Inside a renegade Catholic community, where women are priests and minds are open
Published: June 26, 2013
The six women gathered in Denise O’Connor’s living room on a bright Sunday morning two weeks after Easter don’t look like insurrectionists. They are middle-aged ladies dressed in casual khakis and flowery spring shirts and they come bearing gifts of fruit salad, breakfast casserole, and muffins. Despite appearances, however, they are about to participate in a revolutionary act, one that violates Roman Catholic law and centuries of Church practice: a Catholic mass celebrated by a female priest.
That priest, gray-haired Gloria Carpeneto, mother of two and grandmother of three, wears a red-and-white stole, a gift from her spiritual director, a Jesuit priest. The long scarf—made by women who support themselves by making clerical vestments—is Carpeneto’s primary sign of priestly office.
Carpeneto is an outcast, according to Roman Catholic Canon Law 1024, which states that only a baptized man can receive ordination. Women priests—and bishops who ordain them—are excommunicated lata sententia by the very act of ordination, according to a 2008 Vatican decree. But the women at the Ellicott City gathering, together with more than 100 Roman Catholic women priests around the world and their supporters, refuse to accept that verdict.
“You cannot excommunicate someone from her relationship with God,” said O’Connor, the lifelong Catholic at whose home Carpeneto celebrated the April 14th mass.
The women maintain that they are not a sect. “We are still part of the Catholic Church,” said Charlotte Ernst, 56, a graduate of the Catholic High School of Baltimore and former parishioner of St. Anthony of Padua School in Northeast Baltimore.
Their Living Water Inclusive Catholic Community, which meets each Sunday in small groups around the state, is an “intentional community,” she said, one which embraces inclusive language in prayer and a circular, rather than hierarchical, model of church.
“It’s not just ‘add women and stir,’” said Carpeneto, one of four Roman Catholic women priests that pastor the community, which has approximately 100 active members. Living Water welcomes not just those who support women’s ordination but others who feel rejected by the church, she said, like LGBTQ Catholics and divorced members of the faith who have remarried. In fact, Living Water welcomes anyone, Catholic or not, to share their weekly Eucharistic meal of gluten-free bread and alcohol-free wine—for example, Lynne Hauff, 61, a lapsed Southern Baptist who said “Excuse me, grandmom. Please do not be turning over in your grave” before reading aloud a passage from the Book of Revelations during the mass.
What was a lapsed Baptist doing at a Catholic mass? “In theory, I find the faith itself the true religion,” Hauff said. “I always thought that if I would convert to anything, it would be Catholicism.”
Hauff would be refused communion in many parishes because, though baptized, she is not a confirmed Roman Catholic. But the other women at the service, including Carpeneto, are all cradle Catholics who have served as Eucharistic ministers, directors of religious education, pastoral counselors, and in lay ministries in other Catholic parishes and organizations.
Ernst has been a member of the Living Water Community since its inception five years ago. At first, she remained very involved at St. Anthony, she said, participating in the parish’s outreach to Moveable Feast and other social justice ministries. “Almost everyone who was in those ministries is now in Living Water,” she said.
Committed lay Catholics like these have been keeping many parishes afloat as the number of male priests has declined precipitously over the past few decades. “St. Anthony’s is now three parishes served by one priest,” Ernst pointed out.
Some Catholic parishes have no priest at all save a traveling cleric who swoops in for Sunday mass and departs immediately afterward. Pastoral care in those parishes is left to the laity—including many women—who, like Carpeneto, often have advanced degrees in counseling, spiritual direction, or human development.
Prior to her 2008 ordination, Carpeneto served as a pastoral associate in two Roman Catholic parishes in Baltimore. Hired as a development officer at St. Anthony of Padua in 1998, she got a grant to install a labyrinth and create a prayer garden and carried out other traditional lay duties. But Carpeneto, who holds two doctoral degrees and has a history of working as a counselor in prisons and hospitals, “gradually evolved into other ministries” at St. Anthony, she said.
“I spoke from the pulpit. I did graveside burial services,” she said. “I would go to the funeral home and be with the family and then I’d step back, in would come the priest to do the funeral mass, and then I’d go to the grave site to do the blessing there. The pastor was interested in having lay people do as much as they could. I give him credit for that.”
By 2005, she felt that she had done all that she could do at St. Anthony and quit her job there to write a book. And then she stumbled upon a news article about the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement, and something clicked into place. “Once I saw that it was a possibility, I started thinking about it,” she said. “I’ve often been the ‘first woman’ in various jobs. I was used to going as far as they would allow women to go.”
