Last month, when Pope Francis told a group of 900 nuns he would create a commission to study the concept of ordaining women deacons, Catholic conservatives warned that it must never evolve to ordaining women as priests because priests can only represent Christ, who is a male figure, and therefore a woman could never fulfill that role. Even some supporters of women’s ordination scoffed at the deacon idea as a way to placate those who support women clergy.
But McElwee, who is the first advocate of the Women’s Ordination Conference to be permanently based in Rome, believes it is a move in the right direction.
“Opening a commission to study the diaconate for women would be a great step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history,” she says, referring to decades of research and biblical and historical evidence that point to several women deacons working alongside men in the early church. “Discussion on ordained ministries for women is new for the Vatican, and something we celebrate.”
If Francis does create the commission and it does lead to the ordination of deacons, two steps that are yet to happen, it would amount to a complete about face. In 1994, Pope John Paul II issued the Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, a document that banned even the discussion about the ordination of women. “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 slamming the door.
Some of the women already consider themselves ordained Catholic priests under an organization called the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. Cristina Moreira, who is from Spain, told The Daily Beast that they prepare and ordain women to carry out all the same duties as male Catholic priests, even though the Church automatically excommunicates them.
Moreira told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, “This is the year of Jubilee and Mercy, of forgiveness. We’ve come to ask Pope Francis to lift the excommunication,” adding, “What evil have we done? To give communion is nothing bad, and to help those in need isn’t either.”
The women priests say their ordination was performed legitimately within the framework of church structures. “The principal consecrating Roman Catholic male bishop who ordained our first women bishops is a bishop with apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church in communion with the pope,” according to the group’s mission statement. “Therefore, our bishops validly ordain deacons, priests and bishops.”
Argentine Rómulo Antonio Braschi, a former Catholic bishop who rejected his own excommunication in 2002 for ordaining his wife, has openly ordained several female priests in addition to her, and the group says other male bishops have done so anonymously since the first ordinations took place.
Moreira and Janice Sevré-Duszynska, an American female priest who marched on Rome, say they delivered a petition in support of women’s ordination to an unnamed “senior Vatican official” who is said to have delivered it to the pope. The very fact that they were given that opportunity spells a massive change of heart, or at least a very savvy public relations effort, on the part of the Vatican, which surely doesn’t want to shut out 50 percent of the faithful by slamming the door again.
“At this time, the Catholic Church legitimizes sexism by prohibiting women from ordained ministries and decision-making roles within the church,” McElwee says, standing firm in her belief that they will one day be heard. “Until women are fully included in church structures as equals, [we] will continue to expose this injustice through art, activism, public witness, and dialogue.”