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Catholics and Mormons: A New Sisterhood in the Struggle for Women's Ordination

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They had never met each other and had little idea beyond fragments of stereotypes of each other's faith. A panel sponsored by the Claremont Graduate University, "Catholic/Mormon Dialogue on Women's Ordination," brought them together. There were seven panelists -- Catholic: Victoria Rue (Catholic priest), Christine Haider-Winnet (Women's Ordination Conference), Jennifer O'Malley (Roman Catholic Woman Deacon); Mormon: Margaret Toscano (Mormon Women's Forum, Mary Ellen Robertson (Sunstone Education Foundation), Laurie Winder, (Mormon Women's Forum). Gina Messina Dysert from CGU moderated. It was my task to introduce the topic on the basis of my earlier book "When Women Were Priests and the Scandal of their Subordination in Early Christianity," since I was familiar with the historical terrain of the struggle for women's ordination.

I had known Victoria Rue for several years. In fact, I was present at her ordination as a Catholic priest aboard a ship chartered for the occasion on the St. Laurence River hovering along the U.S./Canadian border in. I had known the name of Margaret Toscana from the early years of the feminist movement and knew only that she had been excommunicated from the LDS Church in 2000 after a spate of excommunications of other Mormon feminists for advocating for Mormon priesthood for women. Later the Vatican would explain that Catholic women ordained according to the prescribed ordination ritual and within the lineage of episcopal succession were excommunicating themselves by the act. (Other more persuasive bases for excommunication were theologically difficult.)

Mormon feminism rising on the wave of the 1970s women's rights movement was dampened after the excommunications and several Mormon feminists left the church or went underground. However, the Internet created cyber meeting grounds outside the flow of traditional patriarchal authority where Mormon women's voices were heard again (blogs: Feminist Mormon Housewives; The Exponent). The same feminist movement swept Catholic women into theological education where they had access to seminary degrees and the formal qualifications for ministry as well as doctoral studies which put in women's hands the authoritative voice of scholarship.

Victoria Rue's ordination to Catholic priesthood followed the ancient ritual, the same words, the full prostration, the familiar vestments, but a world of feminist scholarship infused it. Ida Raming, a German canon law scholar, had given Catholic women a foundation in canon law for their claims to the right of ordination. Catholic feminist theologians and historians like Rosemary Ruether and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza provided theological legitimation and historical precedent for women priests and the WomanChurch movement of Catholic laywomen (an underground house church movement) had created a rich tradition of songs, litanies and liturgies that incorporated feminine imagery into the language of worship. That day aboard the swaying ship I realized that the historic event I was witnessing was built on those years of feminist scholarship and liturgical creativity. Victoria Rue is now part of a group of 131 Roman Catholic women priests, rejected by the Vatican but now being called to serve congregations of Catholics who accept women priests. Recent surveys show that 59 percent of American Catholics accept women priests.

Mormon women are creating a similar foundation for ordination. Mormon feminist historians like Mary Ellen Robertson documented women receiving revelations and gifts of the spirit. Early Mormon women spoke in tongues and interpreted them, gave healing blessings and anointed women in childbirth. Margaret Toscano argued that Joseph Smith had granted women the powers of the priesthood. In 1843 Joseph Smith pronounced to the Women's Relief Society (the Mormon women's organization), "I will make you a kingdom of priests." While their struggles with patriarchal hierarchies are similar, the meanings of priesthood are different. Mormonism is above all a family religion and priesthood is first exercised in the family. Boys are ordained as deacons at 12, as teachers at 16 and as elder when they go on a mission. Their ministry to lead, bless, baptize, heal and comfort begins at home. Priesthood carries spiritual and practical authority and is transferred from father to son. Consequently priesthood is a marker of Mormon masculinity.

Catholic priests have renounced family. Their sexual abstinence is crucial to their ritual responsibility in making Christ present during the sacrament. Catholic priests are "Father" to the local church conceived loosely as family and God is the heavenly father. There is no mother. The priest represents Christ, Christ represents God. This depiction of the flow of divine power is thoroughly masculinized. Women cannot sacramentally represent a male Christ because they do not share the same body. Recognizing this problem Catholic feminist theologians like Elizabeth Johnson have excavated neglected biblical traditions to discover a feminine face of God.

Mormon feminists have a stronger legacy, a tradition of a Heavenly Mother. With the family as central to the process of salvation and transformation there is both mention of and "theological space" for a divine mother. At the time of the excommunications Mormon leadership discouraged further discussions of the Heavenly Mother, but such discussions are lively in the feminist Mormon blogosphere and in the Sunstone Magazine.

What are the prospects for these struggles? American Episcopalian women won the rights to ordination three years after their "irregular ordination" in 1974. The struggle for American Catholic women will be much longer because the decision making is not nationally based. Pope Paul II declared the doctrine that women cannot received ordination an infallible doctrine. The Mormon Church hierarchy, based on a prophetic model, recognizes ongoing revelation. In 1978 such a revelation opened the way for black men to be ordained to the Mormon priesthood. However, in 1985, when the Community of Christ (a breakaway group from the Latter-day Saints) ordained women, 25 percent of the members left. Patience may be needed, but Catholic and Mormon women will persist.