Crime against faith

Christina Salvo, Global News : Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:00 AM

(originally posted at )


Like any other Catholic priest the one at St. Brigid of Kildare in Calgary opens Sunday mass with the sign of the cross.

During the mass scriptures are read, prayers are said, psalms are sung and the Eucharist is blessed.

But what differs at this mass is who is saying it.

The priest, Monica Kilburn-Smith, is a woman.

She considers herself an ordained Catholic priest, ordained through the same apostolic succession that ordains men as Catholic priests.

The church disagrees.

Because of her gender, Kilburn-Smith and the fifty or so Catholics who gathered to celebrate mass with her face excommunication.

The reason: Jesus never chose a woman to be his apostle.

“It’s been our consistent teaching and consistent Christian teaching for more than 2,000 years,” explains Father Stefano Penna, Dean of Theology at Newman Theological College.

And so, the church argues, for a woman to become a priest is for her to pretend to be something she is not, an act so severe in the church’s eyes it is considered a crime against the faith.

In July the Vatican gave a name to this crime: delictum gravius, meaning grave crime, the same label it has given to pedophilia.

The church has since said it didn’t mean to compare the two acts per se.

“But we are saying that they are still in their way serious breaks against the community,” Penna clarifies.

The fact that the Catholic Church was so active in ending apartheid in South Africa and has stood up against so many other human rights violations many Catholics assumed the church would have done the same when it came to championing women’s rights within the church.

“I would love it if they (the church) would do that for women too and show the way,” says Kilburn-Smith.

But in that absence, The Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP), a group founded nine years ago in Europe, says it is showing the way.

“We are no longer waiting for permission from the Vatican,” says Patricia Fresen, a Womanpriest bishop.

RCWP has since ordained more than 100 women in North America and abroad and is gaining momentum.

“We’ve taken a political stand within the framework of the church” and won’t be deterred in our mission to restore equality within the Catholic Church by creating a different model of priesthood, one that is inclusive of everyone, explains Michele Birch-Conery, a Womanpriest in Victoria, B.C.

By everyone Birch-Conery means women, men, those who are divorced, those who are gay or lesbian or transgender.

Birch-Conery was the first woman ordained in Canada. She was made a deacon in 2004 on the Danube, the same location where two years earlier the first seven women were ordained by a renegade bishop.

The following year, two of those seven women were made bishops, by several male bishops whose identities they protect, in order for them to ordain other women through apostolic succession–the priestly line that the church traces back to Jesus’ Apostles and legitimizes each ordination.

Unlike the traditional priestly model, Womenpriests can marry.

Many in fact are married, which is a major departure from doctrine which requires Catholic priests to be celibate.

Many Womenpriests also hold day jobs to pay the bills and see their role within the church community as one among the people rather than in a hierarchy on top of them.

Within the mass itself much of the language is changed to be less male dominated and more inclusive of “all (people) who are made in God’s image.”


The RCWP movement — while seemingly defiant and radical even for the times — claims it is not new. RCWP argues it is actually a return to the church’s origins and several historians agree.

According to Jesuit historian and professor of Theology at Santa Clara University, Gary Macy, the Catholic Church ordained women for nearly 11 centuries before misogyny and politics re-wrote doctrine.

Despite when and where this movement may have started, its future is dependent on its followers.

Calgary’s St. Brigid’s of Kildare has one of the largest faith communities of all the RCWP communities within Canada. Anywhere from twenty to fifty of these followers gather once a month in a church they rent from another Christian denomination.

Drawn by the promise of reform these Catholics, women and men young and old, all face the threat of excommunication for celebrating mass with a Womanpriest, according to the church.

“I don’t care what they do or say it’s not important to me. What’s important is our community and what’s in our hearts,” explains Jenny Miller who has been attending St. Brigid for several years.

“The hierarchy says one thing, but the hierarchy is only one part of the church, one small part. We are the church, the people of the church are the church and that’s Catholic teaching not just us saying that,” adds Kilburn-Smith.

In May a New York Times-CBS poll showed 59% of Catholics in the U.S. are in favor of ordaining women.

An opinion echoed by Kathleen Gleeson who regularly attends mass at St. Brigid.

“My family physician is a woman, the head of Save Children in Toronto is a woman, we have women who head engineering, all kinds of things, it’s time the church stop treating women as second class citizens.”

Despite the times, the threat of being associated with this movement is still too great for some.

On the day we visited St. Brigid the presence of our camera kept a handful of people with jobs connected to the Catholic Church away.

“The fear is losing their jobs that would be worst scenario and nobody can say for sure, but it has happened other places,” says Kilburn-Smith.

The RCWP and other organizations like it have a long way to go if they can ever convince the church to change doctrine, but it the movement is gaining momentum and followers say it is not going away anytime soon.

“Excommunication has happened to many people throughout the centuries who were reformers. Saint Francis was excommunicated and stripped naked before the people,” points out Birch-Conery.

If nothing else, RCWP takes comfort knowing that they’re in good company and are now at least being heard.

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