such continued exclusion; the Jesus revealed in the Gospels did not establish a monarchy, but a discipleship of equals. When, for example, a successor to Judas was needed, he was chosen by lot from the two candidates proposed by the whole community of believers. But gradually the church organization took on the structures of civil society. In the early centuries it imitated the bureaucratic and hierarchical trappings of the Roman empire; in the Middle Ages it drew heavily on the concept of royalty and the divine right of kings; and in modern times it has been shaped, at least a bit, by the emergence of parliamentary forms of governance.
"To claim that Jesus established a centralized, monarchical, unchanging institution is just nonsense." says Ruether. "It's like saying Sitting Bull founded the Bureau of Indian Affairs." So, she wonders, why shouldn't the church accept some elements of democracy, a modern system of government that seems compatible in many ways with the basic message of Christianity? And why should it insist that certain myths of superiority and inferiority, founded in historical circumstance, are reflections of God's eternal will?
No one in authority, from the pope on down, would today defend the misogynist views of Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas, or any of the other sexist spokesmen of antiquity. Yet when Pope Paul VI compelled in 1976 to state his position on the ordination of women, his implied rationale was not inconsistent with these earlier views. "This is an unbroken tradition," his official declaration stated: Because Jesus did not call women to be his apostles, the church cannot. It added, "as representative of the Head of the Church [Jesus], the bridegroom, the priest, must be male. There must be a natural resemblance between the priest and Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a male."
This "natural resemblance" argument provoked a fire storm of criticism and ridicule. "Does this mean only male Jews can be ordained?" asked some. "Must all priests wear beards and long hair?" According to a Gallup poll, in the two months following the Vatican declaration American Catholic support for women's ordination rose from 29 percent to 41 percent. (The percentage has continued to rise and now stands at about 56 percent.)
Abandoning her usual controlled mode of discourse, Ruether launched a sarcastic barrage at the Vatican's reasoning in her book Women-Church. "Only the male can represent Christ. There must be physical resemblance between the priest and Christ, and this does not mean that the priest should look Jewish. No, it means that priest should have balls, male genitalia, should stand erect at the monument of phallic power. Only the male can rise in the phallic pulpit to bring down the seminal word upon the prone body of the people, the women and children waiting passively below to receive it. . . . Women are impotent, castrated, lacking in divine seminal power. They cannot act; they can only receive and should be grateful for what they receive."
The argument that the church has never had women priests is also less than persuasive to many. For centuries scholars have pointed to inscriptions in ancient churches, even in Rome, that refer to women as bishops and priests. Further evidence has recently been uncovered by Giorgio Otranto, an Italian scholar, who cites the vigorous efforts of a fifth-century pope to stop the practice of ordaining women as priests, which was apparently well established in the Mediterranean area.
Since its declaration, the Vatican has refused further discussion, insisting the case is closed. Others insist it is not. Ruether says, "The issue is clear. Ordination is to citizenship in the church as suffrage, the right to vote, is to citizenship in the state. Both are fundamental expressions of full membership. Without them you remain a permanent second-class citizen." Not that everyone's begging to be ordained, she says, any more than everyone is dying to vote. But she says, "It's a matter of principle."
Less than two months after the Good Friday incident at Saint Catherine-Saint Lucy, parishioners were informed they would be getting a new pastor--none other than Father Edward K. Braxton. Some were elated; they believed the arrival of a black priest in their integrated parish would increase black participation. Some were distressed; they had heard rumors that Braxton was a clerical ladder climber and a stickler for propriety. Most simply waited.
The parish complex, along Austin near Washington, sits on the border between Chicago's heavily black Austin community and mostly white Oak Park. It includes some 730 registered families, about 80 percent of whom are white. The elementary school has 365 children, almost all of them black and most of them non-Catholic. Though not the beehive of activity it was 30 years ago, Saint Catherine's (which was merged with Saint Lucy's parish in 1974) is in reasonable financial health and boasts a cohort of proud active members. Maria Rouphail, a high school teacher and parishioner, calls Saint Catherine's a "free zone," where people can move at their own speed. "It's a place where the laity have had something to say. Laywomen and -men preach at all the masses five or six times a year. There's concern here for the handicapped, the emotionally troubled, the people who don't fit in a lot of places."
