"On June 29, 2002, seven women and two bishops were aboard a boat on the Danube river near Passau, Germany, with a plan to alter the course of history. On a body of water in no official diocese, nor in front of a governing body that might invalidate them, Pia Brunner, Ida Raming, Iris Müller, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Adeline Theresia Roitinger, Gisela Forster, and a woman under the assumed name of “Angela White” were ordained Roman Catholic priests by Bishops Ferdinand Regelsberger and Rómulo Antonio Braschi. This was a radical act: These seven women are believed to be some of the first to be given the right to oversee a parish since Ludmila Javorová was ordained in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia as part of the underground Catholic churches that sprung up under Communist control. All of the women on that boat had been baptized, gone through similar theological training as their male counterparts, and spent the requisite years getting their master’s degrees in divinity; some had served as nuns, and some as Catholic school teachers for several decades. Still, the church forbids the ordination of women to the priesthood, and so the “Danube Seven,” as they’re now known, were all excommunicated after they refused to nullify their ordination by July 22, the day of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. For the uninitiated, excommunication goes something like this: The Danube Seven, and other women ordained after them, received word from the Vatican stating that they had violated canon law (the set of principles enforced by the hierarchical authorities of the Catholic church) and so were forbidden from administering sacraments. Some who lived in a convent or were teaching in a parish school were kicked out or fired immediately, in some instances without severance. The social fallout was harsh, too: A few were told by their priest superiors that their sin in being ordained was equal to a clergy member sexually abusing a child.
A “calling,” or an inherent pull of the soul toward God and discipleship, plays a large role in the Roman Catholic faith—one that is not unique to men. Many of the women called to the clergy describe it as a spiritual awakening that they first began to sense as a small child, listening to homilies from the church pews. For others, it was the urgent and necessary desire to be a part of the Catholic communities who dedicate themselves to nursing the sick, giving back to the poor, teaching the young. This is a reason enough to remain within a religion whose operatives have banished them; in effect, they answer to a higher power. As Jennifer O’Malley, a woman priest from Long Beach, California, explains, “I have stayed because being Catholic is part of who I am. Leaving would be abandoning who I am, my call to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church, and my call to be a voice for gender justice in our world.” Neither threats nor exile nor fear of unemployment stopped the Danube Seven or those who came after them from answering the call. They looked outside the strictures of the Roman Catholic Church and started their own independent Catholic churches and communities, beginning a movement for others like them who did not agree with the strict doctrines of the church, but who also were dedicated to its devotion to empathy, forgiveness, and divine love.
Today, there are approximately 145 women Catholic priests in the U.S. and about 204 worldwide, according to the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization, ranging from as young as about 35 into their 70s and older. These women are supported by RCWP, which holds conferences and demonstrations, and helps them with the task of fundraising for their churches as well as the postgraduate education that potential candidates for the Womenpriests clergy must complete. Every woman priest candidate must do the same work and schooling as required by a male in the seminary. The Womenpriests are adamant that their movement is not about being “anti-men,” but instead, building a community that values inclusion. As O’Malley notes: “Ordaining women means changing the structure of things so that the people in the pews can have a larger voice in the decision-making process—at our churches, everyone is welcome to the table regardless of gender or sexuality.” Aside from their duty to God, what is most important to these women is dissolving those lines drawn in the sand by the Catholic hierarchy. “Gender being more important than one’s humanity in serving humanity is deeply troubling,” says Nancy Corran, the former pastor at the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego. “The ‘girls keep out’ of the priesthood is a man-made construction; a reality ordered by men, not ordained by God.”
The Italian photographer Giulia Bianchi first attended a service led by Diane Dougherty in Atlanta in 2012. Having grown up Catholic, she found herself personally moved by the RCWP and its cause. For the better part of the ensuing six years, Bianchi has been traveling around the world photographing these women priests, spending time with them, and learning about their journeys into the priesthood. She’s met women priests who are married to other women, women priests with children, women priests who believe in abortion, and women priests who are vehemently opposed. She’s met women priests who have been mailed death threats. In 2016, after Pope Francis stated that the decision on banning women from the priesthood was likely finite, Bianchi put up posters featuring her images around the city of Rome. She is currently working on publishing a book of her images, part of what she has named the “Women Priests Project,” and in June her work will be on display at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in Chicago.
