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Interview With Toni Tortorilla, Female Catholic Priest

First Posted: 08/12/2010 12:12 am Updated: 05/25/2011 5:20 pm

Women Priests

PORTLAND, Ore. (RNS) It's been three years since Toni Tortorilla was ordained in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement, and the Vatican's recent decision to label both pedophilia and women's ordination as grave offenses, she says, is an insult to clerical abuse victims and women seeking ordination.

"The sexual abuse of children is morally reprehensible by any possible standard," says Tortorilla, 63. "The ordination of women has been happening for decades in many denominations."

Pairing the issues in one statement "shows how out of touch with reality the Vatican really is," said Tortorilla, who serves the Sophia Christi Catholic Community in Portland and Eugene, Ore., where between 30 and 40 people attend monthly services.

Within a year of her 2007 ordination, the Vatican said women who attempted to be ordained--and those who tried to ordain them--were automatically excommunicated. Tortorilla dismissed the excommunication and vowed to continue serving her community.

Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: When the Vatican announced the changes, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington said women "offer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosity" in the church. What did you make of that statement?

A: I think he and many members of the hierarchy speak out of both sides of their mouths. At the same time they say those kinds of things, there is an investigation of women religious in the United States. It looks very much like the Vatican feels threatened by the fact that women are following their call without paying attention to the hierarchy.

Q: Is there a biblical basis for ordaining women?

A: In 1976, a report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission looked at Scripture and found no justification in the New Testament for excluding women from the priesthood. There is historical evidence of women having been deacons. The history of ordination doesn't go back to the time of the Gospels. There is no Scriptural evidence of anyone--man or woman--being ordained.

One thing usually used as a reason why only men are ordained is that Jesus called only men as apostles. But Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the Resurrection, and Jesus sent her to the apostles to tell them he had risen from the dead. She was an apostle to the apostles.

Q: The Vatican has excommunicated women who are ordained and may excommunicate those who help them. Is that a threat to Roman Catholic Womenpriests?

A: Our ordinations are valid, they are not legal. Our first bishops (in Roman Catholic Womenpriests) were ordained by male bishops in good standing with Rome. Criminalizing our ordinations gives the Vatican a mechanism to quickly defrock someone who boldly supports women's ordination.

Simply saying we're excommunicated has no effect whatsoever on people flocking to our ordinations. It's not changing people's behavior. They can't stop women from being called to serve the church as deacons, priests or bishops.

Q: Why do you think some people no longer see excommunication as a real threat?

A: We live in a different world. At the time when excommunication made people quake, they lived in communities where everyone knew everyone. If you were excommunicated, you couldn't receive the sacraments and there was no other church you could go to. But excommunication doesn't mean you're thrown out of the church. If you go to another parish, and the priest doesn't know who you are, and if in good conscience you feel you are in God's good graces, there's no reason not to receive the sacrament.

Q: How many women have been ordained in Roman Catholic Womenpriests' rituals?

A: We've gone from seven ordained women in 2002 to 100 in 2010--75 in the United States.

Q: What challenges have you faced as a woman priest?

A: Because I'm ordained, I can no longer lead retreats in Catholic parishes. My community has been refused space to meet in some non-Catholic churches because of relationships between those churches and the Archdiocese of Portland.

But when we talk about the church, we're not just talking about the hierarchy. The church is the whole people of God. And the grass roots are calling for women priests. A shift is happening, but it's a slow, slow process. We're all about hope. The prophetic voice is always going to be one of hope.

(Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian.)

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Filed by Clay Chiles  |