Female Priest Challenges Church Law

November 24, 2008

Download Story
Women being ordained in 2006. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
Women entering the priesthood remains a controversial issue in the Catholic Church. Some are ordaining women despite threats of excommunication. One such ordination took place earlier this month and gave Chicago its first Roman Catholic woman priest. For Chicago Public Radio, Michael De Bonis reports.

ambi: church song "City of God"

Several hundred people are gathered in the pews of Saint Paul's United Church of Christ on Chicago's North Side. Four women in white robes proceed down the center aisle. Three of them are being ordained as deacons and one, Barbara Zeman, is being ordained a priest.

ZEMAN: I have had a call to minister to minister to God's people and to be a minister, a priest, most of my life.

In 1995, this call inspired her enroll to get her Masters in Theology because, she says, she had unanswered questions about her faith.

ZEMAN: Why couldn't we be allowed to become priests? What was the reasoning behind it and was it in fact true that women were never priests?

Well, right now, church law states that only a baptized male can be ordained. Why? One argument is that the church started with Jesus and his 12 male Apostles. And the church follows in that tradition. But advocates for women priests say that there is an abundance of archaeological evidence showing women ordained as deacons, priests and bishops in the early centuries of the church.

Zeman says she found these answers disconcerting but continued her involvement with the church in the ways that are open to women: teaching at her parish, singing in the choir, and ministering as a lector and Eucharistic minister. Then in 2006, she heard a female bishop was coming to speak and say mass in Chicago. Zeman attended and says it had a profound effect on her.

ZEMAN: I was in tears the entire time. Not only was it incredibly moving, what that experience did for me was it spoke to the understanding that Christ is with us not only on the masculine side but also on the feminine side.

That bishop was a founding member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The group began in 2002, when seven women were ordained by a male bishop. And it is through this group that Barabara Zeman is being ordained. 

ambi: church song "Litany of the Saints"

Midway through the ceremony, Zeman and the other women are called up to the altar and lie face down in prostration before the cross. Zeman says that's when she felt a holy presence.

ZEMAN: There was a moment that just felt like light and spirit and delight and joy was entering the room and it stayed for the rest of the ordination.

There's a group called the Women's Ordination Conference that's been around for 30 years working to get women like Barbara Zeman ordained. Board president Laura Singer says this ordination was a milestone.

SINGER: Over 50 volunteers from various Catholic communities in the city and outside the city came together to plan that ordination. I think it was a model on how the Church can be inclusive and accountable.

Singer says she noticed sexism in the church from a young age.

SINGER: In fifth grade, all the boys were taken out of my Catholic grade school classroom to be trained as altar servers and I remember asking the teacher, 'Why can't we go?' And it was because I was a girl.

The position of altar server, formerly known as altar boy, can now be filled by both sexes. After a period of controversy over the issue, a 1994 decision from the Vatican officially gave permission for female altar servers. The Women's Ordination Conference wants this shift to continue to the highest levels of the Church. And the group claims more than 60 percent of U.S. Catholics agree with the ordination of women. Singer says these ordinations are a protest.

SINGER: It's really civil disobedience of an unjust law. And we argue that these ordinations are challenging that law and we want it changed to any baptized person.

There are several organizations that ordain women as priests. But the ordination of women by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests has stirred up the most controversy because they claim full apostolic succession. Apostolic succession refers to the connection of every ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church back to the first disciples of Jesus. Because the women who started this movement were ordained by a male bishop, they claim that succession. Newly ordained priest Barbara Zeman says this is the reason she was drawn to the Roman Catholic Women Priests.

ZEMAN: We really are coming down in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. We are not a movement outside of the Church. We are inside the Church.

The ongoing ordination of women prompted the Vatican to release a decree in May. It said that anyone who attempted to ordain a women, and any woman who attempted ordination is automatically excommunicated.  A spokesperson for the Chicago Archdiocese echoes that decree stating, "Anyone who simulates the sacrament of holy orders is automatically excommunicated." But Zeman doesn't see it that way.

ZEMAN: I don't see myself as excommunicated because I did not excommunicate myself. I stepped forward, following my conscience and following Jesus.

Zeman says the Church is in dire need of ministers and needs to heal from the wounds inflicted by recent years' sex scandals. She says she doesn't understand why the church is so reluctant to change or even discuss the issue.

Zeman plans to continue the work she has started as a hospital chaplain and to minister to those in her community who have felt excluded by the The Church.

ZEMAN: I feel it is so important for the church to open up its eyes and its doors and its heart to include people who haven't felt included for centuries.  The church is going to die if we keep excluding. And thats why I didn't move to become a person of another faith tradition. I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, it is in my bones.

ambi: church prayer

And so Barabara Zeman and the others ordained by the Roman Catholic Women priests will go forward with their ministries, hoping that one day the institutional Church will accept them.

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Michael De Bonis.