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

Still, none of the ordained women operate out of their own church building or earn a living through priestly work (male priests receive a salary as well as a housing allowance from their parish, diocese or religious order). Most of the women priests oversee fellowships of two to three dozen people who gather in private homes, synagogues or churches belonging to other denominations. A few women priests in cities such as San Diego and Cincinnati preside over groups of 75 people or more. The priests hold outside jobs or live on pensions, Social Security or a husband’s income. If they worked as a teacher or chaplain at a Catholic institution before -ordination—a school or hospital, for example—they were forced to quit when they became priests. “Once you take that step [of ordination], you can no longer work in a formal Catholic capacity,” says Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference in Washington, D.C., a group that lobbies for female Catholic priests. The church’s adamant position on this issue has deterred many younger women from seeking the priesthood. Fewer than a handful of the 70 American women priests are under 45.

Some women become bolder as they get older. Like Monique Venne, Mary Ann Schoettly, the New Jersey cleric, played priest as a child. She served Communion in her garage at age six, using pastel-colored Necco candies as Communion wafers and dolls as her congregation. “Only men can be priests,” her mother chided her, though she didn’t try to stop her daughter from celebrating pretend Mass. “I buried the dream of becoming a priest,” says Schoettly. She went into teaching, getting three master’s degrees, in biology, theology, and administration and supervision. She married, had three children and became an adjunct theology professor at the College of Saint Elizabeth, a Catholic institution in Morristown, New Jersey, and an adjunct biology professor at Assumption College for Sisters in Mendham, New Jersey. “There was always an underlying call to serve as a priest,” she says. “So I did what other Catholic women did: I participated in church activities in any way I could.” Then, after meeting female priests at a 2006 conference of Call to Action, a group that promotes reform within the church, Schoettly, 64 at the time, decided to work toward ordination.

Both the RCWP-USA and the ARCWP require women to have a master’s degree in theology or divinity, and ministerial experience. (In general, male aspirants must have a master’s in divinity from a Roman Catholic seminary.) Candidates must then complete a series of study units (mostly about the sacraments and priestly calling) before being ordained as deacons, the first step to the priesthood, followed by more study and training leading to ordination. Candidates choose a male or female priest as a mentor who oversees the study program and evaluates the candidate’s research papers. A local priest teaches them to perform the sacraments of Communion, anointing of the sick and so on.

Schoettly’s adult son, a practicing Catholic, supported her ordination. “He said, ‘Mom, if that’s what you want to do, go ahead. It’s fine with us,’ ” Schoettly says. “My daughter-in-law said, ‘Well, our generation thinks it’s about time!’ ” Schoettly’s former husband (they divorced in 1993) went to her ordination, and she says her pastor was privately supportive at first. “I’d been his RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] director,” she says. But, according to Schoettly, after a front-page story about her ordination appeared in the New Jersey Herald, the local bishop called her pastor and forbade him to give her Communion. “Then came a public rant from my pastor at Sunday Mass, nasty letters to the editor in several newspapers, skepticism from friends, church acquaintances avoiding me in the local stores,” she says. “But none of them had any power over me.”

First published in the May 2013 issue

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