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In Defiance Of The Church, Some Catholic Women Seek Priesthood

Caryl Johnson (center) oversees communion at St. Mary Magdalene Community in Drexel Hill, Pa., as parishioners Janet Hamm and Jim Kalb assist. Unlike most traditional Roman Catholic services, a gluten-free bread and alcohol-free wine are offered.
Jeff Brady
Caryl Johnson (center) oversees communion at St. Mary Magdalene Community in Drexel Hill, Pa., as parishioners Janet Hamm and Jim Kalb assist. Unlike most traditional Roman Catholic services, a gluten-free bread and alcohol-free wine are offered.

Sunday morning services at St. Mary Magdalene Community in Drexel Hill, Pa., look different from a typical Roman Catholic mass. The homily is interactive, there's gluten-free communion bread, and the priest is a woman.

Caryl Johnson calls herself a priest, but technically she was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. That happened automatically in 2011 when she was ordained by the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

The organization acknowledges that it's violating church requirements but says the ban on female priests is unjust. So far the group has ordained 188 women around the world.

For many Catholic women, there's a big gap between what they believe and church dogma. Birth control is an example: The church bans it, but a recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows nearly 79 percent of Catholic women think they should be allowed to use it. Also, 58 percent think the church should ordain women.

Johnson says for more than three decades she struggled with the church ban on female priests. She tried to live within the rules — taking on expanded ministry roles as women were allowed to perform them. But it wasn't enough. Johnson says she felt a spiritual call to become a priest that she couldn't ignore any longer.

"I had a decision to make," says Johnson. "Am I going to follow the spirit of God and do what God asks no matter what the cost? Or am I going to follow a rule?"

These days the Catholic Church has difficulty recruiting enough men to be priests. Johnson is among those who believe opening ordination to women and married people could help address that problem.

Pope Francis, though, has flatly rejected opening the priesthood to women.

And there are women in the church who oppose it, too.

Referring to female priests like Johnson, Rebecca Woodhull, president of the National Council of Catholic Women says, "They are not Catholic priests. They can call themselves that, but it would be — maybe — with a small 'c' and not a capital 'C.' "

Like Pope Francis, Woodhull says she supports gender equality in issues such as workplace pay. But she says in the Catholic church, men and women have different roles, and she believes there are good reasons for that.

"Women have special 'charisms' — special talents — that are just endemic to the female person," Woodhull says. "Pope John Paul called it 'the feminine genius.' "

Woodhull says those include sensitivity and tenderness, traits well-suited to roles set aside for women in the church, such as becoming a nun. That said, she does support recent moves to put women in other leadership positions.

Last year Pope Francis appointed Luzia Premoli, superior general of the Comboni Missionary Sisters, to a high-ranking missionary group called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It's the first time a woman has held such a high position in the church.

Moves like that have made Pope Francis popular with the more liberal wing of the Catholic church.

Outside St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Evanston, Ill., after a recent Sunday Mass, Barbara Marian, 73, interrupted a reporter who asked her about Pope Francis, saying, "Oh, don't we love him? Don't we love him?"

Marian is a longtime activist in favor of ordaining women. She and her husband drive nearly two hours to worship at "St. Nick's," which is widely seen as one of the more liberal parishes in the region.

Even though Catholic dogma hasn't changed much under Pope Francis, Marian says he has changed the tone of dialogue, and she thinks that's a good start.

"The funny thing is when the tone opens the door and we can sit down and listen to each other, we both go away smarter, more humble, more understanding," Marian says. And she hopes that will lead to change in the church.

When Pope Francis visits the U.S. later this month, he's not scheduled to speak specifically about the role of women in the church, but some hope he will. Just a few days before he arrives in Philadelphia, the group Women's Ordination Worldwide will hold its annual conference there. Organizers expect hundreds of activists who want the Catholic Church to ordain women to attend.

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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