Beliefs News

Supporters of women as priests see hope in pope’s openness to deacons

Susan Vaickauski, center right, celebrates Communion alongside Presiding Bishop Joan Clark Houk, center left, of the Great Waters Region of Roman Catholic Womanpriests at her ordination to the priesthood on June 11, 2016, at the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Northbrook, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

NORTHBROOK, Illinois (RNS) Her whole life, Susan Vaickauski felt an internal struggle.

But earlier this summer, as Vaickauski lay prostrate at the foot of the altar of a church in the Chicago suburbs, while friends, family and supporters sang the litany of the saints over her, that struggle disappeared.

In its place, she said, she felt “this overwhelming sense of peace and just God saying, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I was asking of you. This is where I want you to be. This is what I want you to do.’ It’s this feeling of knowing you did what’s being asked of you.”

What she felt God asking her to do — what she always has felt God calling her to do, she said — was to become a Catholic priest, a vocation that has been barred to women.

She answered that call on Saturday, June 11, when she was ordained to the priesthood by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, an international movement to prepare, ordain and support female priests.

Vaickauski’s ceremony was held at a Protestant church, as the Roman Catholic Church officially does not recognize these ordinations. It follows the tradition that priests are modeling Jesus and that the 12 men he called as his apostles — the first priests — were all men. The movement to ordain women priests, however, maintains its bishops continue in the same apostolic succession since its first female priests were ordained by Roman Catholic bishops.

The movement isn’t new: Roman Catholic Womenpriests started with the ordination of seven women in 2002 on the Danube River in Germany, and the U.S. advocacy group Women’s Ordination Conference was founded more than 40 years ago.

But its supporters have seen glimmers of hope for their cause this summer, most recently with Pope Francis appointing a special commission to study whether the Catholic Church should ordain women as deacons.

Even though advocates of ordaining women as deacons have warned it’s not a gateway to ordaining women as priests, it still has given some in the movement reason to be optimistic, however cautiously.

“We are feeling a little bit one step forward, one step back,” said Erin Saiz Hanna, co-director of the Women’s Ordination Conference.

“Pope Francis has opened it in a way that we’re at least talking about it, and that’s a great thing. … The women deacons question has raised the consciousness of being able to talk about women’s ordination a little bit more freely.”

Signs of hope

Earlier this month, Pope Francis appointed seven men and six women to a commission to study the role of women in the early church and whether they should be ordained as deacons.

The Women’s Ordination Conference called the commission an “important step for the Vatican in recognizing its own history of honoring women’s leadership.”

Hanna pointed to other positive steps the Vatican has taken this summer: members of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, of which the U.S. group is a member, were allowed to hold a vigil in St. Peter’s Square during the Jubilee for Priests in early June, holding their own Jubilee for Womenpriests.

They delivered a petition to a Vatican secretary that had been signed by more than 30 groups and 4,500 individuals, sharing a vision for “A Church for our Daughters,” she said.

The church also elevated the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene in late July to a feast, which she called “unexpected” and a “great nod from Pope Francis.”

But the group got a chillier reception when it tried to deliver a petition to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this June in California, she said.

And ordaining women as deacons is not the same thing as ordaining women as priests: Deacons are ordained ministers who can preach or preside over weddings and funerals. Unlike priests, however, they cannot celebrate Mass.

Susan Vaickauski, center, smiles after she is dressed in the stole and chasuble at her ordination to the priesthood by Roman Catholic Womenpriests on June 11, 2016, at the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Northbrook, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Susan Vaickauski, center, smiles after she is dressed in the stole and chasuble at her ordination to the priesthood by Roman Catholic Womenpriests on June 11, 2016, at the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Northbrook, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

A closed door

Plus, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith already explored the question of ordaining women as priests in the 1970s, Vaickauski said.

Both the congregation and the pope at the time, Paul VI, ruled it out, pointing to the 12 apostles having been all men. St. John Paul II later backed up this position in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.”

“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,” St. John Paul II wrote.

And in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI declared any priest who ordained women or any woman who was ordained a priest automatically was excommunicated, according to Vaickauski.

With that, the Roman Catholic Church actually closed more doors than had been shut in the 1970s and 80s.

That’s when, after Vatican II and the Anglican Communion’s decision to ordain women, the movement to ordain women as priests was hopeful. Some even predicted it was “imminent,” according to Kathleen Sprows Cummings, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and director of the Conference on the History of Women Religious.

