On a cloudy Saturday afternoon in Aptos, the church choirmaster leads a quartet singing the 23rd Psalm. Today, the Episcopal Church of St. John is packed with Catholics. They’re here to support the ordination of a Santa Cruz woman named Christine Fahrenbach. In an anteroom near the altar, she’s busy putting on an alb, traditional garb for Catholic priests.
When Pope Francis took office a year ago, there were whispers around the world of a change in direction for the Catholic church. The new pope has played down traditional views on abortion and homosexuality, and emphasized the Church’s commitment to fighting poverty. But on one front— ordaining women as priests—the Vatican hasn’t budged.
With friends and relatives buzzing around her, Fahrenbach says she spent the first part of her day just trying to stay relaxed. The ceremony has all the trappings of a standard Catholic service—there are tall candles and white robes, hymns and the Lord’s Prayer—but the clergy aren’t technically Catholic priests. They’re women from a group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, formed in Germany in 2002. Today, the group counts 150 womenpriests around the world, with a majority in the US. A few have flown in for Fahrenbach’s ceremony, recognizable by the colorful stoles draped around their shoulders.
For women, even trying to become a Catholic priest is enough to be excommunicated. That’s why this Catholic ceremony is being held in an Episcopal church, where the congregation won’t suffer repercussions for helping Fahrenbach break with Canon Law. Popes John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis have each said women’s ordination isn’t up for discussion. Nonetheless, Fahrenbach says the womenpriests see themselves as activists within the Catholic faith, if not the church.
Since there’s no room to discuss women’s ordination with the Vatican, Fahrenbach says, “The whole point of Roman Catholic Womenpriests is, we have to commit ecclesiastical disobedience, and we’ll invite the conversation.”
That is, break the rules in order to change them. And in the process, reclaim a forgotten piece of Catholic history.
“Many of us still feel and believe and know we are Catholic right down to the bottom of our toes,” says Bishop Olivia Doko, presiding at Fahrenbach’s ordination. “We would like to see a return to what was in the original church. We have proof that one of the early bishops in the fourth-fifth century, wrote and said, “please stop ordaining women,” so we know women were being ordained, he just wasn’t happy about it.”
The question is whether the women priests’ strategy is likely to get any traction. “The [womenpriests] move so far outside the circles of officialdom, says John Allen, who covers global Catholicism for the Boston Globe. “I think a few bishops, even a couple of cardinals, privately would say something like, “That’s the church’s position today, let’s see where we are in 200 years.”
Allen stresses that there may be faster ways to tackle what he calls Catholicism’s ‘women problem.’ “People who are committed to empowering women in the Catholic church, Most of them have moved on from the fight over women’s ordination to other areas where some progress is possible.”
That includes putting women in charge of Catholic universities and hospitals, or in leadership posts at individual dioceses. Christine Fahrenbach says that doesn’t cut it: “I don’t want to be a parish associate, I want to be a priest,” she says. “I don’t want to be a religious education director, I want to be a priest.”
Today, that’s exactly what she is.