On Ordination Day, May 18, 2018, I stood outside the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Sister Cities Park talking to Regina Bannan of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference (SPWOC).
A steady rain has just ended so the fifteen or so (mostly) women protestors who celebrate their version of the Mass outside the cathedral every Holy Thursday and Ordination Day are huddled near the entrance of a coffee shop comparing notes. Some are wearing collapsible rain hats that somehow remind me of an old Katherine Hepburn movie.
The small turnout feels to me like a public embarrassment, enough to make me think of David from the Hebrew Bible in tattered sheepskin confronting a mammoth Goliath in his “cathedral” gold. Still, counting the number of people who showed up in the rain would be a misnomer because ask anyone in SPWOC about support for women’s ordination among Catholics and they will tell you that at least two thirds of Catholics believe that women should be ordained priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholics these days are not like the Catholics of old unless you are talking about the much smaller numbers of Traditionalist Catholics who hold firm to the tenets of the Baltimore Catechism.
Two thirds is a hefty majority, so much so that I wonder if the hundreds of people packed into the cathedral celebrating the ordination of six men realize that the Catholic Church’s position on women’s ordination is comparable to the election of a U.S. president by the Electoral College rather than the popular vote.
I asked Bannan about this apparent disconnect in a phone call sometime after the May 18 ordinations.
“I think it’s because of the condemnations from the Vatican,” she said. “If you are going to be somebody out in your parish supporting women’s ordination, you may engender some difficulty. This happened in the distant past when a choir director was laid off partially because she was a very active member of our group.”
Opposition in the Church to women’s ordination is significant despite two thirds vote of confidence from the faithful.
Writing in The New Oxford Review, Anne Barbeau Gardiner argues that “while some feminists have argued that Jesus was conforming to cultural expectations in choosing only men as His Apostles. On the contrary, Jesus’ way of acting did not conform to the ‘religious and cultural norms of first century Judaism. He taught women openly, had them in His company and disregarded the ritual-purity laws. Therefore, He could have chosen women, but freely chose not to.”
At some point during SPWOC’s witness in Sister Cities Park, Regina handed me a red pamphlet containing the words from the table liturgy that was just celebrated by a woman.
At first glance I read the words: “We re-commit ourselves to proclaim your Gospel of Liberation and Equality, for we are all created in your most amazing image.”
This is certainly not a prayer I would hear in my Russian Orthodox parish of Saint Michael the Archangel in Northern Liberties, and so I managed to let Regina know that prayers that have been altered to fit contemporary notions of equality isn’t my idea of good liturgy.
Bannan took my comment in stride and then calmly explained that she envisioned a future Catholic Church in which every manner of liturgy, traditional, innovative, feminist, Novus Ordo, etc. would be given its due under the Big Tent of Universal Catholicism.
When I asked Bannan if the turnout for the Ordination event was indicative of failing membership, she told me that membership in SPWOC is always highest after a condemnation by the Vatican.
Bannan, a former school teacher, taught Women’s and American Studies at Temple where she also directed the program for returning adult students. Talk to her for a minute or two and you’ll notice that she has a soft North Jersey/New York accent that never rises above a certain level. She is an immensely likeable woman. Not only are her sentences beautifully constructed but when she speaks she shows no signs of “war” weariness despite the fact that she’s been at this women’s ordination thing for 30 years.
Women’s ordination activism can be unrewarding work with no guarantee that it will ever lead to face time with the current Archbishop of Philadelphia.
When I interviewed Bannan, Archbishop Chaput was in charge but it almost doesn’t matter. Go back in time—to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua or Cardinal Justin Rigali—and you’ll get the same results. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference is used to being left out in the rain -- as Bannan likes to say-- “in Catholic conservative Philadelphia.”
“Even the more acceptable reform minded organizations were not able to converse with Archbishop Chaput. It’s just not going to happen,” Bannan emphasized. “We actually wrote to Chaput and he didn’t answer.”
That changed with the installation of Nelson Perez as Archbishop of Philadelphia. Archbishop Perez agreed to meet with a small delegation of representatives from SPWOC to talk about women’s ordination.
The story of that meeting was published in the organization’s March 2021 newsletter, EqualWrites, billed as a Catholic Feminist Newsletter for Women and Men.
“ …They soon discovered his [Archibishop Perez’s] actually listening and expressing reaction or even curiosity was another matter. On the positive side, they conceded, he was never angry or belittling; he did not lecture, reprimand, nor try to re-educate them. There was simply no reciprocity. He made it clear by his posture and the flatness of the conversation that he was not there as himself but in his role as representative of the Church and upholder of its views.”
Although the women who spoke to the Archbishop expressed their disappointment at the meeting, they felt that the encounter was ultimately worthwhile.
The overall tone of the current edition of EqualWrites tends to be strident and political, with many references to former President Trump. I did come upon an informative column written by a prominent activist woman priest, Eileen Difranco, whom I once met and liked, who described a visit to the Archdiocesan administration building.
“The clerics even go without masks in the administration building. Two members of SEPAWOC were shocked when they were received at the archdiocesan office by a maskless Archbishop and his maskless secretary. In late January, the Archbishop removed the Jesuit pastor of Old St. Joseph’s Parish for having the common sense and loving kindness to refuse to open his church during a pandemic which has killed over 450,000 post-natal souls.”
- For better or worse, a church needs to be open during a pandemic, not closed.
- Archbishop Perez is to be commended for his dismissal of the pastor of Old Saint Joseph’s.
As for the columnists’ shock that unmasked clerics in the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul were “telling people to remove their masks as they approach the altar to receive communion,” I’ve only one thing to say: If you want Dixie cups, go to a Rita’s Water Ice stand.
Bannan tends to be optimistic about the future of women’s ordination.
“I think there are many people in the Church who believe in women’s equality, and I believe that some change is inevitable. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it might. But this is definitely a correct movement inspired by the Holy Spirit, I believe, so I think it will happen.
“Sometimes people do not understand what we are about,” Bannan told me. “A year or so ago a group of people from a Catholic school, probably 20 or 30 young girls from a high school and a couple of teachers, protested our witness before the cathedral by saying ‘We love our priests!’ It was so complicated because we love the priests that exist and that are active in the Church, we would just like to join them. We are not against male priests.”