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A Fairfax-based group stumps for women priests.

One of the delightfully oddball casting decisions made by Kevin Smith in his 1999 comedy Dogma was drafting pop-rocker Alanis Morissette as God. Sporting yellow flip-flops and looking beautifully ethereal, Morissette displayed a childlike charm as a deity who kneels to smell flowers outside a cathedral and then clumsily performs a handstand against a tree, revealing plaid boxers under a white tulle skirt.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights took issue with Dogma, branding the film “anti-Catholic.” But a dedicated and increasingly vocal group of Catholic women, based in Fairfax, Va., is taking issue with the church’s dogma on women and the priesthood. Many of the members of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) insist they’ve received a divine calling to become priests, and they are working as part of a worldwide movement for women’s ordination.

The women’s-ordination debate has played out against an acute shortage of priests to minister to a growing Roman Catholic population. According to statistics compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University, vocations have dwindled over the past 35 years. In 1965, there were 58,632 priests in America and 994 new ordinations. By 2000, those numbers had shrunk to 45,669 priests and 442 ordinations. The number of U.S. parishes without a resident priest has also grown from 549 in 1965 to 2,843 in 2000, while the number of U.S. Catholics has risen from 45.6 million to 59.9 million.

Formed in the late ’70s, the WOC now boasts 2,000 members, and it has been energized recently via a dueling-billboards battle with the church over the issue of women priests. In heavily Catholic states such as Illinois and Wisconsin, the WOC has spearheaded an advertising campaign arguing that the priest shortage is a divine wake-up call for the church: “You’re waiting for a sign from God? This is it! Ordain Women.”

WOC Executive Director Genevieve Chavez says ordaining women is a social-justice issue. “To say that [Jesus] would exclude half of the human population [from the priesthood] feels pretty inauthentic,” says Chavez. “Our spiritual lives are so fundamental to who we are that we need to be ‘fed’ [in this religious way]. Until women see themselves on the altar and are making decisions along with men, there won’t be any equality. That base line has to be put into place.”

The WOC’s ads have raised awareness and attracted new members for the group. They have not sparked a dialogue with church officials, who consider women’s ordination a closed subject.

Pope John Paul II, who recently turned 81, issued an official decree in 1994 reinforcing the traditional teaching that ordination is restricted to men. American church officials hold fast to that notion, as well.

Catholic leaders “do not feel women can be ordained in the church,” says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, associate director of communications for the D.C.-based National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. “Jesus broke many rules of his times,” continues Walsh, “but he did not [ordain women].”

Walsh says the women involved in the WOC are “people of good will in general,” but she believes their energies and attention are misguided. “To me, it’s not a good use of emotional and financial resources.”

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Those who favor ordination for women believe that there is considerable historical evidence proving that women have served as priests—and perhaps even as pope. Miriam Therese Winter’s book Out of the Depths: The Story of Ludmila Javorova, Ordained Roman Catholic Priest chronicles the story of a Czech woman ordained in 1970, and Peter Stanford’s The Legend of Pope Joan: In Search of the Truth explores the tale of a woman who allegedly disguised herself as a man and became pope in the ninth century.

Walsh dismisses these tales as theological equivalents of The X Files. “There was probably a female Martian at some time, too,” she quips.

Rose Berger doesn’t believe that the tales of women priests are so far-fetched. In fact, she’s felt the call to the priesthood herself. Berger was raised a Catholic and now, at 38 years old, is a pastor at D.C.’s Sojourners Community Church, at 2401 15th St. NW, a Christian community with 60 members whose leaders need not be ordained in any particular religious denomination.

Berger has been part of the Sojourners ministry since 1986, but she says she still considers herself a Catholic. “So I wouldn’t say I’ve ever left,” she argues. “I don’t have a parish in D.C., but I go to Mass around town.” Berger says that her sense of Catholicism pulls her “to be involved in cross-denominational conversations, rather than doing things that [focus] on our [religious] differences.”

Berger notes that it’s been difficult to balance her own call with her Catholic faith. “Early on, it was very painful for me, to hold those two things in tension—my love and respect for the Catholic Church and my own spiritual development,” she says. “I think, over time, it’s become less painful, partly because the work and my life within Sojourners is highly spiritual. I feel saddened some for the institutional Catholic Church, clinging to the tradition of men [as priests]. It’s killing the church.”

Berger says that shortly after she joined Sojourners, she had a strong desire to celebrate communion, one of the priestly duties forbidden to women under Catholic doctrine.

“It’s hard to explain, because you’re talking about personal spiritual impulses,” says Berger. “There’s a story in the Gospels about Jesus asking Peter [one of his disciples] to ‘feed my sheep,’ and the Catholic Church has said the story is part of the institutionalization of the male priesthood. My sense is that Jesus has asked me to do the same thing: ‘Rose, will you feed my sheep?’ It got to the point where I needed to decide. Will I say yes to [Jesus’] question or stay inside the Catholic Church?”

As a result, Berger says, she’s “stepped aside” from the church and answered her calling. Does she think she’s condemned to eternal damnation as a result? “I’m just assuming that Jesus will sort it out in the end,” she says with a chuckle.

Though the Catholic Church appears to have settled the ordination issue for the near future, WOC members hold out hope that a doctrinal change will come.

Andrea Johnson served as director of the WOC from 1996 until last year, and she remains optimistic about the possibility that the church will alter its men-only stance.

“A lot of people say it will take 100 years,” says Johnson, who worships with a small faith community based at Georgetown University. “Change bubbles up in the Roman Catholic Church from reality, and then there’s this huge denial about what’s happening. People in the pews accept things on a real level without analyzing, and they appear to be very ready to accept married clergy and leadership of women. The church has put the fear of God in all the people who are leaders. I have a feeling that when the wind blows in a different direction, and when so-called [priest] shortages become painful for the people, there will be a scramble [for new solutions].”

Johnson says the women’s-ordination movement is about more than just making women priests in name or title. It is, she insists, about changing the church profoundly for the better.

“It’s not about aping what men are doing,” says Johnson. “We are convinced that when decisions are made for everyone alone by men, they are skewed, not whole. The institution [of the church] has it in their heads that people who care about this are academics in an ivory tower, people who are removed from everyday life. It’s [really just] ordinary people in the pews.” CP