“When you see a spiritual authority in a female body, that’s powerful,” Bianchi says. “I have to say, the first time I saw it, I cried.” The image of a woman leading a mass and giving communion (or one in any high-ranking leadership role within the church) is one of pure fantasy for most people who have grown up in the Catholic church and school system. Biblical stories and Gospel passages are mostly told with female names in the footnotes; women are spoken about only as saints, nuns, and saved sinners, usually in devout service to the male hierarchy of the church. Though the number of people working in the mainstream U.S. Catholic church has been shrinking, the Catholic women’s representation and participation in society, particularly in America—where they serve as nuns or laypeople, as volunteers in inner cities and schools, community centers, and hospitals—has a direct effect on the next generation of leaders.
As Bianchi came to realize, their stories are just as important as their presence. “This project is really about breaking down the stereotypes of women in the church and listening to what they have to say,” she says. “Let’s challenge what the church says is sacred, what the church says is pure. Let’s listen to one another, and let’s acknowledge that the idea that women are not good enough to be in a position of power in the church, or that their body is shameful, or that they can’t define Catholicism on their own terms, is bullshit.”
Jennifer O’Malley, 45, and her wife, Elizabeth Carlin, 44, Long Beach, California
O’Malley remembers sitting in church with her family as a young girl and being struck by the “love your neighbor concept, and giving a voice to people who couldn’t have their voices be heard.” She worked for a Catholic parish for many years, and later met a group of women who were leading a small liturgy without a priest. “I felt very deeply like this is it,” she says, “this is what I’m supposed to do.” O’Malley has a master’s in theology from Loyola Chicago, and now has her own community of about 20 parishioners in Long Beach. She is also a special education director and a board member of the Women’s Ordination Conference. “Everybody is welcome to the table in this movement,” O’Malley emphasizes. “It’s unfortunate that Pope Francis’s view continues to be oppressive about women. He has said some great things about the environment and accepting immigrants and reaching out to those living in poverty, but women are disproportionately affected by all of this.” She adds, “How can he say all of this and also say that women are not good enough to hold certain positions?”
Barbara Billey (right) preparing the altar with a congregation member in the chapel they use in Windsor, Ontario, a few miles from Detroit.
Diane Dougherty, 73, the Church of the Visitation in Atlanta, Georgia
For Diane Dougherty, who has dedicated her life to being a Catholic woman priest and activist, her fight is not only for inclusion of women and LGBTQ people in the church, but also against social injustice, racism, and anti-immigration laws outside of religion. “I’m going to the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice,” Dougherty said excitedly when she spoke with Vogue from her home in Atlanta. “It’s going to be amazing—I wanted to help out with it because our movement, everyone’s movement toward equality, it’s all the same, really.” The 73-year-old former nun (who says she thought that wearing habits was “stupid”) spent nearly 40 years working for the Catholic church and got kicked out of four parishes in the span of three years for asking for fair wages or questioning the use of the church finances. She is a chaplain to various activist groups around Atlanta and she is also a human rights defender at the Carter Center. “The church is really glad to get rid of women,” Dougherty says. “We have information, and we’re not dumb, and we point out factual things to the hierarchy that they just don’t want to hear. The male leaders of the Catholic church are kind of like Trump: I said it, so therefore, it is.” If Dougherty had the chance to sit down with Pope Francis and discuss the movement with him, she says she’d say nothing. “I would be waiting for him to say, first of all, ‘I am sorry,’ ” she explains. “Secondly, I’d wait for him to say, ‘I understand that you should not be treated like a kind of workforce in service to us; I understand you have a calling.’ ” For Dougherty, it’s a matter of vision or, at the very least, dialogue. “The pope has to alter his notions of a creator and have a bigger vision that is inclusive of me, that’s inclusive of gay men and women, that’s inclusive of people of color. But how can he do that when he’s living in a toxic culture?” Dougherty believes in the power of people to lead the discussion, but her confidence in the Vatican to do the right thing on their own is all but lost. “Belief systems within all traditions are like Swiss cheese,” she says. “There are great big holes in the teachings and beliefs themselves . . . In Catholicism, there are too many holes in the cheese.”
