More Sins of the Fathers

Catholic Women Blast Sex Abuse and Sexism

"The Vatican will never acknowledge women as spiritual equals," insists Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice. "This is the most elitist group of people in the world. They don't have a democratic bone in their bodies." Kissling is all for getting females into priestly robes, but doesn't think that alone will help move women out of the handmaiden role. "It's like a Fortune 500 company," she says. "Just because they let women in doesn't make them progressive—or egalitarian." Certainly, Vatican City is overwhelmingly male. Of the 3800 people who permanently live or work there, only 400 are women. The majority are nuns, housekeepers of churchmen, secretaries, or middle-level managers for the papal administration. Moving women one rung higher on the ladder won't automatically rearrange this pattern, according to Kissling.

In the U.S., the numbers are reversed, but the division of labor persists. A study done by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that women hold 75 percent of paid parish leadership positions. Armed with master's degrees in ministry, laywomen are the majority in children's religious education and sacramental preparation, accounting and business, music ministry and youth ministry. At the same time, there are nearly 3000 parishes in the U.S. with no resident priest, and CARA's last count showed that only 450 males were being ordained each year. In locations where priests and parishioners are amenable, women are allowed to unofficially fill the role of pastoral associate, which often comes with all the responsibilities of priesthood except permission to administer the seven sacraments. More frequently church leaders work with Rome to import priests from Eastern Europe and Latin America. In particularly underserviced areas, it's very often women who provide the daily rituals of religion—priests are called in only when a sacrament must be performed.

Seizing the pulpit: Reverend Mary Ramerman of Rochester's Spiritus Christi Church
photo: Jay Muhlin
Seizing the pulpit: Reverend Mary Ramerman of Rochester's Spiritus Christi Church

The Vatican prefers not to dwell on such realities, but there probably will come a day when American Catholics get tired of living in a missionary country and want some homegrown priests. It's already happening—in Rochester, New York, a woman priest delivers a sermon to a congregation of 1500 every Sunday in the Roman Catholic-identified Spiritus Christi Church. The parishioners don't seem to mind; actually, they were instrumental in convincing Reverend Mary Ramerman to honor her calling. And her deacon, Denise Donato, will be ordained as a priest in February. Only in the Vatican, where priests, bishops, and cardinals jockey for jobs that come with lifetime guarantees and residents live tax-free in well-appointed papal apartments, does the thought of elevating women beyond server status seem untenable. "There's no getting around it," says Ragen. "The Vatican's got one hell of a stained-glass ceiling."

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