Radical Change or More of the Same?
First published in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion
Reproduced here with the usual permissions
This article is a critical examination of the Roman Catholic womenpriest movement in the United States. For the article, Moon conducted telephone interviews in 2006 with seven ordained womenpriests and two ordained womendeacons in order to engage in listening to these women share their spiritual journeys. She first describes the movement through the womenpriests’ conversations and narratives. Then, she offers an analysis of the movement as well as an interpretation of the issues, and looks at whether the womenpriest movement can truly dismantle kyriarchy as it purports to do. Here, Moon provides a critical analysis of two key issues within the womenpriest movement that she has identified as problematic: (1) the issue of the tradition of apotolic succession, and (2) the issue of essentialism of women in the womenpriest movement. Finally, she puts forth proposals for future reflection and action in the way of queer theology.
This article is a critical examination of the Roman Catholic Womenpriest (RCWP) movement here in the United States.(1) As an Asian American Catholic feminist, I was initially intrigued by women priests’ struggle within the Catholic Church. I have resonated with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s statement that “to move out of the church rather than continue the struggle within it would mean giving up our birthright and abandoning our people who are Catholic wo/men .” (2) Many womenpriests with whom I spoke mentioned the initial influence of liberation theology in their decision not to “leave” the church. (3) Feminist liberation theologians have gone one step beyond their male liberation theologian counterparts and have acted upon their concrete proposals for transforming the structural sins of patriarchy within the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, resulting in actions such as the women-church movement.(4) The members of the RCWP movement whom I interviewed attempt to follow the methods of feminist liberation thealogians in their engagement of theological reflection regarding the oppression of women and other marginalized people in the Roman Catholic Church.
For this article, I conducted telephone interviews in 2006 with seven ordained womenpriests and two ordained womendeacons. My purpose was to listen to these women share their spiritual journeys and to have them speak about issues they felt were significant to them regarding their movement. By presenting these conversations here, I provide an analysis and critique of the movement. My conversations with womenpriests constitute subaltern discourses of resistance to the larger structures of kyriarchal oppression in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. The RCWP movement is one paradigm of those who have been marginalized throughout the centuries and have been disappointed by the aftermath of Vatican II. Hence they have initiated radical change that seeks to set up a new model for priesthood. The narratives I have collected are, in a sense, testimonials to the prophetic power of those who find strength and courage in confronting and challenging structural injustices by seeking to move from the margins into the hierarchical center.
In what follows, I describe the movement through the conversations and narratives of the few womenpriests whom I interviewed. (5) Then I analyze the movement and interpret the issues, and look at whether the womenpriest movement can truly dismantle kyriarchal church structures as it purports to do (6) Here, I critically examine its need to legitimize the movement by following the tradition of apostolic succession, as well as query womenpriests’ tendency to reify existing gender dualisms. Finally, I offer some proposals for future reflection and action by briefly looking at queer theology.
Description of the Roman Catholic Womenpriest Movement
The movement for women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church has been part of a larger struggle of the second-wave feminist movement in working toward eradicating sexism and the oppression of women. Secular feminist activists benefited from collaboration with civil rights activists of the sixties. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 resulted from the shared endeavor of both civil rights and women’s rights activists. In concert with the work of feminist activists in the sixties was the growth of women’s studies and women’s history in academia, which cultivated the link between activism and academics. At that time, feminist academics underscored the importance of incorporating a political agenda as well as the production of theory into the framework of women’s studies and women’s history. (7)
Feminist theologies (including such liberation theologies as womanism, Latina feminism, and Asian theologies, as well as Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism) benefited and collaborated with this dual academic/activist endeavor as part of the second-wave feminist movement. Religious feminists utilized the intellectual feminist theoretical framework that was being produced by the secular women’s movement and built networks around them.(8) Ann Braude has explained that Christian and Jewish women’s groups read books such as The Feminine Mystique, and that it became required reading for the national leaders of Methodist women. (9) Religious feminists voiced their concerns in 1965 by calling for a “radical challenge to the Church.” (10) Like their secular counterparts, religious feminists have since engaged in activism and academia to challenge the sexist notions that have marginalized women in their various faith traditions.
Many factors and social movements throughout the seventies and eighties contributed to the background and growth of the RCWP movement. Historically, the first conference on women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church was held in Detroit in 1975. (11) In 1976, the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) was established to ensure the growth of the twin goals of the 1975 conference: ordination of women and creation of a renewed church and ministry or the radical transformation of the hierarchical church (12) Since then, WOC has organized numerous grassroots activities, held conferences, and engaged in projects such as the Three Ministries and the Young Feminist Network. (13) Project Priesthood, for example, was begun to identify women who felt “called to the priesthood.” WOC also helped found the Women of the Church Coalition, which later became the Women-Church Convergence.(14) Over the past thirty years, WOC has challenged the clerical hierarchy and lobbied for inclusive language in liturgy and scripture. They also have engaged in activist movements to confront the patriarchy and sexism extant in the Roman Catholic Church. Through their conferences, grassroots activism, and solidarity work with feminist activists and theologians, they have strategized for the ordination of wo/men under the headline: New Wo/man, New Church, New Priestly Ministry. In 1995, WOC celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a conference entitled, “Discipleship of Equals” and in 2000, they marked their twenty-fifth year with a conference titled, “WOC 2000: If Roman Catholic Women Were Ordained Today.” WOC cofounded Women’s Ordination Worldwide (WOW), an international network of national organizations working for women’s ordination. The first international conference took place in Dublin, Ireland, in summer 2001.
