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

Schoettly became a priest in 2009 at age 67 and gave up her teaching positions at both Catholic colleges (“I resigned because I knew they’d be told to let me go”), her RCIA post and a volunteer job at a Catholic retreat center. Schoettly now copastors a congregation of about 35, the Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community, which meets weekly at a community center in Sparta, New Jersey. Like the faithful who attend other churches led by female priests, its members have a menu of reasons for choosing Sophia instead of a traditional parish: disagreement with Catholic teachings on abortion or birth control, the lack of married or female priests, the impersonal nature of the typical parish of several thousand members, the continuing sexual-abuse crisis, fear that conservatives are doing away with the reforms of Vatican II or a patchwork of all these complaints. If Sophia did not exist, its members would most likely fade into the tapestry of people, many thousands of them, who were Catholic until their faith took a hit and never recovered. “The members of my parish could not find what they needed in other traditions,” says Schoettly. “They lost their spiritual homes, and I experience a sense of fulfillment knowing that I have had a role in the healing that has taken place within each person.”

In June 2010, Schoettly and seven other women traveled to St. Peter’s Square in Rome to take part in a demonstration supporting women’s ordination. Wearing her clerical collar, she held aloft a large purple banner that said ordain catholic women. The demonstrators were soon detained by uniformed Italian police and papal police in plainclothes. “They questioned us, took our passports and removed any pictures of them from our cell phones and cameras,” she says. “We went back the next day; they literally ripped the banner out of our hands.” Which was OK, she adds, because the media filmed and photographed the entire event.

A year later, several other women priests demonstrated in St. Peter’s Square, among them Donna Rougeux (image right), an intense 53-year-old whose decision to join the ministry was inspired, in part, by the Vatican’s decision to place ordained women in the same crime-against-the-church category as pedophile priests. A convert at age 22, she says, “I’d fallen in love with the Catholic Church because there were so many good things about it.” After teaching for seven years in a Catholic elementary school, she married, had three children and sank her energies into working on the start of a new parish. She served on multiple committees and became a Eucharistic minister. “I helped give birth to that church,” she says. At age 44, she felt drawn to
the Disciples of Christ seminary in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, and earned a master’s in pastoral studies there. The degree, which she got in 2009, helped her qualify for her present job as a hospice chaplain, but she wanted more. When the Vatican came out with its 2010 delicta graviora proclamation condemning female priests, “I was heartbroken and outraged,” she says. “On a whim, I Googled ‘women priests’ and found the Roman Catholic women-priests movement. I knew it was the answer to my struggles.”

Rougeux began to prepare for ordination. Soon after becoming a deacon in 2011, she flew to Rome for the St. Peter’s Square demonstration. The Associated Press ran photos of Rougeux in her deacon’s robes next to a large sign proclaiming, in English and Italian, god is calling women to be priests. Despite a letter from the local bishop urging her to desist, and her husband’s opposition (he is a conservative Catholic), Rougeux was ordained a priest by one of the five women bishops in the U.S.—Bridget Mary -Meehan—in Lexington on June 9, 2012.

First published in the May 2013 issue

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