That may take a while. In 2008 the Vatican announced that any woman who is ordained—as well as anyone who tries to ordain a woman—would automatically be excommunicated through a process called latae sententiae (Latin for “sentence passed”). As a result, Venne never got an official excommunication letter because there was no need for it. The church did excommunicate Roy Bourgeois, a 75-year-old Maryknoll priest who openly supports women’s ordination and has taken part in at least one ceremony. Other male priests have been threatened with excommunication. “For the Vatican and the bishops, this is an issue of authority,” says Reese. “For a priest who has promised obedience to his bishop to be involved in ordaining a woman or supporting it—that’s a total flouting of the hierarchy’s authority.” The Vatican also doesn’t believe it can change the rule about ordaining only male priests even if it wanted to, he says, because “it’s what Jesus did.”
In 2010 the Vatican turned up the heat on its campaign against female priests by proclaiming that attempts to ordain women were a delicta graviora, a grave crime against the church—the same designation applied to priests’ sexual abuse of children. According to Reese, “the Vatican was not saying the two ‘crimes’ are equally evil. Rather, it would be like saying that rape and stealing an automobile are both felonies under American law.” Still, nearly every woman interviewed for this article professed stunned amazement at the comparison. “You see so much outrage against the women,” says Mary Ann Schoettly (image right), 70, of Newton, New Jersey, who has been a priest for four years. “You don’t see as much passion expended against pedophile priests.” In the U.S., no priest has been excommunicated for sexually abusing a child, nor have any of the bishops who conspired to hide criminal priests from the police. But according to Pete Vere, the author of two books on canon law, the church would not excommunicate a priest who is sorry for his actions. “The proper response is to strip [him] of [the] priesthood,” he has written. To date, 325 priests accused of sexual abuse are known to have been laicized (i.e., defrocked).
Since ordination for women automatically results in their excommunication, it seems as if they might do better to join a different tradition—Episcopal, for example—that would welcome them as priests. But for these women, that easier path holds no appeal. As one woman priest puts it, “The Catholic Church is my church, even though it doesn’t claim me.” And leaving doesn’t serve the mission of the rebel priests, which is to reform—from within—what they see as dysfunction in today’s Catholic Church. They want the priesthood to be open not just to women but also to married, divorced and gay people. They want a new theology in which God can be referred to in the feminine as well as the masculine and which allows the laity, not just the priests, to say the words of consecration over the bread and wine at Mass. Because of these goals, leaving is not an option for them.
But it is for others. About 30 million American Catholics have left the church, including many who would support such innovations, according to a 2008 Pew Forum study. Among Catholics who haven’t left, there is strong support for women’s ordination. A New York Times/CBS poll taken in February found that 70 percent of Catholics want the new pope to allow women to become priests. That number is up since 2010, when the same poll found that 59 percent of American Catholics favored the ordination of women. William D’Antonio, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies in Washington, D.C., placed the number at 62 percent in a survey he led in 2011. “The Catholic public all over the country has accepted us,” says Suzanne Thiel, 64, president of the RCWP-USA, which is active in 30 states.