In 2002, the first group of Roman Catholic women was ordained by a bishop on the Danube River in Austria. ( 15) Known as the “Danube Seven,” these newly ordained womenpriests were later excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. Several anonymous male bishops, however, later reordained two of these women—Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria and Gisela Forster of Germany. (16) Patricia Fresen of South Africa became the third womanbishop. (17) Since then, the womenbishops have been ordaining women as priests and deacons here in the United States and in Europe. Six women ordained as deacons on the Danube in 2004 were then ordained priests in 2005. There have been further ordinations of women to the priesthood and the diaconate in 2005, 2006, and 2007. Altogether, there are over fifty-five in the RCWP community in North America. (18)
Because of the excommunication of the womenpriests known as the “Danube Seven,” many womenpriests I interviewed thought the same would happen to them. In Pittsburgh, the women were reprimanded but not excommunicated. Bridget Mary Meehan, a womanpriest and media spokesperson for the group, told me that the church prohibited women’s ordination but that there is no penalty that the women would accept, including excommunication. She stated, “The church has a sad history of attacking women who are loyal in their faith.” (19) Two womenpriests who were ordained in St. Louis in November 2007, however, were excommunicated by Archbishop Raymond Burke in March 2008.(20) Since May 29, 2008, though, when a Vatican decree announced the official excommunication of all womenpriests, womenpriests have rejected the penalty of excommunication. (21)
Womenpriests have consciously chosen to be ordained because they want structural change within the Roman Catholic Church. Their mission is to achieve full equality for women and to work for a new model of “Priestly Ministry,” one that is not clerical. (22) They claim not to be a countercurrent movement to the Roman Catholic Church, nor do they wish to “break” from the church. They emphasize that their goal is to work in harmony with the church; however, in order to transform the structures of the church, they work on the margins and work out of a radical model of “prophetic obedience” in which they are not obedient to the church hierarchy.(23)
Since no womanpriest has a traditional parish, they celebrate Eucharist in their homes or in small communities with those who are marginalized in the church. For example, Regina Nicolosi has started to celebrate mass for Dignity, a gay and lesbian Catholic organization, as well as the lay Catholic organization Call to Action.(24) Many womenpriests have been part of small church communities that are in opposition to hierarchal structures that oppress women, people of color, gays, and other marginalized groups. For example, many of the women have been part of the women-church movement, celebrating Eucharist as a “discipleship of equals.”(25) One womanpriest and her husband have been part of the Pilgrim People, a community of Catholics in Boston who desire systemic change within the Catholic Church. (26)
In all of the variegated ways of participating on the margins as a Catholic, womenpriests say they are rethinking, reshaping, and re-creating the celebration of the Eucharist. Victoria Rue, a womanpriest in San Jose, California, describes womenpriests being engaged in a “performative resistance.”(27) By this, she means that as womenpriests,
we embrace an important symbol in Roman Catholicism—the role of priest—-and we use this symbol to enact a justice-seeking church in theology and rituals. By simply being womenpriests, we deconstruct the pathology of a male priesthood, its myths, its exclusivity, its misogyny. We aspire to create the fresh air of shared power, no more the elitism of clerics over lay people. Later today, we will celebrate a Eucharist together. We will all be aware that the very presence of a womanpriest, let alone a lesbian womanpriest, gets under the skin of the ritual and works to open it, and transform it. We work from inside the tradition to change it, renew it, reimagine it. The ministry is not about “disobeying the hierarchy”; it is about obeying God’s call to serve. We are called to be women and men in a renewed church, as (1) prophets, (2) we arise from communities, (3) we transform what we see and how we act in the world, and (4) we embrace the margins. (28)
The women whom I have interviewed stated that the womenpriest movement is a grassroots resistance movement motivated by the desire for radical social change that uproots kyriarchal structures in the Catholic Church. Feminist theologians and activists have consistently worked on the margins to eradicate sexist discrimination within the Catholic Church. In as much as they want to stay within the church, the desire of womenpriests is not to remain within the structures but to really “resist” and push the boundaries.
Although each womanpriest has a unique story, threads of similarity and congruence resonate throughout all of their narratives. Almost every womanpriest with whom I spoke was raised in a devout Catholic family.(29) Several shared that their most beautiful childhood memories were of attending church, engaging in family prayer, and feeling nourished by all that was associated with their spiritual formation. Several of the women articulated their desire to become priests since they were young children and had played Mass, using grape juice and Necco wafers. Of the womenpriests I interviewed, several are married, a few were part of religious orders, and one is lesbian. All of the womenpriests (during the time of my interviews) were white, well-educated women. (30) One womanpriest shared her experience of having her baby die at birth and then losing another child the following year. Both of those experiences showed her how “poorly equipped men were in providing comfort to, and empathizing with, women.” (31)
The U.S. womenpriests believe that the multiple perspectives of the diverse, creative, and thoughtful group of women who are currently part of the movement are absolutely necessary. Some women in the group are contemplative; others are practical/pastoral; some are more activist in their understanding of their role as womenpriests; and others focus on educational and academic pieces of the movement. While these women are all grateful for the diversity of gifts in their movement, the preparation program for womenpriests is attempting to make sure that there are certain standards for womenpriests in terms of their feminist theological understanding.
The womenpriests unequivocally agreed on concerns regarding issues of obedience, hierarchy, sexism, and the need for structural change within the church. Regarding obedience, for example, they noted that their obedience is to the people and to God, not to the bishops (as is the case for male priests), nor to the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. One woman stated that baptism “‘is the prerequisite for valid ordinations,” not “maleness.”(32) According to their understanding of apostolic succession, most of the women I interviewed believed that they needed to be ordained initially by a male bishop in order to be in adherence to its tradition. Yet, they also felt they had no obedience to the male bishops who ordained them. Many of the women have emphasized to me how important it is that they stand strongly in the line with apostolic succession, the spiritual line to Jesus Christ, through the laying on of hands by male bishops. Some women also claimed that to wear the chasuble, stole, and vestments is to “reclaim” that which belonged to them. They all stated, however, that the movement is fluid and open to change.