Carpeneto was ordained a priest in Boston in July 2008, six years after a controversial June 2002 ceremony on the Danube River in which seven women received holy orders from a renegade Argentinian bishop named Romulo Antonio Braschi and an associate. A third bishop, whose identity remains secret as he is still in good standing in the Roman Catholic Church, also “laid hands” on the women after the public ordination ceremony on the boat, according to witnesses.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at that time prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and soon to become Pope Benedict XVI, issued an order of excommunication for the original seven women priests in August 2002 when they refused to retract their vows. But over the past decade, the Roman Catholic Womanpriests movement has grown rapidly. There are now 145 women around the world who have been ordained by female bishops who themselves have been consecrated by male Roman Catholic bishops whose names remain closely guarded secrets.
“We do not divulge the names or identifying information of the bishops in good standing with the church who have ordained women,” said Annapolis resident Andrea Johnson, who was ordained a priest in 2007 and a bishop in 2009. She and the other Roman Catholic women priests and bishops believe that their ordinations are valid because the principal consecrating male bishops are in the line of apostolic succession—a lineage extending back to the first apostles—in the Roman Catholic Church.
All four American women bishops were ordained by a former Dominican nun named Patricia Fresen. A native of South Africa who studied for seven years at the University of St. Thomas and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Fresen earned a doctorate in theology in 1996 and taught at the National Seminary in Pretoria and, later, the Catholic University in Johannesburg.
Expelled from the Dominican Order she had served for 45 years and fired from her job at the Catholic University once news of her ordination as a priest became public in 2003, Fresen at first resisted the insistence of the male bishop who had ordained her that she be consecrated as bishop, Johnson said.
“She thought it was too soon and that she needed five years to prepare herself for episcopal ordination. But he said, ‘We don’t have five years. We need you now,’” said Johnson. “He was afraid that he would die or be identified by the Vatican and expelled.”
Supporters of women’s ordination have had allies within the clergy for decades, including in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Johnson said. A much beloved auxiliary bishop, P. Francis Murphy, met regularly with the members of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), founded in 1975 to advocate for women priests, Johnson said.
“Frank Murphy and his group of 40 bishops supported us. None of them were major guys; most of them were auxiliary bishops like Frank, but when they would get together for their national meetings, they would meet with us and we would strategize,” she said. Murphy died in 1999, leaving money to WOC in his will, Johnson said.
Like Murphy, members of that generation of progressive priests inspired by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, encouraged lay Catholics to participate in parish life, allowed girls to be altar servers, and reached out to the clergy of other faiths, serving on the boards of ecumenical groups like the Interfaith Alliance.
Progressive Catholics embraced these changes, but the Curia—the church’s governing body—and conservative Catholics resisted many Vatican II reforms. As progressive Catholics pushed for more accountability and transparency in church governance and reforms in canon law, conservatives pushed back. Growing lay and clerical support for women’s ordination ultimately led Pope John Paul II, a doctrinal conservative, to issue the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994. “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful,” he wrote, effectively banning further discussion.
John Paul II; his successor, Benedict XVI; and the conservative bishops and cardinals they appointed to replace reformist Vatican II-era clerics maintain that this is a matter of divine law, not human choice. Because Jesus appointed only male apostles, the church cannot ordain women, they say.
But archaeological and documentary evidence—highlighted in a 2011 documentary called Pink Smoke over the Vatican—casts doubt on that assertion. Catacomb frescoes and mosaics and Latin inscriptions on the tombs of women identified as deacons, presbytera (female priest), and bishops indicate that women served the early church in leadership roles until the practice was suppressed.
The documentary also presents the little-known story of Ludmila Javorova and four other women who served as priests in the underground Catholic Church of Czechoslovakia during the Communist era. Both women and married men were secretly ordained in the underground church at a time when the church was being persecuted; those ordinations were revoked by the Vatican after the fall of Communism.
When Javorova came to the United States as a guest of the Women’s Ordination Conference, she was nervous about speaking out about her experiences, said Johnson. “Ludmila had promised the Vatican that she would not publicly present herself as a priest,” she said. But she would not sign a statement saying her orders were not valid. The other four women did recant their vows, and she was very upset about that.”
According to Johnson, Murphy met with Javorova on her visit to Baltimore and encouraged her to share her story. Javorova, now 81, later collaborated with a nun, Miriam Therese Winter, who published a book called Out of the Depths: The Story of Ludmila Javorova, Ordained Roman Catholic Priest in 2001. One year later the first Roman Catholic Womenpriests were ordained in the Danube River ceremony.
Since then, the movement to ordain women has spread to four continents and 29 states in the U.S. Last April, the Vatican named support for women’s ordination, together with insufficient fidelity to Catholic teaching on abortion, euthanasia, and homosexuality, as one of the rationales for its crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group that represents about 80 percent of 57,000 women religious in the U.S.
