The Rev. William Callahan; fought for women priests

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / July 15, 2010

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NEW YORK — The Rev. William R. Callahan, a Roman Catholic priest and self-described “impossible dreamer’’ whose vociferous and organized opposition to Vatican policies prompted Jesuit officials to expel him from their order, died July 5 in Washington. He was 78.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said the Quixote Center, an organization that Father Callahan helped found to press for reforms in the church and society. It is independent of the church and based in Brentwood, Md., where he lived.

Like Cervantes’s fictional character who inspired the center’s name, Father Callahan — who was born in Scituate, Mass., and was educated at Boston College — tilted at windmills and never accomplished his major goals, the biggest of which was ordaining women as priests. But his spirited campaigns made him a thorn in the church’s side for a generation.

“Bill tried to be a prophetic voice in the church, a voice crying in the wilderness,’’ said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

Father Callahan remained a priest after his expulsion from the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus, in 1991, but the church barred him from acting as one. Known widely as Bill, he still sometimes used the honorifics “reverend’’ and “father.’’

He aggravated church officials during the American tour of Pope John Paul II in 1979 by imploring priests to refuse to help the pope in celebrating Mass. Father Callahan’s hope was that more laywomen would then have to be enlisted to assist at the services.

When the pope insisted that year that barring women from becoming priests was not a human rights issue, Father Callahan replied, “Perhaps this is not a human rights issue because women are not human or they do not have rights.’’

He told The Washington Post in 1989 that he was simply “following the example of Jesus, who was never willing to shut up.’’

In 1971, Father Callahan helped found the Center of Concern, an organization devoted to social justice issues. In 1975 he started Priests for Equality, to work for the ordination of women. He started the Quixote Center in 1976 with Dolly Pomerleau, who became a work partner of his for many years. They married days before he died.

The Quixote Center achieved particular prominence in its support of the leftist government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, a stance directly at odds with that of the Reagan administration. It raised more than $100 million in humanitarian aid for the Nicaraguan government.

Other projects included printing religious books in which language it viewed as sexist, racist, and homophobic was expunged. Father Callahan himself wrote “Noisy Contemplation: Deep Prayer for Busy People,’’ which called God a merry sort who viewed humans as entertainment.

In 1979, Jesuit leaders rebuked Father Callahan for his defiance of dogma, and by 1989 his Nicaraguan activities and liberal initiatives in the church, including a ministry for gay Catholics, had set off calls for his expulsion from the Jesuit order. He unsuccessfully fought the action, which he said was never explained.

Father Callahan remained active at Quixote and continued to preach to informal gatherings of dissident Catholics.

William Reed Callahan was born on Sept. 5, 1931. His mother was a Unitarian and his father a Catholic. His mother died when he was 6 months old, and he was raised by his paternal grandparents as a Catholic, Pomerleau said.

He attended the Jesuit-run Boston College High School and after graduating joined the New England Province of the Society of Jesuits in 1948. He had hoped to be an agronomist, but the Jesuits asked him to study physics because they needed physics professors in their universities.

Father Callahan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston College, and a doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1962. While pursuing the degree, he worked for NASA on weather satellites. He then moved to Connecticut to teach physics at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution. He was ordained as a priest in 1965.

In addition to his wife, he leaves three brothers and three sisters.