One womanpriest, Eileen DiFranco, gave accounts of the Roman Catholic Church at its patriarchal worst.(33) One story was that of several e-mails she received from male seminarians whom she did not know, chastising her for being ordained as a womanpriest and insisting that she was wrong in her actions since women were not allowed to be ordained as priests. She described another disturbing incident regarding a Mass that was held for the Bishops’ Conference in Baltimore in early November 2006. Womenpriests and others from the Women’s Ordination Conference, who held Mass outside the basilica, noticed the overwhelming police presence for the Mass. She shared with me that the bishops “had a motorcade of armed police escorting them to the basilica and the basilica itself was crawling with cops—an excessive amount of police protection. There were even snipers on the rooftops of the basilica.”(34) In recounting such narratives of male oppression and domination, DiFranco explained that one of the reasons she went to seminary was to learn the theological language that was oppressing women.(35) Dorothee Soelle stated that “the consciousness that one is powerless is a fundamental element in suffering.”(36)
Analysis and Interpretation of the Movement
DiFranco’ s chilling story—of snipers on the rooftop of a basilica and threats to limit her freedom of speech and conduct—raises the disturbing but important issue of the frightful nature of power that the church hierarchy is obstinately willful in trying to maintain. Would the Roman Catholic Church really go to such great lengths—by lining the basilica with snipers—to maintain control of the male-dominated clerical order? Can the hierarchy continue to engage in such structural sins of deceiving and controlling laypeople and women religious in order to wield their male supremacist power? Moreover, if so, does women’s ordination into the Roman Catholic priesthood then become symbolic of continuing the line of apostolic succession of oppression?
Here, I provide a critical analysis of two key issues within the womenpriest movement that I have identified as problematic. The first problem I want to point out is the insistence of the womenpriests on apostolic succession, which I see as an internalization of patriarchal values and traditions. The other critique I have regards how womenpriests essentialize the notion of women in the movement.
Apostolic Succession: Why Must a Male Bishop Ordain Womenpriests for the Movement to Be Legitimate?
There has been much “research done recently to disprove Rome’s assertion that women have been prohibited from church leadership since the beginning of Christianity. The letters of Paul indicate that early Christian communities were led by women referred to by the title diakonos or apostolos. Scholars have written about the many examples in the Christian testament of women in leadership roles. (37) Womenpriests and others point to history and the evidence of women in leadership roles as support for female ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. Some feminist theologians, however, disagree with this line of thinking since there is no evidence that either Jesus or the first Christians ordained anyone to the priesthood. Feminist liberation theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza does not think women should be ordained as priests at all because the clerical priesthood is hierarchically structured and does not allow for a discipleship of equals. She argues that traditional Roman Catholic theological understandings of ordination theologically dichotomize the church between ordained and laypeople. (38) Rather than be co-opted into the kyriarchal structures of the Roman Catholic Church, Schüssler Fiorenza envisions church as a discipleship of equals, where wo/men celebrate Eucharist in the community in the ways of early Christianity. This, in my opinion, is a wonderful feminist praxis of liberation and has been engendered in small communities in the United States. We cannot become a discipleship of equals until the constructs of power that oppress us are dismantled, not by participating in the very structures that oppress us. We cannot ignore the fact that masses of Catholics pay homage to the larger abusive structure of domination that exists and is in name The Roman Catholic Church. I agree with Schüssler Fiorenza in that the Roman Catholic Church is structured after the Roman Empire and women priests not only may be co-opted into hierarchical power structures but as a result, they further internalize those hierarchical structures.
In my conversations with womenpriests and in my analysis of the issue of women’s ordination, I was somewhat disturbed that the women would be so deferential to the male-dominated hierarchical tradition of apostolic succession. The ritual ceremony of ordaining womenpriests looks visually similar to that of male priests in attire and how the ceremony proceeds. Womenpriests allege that one major difference is that the women do not prostrate in front of the bishops; they prostrate before G*d. Why would womenpriests feel the need to adhere to ordination rituals that follow male tradition and. have male bishops secretly ordain them? As I see it, the apostolic line is formed by hierarchy and centuries of patriarchy, and the ordination ritual ceremony (in following all things male) becomes representative of the exact oppression that I thought womenpriests were trying to eradicate. Would not womenpriests’ ordinations be affirmed by the community if the ordinations had not followed tradition in that way?
Patricia Fresen writes that “the reason for ordaining women as bishops was really only so that they in turn can ordain priests, not to get locked into the hierarchical structures of the church.” (39) Why should womenpriests even use the tradition if they are considered to be on the margins of the structure? It is ironic that they gain legitimacy from men by emulating the rituals male priests use for ordination. Their actions give further support to malestream tradition, which understands apostolic succession as a biological concept and undermines the belief that every member of the church should be a part of the succession, not just men and those who are co-opted. It contradicts their own interpretation—and that of many others—of the sacrament of baptism and empowerment through baptism. I share the thoughts of womanpriest Regina Nicolosi, who explained to me that “even if I am excommunicated by the hierarchy, I am not excommunicated by the Church because excommunication has to be a two-way process. The power of the sacrament of baptism is so strong that we cannot be excommunicated unilaterally; I have to decide to be excommunicated as well. I have to want to leave in order to have true excommunication.” (40) If that is true regarding the power of baptism (in other words, membership as a priesthood of all believers), then why are women excluded from carrying on the ministry of priests? And why are womenpriests buying into this model of apostolic succession? I would think that they would find creative and life-giving ways of engaging in the ministry of the discipleship of equals without following the theological model of male apostolic succession.
