Women Taking Up Priestly Roles Face Excommunication

Times Staff Writer

Fifteen Roman Catholic women in the United States, including some Californians, face excommunication after taking up priestly duties following their “ordination” in recent ceremonies designed to challenge the all-male priesthood.

On Thursday, Jane Via of San Diego, who was ordained in June and planned to say her second Mass on Sunday, met for two hours with the local bishop, who laid out the ramifications of her actions.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 26, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
Women priests: Articles in the Aug. 11 and Aug. 14 California section about women who were “ordained” to protest the male-only priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church reported that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had not taken a formal position on the issue. In 1994, the conference supported an apostolic letter by Pope John Paul II reaffirming ordination of men only. But the conference has not taken a formal position on the recent series of ordinations, leaving the matter to local bishops. Also, the Women’s Ordination Conference became a nonprofit in 1975, not last June as reported in the Aug. 14 article.

Three women in other states have received letters from diocese officials warning that they chose to excommunicate themselves when they participated in an illicit ordination near Pittsburgh on July 31. In San Jose, diocese officials warned that a woman priest there was not properly ordained.


“I’m scared of being shut out of the church and not even being allowed to be buried in a Catholic cemetery,” said Via, 58, a San Diego County prosecutor. “But I’m breaking an unjust law and I will accept the consequences.”

Along with Via are three other California women who are saying Mass. They like to call themselves “valid but contralegem, against the law.”

Dozens more women, generally in their 50s and 60s, are preparing to be ordained in the future, said Aisha Taylor, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference, which became a nonprofit organization in Fairfax, Va., in June after advocating for female priests for 31 years.

All of the ceremonies were conducted on chartered boats -- theoretically beyond the jurisdiction of the local diocese -- amid the medieval pomp of the traditional rite.

Via was among two women ordained on Lake Constance, which borders Germany, Austria and Switzerland, in June. In the first service of its kind in the United States, eight women were ordained in the July 31 ceremony at the confluence of three rivers near Pittsburgh. A year ago, four women, including a Canadian, were ordained in the international waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway between Canada and the United States.

Presiding over some of the ordinations were three European women recently consecrated as bishops in secret ceremonies allegedly led by five bishops who remain in good standing with the church. The identities of the male bishops, who wish to remain anonymous to avoid excommunication, were notarized and then placed in a bank vault, the women priests said.

Though the first seven European women to claim the priesthood were swiftly excommunicated by the Vatican four years ago, church officials in the United States have so far only threatened to cut American women off from the sacraments, which would, according to Catholic doctrine, place their souls in peril.

Legally, church officials say, they are in violation of Roman Catholic canon 1024, which says only baptized men can receive ordination. The women priests reject that law as unjust.

The Most Rev. Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of Milwaukee, disagrees and issued a stern letter to Kathy Sullivan Vandenberg, a member of his community who was among those in what he called the “simulated and invalid ceremony” July 31.

“As is my duty, I must notify the Apostolic See of this unfortunate event,” Dolan wrote. “If the past is any guide, I would anticipate that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome will soon inform the participants in this exercise that, sadly, they are excommunicated from the church.”

The U.S. Conference of Bishops in Washington has yet to take a formal position on the issue. In an interview, Father Thomas Weinandi, executive director of the conference’s secretariat of doctrinal and pastoral practices, said: “A woman cannot possibly be ordained a priest. It can’t be done. It won’t stick, no matter how hard you try.

“Doing things like performing last rites or saying Mass will automatically excommunicate these women because they are impersonating clergymen,” he added.

The women priests say they are undeterred.

“We will go right ahead,” said Victoria Rue, 59, a professor of comparative religion at San Jose State University who has been presiding over Mass in a nondenominational chapel on campus since March.

“Excommunication would be painful for all of us; this is serious business,” Rue said. “But we are called forth by the people, not the church hierarchy.”

At least one woman has already paid a price for attempting to become a member of the cloth. No sooner was author Bridget Mary Meehan, 58, of Virginia ordained July 31 than a mainstream Catholic publisher in Missouri dropped five of her books.

In a statement to his employees, Liguori Publications President Father Harry Grile said the firm “regrets the decision of Bridget Mary Meehan to attempt being an ordained priest, thereby putting herself outside of the Catholic communion.”

In an interview, Meehan, who plans to say her first public Mass on Tuesday, said, “I’m sad they did this, but I’m not surprised.

“Financially, it’s a problem for me,” she added. “But Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic and then later declared a saint. I’m honored to walk in the company of such holy women.”

Catholic bishops for decades have grappled with the issue of women’s ordination, many of them torn between a desire to address the discontent -- and rising influence -- of Catholic women in America while remaining faithful to Rome.

With recent polls of U.S. Catholics showing that a majority of those surveyed favored women as priests, women have been given greater authority within the church as spiritual directors, distributors of the Eucharist and jail chaplains.

The Vatican has steadfastly repeated that women cannot be ordained, given that the sacramental symbolism of gender reflects the relationship between Jesus and his male apostles. The women priests say historical evidence shows that women routinely served as priests in the first few hundred years of the church.

The women replicate the traditional role of priests in most ways, except that they have regular jobs and omit the promise of obedience to the bishop and the vow of celibacy.

They also forgo the criminal and financial background checks and battery of psychological tests required of traditional priests.

In addition, their formal preparation for the priesthood is learned from former priests and an online program available from Roman Catholic Womenpriests. “This is only the beginning of a movement, and the preparation program will add additional requirements as we go,” Rue said.