Most recently, Pope Francis confirmed, “That door is closed.” And Cummings doesn’t see the church opening it again.

In fact, the question of ordaining women as priests often shuts down the discussion about the role of women in the church, she said.

What’s more interesting, and what may be more helpful, is a discussion of why many leadership positions in the Catholic Church require one to be ordained, according to the professor. That includes jobs like the secretary of state of Vatican City, a bureaucratic position in the Roman Curia that has no sacramental role.

“I think we are in the midst of a new moment, in which the focus is less on ordination and more about women’s desire for leadership in the church,” she said.

Susan Vaickauski smiles after her ordination to the priesthood by Roman Catholic Womenpriests on June 11, 2016, at the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Northbrook, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Susan Vaickauski smiles after her ordination to the priesthood by Roman Catholic Womenpriests on June 11, 2016, at the Northbrook United Methodist Church in Northbrook, Illinois. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

A calling

But for Vaickauski, it absolutely was about ordination.

Growing up in Lafayette, Ind., she always was “unusual,” she said. She went to Mass every day, and she knew there was “something going on inside of me, but I didn’t know what it was.”

“Every day after school when my friends would go watch American Bandstand together with Dick Clark, I would first go and lay out the priests’ vestments and get the altar ready for Mass the next morning, and then I’d join my friends,” she said.

The nuns at her Catholic elementary school tried to convince her she was called to their vocation, she said, but that wasn’t it: She wanted to marry and have children. When she was in college at Purdue during Vatican II, she was introduced to the idea of the “priesthood of the laity,” and it was “as if fireworks were going on inside of me,” she said.

Maybe that was it.

Then, while on a cruise along the St. Lawrence Seaway with her husband in 2005, she learned that several Roman Catholic women were being ordained as priests aboard a boat on the same waterway. She had never heard of such a thing, she said, but she knew immediately, this was what that something going on inside her was about – this was her calling.

After her 2011 retirement from the suburban Chicago school district where she had been an administrator, a news item about Roman Catholic Womenpriests crossed her desktop, and she finally contacted the group to move forward with the ordination process.

There are about 125 priests ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests in the United States, according to Joan Clark Houk, bishop of its Great Waters Region. Last year, there were five ordinations in the Great Waters Region, which includes Illinois, she said. This year, there likely will be three.

The Archdiocese of Chicago declined to comment on the ordination, but Vaickauski said based on Pope Benedict XVI’s writings, her ordination means she automatically has been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. She still can attend Our Lady of the Brook Church, the Northbrook parish she has belonged to since the 1970s, but she no longer can receive the sacraments there or be part of the ministries as she once was.

Still, it never occurred to her to leave the Catholic Church and join another denomination that freely ordains women. She felt called not to leave, but to lead, she said.

“It’s painful, and it’s hard, but at the same time, there’s this incredible adventure and journey I know God has made for me,” she said.

Since she was ordained earlier this summer, Vaickauski has celebrated Catholic Mass for a small worshiping community of 20 to 50 people once a month at Northbrook United Methodist Church, where she was ordained. She’s been asked to offer spiritual direction and funerals.

And, she said, there’s that peace.

“God has a dream for my church, and he wants me to participate in making that dream a reality,” she said.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.


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  • “They [the media] said: ‘The Church opens the door to deaconesses.’ Really? I am a bit angry because this is not telling the truth of things,” the pope responded when asked about his agreeing to a study of deaconesses in the early Church. As to the work done by deaconesses, “this makes me laugh – when there was a woman who went to complain to the bishop because her husband beat her, the bishop called one of these deaconesses, who looked at the woman’s body to find bruises,” the pope said on June 26 during his flight from Armenia to Rome,

  • Nowhere does the Bible speak to ordaining women as wrong. Even the sexually repressed misogynist Paul of Tarsus never said that, only spoke of the rules that came from him, not from God or Jesus, for restrictions on women in his congregation. He communicated with women who clearly presided over their own congregations as elders, i.e. Priests. And even he stated that in Christ there is no male or female.

    In the catacombs are mosaics of women presiding over the Mass as both priests and bishops. That history has simply been ignored or repressed. Jesus called Mary, Martha and Mary of Magdala to his side as disciples even if they aren’t counted among the Twelve, It was women who were chosen to first see the resurrected Christ. It was men who doubted.

