Hail Mary: Catholic women seek place in priesthood

December 6, 2019

Illustration by Neha Malik

“I never thought I would live to see this,” said one congregation member with tears in his eyes. He stood near a kitchen table covered in tulips and a cloth, transformed into a makeshift altar. Minutes before, he had attended a Catholic Mass led by Rev. Barbara Beadles in a Washington, D.C. home. Though he and Barbara had never met before, they were brought together on a night this April as part of a new organization, Washington Home Inclusive Monthly Mass (WHIMM).

WHIMM, which began meeting in January 2019, offers Northwest D.C. residents the chance to experience a Mass led by a female priest, something not currently permitted within the institutional Catholic Church. Since the congregation has no physical church where they can meet, every month a member of WHIMM opens their home to the rest of the community for the service.

The rise of groups such as WHIMM comes at a time of scandal for the Catholic Church. Reported in 2002 by the Boston Globe, the Catholic sexual abuse crisis has led many both within and outside the Church to question clerical leadership and Vatican doctrine. As cases against clergymembers continue to surface, the Church has taken steps to address its widespread instances of sexual abuse, such as issuing a plan in June to establish a third-party reporting system for cases of sexual misconduct. But for some Catholics, these actions are not enough.

According to Beadles, the abuse cases continue to impact Catholics’ trust in the Church. “The whole business of pedophelia in the clergy has turned so many people away that it’s going to take us a lifetime for people to trust us again,” Beadles said. 

Members and organizers of WHIMM believe the Catholic Church has been slow to respond to more issues than just sexual abuse in the clergy. To this day, the Church does not allow the ordination of women as priests or bishops. This precludes them from entering much of the leadership hierarchy of the Church and from exercising any of the sacraments, or holy rituals, and duties of priests, including presiding over marriages and funerals, performing baptisms, and consecrating the Eucharist. 

To Catholics, the acceptance of the Eucharist, or Communion, is the most important part of the Mass, as it signifies direct unification with Christ’s body and blood. The Church denies the Eucharist to people of other faiths, non-believers, excommunicated people, and some divorcees.

Beadles sees the Catholic Church’s current exclusion of these groups as hypocritical. “The anger in me is that somebody who may be breaking their vows, abusing a child, breaking the law, being out loose so that they continue whatever this behavior is, has the nerve to look at somebody and say, ‘you’re divorced, you can’t have Communion,’” she said.

In response to these disagreements with the Church, WHIMM has changed the traditional Mass in ways beyond a priest’s gender. Its home masses offer full participation, including the distribution of Communion to anyone in attendance, and also use gender-neutral language to refer to God in the scripture. “We don’t say God the Father. You could say sometimes it’s God the creator, or Mother-Father God,” said Jane Varner Malhotra (SCS ’20), one of the group’s organizers. “God is the ultimate unknown. Anytime we ascribe gender to God we are limiting.”

To further break down the barrier between congregation and priest, the participants also take an active role in the homily, the discussion of the scripture during which priests typically address the congregation.

Beadles contrasted the communal nature of WHIMM with the hierarchy of much of the Church’s leadership. “If Pope Francis called tonight and said, ‘Barbara, I have a place for you, a parish for you, bring your gear and come on,’ I would say no,” she said. “This layer of hierarchy and that layer of hierarchy and the rules for this, and you can do this but you can’t do that. I don’t want any part of that. Because it is exclusionary, and it’s not focused, in my opinion, on the words of Jesus.” 

In 2013, Beadles had spent 18 years of her life as a nun, and most of her life feeling frustrated by the church’s gender restrictions. That year, she made a life-changing internet search—“Roman Catholic women priests”—that introduced her to a new world of possibilities for Catholic women. The search brought her to the website for Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP), an international organization that oversees the training and ordination of female priests outside of the traditional Church structure. The group, according to Beadles, oversees more than 100 congregations like WHIMM across the nation (known as “intentional Eucharistic communities”) which adhere to the Catholic faith while breaking from certain elements of the Church.

To Beadles, the integration of women into all levels of the church seemed a natural progression from women’s recent expansion into leadership roles across society. “We fly airplanes, we got to the moon, we run companies as CEOs, we have professors in universities and colleges, we have presidents of colleges,” she said. “You name the field and there are women. We are everywhere. And we’re not going back to the kitchen in our slippers and our aprons. We’re just not.”

As an organization of ordained women, the RCWP traces its lineage back to the “Danube Seven,” a group of seven women ordained in secret on the Danube River in Germany by three men of the Catholic Church in 2002. The Catholic church responded by excommunicating the seven women—officially barring them from participation in the Eucharist—and declaring their ordinations invalid. Bishop and later Pope Benedict XIV later declared that “both the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive a sacred order, incur an excommunication latae sententiae [automatically].”

Canonical precedent justified Benedict’s warning. In Pope John Paul II’s 1994 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis Apostolic Letter, he concludes that canonical law, the legal system of the Roman Catholic Church, grants “no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” In 2016, Pope Francis ended discussions on the issue by declaring, “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word is clear.”

Disregarding the stance of Church leadership, however, the Danube Seven have gone on to ordain other women as priests and bishops. Beadles recounted the first time she learned about this group of female priests. “These were ladies that had figured out how to get around the system.” Soon after, she filled out her own application to become ordained in this line of succession. After almost two years of study and training to build on her previous religious education, she achieved her goal and became an ordained priest through RCWP, at the price of automatic excommunication from the Church she had dedicated over eighteen years of her life to. 

