by Audrey Agot | Assistant News Editor
The priesthood has historically been defined as a religious calling that only men can undertake, which has been the official doctrine of the Catholic Church for millennia The long standing tradition of not having “official” female priests dates back to the early church, starting with Jesus’ entirely male selection of apostles. Because this could be interpreted as a deliberate choice on Jesus’ part, the Vatican sees prohibiting women from becoming priests as divine constitution, rather than a rule that can simply be changed. But Maureen Mancuso of San Ramon, with her ordination as priest last week, has set out to defy this tradition and bring this issue to light in the Bay Area. However, Mancuso, even though she is the first unofficial Roman Catholic female priest in Northern California, she is not the only one of her kind.
Women have had more of a role in the ancient and early church than one would initially think. While it is true that none of Jesus’ apostles were female, he certainly had female disciples and followers. Evidence in the New Testament — Paul’s letters in the Book of Acts, specifically — holds women in higher esteem as Paul greets women as co-workers. He also writes about how women held Mass in their own homes when physical churches were not yet in existence. That was, until women’s roles “faded out and the role of leaders in the church (and presiders at the Liturgy) was completely handled by men,” according to Brother Michael Meister, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Mary’s. From this, he explains, the long standing tradition has become more and more strict. “That being said,” Brother Michael continues, “there’s no statement from Jesus that says women can’t be priests.”
Today, women have done just that, with over 150 ordained female priests in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests group. However, although this group asserts that they truly are Catholic, the Catholic Church does not officially recognize them at all. Aside from church officials, though, Catholics’ views seem to be changing as time moves forward. In a CBS/New York Times poll, “59 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination of women.” This isn’t to say that society is moving forward while the church stays set in its traditional ways, but it is important to remember that the Catholic Church — so old and of such a large presence — will not change overnight.
Saint Mary’s MFA Alumna and future MFA Writer in Residence for Spring 2014 Kaya Oakes comments, “The church moves slowly.” But when asked if the church currently shows any signs of becoming more inclusive to women, she observes, “Women are already ministering within Catholicism, and not just women religious. I think what we’ll see more of are groups of women ‘being church’ to one another … performing many of the same functions priests and deacons do in terms of counseling, care taking, blessing, and so on, but doing it behind the scenes, as they’ve really done for thousands of years.”
Oakes, the author of “Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church,” is an advocate for gender equality within the Catholic Church. Of Mancuso’s ordination, Oakes expresses her support: “If Maureen Mancuso’s conscious tells her to be ordained, why not?”
Mancuso may only be one person, and by some standards she may be removing herself from the church through her ordination, but she and other female priests bring the work of women from all over the world from behind the scenes into the forefront—a move thousands of years overdue.