Much of the credit, parishioners agree, goes to Father John Carolan, a tall, balding man in his mid-60s who was leaving the parish after 19 years as pastor. "He's a loving man," said Rouphail. "He welcomed the gays, the lesbians, the remarried couples--even if their first marriages weren't annulled. He wanted to dissolve the authoritarian mode of operation."
Similar sentiments were expressed last March at a parish-wide meeting to discuss with members of the church's personnel board what kind of new pastor the parish needed. The consensus in the official repost of the meeting was that he should be like Carolan: "very tolerant, willing to listen, respectful of consensus and the process of consensus decision making." Usually when a pastor leaves, archdiocese officials put the church on "open listing," meaning that any priest can apply for the pastorate. In the case of Saint Catherine's, no such listing occurred, an indication that the appointment had been reserved for somebody special.
An integral member of the Saint Catherine leadership team was Teresita Weind. Thin, almost frail in appearance, the 49-year-old nun exudes a calm self-confidence. "What she has," said one parishioner, "is presence. When you say something to her, you've got her total, unqualified attention." Weind's duties often took her into homes and hospitals. Rouphail recalls Weind arriving at her door one morning with loaves of homemade bread the day after she had told the nun of her worries about her ailing mother. "She sat down and talked to me for an hour."
Another parishioner, Barbara Pietrusiak, tells of one day finding her hospitalized mother-in-law in suprisingly good spirits. "When I went in the room, she was smiling," said Pietrusiak. "She told me, 'Sister Terisita was here earlier. She prayed with me, she sang with me, and she listened to me!'"
A native of Columbus, Ohio, and a convert to Catholicism at 12, Weind worked for most of her early religious life as a nurse. She came to Chicago in 1969 and served in a parish in the Cabrini-Green area. "Those were hard years," she says. "I was in and out of the projects every day. But it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I didn't know enough to be afraid." She then worked for the archdiocesan office that prepares liturgical materials, and became something of a national expert on making worshipservices meaningful. She was the keynote speaker four years ago at a national convention of pastoral musicians, and has led retreats for many groups, including the staff of the Chicago archdiocese's office of worship. Her convert-preparation program has been cited as a model and was the subject of a doctoral study at Catholic Theological union.
Weind says she sees no reason why women should not be ordained priests and would like to become one herself. "Not for the power and the prestige and the right to wear vestments," she says. "But there are many times when I visit one of our parishioners at a hospital, someone very sick, perhaps dying. We talk and pray together, and I would very much like to be able then to hear the person's confession and administer the sacrament of the sick. It seems so right. As it is, we reach a point where I have to say, this is as far as I can go. We have to call in a priest--very likely someone the sick person has never seen before. That seems like such an odd situation."
At Saint Catherine's Weind was perhaps best known for the homilies and sermons she preached once a month at Sunday masses. Before the parish conflicts became public last summer, the Wednesday Journal, an Oak Park weekly, published a feature story on her titled "An Uncommon Voice." Weind "has exerted a strong, positive female influence and captured the hearts and spirits of the parishioners," wrote Geoffrey Maturen, after interviewing a variety of churchgoers. One woman told him, "Whenever she is up there [preaching], she is really addressing me, me the woman, me the person in search of answers, me as an African-American." Another woman said she reacted to Weind's regular presence in the pulpit as "long overdue." A man made the logical jump implied in the favorable reaction of others by saying, "I would have no problem with her being an ordained priest." (Not everyone was overwhelmed with Weind in the pulpit. "She talked way too loud and she kept beating us over the head about racism and women's inequality," says one veteran male parishioner. "I was never a big fan of hers.")
Maturen contacted the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship about the legality of sisters or other laypersons preaching homilies and was informed that though such activity is strictly the province of the clergy, the church was becoming "less restrictive" and "more open to possibilities."
