Mary Sue Barnett ARCWP presides at liturgy with Christ Sophia Community in Louisville, KY
A Centuries Old Wound Begins to Heal
Sociologist Sam Richards said sociology is “the study of the way in which human beings are shaped by things that they don’t see.” This is the reality of living and even affects our spirituality. This is notably disconcerting because we imagine spirituality to be something especially personal. If you’re a Christian woman — especially a Catholic woman — and you advocate for either, there is something you don’t see affecting your personal spiritual space, and manipulating the way you see it and feel it without your even realizing it. It’s the systemic misogyny in Roman Catholicism.
Deacon Betty Smith ARCWP worships with Christ Sophia Community, Louisville, KY
Luckily, Mary Sue Barnett — a Roman Catholic Woman Priest here in Louisville, Kentucky, presiding over Christ Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community — is changing that.
Two policies explicitly forbids women to serve as priest in the Catholic Church because they are women. They are Canon Law 1024 and the Inter Insigniores Declaration of 1976 (both instituted by men, coincidentally). Supporting these policies negatively affects all men and women because it perpetuates the form of authoritative violent masculinity that plagues all people today; many women don’t like it and many men don’t want to personify it.
“That patriarchy harms everybody, and it can harm everybody deeply,” explains Mary Sue, “because a lot of times it’s not an image or expression of healthy maleness, as we know from a lot of the sex abuse by Catholic clergy.”
Not the Zealot You Think
Mary Sue is not a zealot. She has a wonderful history with the Catholic Church. She taught in Catholic schools, and is a product of Catholic education. She received a degree in religious studies from Spalding University. She credits her advocacy for women’s human and spiritual rights as coming from this education.
“My own consciousness began to be sharply awakened in my studies. I became acquainted with some very strong feminist scholars in the Catholic tradition. Being mentored by them meant being mentored by the interrelatedness of all those issues. I can’t separate them out; they’re all tied together.” Barnett also served as the Director of Campus Ministries at St. Catherine College.
Barnett is additionally the founder of the Louisville Coalition for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Her path to this role began in 2013. While serving as Catholic Ministries Director at St. Catherine College, she took a group of students to the United Nations to explore what it was to be a commission on the status of women. She came back inspired and committed to doing two things: 1) seek ordination as a Woman Priest 2) Do something about CEDAW locally.
She followed through with each of these goals, growing advocacy and membership in both the Louisville Coalition for CEDAW and her own congregation and the mission of Women Priests.
Mary Sue is joined by approximately 100 other Women Priests internationally, all members of the Roman Catholic Women Priests movement. They and the bishops who ordain them have been (and are continually) excommunicated by the institutional Roman Catholic Church. However, Roman Catholic Women Priests assert their ordinations are valid due to apostolic succession. In short, because the (male) bishops who ordained the first seven women priests were in good standing with the church, all women priests ordained thereafter (many by subsequent Women Priests) are, as well. On a related note, the Archbishop of Louisville also decreed any Catholic folks who attend Woman Priests’ services will be excommunicated, too.
But Truly – Why Do This?
So why do Roman Catholic Women Priests associate with the institutional Catholic Church at all? Why do they not start a new Church?
“I think it’s because it’s hard to feel like you’re all that separate because of the deep ties with family and friends, and also because of the rich heritage we do claim that is healthy,” says Mary Sue Barnett. “There is a very strong sense of obligation to do the renewal work. I personally care for girls and women that are within the church whose consciousness is not raised, who continue to suffer abuses in the church, or continue to suffer different sorts of violence against them because they’re female and they’re in a church that is silent about that. That is a very big part of my own commitment, and its part of the Women Priest movement.”
This is the crux of why Barnett answered her call to be a woman priest: her humanity. She is not an angry separatist who is selfishly out for vengeance against an institution. Barnett seeks to heal and uplift the spirits and souls of women (and men), and to help them feel that they are worthy, regardless of gender, of the inspiration of their God. She feels that policies like Inter Insigniores are false consciousness, a way of thinking that prevents a person from perceiving their true nature. She feels this false consciousness wounds the spirit.
“There is absolutely no truth in that,” she says of Inter Insigniores. “That comes out of a male-dominated, misogynistic consciousness that causes woundedness that many girls and women, and men, are not aware of. I think you can walk around and be wounded by that and not be aware of it.”
A Catholic Perspective
I would like to close this story on a personal note I want to share with you, our readers. I was profoundly personally affected in covering this story, and here’s why. I grew up Catholic, in a Catholic family. I went to Catholic schools, was an altar boy, a Eucharistic minister, a music minister, and even led retreats. I left the church in 2004 when a priest gave a speech during mass about how you couldn’t be “half-Catholic”, following some ideas but not others. Well, as a gay man, I was not fully welcomed in the church, so I left. Ethically, I could not support an institution who didn’t support my worth as a human (and others in my community) because of the gender of someone I ask on a date.
That being said, I was awestruck by Mary Sue, her words, her mission, and the people who attended her services. The institutional Catholic church can be mind-numbing in its rules. It is absolutely sexist, and its sex abuse scandals internationally – and their systemic cover-up – appall me. However, Mary Sue opened my heart and mind to a new way of being connected with a higher power. She spoke of God in a new way, that was beautiful, mysterious, egalitarian and empowering. Her liturgies were inviting and personal. Actual dialogues occurred between her and attendees instead of impersonal proclamations from a pulpit. Her advocacy for women through her spiritual purpose felt right in my bones. It seemed to begin to balance out the devaluing and disenfranchisement the Catholic church had shown women over centuries. I also spoke with women who attended Mary Sue’s services who had such a light in their eyes when they spoke of their enjoyment of being part of this movement and its services. I could see in their eyes and hear in their voice that they felt valued, personally and spiritually – finally. It was incredibly powerful, and gave me the ethical avenue to peek back into the realm of religious philosophy I had left 12 years ago.