Victoria Rue remembers the moment it hit her. She was kneeling down on the deck of a boat sailing Canada's St. Lawrence Seaway in the summer of 2005 when she felt as if every cell in her body was being rearranged. As three Roman Catholic bishops laid their hands over her and several other women, the moment she had long been waiting for was about to become more than just spiritual fodder for the history books.
Four women, including Rue, were ordained as priests that day. Performing the ordinations were three Roman Catholic female bishops.
The Catholic Church wasn't totally surprised by the news. Thanks to a landmark event that took place on the River Danube in 2002—bodies of water are technically considered outside the jurisdiction of the archdiocese—female priests and female bishops were not entirely unheard of. Seven women, now known as the Danube Seven, became priests that year. Six months later, in January 2003, all seven were excommunicated. But two of the female priests, Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger and Gisela Forster, didn't flinch. While ordinations of female priests go against Canon Law 1024—only those sporting the XY chromosome set are allowed to wear the really big spiritual pants in the Catholic family—the two pressed on and were later secretly ordained as bishops by three Roman Catholic male bishops in good standing with the Vatican. The ordinations were notarized, and the document put in a safe. The names of the male bishops who had ordained the women would be revealed only upon death.
Mayr-Lumetzberger and Forster gained significant ground the day they became bishops because it takes three bishops to ordain a priest. They soon began assisting other women into leadership positions within the Church. And while the Vatican may have cried foul after the first ordinations, they fell curiously silent when one woman, Patricia Fresen of South Africa, became a priest in 2003, and later a bishop in 2005. The Church even remained mum after Rue and others were ordained.
Rue, who lives in Watsonville, Calif.,and teaches women's studies and comparative religious studies at San Jose State University, thinks she knows why: "The Vatican saw that if they made us a cause celebre, people would gather around us. If they didn't give us publicity, then people wouldn't know that female priests exist."
But they do. And they did. Rue notes that the history of female priests can be found both in archaeological evidence as well as the epistles of Paul and the Acts of Apostles. It prompts the question: Why do the Catholic boys get all the glory?
One man: Gratian of Bologna.
A 12th-century lawyer in Bologna, Italy, which had become the center of the study of canon and civil law in the 11th century, Gratian consolidated various administrative laws of the church to create canon law. In other words, he rewrote history.
"With one stroke of his misogynist pen, he erased centuries of histories of female priests," Rue says. "An unjust law does not need to be obeyed. Canon Law 1024 is rooted in a patriarchal bias that views women as subordinate to men and incapable of imaging Christ."
Even so, Rue may play an even greater role in the paradigm shift the Catholic Church didn't see coming. In addition to being a female priest, she's also a lesbian. She's been with her partner, Kathryn Poethig, for 18 years.
"As a movement, we believe in the God-given beauty of sexuality," Rue says. "And therefore, we female priests do not create a hierarchy of one sexuality being better than another sexuality. I am a lesbian. I've been ordained. So, my sexuality is important to my priesthood.
"As a lesbian feminist priest," she adds, "I understand Jesus' message to be a call to love one another as I love myself. I embrace and celebrate my sexuality. My partner Kathryn and I believe that as loving, committed partners for 18 years—and let me be very clear, that includes our sexual relationship—we embody a passionate, affirming, life-giving God. As a lesbian priest, I am witness to the beauty and grace of Divinity in all sexualities."
Hear that? The Vatican just dropped the wine chalice.
Bodies Amongst Christ
Andree LeBourveau's garden in Santa Cruz, Calif., is a lush, sunlit paradise. A variety of bushes and vines grace a wooden fence, some roses align a walkway, and there are enough delicious fragrances around to keep a bumblebee drunk till dusk. Nearly 15 people have gathered here, most having arrived with potluck offerings for a feast later that afternoon. Andree is busy in the kitchen assembling the spread. Marie Krajci, exuding all the charms of a loving great aunt, is perched behind an electric keyboard where she practices a hymn in B-flat called "Go Make A Difference.
"We are the salt of the earth," the song goes, "called to let the people see ... the love of God in you and me."
Krajci's fingers fiddle with the notes. She's still trying to figure out the count for the song's refrain—"Go make a dif - ference in the world." As written, the first word of the phrase should be held for two counts, followed by a single count for "make." It's the curious rhythm of the "a difference in the world" part that seems to spawn a head-scratching burst of "how do we do this?"
