I need to pray about how to engage with the Bishops. I vacillate between anger and rage at the fact that I am kept out of the priesthood simply because I am a woman. At the same time, I have steeled my resolve: we will get this teaching changed in my lifetime. And somehow I know in my bones that these two things are interconnected. Holy anger rooted in prayer will pave the pathway to justice. And so I am compelled at the deepest level of my being to channel all my fury into one target: the Bishops.
But Fr. Anne, you may protest, this does not sound like Christian love. I get how one could say this. But, at the same time, I think it depends on how you understand love. If you notice, love—real love—is not always compassionate. Take today’s gospel, for example. The Pharisees and scribes criticize Jesus’ disciples for violating practices of ritual purity, and Jesus responds by giving them a very public dressing-down about the ways they manipulate tradition for their own self-interest. Consistently, throughout the scriptures, Jesus has very little patience for those in power who abuse their authority—and the tradition—in service of their personal agenda. He speaks truth to power, and, well, it isn’t pretty. It is, in fact, what ultimately leads to his execution by the State.
So, what about the Bishops? After we prayed the Liturgy of the Word this morning via Zoom, I had a very interesting conversation with the congregation about this very question. Someone offered a poem as a touchpoint for my prayer:
They drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took them in!
-- Edwin Markham
The Bishops have drawn a circle so tight that they are now trapped. Yet, after almost five decades of trying to dialogue with the hierarchy, of providing the historical evidence, the theological thinking, the pastoral ministry—of attempting to draw a circle that includes them—we have gotten nowhere. As a result, it is more than understandable that some may feel that the onus is now on the Bishops to widen the circle. But what crystalized for me in this conversation is that I feel very differently. I am not waiting any longer for them: it is up to us to tear down the circle, if not for me and for you, then for all the young girls across the globe who are learning through our Church that they are somehow less than fully human. Then, like a bright light, someone said, “And once the circle is torn down, then all the men who are trapped inside become liberated, too.” This, my friends, is real love.
When I take a closer look at Jesus, I notice that he never critiques who a person is, only what a person does. This is perhaps the key to being a prophet. Even when angry, disappointed, or frustrated, Jesus always desires liberation for the very people he criticizes. Jesus never fails to love. May we follow this path of love as we work in earnest for that sweet, sweet liberation for you, for me... and for our Bishops, too.
I am jealous of Elle Dowd. I heard her on Speaking in Church, a feisty podcast hosted by Spencer Rose Taylor and Josie Jael Jimenez that highlights deconstructionist voices across the Christian tradition. Elle is on the ordination track in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and she just published what looks to be a fantastic book called Baptized in Tear Gas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist.
When I was listening to Elle speak, I found myself utterly engaged….and jealous. She is so gifted, so well-spoken and so inspired that I couldn't help but become a fan. As a young woman, she has already accomplished so much: gone on mission, adopted two girls, built a loving family, received her degree, written a book. She is an unstoppable force for justice, and she does it with flare--rocking her clerical collar with a poofy white skirt and platform heels.
It’s not Elle’s fault I am jealous. She is living her best life and it’s really important for me to see the success of women in traditions that fully embrace all that women have to bring to the table. In ministry. In leadership. In life. The bigger person deep down within me celebrates her for the great gift she is to the Christian Church. But also, I shouldn't romanticize: I am quite sure she has many of her own challenges to face.
But as much as I dig her, I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge this other part of me—the part that feels small, petty, trapped. I simply cannot live out my vocation in the same way Elle can. I toil away day after day trying to make a life as a Roman Catholic priest in a tradition that refuses to acknowledge my call. I work a full-time secular job while attempting to generate a ministry on the side. There are many days I feel exhausted and sad, and I question whether anything I do makes any difference at all.
I have to be honest and admit that maybe my work doesn't make a difference, at least in terms of any headway in the Roman Catholic Church. But, deep down I know that even if I will never be allowed to live out my vocation the way God intends, my yes makes a difference to God. God is moved and inspired by my yes, and isn’t that what life is all about? My road is uniquely my own—as is all of ours—and each one is of supreme significance to God.
As I pray with today’s gospel, Elizabeth is my teacher. As an older relative, Elizabeth offers an authentic deference toward and loving affirmation of the much younger and more gifted Mary. I follow her lead and offer gratitude and reverence to Elle. "For at the moment the sound of your voice reached my ears, my spirit leaped for joy.”
Thank you, Elle, for your fierce and fearless ministry, and for teaching this girl a thing or two.
Dear Paul Baumann,
The article that you wrote for Commonweal in response to the New Yorker article on women called to the Roman Catholic priesthood was remarkably sloppy. Rather than waste my time with the exceedingly boring task of deconstructing an argument that simply boils down to good old-fashioned sexism, I want to address your lack of basic journalistic integrity.
To start, you claim in regards to us women who are called that “there is something jarring about [our] conviction that the Church exists to ‘meet [our] needs’ and will ‘fall into irrelevance’ if it does not.” Here, you are attributing the words of a parishioner in a female priest’s community to the four of us. Yet, none of us offers any such sentiment about the Church existing to meet our needs. Rather--if you actually read our stories carefully—it is plainly obvious that each of us has been deeply shaped by the Church to serve the Church. So much for your claim that we have “little appreciation” for the Church’s role in forming us.
You go on to characterize us as clamoring for “self-determination.” Once again, the four of us do not speak about our vocation to priesthood in this manner. Quite the opposite: our stories point clearly to the reality that it is God who is determining who we are—not us—and we are simply struggling the best we can to honor God’s desires. Nonetheless, you take Natalia Imperatori-Lee’s comment regarding women’s desire in general “to be seen as human beings with the capacity for self-determination” out of context and use it to reduce our vocations to mere “self-expression.” What you call “self-expression," we call honoring the Holy Spirit within us.
Next, you say that we “repeatedly declare a love and attachment” to “Catholicism’s ‘rituals, its liturgy, and its tradition of service to the poor.’” Yet, again, you extract a phrase Talbot uses to describe the type of Catholics who are drawn to worship in one particular congregation, and weaponize it as a way to dismiss our vocations as some kind of “liberal Western sensibility.” And so what if we love ritual and Catholic Social Teaching? We are Roman Catholic, after all. And while you get to sit on your throne with every male privilege and judge us, we have to draw from the very bedrock of a faith that is nourished by liturgy and the social justice teachings in order to have the grit necessary to walk the excruciating path of a call to ordination.
Finally, at the end of the article, you claim that “some of the women” in this article are “sadly” telling Roman Catholics to basically “forget their common past,” which amounts to telling them to “’get lost, die off, and disappear.” However, not one of us says anything remotely resembling this sentiment. In fact, many of us are educated ministers with seminary degrees from reputable institutions who practice a faith and leadership deeply rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition.
Frankly, I am not sure how it is possible to read the article by Talbot with any care whatsoever and produce the article you did. If I made errors of this magnitude at my job, I would be fired. What I find most appalling about your piece is that it is plainly evident that you do not trust that we as women are mature, thinking, praying adults who are quite capable of discernment. Thank you for modeling so clearly the manner in which some men feel they are entitled to dismiss women as if we are children. This is precisely the problem, is it not?
In closing, let me wrap it up for you: you messed up, dude, and big time. You owe us an apology. I expect to see it in the next issue of Commonweal.
Fr. Anne Tropeano, ARCWP
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