Women Aren't Waiting for the Catholic Church on Female Clergy

Female priests
Kneeling from left, Maria Regina Nicolosi of Germany, Monika Wyss of Switzerland and Jane Via of South Africa are ordained by the self-styled female Roman Catholic bishops (from left) Ida Raming of Germany, Gisela Forster of Germany and Patricia Fresen of the United States on a ship sailing Lake Constance between Switzerland and Germany, 2006. In January 2015 67-year-old Georgia Walker was separated from the Church weeks after being ordained. REGINA KUEHNE/EPA/NEWSCOM

Within the Roman Catholic Church, "only a baptized man validly receives sacred ordination." But some reformers feel this canon law, which prohibits women from serving as members of the clergy, is outdated. Instead, they believe sacred leadership positions should be open to both sexes.

Discussions about clerical inequality began decades ago following the Vatican II reforms, and dissenting voices have only grown louder since. According to a 2010 poll by The New York Times and CBS, 59 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination of women. Furthermore, since 2002, when a progressive bishop cut ties with the Vatican and ordained seven women on the Danube River in Germany, more than 200 women have entered priesthood—but not in the eyes of the Church.

The Vatican continues to stand firmly behind what it considers to be divine law and does not recognize female ordination. In 2008, the Church decreed that those who disobey the doctrine—be they the women who seek ordination or the bishops who attempt to ordain them—will be automatically excommunicated from the Church, with no exceptions. In 2010, the Vatican went on to list the ordination of women among the most serious crimes against the Church—alongside the sexual abuse of minors and the mentally disabled.

To female priests such as Californian Maria Eitz, these threats hold little meaning. "If you are baptized, you cannot be unbaptized. If you are called to the table that God calls people to, you cannot be excluded," she told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. According to Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an organization to which most excommunicated female clergy belong, "our ordinations are valid because we are ordained in apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church." Though members of the group swear their obedience to the Holy Spirit, they are openly disobedient to what they consider to be unjust laws enforced by the Vatican.

But the Church insists its position stems from tradition, not discrimination. Because Jesus chose only male apostles, the Vatican feels it must follow suit, as it doesn't have the authority to change the institution's design. The Church is compelled to follow Christ's example, restricting priesthood to males. Recent research, however, challenges that argument. Some contemporary theologians and historians suggest Mary Magdalene may have been an apostle, a claim strengthened by a recently discovered piece of papyrus that references Jesus's wife and other female disciples. According to the Vatican, however, the document was forged. Furthermore, the Church argues that Christ had different—but equally important—duties in mind for women, such as spreading the Gospel, as they were the first to share the news that Christ had risen.

Although Pope Francis has said he would like to see a greater role for women in Catholicism, that role isn't in the clergy. Instead, it's a participatory part in important decisions within the Church, along with one that emphasizes women's invaluable contributions within the religion. When it comes to the ordination of women, his opinion is clear: "The Church has spoken and says no," Francis said during an airborne press conference in July 2013. "That door is closed." The definitive statement seems to settle the matter, at least for the time being.

This article appears in Newsweek's Collector's Edition, Pope Francis The American Journey, by Issue Editor James Ellis.

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