It's a heavenly metaphor if there ever was one.
Victoria Rue's life partner Kathryn arrives at nearly the same moment LeBourveau emerges from the house with a plate of homemade bread and a goblet filled with red wine. She places both items on a table sporting a white tablecloth. Upon second look, it appears the fresh loaf of bread will be used for the Eucharist. LeBourveau looks up. Catholic Mass is about to begin.
Rue is in the center of the lawn. Clad in a white robe and a long, vibrant orange scarf, she welcomes everybody into the fold. After an opening song performed by Krajci and sung by the attendees, Rue invites people to join her in "experiencing" the garden.
"Take in the flowers, the plants, the sun, nature, the abundance," Rue says.
And so it goes, a line of more than a dozen people, performing a spiritual bunny hop as they snake around the garden under the bright sun. Afterward, the attendees return to their lawn chairs—arranged in asemicircle—and Rue begins to preside over mass for Santa Cruz's newly sprouted Sophia Catholic Community.
Launched nearly a year ago, Sophia is a Catholic kinship. The souls who come here admit to having longed for something they couldn't experience sitting in a pew: mainly, absorbing some of the divine morsels found in the original teachings of the Catholic Church—before the 12th century, when most consider the church to have been more inclusive.
Traude Boisvert is also in attendance. The Santa Cruz resident, and others affiliated with Call to Action, a Catholic movement striving for equality and justice in the Church and society, convened nearly a year ago to form Sophia—the Greek root of the word means "wisdom."
"Sophia was formed mainly in support of the movement for the ordination of female priests," Boisvert later tells me. "I believe that ending the gender discrimination within the Roman Catholic Church is long overdue. I do not have any illusions that the all-male hierarchy will find the courage to deal with this issue during my lifetime—I am in my seventies—and am certain that any changes will have to come from the grassroots, the voice of the people. Sophia Community is planting a seed."
LeBourveau says she likes the idea of there being a female priest. "For me, as a woman, I still think the Catholic Church has not been the best at embracing the gifts of women in the church."
She was also drawn to Sophia because she considers it a "whole path, in a nice, small-scale community in which you can share and celebrate the mass and the people in a more natural, comfortable setting, in homes.
"It reminds me of what the early Church was about," she adds, "how they had their masses before they became the big Church."
The mass goes on. A woman delivers the first reading, followed by a Psalm reading and then another message from the Bible from another attendee. Rue, seated in a white chair in the center of the semi-circle, reads from the Gospel then proceeds with the homily, the Catholic version of a sermon that typically delivers insights, thoughts and inspiration. As Rue reflects upon the messages found in the Gospel reading, others share their thoughts about it, too. They also comment about Rue's insights. Poethig, in particular, doesn't entirely agree about one aspect of the homily. What follows is an easygoing dialogue, an exchange of opinions that others within the group comment on as well. The interchange further illuminates the obvious: This is not your father's Catholic Church.
"I love it," says LeBourveau, an artist who teaches at Cabrillo College. "It shows that each one of us has something to contribute, a sense of spirituality, a sense of religion. And Victoria is very good with inclusion. Each person has something to do. It's not like you're going to the mass, and you get served. There's participation."
It seems to be the perfect portal for Rue, who, along with her female spiritual compatriots, has yet to be allowed to preside over mass in a traditional Catholic church. As a result, some female priests and bishops have been welcomed to preside over Catholic mass in various Methodist and Protestant churches and ecumenical retreat centers.
Rue's presence in Sophia is noteworthy, but she also presides over mass in the chapel at San Jose State University, where she teaches. That reality forced Bishop Patrick J. McGrath, one of two bishops in San Jose, to turn the other cheek.
"When I began celebrating mass," Rue later tells me. "I put it in the newspaper. Somebody took it to the bishop and last April, he had put it in every church bulletin, a statement that said something to the effect that 'Victoria Rue is not a valid ordained priest and the sacraments she presides at are not valid sacraments, and Catholics should not partake in her mass.
"I tried to call him," Rue adds. "Two people at the San Jose Diocese said they tried to reach the bishop. In fact, what they said, was, 'When you no longer call yourself a priest, we'd be happy to talk to you.'"
Answering The Call
Rue leaves an indelible imprint on the heart and mind, perhaps because she doesn't try to. She's tall, her gray hair cropped short, her eyeglasses suggesting a knowledgeable woman happy in her own skin. She is.