  • The U.S. is about to possibly elect the first woman president and the UK has their second PM with Theresa May. So it seems rather sad to me that in the year 2016, the Catholic church is still squabbling if women can be equal to men.

  • You do realize Paul spent 3 years learning from Jesus in Arabia, eh? You do realize that Paul was setting up the church for Jesus. Paul said a woman should not have authority over a man (in the church). Paul also stated that a woman should remain quiet in the church. Paul also set the standards for a deacon – the husband of one wife. blessings Patricia

  • A wonderful pioneer in the work for women’s ordination in the RCC died recently. Anne Patrick was a true believer and followed in the way of Priscilla, Aquilla, Mary Mags, Martha, Mary, Deborah and all the other women who were preachers, teachers, judges, leaders, disciples, etc., of Jesus. While the RCC has consumed centuries of efforts to marginalize and diminish women, that church is not Jesus and those women will not be driven from their calling. Congratulations to Vaickauski and all the women and men, and their supporters, in WOC!

  • Since Vatican II, I’ve always wondered how the Vatican can close down discussion on any doctrinal or moral issue! The TRUTH can never be encapsulated in human concepts or constructs! The Holy Spirit didn’t stop enlightening the Church at a given time in history! Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that TRUTH is relative, which always seems to be the fear of the Congregation for The Faith! I am saying that our current understanding of the TRUTH, is limited and open to deeper and evolving insights provided by the Holy Spirit! We exhibit a great lack of trust in the Spirit’s guidance when we say “The discussion is closed” !

  • “Wherefore, in order that all doubt
    may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which
    pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my
    ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.”
    – Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (emphasis mine)

  • I used to play “priest” when I was a little boy. I dressed up in a sheet, and I gave Necco wafer “communion” to my sister. I like to think is was cute when I did it. It’s kind of sad when grown women play “priest”.

    What is sadder is that everyone who participated in this farce has excommunicated themselves laetae sententiae (without any action). My prayer is that they repent, confess, and approach the Holy Father to get this penalty lifted before they die.

  • Well, Father, we are given the teaching authority of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church through the Holy Father and her living Magesterium. Those who personally follow what they think is the Holy Spirit against the revealed Truth of the Church are called… well… Protestants.

  • Doctrines are human formulations in human language, at a particular time & context in human history! Yes, we believe that these teachings have been guided by the Holy Spirit working in & through the WHOLE CHURCH! Popes, bishops, theologians, & the FAITHFUL must be in continual dialogue to discern the direction the Spirit is leading us. That means that any doctrinal formula must be tentative & open to further insights provided by the Holy Spirit! I’m not saying that Church teaching is not true! It is true according to the time and place & context in which it was formulated! However, all doctrines are open to new and deeper understanding as the Spirit continues to blow in the Church! The challenge we face is our inability to live with the GRAY in our faith understanding! Being human, we look for & demand certitude! The daily challenge of our faith, is to learn to live with the GRAY!

  • Tony, there has been, over the past 50yrs, much discussion among theologians both religious & laity on the role of the MAGISTERIUM! While Vatican II continued to affirm the the role of the Pope & Bishops in promulgating teaching, it also recognized the role of the laity ie . THE PEOPLE Of GOD in the formulation of Church teaching! Going back to the work of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman , “On the Development of Doctrine”, Vatican II affirmed what has long been called the ” Sensus Fidelium” ie. The understanding of faith & morals that the Holy Spirit implants & develops within the Body Of Christ! Only when all components of the Body of Christ are in harmonious dialogue and consensus , can Church Teaching truly reflect the Voice of the Holy Spirit! We, the Body of Christ, are a work in progress, called to honor & treat each other as brothers & sisters no matter what are understanding of the Faith is here & now!

  • Tony, I believe it was in “Gaudium et Spes” the Church in the Modern World! Many theologians at Vatican II & after Vatican II have referee to the “Sensus Fidelium” in their writings eg.Karl Rainer, Yves Congar etc. The concept of Sensus Fidelium goes back to the writings of now Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman in his famous treatise, “On the Development of Doctrine”!

  • Father, I will read through it again (it has been a while), and many have referred to something called “The Spirit of Vatican II™” (who I think is a close cousin to “Sensus Fidelium”). Both rely on determinations from people who are most likely badly formed (as I was).