Rev. Diane Dougherty says Mass at the First Metropolitan Community Church in Atlanta.
Jane Via, 70, Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, California
Jane Via, a two-time cancer survivor and a former professor of theology at the University of San Diego, was ordained a Roman Catholic deacon in 2004 under a pseudonym to protect her son, then going into his senior year at a canonical Catholic high school. After her son graduated, Via continued her successful career as a deputy district attorney in San Diego and cofounded her own small community: Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, where services are held at rented spaces within host churches. The goal was to attract “driven-away Catholics and fallen-away Catholics,” as Via says, “anyone who was not given a place in the traditional church, be they divorced or transgender or a woman who’d had an abortion.” In late 2005, she organized friends asking if they or any of their friends would be interested in joining the first service. About one hundred people showed up. She continues to try to reach a new generation but doesn’t “know if our little parish will survive” without young families, who she believes tend to be more traditional or are interested in institutional church. Via wants to teach young people that “Jesus was a feminist” through his attitude and outreach to women. She adds, “I try to work with younger or more creative and open-minded clergy about changing some of the language in the liturgy because I became very aware of how the exclusively male language . . . that language perpetuates the whole patriarchal structure of Christianity.”
(Left) Dr. Jane Via with the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, 2015; (right) Nancy Corran’s ordination with the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community in San Diego, 2015.
Rev. Jennifer Marcus (right), from Detroit, was ordained a priest and Terese Rigodanzo-Kasper (left), from Chicago, a deacon, at Nativity Episcopal Church in Bloomfield Township, Michigan.
Donnieau Snyder, 46, “Servant Leader” at New Spirit Rising in Fresno, California
“It was during my second-grade year when I experienced the joy of knowing my call to priesthood,” says Snyder, a teacher who lives in Fresno, California, with her partner, Vanessa. But her love for Catholicism has always been complicated by the fact that she was told she was a child of God, but at the same time, unequal to some of his other children, and so unable to be ordained in his church. Snyder says that whispers about her involvement with the women’s priest movement provoked her parish priest to tell her that she was no longer welcome at his church. This pronouncement came just after the Vatican publicly categorized women’s ordination as a “grave crime” worthy of equal punishments to those placed on clergy members who had committed sexual abuse. Today, she is part of a faith community called New Spirit Rising, and the members, Snyder is happy to note, are varied. “When I have asked what brings them to our community, they generally say something about how they feel welcomed to ‘just be.’ ” She adds, “Gender, sexual orientation, skin color, or any other element that has been used to oppress a human being from fulfilling their service to others has no place anywhere. The Roman Catholic Church has an opportunity to find themselves on the right side of history by recognizing those who are called to sacred service, and not remain blind to the paradoxes they preach.”
Procession at Falls Church, Virginia, with Rev. Wanda Russell.
Nancy Corran, 45, Omaha, Nebraska
Nancy Corran grew up a Presbyterian, and became fascinated with religious teachings from a young age. She was ordained in 2010, and recently moved to Omaha from San Diego with her husband and two children. She is currently working to build a community church in her new hometown, after having served as pastor at the 150-member Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community. “MMACC offers a new way to be Roman Catholic,” Corran explains. “When I first attended service there, I knew I had ‘found church’—the way I, at least, always envisioned it could be. It was a place where you don’t have to check anything at the door, a place where the scholarship was sound, the spirit soared, and the sacred was ‘broken open’ all at the same time.”"