Rue was born in Colfax, Wash., and is the eldest of eight children. In the late '60s, she nearly became a nun at Sisters of the Holy Names in Los Gatos but left the convent—and the Catholic Church—after feeling constrained by some of the rules of her order, which forbade postulants or novices to tend to their families in case of death unless it was a brother, sister or parent. In time, she morphed into a playwright and director of feminist theater in New York City. The theater became her "church." But something deeper called.
In 1985, she entered New York's Union Theological Seminary and immersed herself in feminist and lesbian studies of Liberation Theology. (She also met Poethig there.)
"When I went into the seminary in New York, I started putting all the Gospels side by side and studied various historical Biblical scholars and theologians who unearthed new meanings for the Bible texts," Rue explains. "And then I began asking, 'Where are they all different? Where are they the same? Who are the writers that really wrote this?'
"I got very excited about learning more about what was spoon-fed me," she adds, "And I think when people choose to think about what it is they believe, they also ask more questions. And I enjoy the questions in my belief. I don't think belief should be something that is void of questions. My belief is stronger because I have questions."
After New York, Rue headed West. She earned her doctorate in theology in the arts at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., then eventually nabbed the SJU position—and began presiding over weekly Catholic mass in the university chapel during the fall and spring semesters. She became a deacon in 2004 and penned a book, Acting Religious: Theatre as Pedagogy in Religious Studies, published in 2005, the same year she was ordained as a priest.
It would mark a year of big shifts.
"It was like something that I had begun a long time ago that I was finally able to complete," Rue says of her ordination into the priesthood. "It wasn't right for me as a nun, but it was right for me as a priest. When I wanted to become a nun, I wanted to consecrate my entire life to God. Of course, we can all do that in a number of ways, but to do it publicly ...
"When Kathryn and I had our commitment ceremony, I was completely changed the next day. We stood in front of 100 people and made vows to each other. And something happens to you. Something becomes anchored in you and all those people become your witnesses. It's like a magnifying glass. Everybody gets focused on just a moment in time on you making a promise and you are held accountable with that promise—to your community, to your family—and that's what happened to me when I publicly consecrated my life to God as a priest."
Of that, she is quick to note that on the day she was ordained, "It was to God, not to a bishop, but to the community and to the people I would serve. And even to the people who weren't there that I would serve; people who were still in the future. It was a moment of utter joy in that I would be of service." There are now four female bishops and approximately 20 female priests in the United States. More ordinations are scheduled to take place this summer—and for the first time on land in Minneapolis, Minn., New York City, N.Y., Santa Barbara. Calif. and Toronto, Canada. While Rue and others are, technically, Catholic deacons, priests or bishops, because their ordinations break Canon Law 1024, they are considered "illicit" by the church.
Cross to Bear
Flip through the history books, the Bible and any number of records on the Catholic Church, and you will discover a cosmic stew savored by some, spit out by others.
At the root of the church, however, are the teachings of Jesus, which, many faiths seem to agree, stemmed, in part, from "loving thy neighbor," embracing the divine within and co-mingling in peace. The "Statistical Yearbook of the Church," which was prepped by the Central Office of Church Statistics in 2002, is a compilation of data that began when Pope John Paul II entered the Vatican in the late '70s. The report indicates, among other things, a drop in religious vocations. Yet the number of "faithful Catholics" rose from 757 million in 1978 to more than 1 billion by the end of 2002. The biggest increase in practicing Catholics, at 150 percent, was in Africa. In America, the figure sat at 45 percent, in Europe, 5 percent. Curiously, the percentage of Catholics within the overall world population shrank. In 1978, nearly 18 percent of the world's inhabitants were Catholic. By 1990, the tally was 17.6 percent; in 2002, 17.2 percent.
But today's Catholic Church still remains a wealthy enterprise, ushering in billions of dollars each year. (The salary range for the highest position of priestly ministry in the San Jose diocese, for instance, is from $65,273-$104,437.) Like other religions—and big business, perhaps—the church has been brought to its knees by an onslaught of scandal in modern times. In one corner: priests and pedophilia. The nation's largest Catholic archdiocese just settled its abuse cases for $660 million, the largest payout in the Church's scandals. In another corner: lack of equality for women, the celibacy debate, closeted gay priests. The list goes on.
