After working for the Roman Catholic Los Angeles Archdiocese for more than 20 years, Patricia Sandall’s call to the priesthood came gradually. She considered being ordained as a Protestant minister, but could not bring herself to convert to another religious tradition.
“I [am] Roman Catholic to the bone,” said Sandall. “I could not leave my church.”
But there alone was the problem. The Catholic Church levies its ultimate penalty, excommunication, on women who attempt to become priests.
Right here in Santa Barbara, many devout women —including Catholic nuns, teachers, and professors — have acted against what they believe is unjust sexism by becoming a part of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) movement.
RCWP is an international initiative, and its members spiritually prepare, ordain, and support people from all walks of life who are committed to an inclusive model of the Catholic Church and are called by the Holy Spirit to minister. They claim apostolic succession, the traditional Catholic belief in the spiritual and ecclesiastical power unbroken in the chain of ordinations stemming from the Apostles.
In the United States, there are approximately five bishops, 47 priests, and 10 deacons ordained through RCWP, which requires that candidates receive a master’s degree in theology or divinity, go through psychological evaluations, take part in sacramental and spiritual direction, and stand up to a two- to three-year discernment period.
Sandall’s calling was fulfilled on June 19 when she was ordained a priest at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes. More than 200 enthusiastic people turned up to support her. Now as a priest, she will be serving on the pastoral staff at the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes while also being involved in RCWP administration.
Sandall became the second Santa Barbara woman to be ordained through RCWP and will be joined by a third on September 12 with the ordination of a former nun, Jeannette Love. Love has been part of a Renewal Team that was trained — as decreed by Vatican II — to work within the community to help sisters transition to a more open community life. Love and her team had asked for liberties reportedly granted to them in Vatican II, but their requests were denied by the Superior General from Rome and Provincial Council. They were told to abide or leave.
Gradually, each sister moved out on her own to continue to search out God’s will. After serving at the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch (not under Rome), Love began to explore her call within the RCWP community.
“As I prepare for my ordination in September” said Love, “I feel that I stand in solidarity with many women who, down through the ages, were treated with injustice by the church and whose call to priesthood was never realized.”
Sister Arlene Ellis, a retired nun not affiliated with the RCWP who was active within the ministry of the official Roman Catholic Church for 46 years, supported the women’s quest, saying, “I believe that there are women who are called to priesthood, and some of these women are Roman Catholics. In order to be true to that call, they must find another avenue for them to fulfill the yearning.”
For both Sandall and Love, it took years of questioning, searching, and deep internal grief to face a call that could not be fulfilled within the institutional church. Because Rome is steadfast in its decision, it has lost the service of women teachers, professors, nuns, and spiritual directors who have dedicated a great deal of their lives to the institution. “Our call is to the church as the people of God rather than the call to the hierarchy,” said Suzanne Dunn, pastor of the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes.
While these women have not been officially excommunicated, they have been deeply moved by the excommunication of RCWP’s founders and the church’s definitive punishment of those who support, ordain, or become women priests. They do not fear the threat of excommunication, but instead reject the Roman church’s declarative penalty.
They ask why the church only chooses men when there are scholarly traces of ordained women in the early Roman Catholic Church. Scholars attest to the existence of both male and female apostles in the early church, and in Paul’s letter to the Romans, they say there is the reference to a deacon named Phoebe, workers named Prisca, Tryphena, and Tryphosa, and even an apostle named Junia.
Interestingly, scholars have also cited papal letters to argue that there were, in fact, women ordinations in the first millennium. This speculation has caused a great deal of frustration, confusion, and pain within the church, and yet it cannot explain why after 2,000 years and under the direction of countless leaders there are no women ordained today.
In response, the church demurs, saying it did not create the religion, but that it was given.
“There were many women priestesses at the time of Christ,” said a local Catholic clergy member who requested anonymity. “Most pagan religious practices were quite accustomed to the idea. So, the fact that Christ choose 12 males as his apostles was no mere accident on his part. It was intentional and must therefore be acknowledged.”
“Once one chooses to leave the church over the idea that a male priest is little more than a symbol of Christ,” he continued, “doesn’t it then also follow that the Eucharist is nothing more than a symbol? One cannot be separated from the other.”
“Once one chooses to leave the church over the idea that a male priest is little more than a symbol of Christ,” he continued, “doesn’t it then also follow that the Eucharist is nothing more than a symbol? One cannot be separated from the other.” According to John Paul II, women and men are different but equal, and he argued that gender identity is symbolic of different responsibilities within the church.
To address the issue of women’s ordination, the Vatican in 1976 called upon the Pontifical Biblical Commission, which declared that there was nothing in the scriptures that could be used to prove that women cannot be ordained. Despite this finding, the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith continues to uphold the decree.
The women of RCWP have not only found the Catholic administration to be unjust in its consideration of women’s call to the priesthood, but they also strongly oppose the Church’s Canon Law 1024. The man-made law, which RCWP members hold to be discriminatory, states that, “only a baptized male validly receives sacred ordination.”
“We are challenging this unjust law and want the entire Roman Catholic Church to do the same,” said Sandall.
The earliest Canon Laws restricted women from countless ministries and actions. By 1917, they were prohibited from reading scripture, washing feet, distributing Holy Communion, and receiving holy orders. Yet, over time, canon law has changed and women have achieved every right on the canon law list except ordination.
Besides making up 60 percent of those who attend Mass, women reportedly run 80 percent of parish ministries as eucharistic ministers and fulfill roles as lectors, parish and religious education directors, and administrators. “There should be women priests; we are already doing the work without the title,” said Ellis. “We are already ministering in all ways except celebration of the sacraments, even though in many cases we’ve prepared the people to celebrate the sacraments.”
Despite the church’s current position, these women say they will continue to stand strong in order to give service to their call and to their faith. They remain firm with the conviction that Christ came to redeem every person because in his divinity he transcended gender for all of humanity. They say they still love the Catholic Church and love it enough to stand for the justice they believe it deserves. “We as women won’t go away,” said Sandall, “and neither will the spirit.”