    Saint Paul warned about this very thing to Timothy:

    2 Timothy 4:3 – For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great
    number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

    I looked through “on development of doctrine”, and could not find a reference to “sensus fidelium” or alternately “sensus fidei”. (To be fair, it was a cursory search.)

    Pope Benedict talks about Sensus Fidelium:

    “Today, however, it is particularly important to clarify the criteria
    used to distinguish the authentic sensus fidelium from its counterfeits.
    In fact, it is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is
    unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the
    Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in
    the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates
    in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to
    her Magisterium.”

    With all these issues, we need to approach our Mother Church in humble obedience. We need to trust that she has kept protected the deposit of faith that Jesus handed to her. We need to trust the Holy Spirit guides those in authority. If we begin to believe she teaches wrong, we become… well… Protestants.

  • It’s funny what feminism has done. It has told women that they have no dignity if they don’t do everything that men do. What they have produced is not empowered women, but deficient faux men.

  • Tony, a good source for discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit and the direction the Spirit is leading us, is St. Paul, as you noted! St. Paul also says that the Spirit blows where it will! The leaders of the Church, Pope & bishops, have been given the authority to teach & preach sound teaching! However, discerning the direction the Spirit is leading us does not belong to them alone! They must gather in the voice of the Spirit by listening attentively to the Spirit’s voice speaking through all the faithful ie. The Body of Christ! They must seek to discern the “Sensus Fidelium”
    As you may guess, this is not easy! Pope Francis, invoking the Spirit of Vatican II, which refers to a spirit of of open dialogue, displayed this discerning leadership by calling the recent Synod on the Family !
    The ability to discern the Spirit’s voice and direction requires that all members of Christ’s Body, Pope, bishops, theologians, laity enter in an honest dialogue using all the sources available ie. Scripture, tradition, and as Vatican II encouraged, the contemporary sciences eg. Biology, anthropology, genetics, psychology, philosophy, astronomy, etc. to shed light and new insights on whatever topics need to be discussed! The failure of the Church’s leadership in past centuries to use and consult all the sources available (see Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, etc) led to many painful and confusing. outcomes!
    A good source which will offer a comprehensive understanding of our contemporary situation is the monumental work of the theologian ,Richard Mc Brien, “Catholicism” which explains every aspect of church teaching (including Sensus Fidelium) in the light of Vatican II!

  • Tony, I’m sorry you only want to hear one side of these issues! Remember, the Spirit of Truth blows where it will! Listening only to those who share your viewpoint, will only keep you in a rut and walking down the dark alley of misinformation!
    Thank God for Pope Francis’ leadership in seeking the TRUTH! We’ve needed this openness for the past 35 years!

  • Father, so are you telling me that assenting to the teachings of the Living Magesterium of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is wandering down “the dark alley of misinformation”? Are you a Gnostic?

  • No Tony, that’s not what I’m saying! I am saying that in most instance assent to the Church’s magisterium is the correct thing to do. However, as evident from some of the past examples I offered eg. (Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, accepting slavery, etc.) the Church’s magisterium needed correction and was! The same corrections may be needed today! I said MAY! That’s why I am calling for much more dialogue ( like the recent Synod) to delve deeper into the issues of morality & doctrine we face today! Complacency with the past won’t do! Like Vatican II & the Synod, the Church must use all the TOOLS & RESOURCES the Holy Spirit has given Her ie. Scripture, tradition, theology, philosophy, and the contemporary sciences to discern the Spirit’s voice & direction! To fail to use all these TOOLS will lead to negative outcomes as in past centuries!

  • Father, the Church teaches infallibly in the instance of faith and morals. She does not teach infallibly in the instance of science.