The media did a fine job devouring the religious sex scandals, but it barely touched the "women's movement" within the Catholic Church, something that has been growing steadily since 1975, when the Pontifical Biblical Commission reported that there were "no scriptural objections to ordaining women to the priesthood." The PBC report had come about thanks, in part, to a woman named Mary B. Lynch, who rose like a phoenix out of ashes of historical ruin when she helped assemble a national meeting to garner response to one question: "Should women be priests?" The response was overwhelmingly positive.
A few years later, in 1977, the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) was born. The timing could not have been better. Pope Paul VI had issued "Inter Insignores," which stated women could not be ordained. It fueled WOC to launch liturgical protests around the nation. Then came Project Priesthood, which, according to WOC phraseology, was "designed to identify women who believe themselves called to the priesthood." The result found another group, the Coalition of Women in the Church—later Women-Church—conducting various hearings that revolved around discussions of women standing in the margins of church.
Going strong now for 30 years, yet barely registering a blip on Big Media's radar, WOC had something to celebrate when Mayr-Lumetzberger, Forster and others entered the scene this decade. To further stoke the embers of the growing emotional fires burning underneath the Vatican, the most recent Associated Press polls found that more than 60 percent of the adults queried believe the Pope should allow women to become priests.
Rue may take solace in that fact, but there's still work to do. "I think the Church, for hundreds of years, has made the ordination of male priests the highest choice that one could make for one's life," she says, "more important than the married state; more important than anything else you can do—priests were 'it.' I am not saying that. None of us are saying that. There are so many important ways that people choose to consecrate their life to God today—in marriage, including gay and lesbian civil unions, in the single life, and also as nuns and priests. But priests should look like the people they serve, so therefore, they should be married or single or celibate if they so choose."
Rue is clear about another thing: "We want to accompany people, wherever they are in their lives, however they want us to walk with them. And because we are on the margins of the Church, we are not weighted by property or pensions.
"In some ways," she adds, "it's back to the early Church, when people met simply around tables and shared food with one another and understood that God was best for you, and that loving your neighbor was just as important as loving yourself."
But how much of a difference is there? With female priests, how much spiritual bang does one get for the divine buck? Rue clearly notes that some of the phrasing in the new paradigm is altered, especially in the actual ordination ceremonies.
Out: God strictly referred to as "He." In: God as "He-she," "God our Mother, our Father," "Compassionate One" or "Holy One.
"We try to open up the imagination to the many names of God," Rue offers. "And in the language of the service, Jesus as king—a lot of that 'lord' and 'king' language has been changed, because that type of language points to a very hierarchal notion of God as completely other, or Jesus as completely other, so we prefer to talk about Jesus as our brother, so that the incarnation is something that is possible and put out there for all of us. In other words, God is not so distant. It's up close, personal.
She does note that unlike male priests, who make a vow of obedience to their bishops as well as a vow of celibacy, female priests do not. Other than that, the actual ordination ceremony is the same. "Hey, I'm partnered for 18 years," Rue notes. "Women in our movement are married; some are divorced. There are lesbian, gay, bisexual, heterosexuals. Priests should look like the people they serve. Those that wish to be celibate, fine. Celibacy is a lovely state. It's not the only state, however. So that vow of celibacy is not there in the rite, and neither is that vow to the bishop.
Still, with all these differences, one can't help but ask Rue: Why bother? Why remain part of a larger order that refuses to honor who you are?
To that, Rue just smiles. "Your real question is, 'What really draws me to being a Christian?' For me, what's important ... and by the way, I draw on several religions, traditions—Buddhism, Judaism, Islam—but the incarnation is what roots me to Christianity. And that is, that Jesus became/was enlightened. Jesus entered into the holy in the fullest possible way that any human being has ever done, maybe next to Buddha. But he was so fully enlightened, so fully in God. And we call that the incarnation." Think of it as a marriage of the human and the divine.
"It's a hopeful state of being, that as a human ... that we have, within us, the possibility—that's what Jesus is showing us—that we have the possibility of realizing our divinity. Our humanity and divinity are very close together in the incarnation. And that's what inspires us."
Perhaps other Catholics are inspired by this line of thinking.
"Actually," Rue offers, "It's strange, but a lot of Catholics don't think about what it is they believe in. They get involved in the rituals, but they don't think about what they mean."
