Nuns look up at Pope Francis delivering his blessing during the Regina Coeli prayer he celebrated from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Monday, April 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Women as priests? Some say it's time but admit it's unlikely

NEW YORK (AP) — Advocates of ordaining women as Roman Catholic priests cite the church's unfolding sex abuse scandals as powerful arguments for their cause, while acknowledging the high unlikelihood of achieving their goal anytime soon.

Even with extensive grassroots support for letting women become priests, Pope Francis and the Vatican's male-dominated hierarchy have stressed repeatedly that a men-only priesthood is a divine mandate that cannot be changed.

"I don't see any movement to ordain women on the horizon, although I wish I did," said Margaret McGuinness, a religion professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "The people in power aren't going to look at this as a solution."

In the United States, an organized campaign advocating for female priests dates to the 1970s, and its leaders have seized on the new sex abuse scandals — in which the alleged perpetrators are male clergy — to help make their case.

RELATED: Report alleges decades of child sex abuse by Pennsylvania priests, cover-up by bishops

The most notable scandals: allegations that ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick molested at least two minors, as well as adult seminarians, and a Pennsylvania grand jury report alleging that about 300 priests sexually abused at least 1,000 children in six dioceses since the 1940s.

"If we had women as equals and partners, women ordained in the Catholic Church, the church would not be in this mess, because we would have parents who would minister and who would make sure children are protected," said Bridget Mary Meehan, a former nun who has led a rebel movement to ordain women, including herself, in defiance of church doctrine.

The penalty for attempting to ordain a woman is excommunication. The Vatican considers it so abhorrent that it's included it in the same classification of "more grave crimes" as sex abuse.

The current scandals suggest that church leaders, over the years, have placed a priority on "protecting abusers and silencing survivors," said Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference.

Pope Francis, she noted, has called on lay Catholics to help create a new culture in the church that would curtail sex abuse and "clericalism" — the policy that places priests on a pedestal.

"It seems obvious to me you need to abandon the old boys' club and have everyone at the table," McElwee said.

Under Catholic doctrine, the priesthood is reserved for men because Christ chose only men as his 12 apostles. The teaching is considered divinely inspired and infallible.

Pope Francis has upheld the ban repeatedly, while insisting that the church is feminine in nature and could not exist without women. He has called for a greater role for women in the decision-making levels of the church and created a commission in 2016 to study the role of female deacons in the early church.

There are mixed views on whether that commission, whose work has remained confidential, might propose that women be allowed to become deacons in the contemporary church. Deacons can perform many of the same functions as priests, such as preaching or presiding at weddings and funerals, but they cannot celebrate Mass.

Kate McElwee said her organization would welcome a decision to let women be deacons, in hopes it would lead to ordination of women as priests.

Otherwise, she said, "It's an incomplete step."

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

The Women's Ordination Conference and its allies have long argued that women could play a vital role in addressing the acute shortage of Catholic priests in many parts of the world. One of the worst shortages is in the Amazon region of South America, and a preparatory document for the Vatican's 2019 summit on the Amazon called for church leaders to identify new "official ministries" for women to serve there.

Among the male advocates of a greater role for women is Michael Higgins, a professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.

He sees no likelihood of women priests soon and says that goal is scarcely worth pursuing until the church radically reforms the nature of the priesthood to make it less insular.

"We'd only be including them in a system that is falling apart," Higgins said. "That culture of exclusive masculine entitlement doesn't work anymore."

Higgins would like to see the church implement a new version of the so-called "worker-priest movement" that surfaced in France after World War II, with priests working in factories alongside regular workers. He believes women could become a part of such a community-oriented movement.

The best moment for women to join the priesthood would be after it is restructured to break down barriers between clergy and laity, said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in Riverdale, New York.

"You don't want to create more clerics," said Imperatori-Lee, who describes herself as a feminist Catholic. "You want to create a more transparent church that meets people where they are ... sharing life with people on the margins."

Short term, she sees little prospect for such a transformation.

"The only people with actual power are the clergy," she said. "So it has to be a kind of voluntary relinquishing of power, which history shows is not likely to happen."

Church leaders need to devise some "dramatic changes" to prevent further defections in the U.S., said Margaret McGuinness, the La Salle professor.

"If they don't do something, people are just going to walk away," she said. "We're going to have Ireland all over again, where the churches are empty — they've become condos and office buildings."

Former Irish President Mary McAleese has been one of the most outspoken advocates for women's ordination. She was the keynote speaker in March at an International Women's Day conference that was moved off Vatican territory because a cardinal declined to sponsor it due to her participation.

"The Catholic Church has long since been a primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny," McAleese said. "Its leadership has never sought a cure for that virus, though the cure is freely available: Its name is equality."

Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.


  1. Since most sexual abuse of children takes place within families, it’s hard to argue that women will be better able to safeguard other people’s children than their own, unless we provide them with the tools that will make that possible. If a cadre (not cabal!) of psycho-sexually under-developed men is replaced by women with a mature understanding of their own sexuality, that would help. But a new cadre (not cabal!) of celibate women is not the answer, which means that structural changes are also required. A return to the NT model of working priests who celebrate the sacraments with/for their communities would align with both scripture and tradition, as well as respond to the contemporary vocations crisis.