This admission, by an associate director at the office, was hardly a shocker. Laymen and laywomen give homilies on various occasions--Mother's Day and Father's Day are favorites--at perhaps half the parishes in the Chicago archdiocese. This practice, though contrary to Vatican regulations, is well known to Cardinal Bernardin and the officials in his chancery office. But with a shrinking number of priests, many of whom are severely overworked, and with reports circulating that the Vatican may eventually loosen the restrictions, the authorities had been content to leave well enough alone. Then came the clash between Weind and her new pastor.
Father Edward Braxton, a handsome man in his mid-40s, defies easy categorization. He grew up on Chicago's south side, then lived with his family for a time in a west-side public-housing project. In the seminary, according to classmates, he was extremely studious and somewhat aloof. Since he was ordained in 1970, Braxton has spent less than three years as a parish priest. Instead he acquired two theology-related doctoral degrees in Belgium, and then held a series of short-term academic positions at major institutions, including Harvard Divinity School, the University of Notre Dame, the North American College in Rome, and the University of Chicago. He also served for several years as personal theologian to the bishop of Cleveland and later to Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C. In 1986 he became the official theological consultant for the William Sadlier Publishing company, a New York producer of Catholic educational textbooks.
He is also the author of two books on contemporary Catholicism aimed at a popular audience that endorse an open, collaborative style of decision making in church matters. Yet his writing style is so dense that the appeal is limited. The Wisdom Community, for example, contains countless passages like this: "Theology in conversation with the concrete socio-cultural and political matrix is dominated by moral conversion and its mode of mediation is essentially, though not exclusively, existential." As a former colleague of Braxton's says, "The trouble with his books is that they don't breathe."
People who know him agree that Braxton is dominated by an ambition to become a bishop. And the best way to attain such a goal is to impress Pope John Paul II with unswerving orthodoxy. To reach his goal Braxton reportedly sought the intercession of influential cardinals, including O'Connor of New York and Bernard Law of Boston, but he was turned down because he lacked experience as a pastor. So his return to Chicago may be to fill in what was lacking in his resume.
One can gain some insight into the Braxton style by examining copies of the parish bulletin. The Sunday before his arrival the names of the "pastoral team" were printed as usual at the bottom of the front page with no indication of rank or prestige. The next week the names appeared under the heading "parish staff"; alone at the top of the list--in large, bold print--was the name of the man in charge: "Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D., Pastor."
In the confrontation that occurred last summer at Saint Catherine's, the subject of patriarchy and the ordination of women were never mentioned publicly. But no special insight is required to be aware of their presence just below the surface. There were also intriguing similarities to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill clash: a black woman was seen as threatening the upward mobility of an exceedingly ambitious black man. And there are echoes of the Thomas-Hill fight in the outcome.
Before he moved to Saint Catherine's from New York, Braxton visited the parish on several occasions and met with the staff, including Father Carolan, Sister Weind, the school principal, the religious-education director, the social-care minister, and others. The first meeting, on June 27, left staff members demoralized. The new pastor, they told parishioners afterward, intended to run an exceedingly tight ship. If Saint Catherine had formerly been a "free zone," it would be so no longer. It would become a model of propriety, and Braxton would make the final decisions. He reportedly indicated, in Queeg-like fashion, that a lot of little things would have to change immediately, such as the kind of bread used for communion and the position of chairs in the sanctuary. He was quite explicit about Weind's place in the new order: Her preaching and occasional presiding at services must cease. After all, he reminded the group, Cardinal Bernardin, who had appointed him pastor, had asked him to serve in "total fidelity" to existing regulations.
Almost a month later, on July 21, Braxton met with the staff again and elaborated on his agenda: he would be directly involved in preparing liturgical services and in preparing adult converts--two areas of parish life that had been under Weind's leadership. Several staff came away convinced that he had stripped her entirely of those responsibilities. He reiterated his stand on her role as preacher. "I was told again it must stop," says Weind. "And if I didn't like it, I could resign. His manner was one of absolute authority. The approach was, 'Don't argue, just listen! I'm going to follow church law absolutely.'" She says Braxton asked her to prepare a contract outlining her duties and responsibilities and submit it to him one month later. No other staff member was ordered to do that.