Sitting at a table in a busy California coffeehouse near her home, Rue removes several pieces of paper from a folder to show me evidence that female priests existed before the 12th century. The image she refers to is an archaeological photograph of a mosaic in the Church of St. Praxedis in Rome. On the far right, it shows Bishop Theodora, who was the bishop of the Church of St. Praxedis in 820 AD. Rue points to the name next to the female image representing Theodora. "See that," she says. "The 'A' has been removed.
She's suggesting somebody removed the "A" to make it appear that Theodora was Theodor? It certainly looks that way.
What's more interesting is where the actual mosaic rests in the world: right down the road from the Vatican. "The facts are right there in front of everybody to see," Rue laughs.
It's the sort of thing that gets this priest's spiritual motor running. She seems both astonished, if not somewhat amused, by the Church's often blatant disregard of women, yet she's fueled to do whatever she can to offer another perspective.
She is particularly candid about one subject: sex, homosexuality and the Church.
"The Vatican's 'Halloween' letter of 1986 stated that homosexual orientation is 'an intrinsic moral disorder,'" Rue says. "That means that right down to my very bones, the Vatican is suggesting that there is something wrong with me as a lesbian, and that all gay and lesbian people are sick despite massive evidence to the contrary in medical, psychological and sociobiological research. The Vatican is just plain wrong."
So, why is sex and sexuality such a touchy subject in the Church?
Rue sighs. "Good question." She mentions the mental nuggets unearthed by renowned historian-educator-writer John Boswell, who died of AIDS in 1994. Boswell's books, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality and Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, boldly argued that the Roman Catholic Church had not always condemned homosexual people—at least not until the 12th century—among other things.
"So in the early Church," Rue explains, "sexuality was something that was a blessing, and by that I mean the apostles were all married. In the Bible, it says Peter has a wife. So the real question about sex is: How did we get to celibacy being at the top of the pinnacle? What I am trying to suggest is that it wasn't always like that. It was a gradual process and had a great deal to do with property. If a priest is married and has a church, then who does the property belong to—to the priest and the wife and his family or the church?"
Yet there was a movement in the early Church in which men and women went into the desert. They lived in caves and became celibate. "These people came to be seen as the holiest of the holy, and that idea of celibacy took off from there," Rue says. "In a sense, you are married to God; you are not married to anybody else.
"Then you start thinking, now, wait a minute, isn't God, from their viewpoint, seen as a male? And aren't there male priests? How could you be married to God? Isn't that a homoerotic relationship?" Rue chuckles. "Well, they certainly don't want to deal with that."
Mary, Joseph and the Virgin Birth
No discussion about sex in the Catholicism is complete without inquiring about the virgin birth, to which Rue says there are many interpretations.
"It's very clear that Jesus had brothers and sisters," she says. "We know Jesus had a brother, James, but there are probably other children as well. That's biblical. People don't talk about it, and I find it absolutely fascinating."
Perhaps even more intriguing to Rue are Jesus' parents. "The marriage of Mary and Joseph, whatever their names really were ... it was never talked about. You don't focus on the marriage or Jesus' brothers and sisters, and how come he was different. You just hear about him.
"In my own view," she goes on, "I think when Jesus went to the [River] Jordan and was baptized by John, something happened to him at that moment, and he realized who he was. He had an in-breaking of the spirit, and he immediately goes to the desert to recover and think about his identity. That's my sense. Was Jesus born of a virgin? It's not even important to me. Do I think Mary was important in his life? You bet. Where did he learn? You know, there is this wonderful story in the Bible of Jesus curing the blind man. He reaches down and scoops up the dust, and he takes the dust and puts it on the blind man's eyes, and he says, 'Be open.'"
Rue pauses then leans forward. "Where did he learn how to do that? You can say, 'Well, he's God, he knew everything.' Well, maybe that's how he learned it, but I think Mary taught him a lot about healing. I think she might have. And we don't know. This is just my personal opinion. I think that Mary and Joseph were very important people to his identity, as my parents were to who I am as a person. How could they not? We are all products of our parents, our family.
True. But some families, especially one as big and complicated as the Catholic Church, are often dysfunctional, something that is obviously not lost on Rue. "You see, you can't just add women and stir. You can't just ordain women and expect the priesthood and the Church to stay exactly the same. In that context, the ordination of female priests will help transform the Roman Catholic Church's theology, liturgy and communal life.
This story was originally published in Good Times. For more information on female priests, visit romancatholicwomenpriests.org.