From my vantage point in the second pew during 10 o'clock Mass at St. Ambrose Church, altar boys had mission-critical duties to ensure the service unfolded properly: swing incense, carry candlesticks, open the prayer book, hand the priest vessels of water and wine and a towel to wipe his hands, and most important, hold the Communion plate to catch any falling Hosts.
My father and uncles had been altar boys, so at age 8, I asked my mother how I could become one. (My interest was not entirely pious; altar boys wore black cassocks and black slip-on Keds, which I thought would absolve me from wearing a dress and cramped patent-leather Mary Janes.)
"Girls can't become altar boys," my mother replied.
Thus began my disenchantment with, and eventual severance from, the Catholic Church.
While the Vatican now allows girls to be altar servers—although bishops can decide whether to allow it in their own diocese—women cannot become priests. In fact, in 2010, under the regime of Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican classified the ordination of women as a "grave crime," the same category that governs sexual abuse by priests.
However, within the church congregations, attitudes toward women priests have changed, due in part to social forces but also logistical ones: The number of priests in the U.S. has dropped by 20,000 in the last 40 years.
While in 1974, less than a third of Catholics favored women's ordination, by 1985, 47 percent did, according to the Women's Ordination Conference. A Quinnipiac University survey released Oct. 4 found that 52 percent of Catholics who attend Mass weekly, and 66 percent who attend less frequently, favor the ordination of women.
This openness does not extend to the church hierachy. Priests who support women's ordination, such as the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who participated in the ordination of a woman in Kentucky, are often expelled and excommunicated. Women who are ordained by dissenting priests—60 Catholic communities in the U.S. are led by women, the closest in Falls Church, Va.—are similarly banished from the church.
The election of Pope Francis, who has indicated that he holds more progressive social views than his hard-line conservative predecessor, has raised the hopes—perhaps falsely—of progressive Catholics that the Vatican could approve the ordination of women priests.
This canonical crossroads is well-timed for a screening of Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, a 2011 documentary by Jules Hart that explores the gender inequality issues in the church through the eyes of women who feel called to the priesthood. It screens this weekend—notably not at a Catholic church, but at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, a progressive faith community. Bourgeois, expelled in 2012 by his order, the Maryknolls, will moderate a discussion afterward.
"The injustice of being denied an opportunity on the basis of gender is painful and real," says Mary Walek, a practicing Catholic and member of the Triangle group Supporting Women in Ministry (SWIM). While not exclusively Catholic, the group, she says, provides a "safe place for women to express their disappointment" with the church's position on gender issues and is a "positive force for reform."
"Women have been told you must be in error; God could not have called you to be a priest," Walek says. "God wouldn't do that. One cannot interfere in the spirituality of a person."
The church hierarchy claims the exclusion of women is biblically justified. If we are to believe the Scripture, which was written by men, all Jesus' apostles were men. Yet there are a number of examples in the New Testament illustrating that women—Mary Magdalene, for one—also acted as holy emissaries, equal to men.
"Having an all-male clergy imples that men are worthy to be Catholic priests but women are not," Bourgeois wrote the Vatican after he was censured for participating in the 2008 ordination of Janice Sevre-Duszynska. She has since been excommunicated.
"Jesus, I mean, he was certainly a feminist for his time," Sevre-Duszynska said on Democracy Now! "He talked to women when it was really, you know, a huge taboo for a man to talk to women. And he welcomed women, along with the rest of the marginalized and outcasts, at his table fellowship."
"Conscience is very sacred. It gives us a sense of right and wrong," Bourgeois said in his homily at Sevre-Duszynska's ordination. (He quotes from it in his book, My Journey From Silence to Solidarity.) "Conscience is what compels Janice and other women to say, 'No, we cannot deny our call from God to the priesthood.'"
For all his smooth talk—asking "Who am I to judge?" on the issue of gays and lesbians in the church—Pope Francis might not be the liberal he claims to be on gender issues. Nuns are still treated as second-class citizens, subject to rampant paternalism. Pope Francis recently upheld Pope Benedict's censure of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which the church has called "a leftist group of nuns."
"There are so many women who have been marginalized in our church, not just women who seek larger roles like ordination, but women who've been divorced, lesbian women, girls who want to serve at the altar, women who use birth control," Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, told Democracy Now! "There are so many women who are left outside of the church and who have no place. So, our hope is, you know, Pope Francis will be a peacemaker, live up to his name, and really reach out to women. That would be a huge start."
Pope Francis has failed on that count. He approved the excommunication of an Australian priest who supports the ordination of women. And in July, he was quoted in the National Catholic Reporter as saying, "On the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and said no."
Yet Walek says a groundswell of support from congregations worldwide may eventually change the church.
"As a woman in a pew, to hear a woman give a homily brings tears to my eyes," says Walek, who attended a Mass in Chatham County led by a woman priest. "We all have life experiences. Anything that enriches our experience of the church enriches the community. There is nothing to lose from a woman's perspective."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Holy See is blind."
Corrections: The film screening is 1:30–3:30 p.m. Also, the full title of the Rev. Roy Bourgeois' book is My Journey From Silence to Solidarity.