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Rita Lucey may be a rebel and she may be a revolutionary, an agitator, maybe even (in the eyes of some), a troublemaker. What she is not, she says, is a heretic.
The notion that women should not be ordained as priests does not originate with Jesus Christ, she says, although those opposed to it often argue that the tradition of priesthood began with the 12 apostles, all of whom were male.
"Christ didn't ordain anyone," says Lucey, who holds a master's degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University. "Women were considered second class in the Jewish culture of that time, and yet Jesus had all of these women around him – Mary, Martha, Mary of Magdala – they supported him spiritually, physically, financially. They cooked for him and took care of him. The apostles ran away when Jesus was crucified, but five of his women followers stayed, and they were the first ones to witness his resurrection."
To Lucey, and to the other women who question the patriarchal domination of the modern Catholic church, those women were the first female priests. Yet sometime in the Middle Ages, she says, the Catholic church pronounced the vocation off-limits to women. For centuries, despite requests for the Vatican to reconsider the topic, it remained a boys-only club.
"I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful," Pope John Paul II declared in 1994, when the topic was brought before him. He and others referred back to early teachings that indicated that, although women were always an important part of the Christian church and could prophesy and pray, they could not teach, nor should they publicly question the all-male clergy.
In 2002, seven women decided subordination was not for them, and they finally had what they needed to officially become bona fide priests: an independent Catholic bishop, Father Rómulo Antonio Braschi, who was willing to make it official. They took a ship out on the River Danube, where he ordained them; a year later, the Catholic church demanded that they repent for violating church law. When they refused, they were excommunicated. Over the years, some of the women – and some male bishops who've helped ordain them – have been accused of heresy and excommunicated. That's something Lucey and the approximately 200 other women priests worldwide say they aren't afraid of.
"Excommunication will not hurt me one bit," Lucey says. Although she won't be recognized as a Catholic in most churches, the churches that support women in the priesthood will open their doors to her. She points out that the Roman Catholic church has gone out of its way to excommunicate devout women like herself, but it protects male priests who've been accused of molesting children. "We don't excommunicate the pedophiles, you may notice," she says with a smile. "So I'm not afraid of excommunication."