Cardinal Bernardin, who was in regular contact with Braxton, called Weind to his office two days later. "He told me how much he admired my ministry," she says, "but he indicated that presiding at services and preaching at Mass were not permitted. I told him I only did these things because we believed this is what the parish was calling for. We felt these were appropriate responses within our community." In fact, she told him, it hadn't been her idea to preside on Good Friday. One of the priests at the parish had suggested it as a symbol that Saint Catherine's is a place where laypersons are empowered. She says Bernardin replied, "That's a congregationalist approach. I want a Catholic Church, one that's not merely responsive to what a group of people want."
Weind left that meeting thoroughly discouraged. Bernardin, a man who had only a few years before successfully mediated a serious dispute between the Vatican and Raymond Hunthausen, the archbishop of Seattle, would offer no middle ground in Oak Park. She thought it would be useless to draw up a contract, because she didn't believe she could come up with one that Braxton could accept. After praying and consulting with friends, she decided to resign. Weind told friends, "Father Braxton's coming here brought to the surface a major disagreement in the understanding of the church. That disagreement has been so sharp that Father Braxton does not want me here."
Meanwhile, the parish was rife with rumors about many aspects of the Braxton "restoration," including one report that he intended to redecorate the entire rectory without consulting the people. Some 225 parishioners signed a frank letter asking his intentions: Did he plan to unilaterally banish lay preaching, assume total control of the liturgy as well as convert instruction, refurbish the rectory, and alter school policies? The decison to restrict Weind, the letter said, seemed "too unbending an application of the law's letter." Couldn't he find some loophole so that she and others could continue to preach?
Braxton replied in a widely distributed letter that was as evasive as it was smooth and polite. In his meetings with Weind and other staff, he wrote, "I said nothing to suggest that I will make [any decisions] by fiat in an autocratic manner, without consultation with approriate persons. This would contradict the theological and pastoral vision of the Second Vatican Council which will be key source of guidance in my ministry....I did, however, share with the staff the fact that Cardinal Bernardin had explicitly asked me to serve as pastor in fidelity to the teachings, pastoral practices and disciplines of the Catholic Church. I indicated it is my hope to do so....Saint Catherine's is not a unique, independent, congregationalist community that discerns the direction it will take without regard for the larger Church and its clear pastoral directives."
The letter only served to fan the flames of discontent, especially when word of Weind's planned departure circulated. So Braxton authored a second missive, this one worded in the third person. In the course of their conversations, he wrote, "Sister Teresita and Father Braxton were open and honest about the difficulties posed by their discussion. They each expressed appreciation for one another's gifts, talents and dedication to the Church....At no point during the conversation did Father Braxton suggest that Sister Teresita consider resigning." Braxton also explained that during Weind's meeting with the cardinal, Bernardin told her he "could not support certain practices which had apparently developed at Saint Catherine's...without his knowledge. He also encouraged her to work toward an acceptable written contract. It was after that meeting that Sister Teresita told Father Braxton that, after thinking and praying a great deal about the ideas that the Cardinal and Father Braxton had shared with her, it might be best for her to leave the parish."
Weind was upset, and not only with the patronizing tone of the statement. She said Braxton had urged her to resign, in no uncertain terms and on more than one occasion. And she said Bernardin had never discussed her signing any contract, since the idea was Braxton's alone.
On Labor Day Bernardin, in an effort to calm the storm, met with Braxton and Weind together. "It was a very painful experience," says Weind, "and it was a very cathartic one too. We disagreed, as I knew we would. But I let the cardinal know I did not appreciate the [untruths] that Father Braxton had spread around the parish. Then we all parted civilly enough."
