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Maverick Catholics hold out hope for female priests

I actually thought the cool new pope would have something cool and new to say about one of the things that make it hard to be a Roman Catholic: the church's refusal to allow women to serve as priests.

Pope Francis has all the makings of a revolutionary. In just a few months on the job, he has excited otherwise bored and jaded Catholics with a fresh approach to the papacy, preaching from the book of humility, simplicity and passionate concern for the poor.

Then he went down to Brazil, where the church has lost millions of followers, and criticized leaders there for allowing an "exodus" to other faiths or to the secular life. It was refreshing to hear a pope calling out the cardinals and bishops for being too rigid, "too cold, too distant." He spoke of opening doors and going after "those who are farthest away ... those who do not usually go to church."

All good.

But while there are a lot of reasons for the exodus from the church, you certainly must include its doctrine of discrimination.

Who wants to be associated with a church that, in the 21st century, discriminates against its own members because of their sex or, in the case of gays and lesbians, their sexual identity?

Of course, women are allowed to be active in the life of the church — they serve as sisters, as Catholic school administrators; they run charitable missions, and they serve as diocesan and parish leaders.

But they don't get to do what men do. They don't get to be ordained and serve parishes as priests.

And what did the pope say on the flight back from Rio? He said the church needed to have a "deeper theology of women," and he spoke with great respect for their contributions to Catholic life.

But he said the door was closed to the priesthood.

So, for all the excitement Pope Francis has stirred, what we have so far — on an issue that has both philosophical and practical meaning for the future of the church — is the status quo.

Of course, there's a simple solution for those of us who have a problem with this: We could just become Episcopal.

But, not surprisingly, I got some pushback on that Wednesday when I presented the idea to Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference in Washington. Hanna and her sisters in the cause would rather fight than switch.

"How can we leave the church if we are the church?" she said. "Pope Francis declared the church had spoken and said no, but that's a false statement. Pope John Paul II may have said no, but we know from Vatican II that the church is not the hierarchy. The church is the people of the God, and the people support the ordination of women.

"While this is an unfortunate glimpse into what we can expect from this papacy in terms of women's ordination, I am not about to throw in the towel quite yet."

Two years ago, I attended the maverick ordination of four women as Catholic priests in a Protestant church in Catonsville. The ceremony, arranged by a group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, was carried out in defiance of a Vatican decree that promised excommunication for violators. The presiding bishop, a woman, claimed clerical lineage — that is, "apostolic succession" — to a group of women who had been ordained in Europe in 2002 by three male bishops. That, in the minds of the participants, made the ordination legitimate.

Two of the women who took vows that day, Ann Penick and Marellen Mayers, were from Maryland. I contacted them both Wednesday.

"I was very encouraged by what Pope Francis has said about the poor and the marginalized and by what he said about [gay and lesbian] people," Penick wrote in an email. "However, I was deeply saddened by what he said about the ordination of women."

Mayers said she was not surprised, but she expressed hope the pope would "be a good listener" and become open to the idea of a more inclusive priesthood.

Prayer will help, Mayers and Penick said. But it might not be enough.

"The easiest route would be for the church hierarchy to open the doors and let both women and all married men discern their call to the priesthood," said Penick. "But I think, realistically, it's going to have to come from the other direction — we, the people, citizens of the church. A majority of Catholics support the ordination of women and married men [and] recognize that women are also created in God's image."

"This is our church, too," Hanna added. "Pope Francis said the door was closed, but the magical thing about doors is that when mighty wind comes along and slams your door shut, you just walk over and reopen it. That's how doors work, no? So maybe the official door to women's ordination won't open in this papacy, but I am certain it will open in my lifetime."

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