The Rebel Priests

These women say they’re heeding a call to the altar. The Vatican says they’re committing a sin as serious as pedophilia. The 75 American women who have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests knew they faced excommunication—but it was a price they were prepared to pay to change the church they love from within

by Julia Duin
monique venne image
Monique Venne
Photograph: Jean-Francois Campos

The Vatican declared the rites “invalid and null” and excommunicated all seven women, who became known as the Danube Seven. As for the bishops, Rome considered them already excommunicated because they were part of independent Catholic groups that did not have Vatican approval. Still, the bishops had been validly ordained, and the seven women made the case that their ordination was equally valid because it was performed in accordance with the doctrine of apostolic succession. Once a priest is consecrated as a bishop, he retains the power to ordain others, even if he gets excommunicated, they claimed. A year later, three bishops, all in good standing with the church but whose identities have remained secret, consecrated two of the Danube Seven as bishops, which allowed them to begin ordaining priests themselves. Over the past 10 years, these two female bishops have been actively ordaining, with the result that, worldwide, 124 women now call themselves priests and 10 call themselves bishops. Of those, 70 priests and five bishops are American.

Venne heard about the Danube Seven, and when she graduated with a master of divinity degree in 2004, she began mulling over whether she, too, should become a priest. But she also knew that ordination would inevitably lead to excommunication. “I had a great fear of that,” she says. It would place her outside the safe spiritual zone she had occupied her entire life, relegating her to the status of Protestants and others outside the church and possibly put her beyond salvation as well. The threat of this exquisite spiritual torture, whereby the offender faces damnation unless she repents, kept her longings in check.

“The church sees excommunication as a medicinal penalty,” says Father Thomas Reese, a Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “Once you do the right thing and promise good behavior, the excommunication is lifted.” But repentance would not be an option for a woman who chose to become—and remain—a priest.

Venne decided to brave the threat. In 2007, she witnessed the ordination of two women—one of them a friend—who had overcome their personal terror of excommunication. “Their faces expressed deep joy and no fear of the consequences,” she says. “Seeing that convinced me I had nothing to fear. A month later, I began the application process.”

Working through the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP),one of the two main U.S. groups that promote and facilitate female ordination (the other is the much larger Roman Catholic Women priests, or RCWP–USA), Venne became a priest on June 26, 2011. Now 55, she copastors a Minneapolis congregation of about 20 that rents space in a Methodist church. The position is part time, and she and her husband live on his salary as a college professor. She officiates at weddings; organizes the worship service for her congregation, Compassion of Christ; serves on the national board of the RCWP–USA; and is the administrator for the RCWP’s Midwest region. “What continues to fill me with gratitude is that God never withdrew my call to be a priest when I first didn’t recognize it and later suppressed it,” she says. “When I had the ability to acknowledge my calling, it was still there, as fresh as ever.”

Pauline Cahalan, 68, a charter member of Venne’s congregation, attends a traditional Catholic church as well as Compassion of Christ and regards both as her spiritual home. “I have a fundamental disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church’s position that women and married men can’t be priests,” she says. “We get our vocation from the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate between men and women. To me, this is all about men’s egos. The bureaucracy of the Catholic Church is so threatened by the thought that women would have any power. The older I get, the less I am buying this. I keep going to Compassion of Christ because we have to support the women who are taking these risks. I think we are groundbreakers for something that will hopefully broaden as time goes by.”

First published in the May 2013 issue

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