Womenpriests seem to be overlooking the “invention of tradition” by accepting apostolic succession as a criterion for ordination. (41) According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, “‘invented tradition’ is a set of accepted rituals or symbolic practices which seek to instill certain values and norms of behavior, which over time, naturally engenders coherence and succession with the past” Hobsbawm points out the difference between that which is “custom” and that which is “tradition”: “‘custom’ is what judges do; ‘tradition’ (in this sense invented tradition) is the wig, robe and other formal paraphernalia and ritualized practices surrounding their substantial action. The decline of ‘custom’ inevitably changes the ‘tradition’ with which it is habitually intertwined.” Inventing traditions, then, is the process of formalization and ritualization, “if only by imposing repetition.”(42)
If womenpriests see the need to change priests’ customs (in other words, to reform the priesthood in a way that is egalitarian and justice oriented, not patriarchal), then I find it absolutely necessary to transform the tradition associated with traditional male-dominated priesthood. The entire process of womenpriests’ adoption of apostolic succession, to me, is a symbol of the abuse of male patriarchal power, violence against wo/men and oppression of laypeople and women religious, and exclusion of other Christian churches. The tradition of apostolic succession is an “invention of tradition” that the Catholic Church has used for centuries, further reinscribing paternalism in the Catholic Church and exacerbating the hierarchical and elitist divide between clergy and laypeople.
As apostolic succession in the Roman Catholic Church claims to have been passed through successive lines of bishops commencing with the “original twelve” apostles, are not womenpriests, then, admitting to the legitimacy of the male twelve? That there could be no other leader(s) than those linked to the male twelve? The existing “lineage” of apostolic succession is one that has been created by male structural advantages, thereby subordinating women leaders in the process. Male “tradition,” therefore, has appropriated women leaders to be less important and out of direct spiritual line to Jesus. This leads me to believe that apostolic succession is a patriarchal fiction.
If womenpriests believe they need to adhere to apostolic succession in order to have legitimacy in their movement, they are privileging the very thing to which they are allegedly opposed: male supremacy. Male-dominated apostolic succession dictates what women are allowed to value societally and spiritually: subordination. Obedience to apostolic succession also privileges male apostles over women, who have never been counted by tradition as part of the “twelve,” and gives legitimacy to male power.
I had envisioned that womenpriests could be ordained in a way that would not visually represent continuity with the current Roman Catholic hierarchy and derive its legitimacy from patriarchal tradition. If the womenpriest movement is to work on both the margins and the center of the church, not be obedient to the bishop but to God, to engage and work with those who have been systematically marginalized by the hierarchy—why then, would they feel the need to repeat the same ceremony that has been symbolic of patriarchy and the exclusion of women and wear the liturgical vestments that are symbolic of the power of structural sin?(43) As Mary Elizabeth Moore so powerfully states “The sacred transcends human words and actions, even transcending well-developed religious traditions.” (44) Womenpriests have seen their prophetic obedience and desire to transform the church to be a sacred act; and in this regard, they should be creative in developing rituals that are symbolic of their vision to both work on the margins and be liberating in the center. Schüssler Fiorenza is right in pointing out that what constitutes the heart of kyriarchy is dependence on and control by heterosexual men in power. Obedience is the essence of patriarchy, and in essence, womenpriests were being obedient in following the “tradition” of apostolic succession. Do we need to follow in the footsteps of androcentric lineage?
Because of my concern regarding several of the women’s comments regarding apostolic succession, I asked a few womenpriests about this issue during my interview. Victoria Rue replied that “the issue is often used by our movement as a kind of ‘playing card’ to say that we can use the rules of your [male priests] game to subvert your system. The tradition of Apostolic Succession has been broken many times in history. Yet, we will use this traditional untruth ‘card’—to play in the tradition’s game, and to create something new at the same time “(45) Bridget Mary Meehan, womanpriest and media spokesperson for the group shared that using the symbol of the tradition of apostolic succession becomes a bridge. Womenpriests “take the symbol and then change it. They are reclaiming it to use it as their own. We are not sure what will happen in the near future with regard to the symbol of ordination.” (46) Fresen stated that the movement is in a “transitional time” and that there may come a time when the practice of ordination could be eradicated. (47) But for now, she argues, “we need to claim for women their equal right with men to be ordained.”(48) Rue noted, “We womenpriests are not all the same in how we view ordination. But we all do share in the idea that as womenpriests we do not wish to be set apart from the people And oftentimes we must help educate communities so this ‘othering’ doesn’t happen.” Rue agreed that the tradition of apostolic succession “needs to be thrown out.”(49)
Upon hearing Rue’s explanation for following the tradition of male apostolic succession, I attempted to see the use of the “apostolic card” as a “trump card” to say that it is part of the performative resistance movement. Is womenpriests’ strategy to borrow the symbols that males use and that laypeople know in order to usurp power and embrace/share it in a way that is empowering to others? Or does it prove that wo/men have to fight like the boys (in other words, assimilate to patriarchal structures)? In her keynote speech, “Borderlands”, Rue cautions womenpriests about not duplicating the authoritarian structures of the church hierarchy. “Often when those who have been marginalized for so long begin to create their own structures, they duplicate the oppression and the brokenness that they have known. We are all culturally constructed. Can we use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house? as Audre Lorde asked”. (50) Rue believes they can but that consciousness and democratic structures are important to maintain. In speaking with womenpriests, however, I am not so sure that all womenpriests in the movement feel this way. Many of the women with whom I have spoken have deep roots and love for Roman Catholicism, and they have longed since childhood to be priests. They have felt it their “calling.” One woman shared with me that the ordination process is the passing down of tradition from centuries of individuals and that it is a very spiritual, not hierarchical connection. To me, this dangerous thought process is one of being co-opted into the power structure of church hierarchy. It glorifies the ordination process, not seeing it as a “card” to counter the current structure as Rue has described.