  2. This article should be retitled “The Zombie Story”, since no matter how clear the Catholic Church has made it clear – as have the Orthodox, Assyrian, and other apostolic churches – that women will not be ordained and cannot be, it rises again from the dead and walks about as though almost alive.

    This article, however, is much more explicable.

    It is a plant, through the AP staffer Nicole Winfield “in Rome”, written up by David Crary who is apparently Ms. Winfield’s apprentice.

    The source of the story appears to be Bridget Mary Meehan, identified as a “former nun”, but in fact a “bishop” in a heretical (from the Catholic perspective) sect “The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests”:

    at one associated with Roman Catholic Womenpriests, another similar and related sect.

    Membership of the two is in the hundreds.

    Among the tip-offs is the propaganda video of the “ordination” of Susan Vaickauski by Roman Catholic Womenpriests a couple of years ago.

    Citing Margaret McGuinness, Kate McElwee, Michael Higgins, Natalia Imperatori-Lee, and Mary McAleese is another tip-off, since all of them are closely associated with the umbrella organization that Bridget Mary Meehan belongs to.

    While the article states that “The penalty for attempting to ordain a woman is excommunication.”, in fact the Catholic Church has excommunicated clergy and religious for teaching that it may be possible or for suggesting that the decision is reformable.

    The ordination of women in the Catholic Church is a ship which sailed and sank decades ago and suggesting otherwise is zombie voodoo.

  3. There was no point in gilding this lily given the other post.

  4. Working priests is not the New Testament model. It was done, and the Apostle Paul, who is vilified by women as priests advocates, exemplified that lifestyle, but He himself advocated for a professional clergy in the epistles he left us. But whether priests must work along laymen in secular jobs or are professional clerics, there will be no ordained women by any means in the Catholic Church. It is impossible, and not simply because Christ selected men to be his Apostles. This decision by Our Lord is about more than physiological plumbing.

  5. Having carpet bombed First Things totally, RNS was next.

    You do not have your facts in order, as first noted in “Working priests is not the New Testament model.”, followed closely by “there will be no ordained women by any means in the Catholic Church”.

    Perhaps “ZZzzzzzzzzzzz………….” IS your safest response.

  6. So is doctrine amenable to community organizing? Apparently the advocates of women priests think so. If so, there is no such thing as doctrine, and the truth does not matter, except this, that the structure of authority must yield to the demands of the mob.

  7. Fortunately this mob is comprised primarily of superannuated individuals.

    Younger Catholics have already gone one of two directions:

    – acceptance of the Church’s authority and teachings;

    – rejection of the Church’s authority and teachings and either out of religion or off to the Episcopal Church or some other more mob-like entity where they can vote themselves the beliefs they like.

    These folks will wind up on the rash heap of church history along with the Arians and the Gnostics.

  8. Yes. The Church needs women inside the decision making and leadership of the Church.

    But I think they equally need married people, male and female. They need the minds and hearts of people who live married and family life, experience family life, raising children, struggling to make ends meet. They need inside their conferences, synods, the CDF, their courts, every diocesan and parish venue – someone speaking to and with them who live the life that most Catholics live.

    I am all for female priests and also for married priests. But I am also for a change in structure that gives voice, oversight, and power to laity. Vat II and Pope Francis both talked about synodality. We have yet to see it really develop. Francis is taking the first steps. (After the horrors of JPII and BXVI, he is having a hard time getting them to open up, think creatively, and speak the truth as they see it.) But bishop need to have diocesan synods every few years. There needs to be a national lay synod that advises bishops – and oversees them. There needs to be lay evaluation of priests by a parish, of a bishop by those in his/her diocese, and of the national conference. We now have an equivalent of a “House of Lords” (as in Great Britain) or of a Senate (as in the U.S.) that is made up of the bishops. We need an equivalent to the House of Representatives that is made up of the laity. Or something similar.

    To do this, Pope Francis must change the rules. He must make structural, Canon Law changes that provide for these synods, provide for lay input, provide for hearing and responding to lay voices, and that includes penalties for bishops who fail their people. We need openness, honesty, transparency, in how the Vatican deals with our bishops.

  9. “I am all for female priests and also for married priests.”

    I’m shocked, shocked.

    “Vat II and Pope Francis both talked about synodality.”

    In the episcopate.

    “We now have an equivalent of a “House of Lords” (as in Great Britain) or of a Senate (as in the U.S.) that is made up of the bishops. We need an equivalent to the House of Representatives that is made up of the laity. Or something similar.”

    You’ve just described the structure of the Episcopal Church, USA.

    Take a hard look at how that worked out.

  10. A return to the NT model of working priests who celebrate the sacraments with/for their communities would align with both scripture and tradition, as well as respond to the contemporary vocations crisis.

    This might be another detail to the more general program recommended by priest J. Scott Newman in First Things:

    and also a comment made by another reader:

  11. Jesus wasn’t even a “priest”, either “high” or “low”. In the Gospel, Jesus says he is a “prophet”. Other N.T. writings mention his status as a “prophet”, never as a “priest” — except, of course, for HEBREWS, which employs typology having nothing to do with the Gospel.

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