Braxton has since refused to discuss the affair with the media, saying he prefers to choose the occasions when he will address the press and noting that the issue is not all that important. Cardinal Bernardin also declined to talk about the incident and the related matter of the ordaining of women, explaining through a spokeswoman that he was simply too busy.
The day Father Braxton was installed as pastor at Saint Catherine's was wet, cold, and windy. This did not deter some 125 well-behaved picketers from standing in a long line in front of the church. They wore tape over their mouths to indicate their status as "muzzled" Christians and carried placards with pithy sayings like "Women can bake bread, why not break bread?" and "We will not drown in the Holy See!" and "Ordain women or stop baptizing them!" Many of the protesters were local parishioners; others were members of Catholic reformist groups, including the National Assembly of Women Religious and Call to Action.
One of the picketers was Donna Quinn, a smiling, deceptively demure-looking Dominican sister who heads an organization at the far left of the religious spectrum, Chicago Catholic Women (CCW). "Would you believe this?" said Quinn, pulling the tape off her mouth. "We've been doing this sort of thing for 17 years, and we're still standing here."
Since 1974 Chicago Catholic Women, which claims about 450 active supporters, and regularly sponsors feminist liturgies for its members and interested persons at its offices in Uptown, has picketed ordination ceremonies and other male-centered events in the church. In recent years its members have picketed Holy Name Cathedral on Mother's Day to protest the stereotyping of women in both church and society. The group also militantly promotes the rights of gays and is strongly prochoice, which makes CCW unacceptable in many liberal but less radical circles. But Quinn and her contingent are still respected for their persistence.
"People always say to me, 'Why don't you leave the church if you don't like it?'" she said. "Well, I am the church! It's my church! Catholic means inclusive--everybody. So it's the ones who shut out women, who say only half the people in the world are called to church leadership--they're the ones who aren't Catholic!"
The situation at Saint Catherine's, she said, "is both pathetic and essential. Pathetic because the institution is still the same after all this time; essential because standing out here in the wet, we're not waiting for the boys to call. We're coming out of the closet!"
Like many Catholic feminist groups, CCW is associated with Women-Church, a somewhat amorphous of movement-network with no office and no board of directors. Through lectures and discussion groups it has encouraged disgruntled Catholic (and non-Catholic) women to develop their own religious services and tackle sexism in church and society. "It's like the civil rights movement for women who still see religion as important," said Quinn. "And it drives the institution crazy." The first two national Women-Church conferences (in 1982 and 1989) each drew more than 2,500 participants; a third is scheduled in 1992.
Women-Church is just the latest manifestation of the push for women's rights in Christian institutions, which has been going since the 17th century. In most Protestant denominations women have broken through the ordination barrier in the past 80 years; in the Catholic Church, with its reverence for tradition and authority, progress has been slow (see sidebar). But rather than wrestle continuously with church authorities, Quinn's CCW occupies itself largely with the needs of poor women in the secular world--volunteering at a shelter for battered mothers and children in Woodlawn, organizing an elder-care program at a senior-citizen public-housing project, setting up an employment service.
"I say to Teresita Weind, stay in there and fight!" declared Quinn. "Do what you can. The problems are bigger than any of us, but we're not backing down." While she and the other picketers held their vigil outside Saint Catherine's, the new pastor, attired in gold vestments, was being installed inside by Bishop Jakubowski. In a loud resilient voice Braxton read the oath of office: "I believe and hold everything in God's Holy Word, which the Church has proclaimed in solemn judgment or through its ordinary magisterium on faith and morals." He also pledged "submission of my intellect and will to the teachings of the pope and bishops, even if they proclaim something in an act that is not definitive." He was accorded rousing applause by those present, a great many of whom appeared to be non-Catholic visitors. The Mass then proceeded as usual. During a quiet moment the voices of the picketers outside wafted through the church. Having removed the tape from their mouths, they were singing "We Shall Overcome."
As pastor, Braxton has been at pains to pour oil on troubled waters. He has met in homes for "listening sessions" with more than 25 groups of parishioners that were attended by three to ten people each. He has also hosted a series of "pastor's tables"--meals in the rectory with invited guests, mainly parish leaders.