Schüssler Fiorenza thinks it is easy “to co-opt our revolutionary work for ‘elite malestream’ ends” and agrees with the argument “that every other generation not only has to reinvent the wheel, but also becomes tempted to collaborate in historical romanticization, rejection, forgetfulness, or trivialization.” (51) Again I cite the work of Schüssler Fiorenza, who, during a speech at the Second Women’s Ordination Conference, in 1979, warned of the dangers of exacerbating women’s inequality in the church by entering into the lowest rung of the hierarchal structure. She pointed out that
insofar as Christian theology justifies women’s subordinate and inferior position theologically, any attempt to incorporate women into the present structures of the patriarchal church will contribute even more to the sexist exploitation of women. To be a feminist and a member of the Roman Catholic Church and hierarchy compares to being black and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It is impossible to shed the “false consciousness of sexism” when one continues to internalize its values by praying to a male God and a masculine Savior and by obeying the Fathers of the Church. (52)
Feminist theology is ongoing resistance to dominant malestream structures.(53) Womenpriests are in a position to confront male-dominated hierarchy if they can seriously rethink the issue of apostolic succession, which I see as an internalization of malestream values.
In several of my phone conversations with womenpriests, I was concerned that they were essentializing women in their narratives. Several spoke of their experiences with male priests in a very homogenizing way. They pitted male priests against women, stating that women would make better priests or they “could do the job just as well.” (54) Other women described women’s “ministerial gifts,” listing qualities stereotypically associated with women (caring, nurturing, life-giving, loving, and empathic, for example).(55) While these are all good qualities, they are good qualities for both men and women. Essentializing women only further privileges that which male supremacy considers as attributes of women. Catharine MacKinnon has explained, ‘Women are said to value care. Perhaps women value care because men have valued women according to the care they give. Women are said to think in relational terms. Perhaps women think in relational terms because women’s social existence is defined in relation to men.”(56) How women are valued and what is valued about a woman is designated by patriarchal standards. The issue is not about “who would make the better priest,” or that “women can do the job just as well.” This is also a dangerous line of thought in terms of being co-opted into the patriarchal power structure of the church. It is not about a woman entering a man’s world and doing the same job.
In my conversations with the women, I noticed there was a wide spectrum of feminist education within the movement. A crucial issue in the movement, therefore, is the need to continue to be radical and critical of prospective womenpriests who are nonfeminist. One womanpriest shared with me that those “who are considering ordination within our movement really need to be educated in feminist theology.” Rue feels women understand the issues of the everyday, the grassroots, in a way that male priests may not understand because women have been oppressed. As a lesbian, she believes that she possesses an understanding of oppression and marginalization that heterosexual women do not have.(57) Sharing the understanding that “you can’t just ‘add women and stir'” is a concern of hers regarding the RCWP movement. “I want to tell people, you can’t just ordain women and think that nothing will change”(58) The church needs reform at every level.
Elaine Graham argues that debates in theology and the churches have not moved beyond categorization of the sex/gender distinction that has now become outdated. (59) Historiography shows that there has been fluidity in terms of the discussion on sex/gender, underscoring that the issue has always been relational and contextual. (60) She argues that our understanding of bodies is culturally mediated and that “an essential human nature outside the relations and interactions of human culture does not exist.” (61) Graham raises the question of the fundamental meaning and significance of gender and theology and Christian practice. Other feminist theologians have pointed out that gender roles are socially constructed rather than innate or ordained by God. Womenpriests, as feminist theologians, should adopt a social analytic that comments on a dualistic gender framework that reinforces patriarchal sexist heteronormativity, causing further oppressions of people of color and the poor, as well as the LGBT community. In summarizing Schüssler Fiorenza ‘s intellectual framework of kyriarchy, to see patriarchy only in terms of female oppression does not address the inextricable linkages between issues of racism, sexism, and classism. (62)
In this section, I provide some constructive critiques of the womenpriest movement. Episcopalian priest Paula Nesbitt’s theory is that Catholic women’s very exclusion from the ordination process has radicalized them to think creatively and innovatively, while those denominations ordaining women too often have co-opted them.(63) She shares her concerns regarding women being co-opted into the malestream church hierarchy, but is optimistic of how womenpriests will not bind themselves to the same oppressive structures:
What Roman Catholic women can learn from their clergy sisters in other denominations and traditions is that women risk becoming ordained handmaidens, laborers in the churchly vineyard, a badly needed secondary labor supply. The church structure may shift to accommodate them, but in ways that effectively may limit women’s power or voice. Once ordained, will Catholic women have realistic opportunities to become bishops, cardinals, or pope, without being co-opted in ways that continue to benefit those types of men who have traditionally held power and kept women and others on the margin? (64)
She urges womenpriests to continue to work on the margins and to review their movement constantly. She warns them not to repeat the mistakes of women in other denominations who have struggled for a feminist voice once within the power structures. Here, I would like to contribute a few points for future deliberation/action for the RCWP movement.