Priests who advocate the ordination of women face even harsher penalties. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest for 46 years, was expelled from his order in November for refusing to recant his public support for women priests like Carpeneto.
“I was naive. I didn’t see how deep the sexism and the misogyny go in our church,” Bourgeois said at a day-long conference on women’s ordination held at the BWI Doubletree Hilton Hotel in April. The event celebrated the inauguration of the new Maryland chapter of Call to Action, a national organization of over 20,000 progressive Catholics, and it drew more than 200 registered participants from around the state. Most were lay Catholics aged 50-80, with a sprinkling of younger folk, and many came specifically to hear Bourgeois, who was the keynote speaker.
A rock star in Catholic social-justice circles, Bourgeois served 18 months in prison in 1983 for trespassing onto federal property after he and two other Catholic activists posed as military officers to carry out a protest at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Ga. Formerly known as the School of the Americas and popularly known as the “School of the Assassins,” the school was founded to teach counter-insurgency tactics to Latin American security forces. Its graduates have been linked to human rights abuses and atrocities, including the 1980 murder of Salvadorean archbishop Óscar Romero; the kidnapping, rape, and murder of four Maryknoll nuns that same year; and the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in 1989.
In 1990, Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch, a grassroots advocacy group devoted to closing the school. It was through that work that he gradually came to support women’s ordination, Bourgeois told a rapt audience at the April 6 Call for Action meeting.
“Over the years I met many very devout Catholic women who shared with me their call to the priesthood. It started to keep me awake at night,” he said. “I started to ask who were we as men to say that our call is authentic but your call as women is not.”
He also began to see echoes of his childhood in segregated parishes in Louisiana. “For 12 years my classmates and I went to segregated schools and attended churches where the last five pews were reserved for black parishioners. I remember the mantras—‘this is our tradition,’ ‘separate but equal.’ What I’m hearing from church leaders today is very similar.”
So he began speaking out. Whenever he was asked to lecture on the School of the Americas, he included his thoughts on sexism in the Catholic Church and the need to accept women priests—even in a 2000 interview on Vatican Radio. Friends warned him that he was treading on dangerous ground, but it wasn’t until he participated in the 2008 ordination of Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a good friend from SOA Watch, that he was threatened with expulsion.
“A few weeks later I got a letter from the Vatican saying that I was causing grave scandal to the church and had 30 days to recant my support for the ordination of women or I would be excommunicated,” he said. After searching his conscience, he realized that could not be silent, Bourgeois told the Call to Action audience. “When there is injustice, our silence is the voice of complicity.”
Though many male priests privately support women’s ordination, few have been willing to publicly challenge the Vatican’s hard-line stance because they fear the consequences, Bourgeois said in an interview after the conference.
“Many priests do support the ordination of women,” he said. “But they fear not just losing their priesthood but also their community. A lot of these priests are older, and they only hang out with other priests. They see themselves alone, eating at a soup kitchen and being homeless.”
Bourgeois said that since his expulsion, he has received many letters of support from fellow priests. “I’ve got a stack of letters,” he said. “But they won’t even sign their names. What I find so sad is that the church should be about love and service. But what I see is not love but fear.”
The lay Catholics at the Call to Action meeting were considerably more willing than clerics to discuss their frustration with the church’s stand on women’s ordination and a host of other issues. “I’m getting very reckless in my old age,” said Erma Durkin, 84. A widowed mother of three, Durkin served as a Catholic missionary from 1947-1967 before marrying in 1968.
Her son is gay and she started an LGBT ministry in her parish that was shut down after a conservative member of the parish sent the group’s educational materials to the archbishop. “The church is supposed to be helping people grow spiritually,” she said. “You don’t do that by silencing people and telling them not to think about things.”
Bob Brady, 70, said that he supports the ordination of women and married priests. “I was also very active on Question 6 [the Maryland referendum on marriage equality] back in November. A lot of my friends were as well. We’re here because we’re hoping to move things along,” he said.
Pat Frascati, 67, a parishioner at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Baltimore City, said that she and other progressive lay Catholics remain in the church because “we feel that if we stay we can work from within.”
The small number of young people at the meeting doesn’t signal a lack of interest or support of a progressive agenda among young Catholics, said Katie Jones, 28, a Call to Action organizer. Many Catholics of her generation support marriage equality, the ordination of women and married men, and a host of other causes championed by their Vatican II-era elders, she said. They are just not interested in sitting in a ballroom listening to lectures.
“Young folks are not so much looking for people to talk at them,” Jones said. “What we are looking for is conversation and places to grapple with our questions.”
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