Despite the Vatican’s disapproval, WHIMM’s leadership and members maintain that their female leadership and religious gatherings are wholly Catholic. According to Malhotra, while they disagree with certain aspects of Catholic dogma, the group’s members are determined not to leave the Church. Instead, they hope to reform it from within. “Do it through the institution, recognizing that it is imperfect and broken, like most institutions, because they’re made of people, but not walking away from it when you disagree,” Malhotra said. 

This goal to not entirely break away from the Church has influenced WHIMM’s structure. The group meets once a month, allowing many of its members to continue attending masses locally at their Vatican-approved, male-led local parishes during the rest of the month. This setup means WHIMM’s members continue to have a voice in how their local parishes move forward, including with regard to clergy sexual abuse and leadership roles for women.

On Georgetown’s campus, multiple past clergy members have been identified as perpetrators of sexual abuse. In response to clergymembers’ sexual abuse of children, the Georgetown Initiative on Catholic Social Thought has at times called for greater representation of women among the church’s lay (non-clergy) leadership, but has never expressed support for the ordination of women as priests. 

Georgetown, as a Catholic and Jesuit institution, does not publicly support the ordination of women. Georgetown employs female leaders of other faiths, including Protestant Chaplain Rev. Ebony Grisom and Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Rachel Gartner. A university spokesperson declined to comment when asked about the university’s position on the ordination of women as Catholic priests.

Malhotra suggested that Catholic institutions like Georgetown and members of these institutions that have taken religious vows may be unwilling to publicly support women’s ordination due to a fear of excommunication and loss of institutional support from the Church. Catholic individuals who have publicly spoken out in favor of the ordination of women have faced retribution from Catholic leadership in the past. In 2013, Pope Francis excommunicated an Australian priest, Fr. Greg Reynolds, in part due to his public support of female ordination. 

“If you think about the life of a religious member of the clergy, or a vowed religious, that’s everything, that’s their whole community,” Malhotra said. “So it’s a huge thing if you talk to any Jesuit about if they would take this risk to come out publicly to support this, most of them would not, because they can’t. They don’t want to give up what they would be forced to give up.” 

Members of the Georgetown community hold a variety of views on the topic of women’s ordination. Emily Iannuzzelli (SCS ’11), who has attended multiple masses at a neighboring community under the RCWP, supports the ordination of women priests. 

In these women-led masses, Iannuzzelli said she discovered “a new way of being Catholic.” This new space offered an alternative Catholic experience without the typical limits on women’s participation and leadership. “It bothers me to identify with a group in which I can’t have a say of authority,” she said. “And it just feels really unfair, and it just feels like, I don’t like being part of a group where I don’t even have a choice.”

In contrast, Laura Arenas (COL ’22), the social chair of Catholic Women of Georgetown, sees the ordination of women as a less relevant issue. She believes the Mass exists to connect the individual to God, not to the priest. “My role in the Catholic Church is to find a deeper relationship with God,” she said. “I don’t necessarily need a female priest to guide me.” 

However, Arenas is not against future discussions on female ordination. “If there is a chance for women to proceed farther into any type of leadership position, I am always down for that,” she said. 

According to a 2015 Shriver report, 88 percent of U.S. Catholics would be “comfortable” with female ordination. In Pope John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women, he wrote that women within the Church are still valued leaders in the lay community despite not being able to seek official ordination. “A certain diversity of roles is not prejudicial to women,” the letter read, but rather an “expression of what is specific to being male and female.” 

Catholic women are not the only ones struggling to gain leadership roles in religious hierarchies; Georgetown Protestant Chaplain Rev. Ebony Grisom explained that female leaders, regardless of denomination, face challenges in leading a congregation. “Some barriers include women not being granted the space to lead authentically,” she said. “The expectation is that they would follow a pattern cut by someone else, usually a male leader. They are expected to embody, model leadership that a community has already made a standard.”

While WHIMM diverges from the traditional, male-led model of a Catholic congregation, Iannuzzelli shared that, in her view, they are continuing a different kind of tradition that stretches back to the Catholic Church’s founding. “I feel like that’s how the Church started, Jesus was not obeying people, he was forging his own path.”

Iannuzzelli also spoke of her difficulties in spreading the word about female ordination and her excitement on the topic. “I guess there’s been conversations where people say ‘that would be nice’ or ‘that should happen.’ But it’s usually a conversation with women, and what power then do we have to do anything about it?”

Still, through WHIMM and similar congregations across the world, women appear to be taking church leadership into their own hands. Despite the threat of excommunication and public rejection, WHIMM’s rise demonstrates how women-led congregations continue to grow.

Malhotra shared her conviction that while leaders in the Vatican might reject their movement, female priests are ushering in a new era for the Church. “We are the church, and we are ordaining women,” she said. “The official church hasn’t quite come around yet, but the living church, the community of the faithful are doing it, and living it, and finding joy and hope in it.” 

Ryan Remmel
Ryan Remmel was an assistant news editor for the Voice.

Sarah Watson
Sarah is the former Spring 2022 Editor-in-Chief and a senior in the SFS studying Regional and Comparative Studies. She is a national park enthusiast and really just wants to talk about mountains.

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It is for a change.What has gender to do with spreading the word of God.
We have a shortage of priests worldwide and so many women & married people willing to serve.

Clark Graham

Were there not women priests and bishops in times past? Is there not archaeological evidence of females holding positions in the church? Was not Mary Magdalene held in high esteem*, possibly higher than some disciples? Has not the endemic sexual abuse in the church made people aware of the need for change?
*Gospel of Mary Magdalene