Gendering a Different Performance Ritual
Womenpriests, in their radical movement, should create identity and discourse that does not reify existing binary gender dualisms. They could have come up with their own liberative ritual of ordination and structure, since they allege they are not going to be a part of the existing one. To put it in Judith Butler’s words, the question is about what form the performance will take and by consciously engaging in the performance, the womenpriests can work to change gender norms and binary understandings of masculinity and femininity. Butler states that gender should be seen as a fluid variable that shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times rather than being an attribute in a person. “There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender,” she says. “Identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results.” (65) In other words, she argues that gender is a performance: what women do at particular times rather than a universal response to who you are. Butler urges us to think differently with respect to gender, as opposed to the current heteronormative hegemonic model. She advocates for a subversive action in the present-—”gender trouble”-—the mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders—and therefore, identity through performance. I see Butler’s gender analysis to be appropriate to the “performative resistance” strategy for the womenpriests.
Queering/Queerness of God
Here, I look at the critical need for the womenpriest movement to take up the issue of queering the male and womanpriest. Feminist theologians, post-colonial theory, and third-world theology have addressed critical issues that oppress the other in terms of gender, class, and race. There is, however, the critical need to think about sexuality, using a theological lens. Lisa Isherwood and Marcella Althaus-Reid state that “as Gustavo Gutierrez spoke of liberation theology as the irruption of the poor in theology, queer theory has facilitated the irruption of the ultimate marginalized in Christianity: people and institutional forms of organization at the margins of heteronormativity (gay, lesbians, and transgenders), but also knowledge at the margin of heterosexuality too.” (66) As part of the “performative resistance” of their movement, womenpriests need to examine the critical part of patriarchy—in other words, the heterosexual condition of Christian theology and theological doctrine. Until they tackle heterosexism and homophobia within the church hierarchy, the womenpriest movement only stands to address the dualistic framework of male/female gender dichotomy. They become silent contributors to the axes of kyriarchal oppression if they move to the side of those with power who oppress. Dorothee Soelle articulates her concept of sin as collaboration and apathy, the sins of accommodation and indifference to a structurally founded, anonymous injustice.(67) She rejects the view that sin is simply a private matter that happens primarily between individuals, within a family, or even among personal relations. In this regard, womenpriests then do stand to become co-opted into oppressive malestream kyriarchal structures in their “sins of accommodation and indifference” in following male tradition of ordination and all the tradition symbolizes, as well as in not addressing the problems of reifying gender dualisms in their movement.
The task of achieving gender equality is daunting, but this will not truly happen without dismantling all of the intersections and layers of oppression extant in patriarchy/kyriarchy. Queer theology is a resistance to normativity and “a subversion of the politics of representation.” (68) According to Althaus-Reid, “What queer theology questions is the frightening assimilation of theology into heterosexuality and the potential of dissident, marginalized epistemologies in thinking about God . . . and in thinking about race, globalization and social exclusion.”(69) We need to move beyond the discursive language of the gendered God and the rhetoric of what constitutes women’s work—and move toward the discourse of the transgendered, queer God that deconstructs culturally and socially constructed essentialist notions of that which is feminine/masculine. The response to why women should be able to do the work of a priest should not be “because women can do the work that men can do, possibly even better.” The issue is more about the discourse within Christian theology that is dominated by heterosexuality as colonizing theological discourse, which further marginalizes those who are oppressed.
In discussing the issue of queering theology, I am aware of the criticisms that feminists have made regarding poststructuralism and queer theory. They are concerned that poststructuralist feminism could actually eliminate feminism altogether since poststructuralist feminists consider “woman” a fictitious category, threatening to wipe out feminism itself. I am not arguing that eliminating binary oppositions in terms of male/female will eradicate oppression in the world. If we all become degendered, or eliminate gender binaries, oppression still exists. I do not see oppression/oppressed in binary oppositional categories but, rather, as complex layers of oppression because again, the binary categories intersect with issues of race, class, and sexuality.
Adopting a queer theology for the womenpriest movement is most powerful when looking at the interplay between divine and human praxis. As “queer” means to move “across,” we human beings move across to the realm of the divine in our prophetic acts for social justice. It is queer in that there is continual movement and fluidity between divine and human praxis. Isherwood and Althaus-Reid imaginatively describe queering theology well when they write that
theology that has incarnation at its heart is queer indeed. What else so fundamentally challenges the nature of human and divine identity? That the divine immersed itself in flesh, and that flesh is now divine, is queer theology at its peak. … It is not the genetically modified, metaphysical Son of God that declares the divine-human conjunction, but the screaming baby… covered in the birthing blood … who declares salvation for all…. The divine is earthy, messy and partial and is to be found there in all its glory, not in splendid doctrine stripped of all humanness.(70)
Althaus-Reid states that the transposability of divinity and human flesh is a very queer notion in that there is a continuing movement, fluidity, and plurality. (71) Every life has the potential to reveal and unveil that which is divine. We are co-creating with the Divine.
Womenpriests without Borders
Despite my critiques of the RCWT movement, there has been much support for the movement from women and men who have found it appealing. Can the movement become a transnational feminist movement that is in solidarity with the LGBT community as well as with women of color from the two-thirds world? In Chandra Mohanty’s book Feminism without Borders, she used this title because she was cognizant of the borders in her country and the remnants of British colonialism, as she was growing up in a postcolonial Indian society. Conversely, postcolonialism also meant that there were hopes and dreams of a liberated society.(72)
With regard to the RCWP movement, the borders of the movement are that it is currently a white women’s (mainly European and North American) movement, but womenpriests allege that there will be womenpriests from Asia, Africa, South America, and so on in the near future.(73) Womenpriests have to continually embrace a commitment to a transnational, transracial solidarity of Catholic wo/men for liberation from oppressive structures. If the movement is precisely about diffusing the hold of power, a critical issue to be addressed within the movement is heterosexuality and a “queering G*d” practice. It is not enough just to address issues of gender and gender equality if one is truly going to dismantle the patriarchal structures with the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. I also underscore the importance of womenpriests’ continued solidarity and collaboration with wo/men of color and other spiritual/faith groups who envision a liberative praxis. (74) Finally, if womenpriests are to engage in a radically liberative praxis, they have to create room to push the boundaries further to live out their vision fully.