Reports on these efforts vary. Some people have found him cordial, friendly, and intellectually stimulating. Those who did not approve of the innovations at the parish are delighted with his commitment to orthodoxy. Others, particularly those who press hard questions, come away disappointed.
"You don't have a discussion with him," said Pat Colfer, a public-school teacher. "He comes with an attitude of positional righteousness. Questions aren't really answered--he just keeps on talking."
One group of parishioners submitted to the parish staff a written report on their listening session stating they went away "sad, angry, frustrated, powerless, and at polar extremes" with Braxton. They called his answers "superficial, evasive, legalistic and unresponsive." And for good measure they called him "arrogant, inflexible, cold and calculating, overly legalistic, devoid of humanity, and caught up in his world of big words."
At best, Saint Catherine's continuing prospects as a "free zone" seem very slim. Barbara Pietrusiak, a longtime parish activist, says, "You have to realize about half the people who come here on Sunday live in other parishes. They're now asking themselves, why should we come here to be abused when we can be abused in our own parish? I thought we were glimpsing the future of the church here; we had something special. Now, I don't know--" Colfer adds, "It's like the openness and strength we had has been bottled up and thrown in the lake." Still, even the most vociferous critics said they're prepared to give Braxton a chance.
Many said they are incensed with Bernardin's inflexibility. "Look at all the trouble he went to in safeguarding these pedophilic priests, shifting them from one parish to another!" says Pietrusiak. "But he can't bend the rules an inch to let a new vision of church emerge somewhere. He won't risk walking on water."
Bernardin has reportedly received more than 150 letters of protest concerning the Weind affair. His stock written reply is, "The understanding of Church, as articulated in some of the letters I have received, is simply not in accord with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council which is normative for the Church." Since the documents he refers to cover more than 200 pages, his precise point is somewhat obscure. Nevertheless, it was this same Vatican Council that pronounced, "If the influence of events or of the times has led to deficiencies in conduct, in Church discipline, or even in the formulation of doctrine...these should be appropriately rectified at the proper moment."
On November 10 Weind gave a farewell concert. Though held at three in the afternoon, the church was nearly full--more people, in fact, than had attended Braxton's installation during a regularly scheduled Sunday service. In her clear soprano voice, accompanied by piano, flute, and guitar, she sang "Amazing Grace" and other hymns and spirituals. During one song, "Presentation of the Cross," a parishioner handed her the large wooden cross she had used during the Good Friday services; it was now adorned with a floral wreath and was hers to keep. "It was the Good Friday event that changed my circumstances here." she explained. "I think there's a kind of grace in that. It's part of the Christian paradox that there is no victory except through the cross of Jesus Christ." At the end, as the crowd joined in the black national anthem "Lift Every Voice and Sing," there were few dry eyes in the church.
One week later Weind flew off to her new job in Saginaw, Michigan. At the invitation of Bishop Kenneth Untener, she would become a pastoral administrator in a five-parish cluster in Saginaw's mostly black, mostly poor inner city. Untener is somthing of a maverick among American bishops in that he often speaks candidly and lets the chips fall where they may.
The day after Weind's concert in Oak Park, Untener, who was attending a meeting of his fellow bishops in Washington, D.C., told reporters he believes the church should ordain women priests. The candid admission, widely reported in the national press, put him in a very small and probably endangered category of bishops, along with Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland and a few others. Untener explained that he was just giving his opinion. "Does that make me a dissenter?" he said. "I suppose so. But I'm not saying I'm going to ordain women next week. I just think we should talk about it."
If Untener offered to ordain her, would she accept? I asked Weind. She smiled, thought for a moment, and said, "Yes, if the circumstances were appropriate, if it was clearly for the good of the people."
In Saginaw she will work on a team with a priest and another sister who are attempting to prepare the people of the five parishes for their merger into a consolidated parish by Easter 1993. Like most dioceses, Saginaw doesn't have enough priests, and the shortage there is expected to become acute in the next few years.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.