  • Tony, not every teaching the Church has made through councils & the Papacy falls under the umbrella of infallibility! The question of INFALLIBILITY was taken up at Vatican I , but was never completely formulated! Vatican II, because it was focused primarily on pastoral matters rather than doctrinal , did not complete the formulation either!
    This has left most Catholics with an inadequate understanding of what is INFALLIBLE or not! The knee jerk reaction of most Catholics is to consider everything that comes from the Pope or Vatican congregations as being final (read Infallible)!
    Vatican II began to develop the concept of COLLEGIALITY ie. the shared responsibility of both Pope &Bishops in formulating church teaching with the assistance of theologians, as was being done at the Council! This concept is still evolving today as to how the Church ought to be governed! With this in mind, the use of the term INFALLIBLE has become less frequent, giving way to the concept of COLLEGIALITY which best expresses the joint responsibility & collaboration of POPE, BISHOPS, THEOLOGIANS, & THE SENSUS FIDELIUM of the WHOLE BODY of CHRIST! This collaboration ,as I have mentioned, must incorporate the insights of Scripture, Tradition, Theology, Philosophy, the contemporary sciences through an ongoing dialogue eg. Synods etc.
    that include a representative cross section of The Body of Christ ie. men, women, clergy, laity! I believe the Holy Spirit is challenging us today to use all the tools & God given skills we have to foster the Kingdom of God!

  • The First Vatican Council explicitly taught that:

    [T]he Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

    And the Second Vatican Council explicitly taught that:

    [T]he task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church… This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on…


    Our Protestant brothers have discovered what happens when we abandon the teaching authority of the Church. We get 33,000 denominations fighting over minor points of doctrine, with no final “referee”, or worse, putting doctrine up for a vote.

  • Take note Tony to what I said previously! The first Vatican council was incomplete without the Second Vatican council! Because of historical circumstances, ie. the revolution & dismantling of the papal states, the council came to an abrupt end in 1870! They did not have an opportunity to deal with the question of the role of the episcopacy in the preservation and formulation of doctrine with the Pope. Note that in the early church, Peter did not act unilaterally during the Council of Jerusalem, but brought together all the Apostles to decide whether the gentiles should be required to follow the Jewish traditions and laws! Note how their pronouncement is framed : “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and Us…….” This collaborative decision making is of foundational importance on how the teaching authority of the Church should operate!
    Vatican II began the completion and deepening of this concept of collaboration between Pope and Bishops! We are witnessing a further development of this collaboration in the papacy of Pope Francis!
    The term “deposit of faith” has fallen out of use among contemporary catholic theologians because it connotes a static view of church teaching rather than an ongoing deepening of our understanding of specific doctrines under the guidance of the Holy Spirit! They emphasize that while theologians don’t invent new doctrines, they help the papacy and episcopacy deepen our understanding of the Church’s teachings! In turn , the papacy ,episcopacy, and theologians have the responsibility of using all the contemporary as well as the traditional tools the Spirit has provided eg. Scripture, tradition, and yes even the contemporary sciences to deepen our understanding of doctrine! Let’s not forget that science was also created by God to enhance humanity!
    I know Tony, that this more dynamic way of viewing how the Holy Spirit works in today’s Church and World, may be difficult for many Catholics who were taught a more static view of the Church! But doesn’t it make more sense to realize that the Spirit works in the Church as it does throughout the universe ,continually developing new horizons? The Spirit builds on the past with a view to our future, calling us to build the kingdom of God! The Church herself must grow and adapt itself to be able to transform the sinful structures of society so they more truly mirror the Kingdom of God!

  • I don’t remember “theologians” being part of the Living Magesterium of the Catholic Church unless said theologians are also the Pope, or a bishop.

  • Tony, throughout the ages of Christianity, the popes have relied on advisors to help them in their decision making. Sometimes these advisors were the bishops gathered in councils like Nice a! Sometimes these advisors were men and even women of great wisdom and piety eg. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, St. Catherine of Siena, etc . The Holy Spirit was working through these people to guide and help the magisterium in its official teaching office! The understanding of the role that theologians played in developing official Church teaching was more fully recognized during the Second Vatican Council as most bishops brought their own “periti” ie. theological experts to advise them during the Council’s deliberation on the various documents! The work of these theologians, as part of the Body of Christ, became to be recognized as a function of the “Living Magisterium” !
    This concept of “Sensus Fidelium”, which we’ve been discussing, also received more attention as the magisterium became more aware and cognizant of the ” Whole ” Body of Christ ‘s role in the deepening of our understanding of Church teaching that has been handed down! Thus, flowing out of Vatican II, comes a more comprehensive view of the role that the “lived experience of the laity” plays in the formulation of Church teaching! So, you see Vatican II has contributed to a deeper understanding of how all the components of the Body of Christ share under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, in the work of formulating Church teaching, but also in the work of proclaiming and embodying this teaching in every day living!