Through the invitation of Korean feminist theologian Chung Hyun Kyung, some womenpriests were able to speak on a panel in Korea regarding their movement.(75) The womenpriests were pleasantly surprised to find such support for their movement there. Korean Catholic laypeople have engaged in grassroots movements that find their counterparts in U.S. lay organizations such as Call to Action. This could have an influence on the womenpriest movement in Korea. According to Fresen, who oversees the application process for wo/men interested in ordination, no Korean woman has yet expressed interest in being ordained. (76) The RCWP movement in Korea is just one example of many other locations/borders that womenpriests will be crossing. The journey—and unfolding of their movement—will be arduous, as each culture is so different and how the people will inculturate the movement into their own society will be an important one to follow.
Like every social movement, the RCWP movement needs a continuum of actions to bring about its vision. The major concern here is whether the current model of ordaining womenpriests will help bring about equality and structural change within the current Roman Catholic Church, here in the United States and elsewhere, or whether the movement is further reinforcing kyriarchal models of power and obedience as well as reinscribing essential notions of women. My belief is that the movement is guilty of engaging in the latter, thus perpetuating the existing hierarchical model of the Roman Catholic Church.
1. Recent conversations indicate that some are beginning to use the term womenpriests as two words instead of one. Bridget Mary Meehan media correspondent in the United States for the womenpriests, has confirmed that the official title is still Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Bridget Mary Meehan to Hellena Moon, e-mail, April 6, 2008.
2. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “We Are Church—A Kingdom of Priests” (keynote speech delivered at Women’s Ordination Worldwide, July 22, 2005, Ontario, Canada).
3. Debra Campbell’s book describes the personal “departure” narratives of Catholic women, such as Mary Daly, Karen Armstrong, and Mary Gordon, and their process of “leaving” the church. She also shares narratives of those who have returned to the church. For me, the process of “leaving” is an ambiguous one, as “being Catholic” is such a cultural construct of one’s identity. I am as much a “Korean,” an “American,” a “Catholic,” and a “woman” in how my upbringing and experiences have shaped me, even though I do not agree with all of the essentialized understandings of any one of those identities. See Debra Campbell, Graceful Exits: Catholic Women and the Art of Departure (Bloomington: Indiana.University Press, 2003).
4. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Discipleship of Equals: A Critical Feminist Ekklesia-logy of Liberation (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1993).
5. 1 have not differentiated between womenpriests, womendeacons, and womenbishops since the ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons is not open to women in the Catholic Church. Both womendeacons will be ordained as priests in 2007 (the research for this article was conducted in winter 2006). At the time this article went to print, the numbers of ordained women have changed slightly.
6. I use Schüssler Fiorenza’s intellectual framework and category of analysis that addresses the dualistic conceptualization of gender oppression. As she puts is, “An understanding of patriarchy solely in terms of male supremacy and misogyny cannot articulate the interaction of racism, classism, and sexism in contemporary society”( Discipleship of Equals, 214).
7. Bonnie Zimmerman, “The Past in Our Present: Theorizing the Activist Project of Women’s Studies,” in Women’s Studies on Its Own: Next Wave Reader in Institutional Change, ed. Robyn Wiegman (Durham, NC: Duke University, 2002), 184.
8. Ann Braude, “Introduction,” in Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: Women Who Changed American Religion, ed. Ann Braude (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 2.
11. For a historical account of the women’s ordination movement, see “History: The WOC Story,” http://www.womensordination.org/history.html.
12. In the previous year of 1975, a conference was held in Detroit titled, “Women in Future Priesthood Now: A Call to Action.” This conference was overwhelmingly successful in addressing an issue in which people were very interested. For the entire second conference process, see Maureen Dwyer, ed., New Woman, New Church, New Priestly Ministry: Proceedings of the Second Conference on the Ordination of Roman Catholic Women (New York: KirkWood Press, 1980).
13. For a complete list of programs, see Women’s Ordination Conference. “Programs,” http://www.womensordination.org/projects.html.
14. The women-church movement has focused on building communities of equals, not communities led by clergy as the Roman Catholic Wonienpriest movement has done. It should he noted, however, that RCWP is a member group of the Women-Church Convergence.
15. The first womanpriest was Ludmila Javorova. On December 28, 1970, Bishop Felix Davidek (who had served the underground Catholic Church of Czechoslovakia during the communist regime) ordained her. For her life story, see Miriam Therese Winter, Out of the Depths: The Story of Ludmila Javorova Ordained Roman Catholic Priest (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001).
16. Patricia Fresen, “Prophetic Obedience: The Experience and Vision of R.C. Womenpriests” (keynote speech delivered at the Southeast Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, March 12,2005).
17. Patricia Fresen now resides in Germany and coordinates the women’s ordination program worldwide. Patricia Fresen to Hellena Moon, e-mail, December 6, 2006.
18. This includes priests, deacons, and candidates. Bridget Mary Meehan to Hellena Moon, e-mail, May 6, 2008. Also see “Roman Catholic Womenpriests,” http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/ for a listing, photos, and videos of ordination events.
19. Bridget Mary Meehan, telephone interview by Hellena Moon, November 28, 2006. None of the interviews I conducted for this article were recorded or transcribed; all quotations come from my handwritten notes.
20. E-mail exchange with Rose (Ree) Hudson and Elsie McGrath. the two womenpriests who were excommunicated (May 6, 2008).
21. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a decree that all ordained Roman Catholic women and the bishops who ordained them incur excommunication, which is immediate and self-imposed. See Elizabeth Povoledo, “Vatican Asserts Rule that Bars Female Priests.” New York Times, May 31, 2008. See also Bridget Mary Meehan, “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” Response to Vatican Decree of Excommunication,” http://www.romancatholicwoinenpriests.org/pressrelease4.htm.
22. See “RWCP,” http://www.romancatholicwoinenpriests.org/.
23. Fresen, “Prophetic Obedience.”
24.Regina Nicolosi, telephone interview by Hellena Moon, November 27, 2006.
25.Women-church is a “coalition of 45 autonomous. Catholic-rooted, organizations raising a feminist voice and committed to an ekklesia of women that is participative, egalitarian and self-governing” (“Women-Church Convergence,” http://www.women-churchconvergence.org).
26. Anonymous womanpriest, telephone interview by Hellena Moon, November 27, 2006. 27. Dr.Victoria Rue is also a professor of Women’s Studies and Comparative Religion at San Jose State Universitv.
28. Victoria Rue, telephone interview by Hellena Moon, December 5, 2006.
29. Two women with whom I spoke became Catholic in their adult years, although one had attended Mass since she was a child and when she was in grade school/middle school had very much wanted to become a nun.
30. Marian Ronan laments that “the racial and class makeup of these small sectarian groups, at a time when people of color are poised to achieve majority status within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and worldwide, is also cause for concern” (“Ethical Challenges Confronting the Roman Catholic Women’s Ordination Movement in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 23, no. 2 [Fall 2007]: 149-69. quotation on 162-63).
31. Anonymous womanpriest, interview
32. Ida Raming, press release: “Roman Catholic Womenpriests’ Response to Vatican Decree of Excommunication,” June 2008, http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/pressrelease4.htm.
33. Eileen DiFranco. telephone interview by Hellena Moon, November 29, 2006.
35. Regina Medina, “Wife, Mother, . . . Priest,” Philadelphia Inquirer; August 28, 2006.
36. Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1975), 1O.
37. Kevin Madigan and Caroline Osiek, eds., Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
38. Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals.
39. Fresen, “Prophetic Obedience,” 3.
40. Nicolosi, interview.
41. Eric Hobsbawm, “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1.
42. Ibid., 2-3.
43. In the hospital setting, patients respond more favorably and more deferentially to the doctor in the white coat. Wearing the white coat was one way in which to establish patriarchal hierarchy in the hospital and to engage in paternalistic medicine. The one in the white coat had all the knowledge and the patients were to follow. Several hospitals now require all employees with patient contact to wear color-coded coats, depending on the discipline, because it has helped further to create demarcations between “us.” the hospital staff, and “them,” the ones in need of help
44. Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore, Teaching as a Sacramental Act(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press 2004). xii.
45. Rue, interview.
46. Meehan, interview.
47. Fresen, “Prophetic Obedience,” www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org/pages/art_Fresen2005
49. Rue, interview.
50. Victoria Rue, “Borderlands” (keynote speech delivered at an event hosted In the Women’s Ordination Conference, February 18,2006. La Casa de Maria, Santa Barbara, California)
51. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. “Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.” in Braude, Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers, 137. ‘
52. Schüssler Fiorenza. “To Comfort or to Challenge? The Second Women’s Ordination Conference,” in Discipleship of Equals. 137.
53.” I borrow Schüssler Fiorenzas neologism malestream.
54. Anonymous womanpriest, interview.
55. Almost all of the women (except Victoria Rue) made comments about women being more capable than some of the male priests. Rue was careful to not essentialize women or to talk in terms of gender dichotomies.
56. Catharine A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1989), 51.
57. Rue, interview.
59. Elaine Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood. and Theology (London: Cassel I, 1.996), 33-34.
60. Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
61. Graham, Making the Difference, 97.
62. See Schüssler Fiorenza, Discipleship of Equals, 214.
63. Paula Nesbit, “Women’s Ordination: Problems and Possibilities—Five Lessons from Episcopal Women Clergy, www.womensordination.org/pages/article.html.
65. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge Press, 1990), 25.
66. Lisa Isherwood ;md Marcella Althaus-Reid, ‘Introduction: (Queering Theology, Thinking Theology, and Queer Theory,” in The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex. God, and Politics, ed. Lisa Isherwood and Marcella Althaus-Reid (London: Continuum, 2004), 5.
67. Soelle. Suffering, chap. 2.
68. Isherwood and Althaus-Reid, “Introduction.” 5.
72. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 1.
73. Patricia Fresen, one of the womenbishops, is from South Africa but she is Caucasian and now works from Germany. At the time of writing (2006), there was one U.S. woman of color in formation in the womenpriest movement. According to an e-mail correspondence with Bridget Mary Meehan on April 6, 2008, this remains true.
74. Marian Ronan ( “Ethical Challenges,” 154) notes the “elitist nature of the Roman Catholic Womenpriest movement. She states that as president of WOC (2000-2002), she contacted leaders of two black Catholic women’s groups to involve them in the women’s ordination movement. Each of the leaders of these groups, however, expressed that women’s ordination “was not a priority for their members.”‘
75. Rue was able to participate in a Women’s Studies Conference held in Seoul. Korea in 2005. The theme was. “What Is the Place of Religion in Worldwide Feminist Movements?” (Chung had set up interviews with major newspapers in Korea and there was a lot of media attention. She also gathered a group of Catholic nuns who work in Seoul with Korean women immigrants. WTI (Woori Theology Institute), a lay Catholic organization in Korea, was involved as well. Bishop Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger also spoke in Korea.
76. Fresen to Moon, e-mail, December 6, 2006.
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