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Spotlight Report

Call for women priests is cheered

German theologian speaks at Harvard

By Wendy Davis, Globe Correspondent, 4/28/2003

CAMBRIDGE - Ida Raming's defiance is not new. Last year, she joined with six other women in an ordination ceremony in Europe, after which they were excommunicated by the Vatican.

But yesterday, Raming, a German theologian, had a receptive audience of 100 people who turned out to hear her call for allowing women to become priests. Some of the supporters said their desire for change was stirred by a year of turmoil in the church. In that year, some joined a lay group that led efforts to withhold donations to Catholic charities as the church was swept up in the clergy sexual abuse scandal.

Correction | April 29, 2003: Because of an editing error, the charity policy of the Voice of the Faithful was misstated in this story. Voice of the Faithful has raised money for Catholic Charities, but Bishop Richard G. Lennon has refused to accept donations from the Massachusetts chapter

Mary Beth Clayton, who traveled from her home in Fairfield, Conn., to hear Raming at the Harvard Divinity School yesterday, said supporting women as priests is part of a larger effort to reclaim power from the current church leadership.

"The coverup is the reason I think we're so offended by the church right now," said Clayton, who joined Voice of the Faithful last year. "The laity of the church realizes the hierarchy is not the church. We're the church."

Clayton and other advocates of reform greeted Raming with a standing ovation, before she described her 40-year battle for ordination of women.

"It is time that this veil of discrimination, dressed up and glossed over, is uncovered and thrown asunder," Raming said. "In bestowing gifts, God does not limit himself-herself to the male gender."

The campaign for including women in the clergy has taken on a renewed vigor this past year. Some Catholics charge that church leaders' decisions to transfer allegedly abusive priests to new parishes without warning parishioners demonstrate a deep divide between the leadership and membership. This divide, they say, can be bridged by allowing women to become priests.

"Priesthood carries great symbolic power in Catholicism, because a priest is someone who mediates between God and human beings," said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College. Therefore, Pope said, reformers are especially focused on making changes in the priesthood.

"People talk about it quite a bit as one item in a possible menu" of solutions, he said.

Barbara Mahar of the organization Massachusetts Women Church, a cosponsor of the forum and service at the Divinity School, believes the cause has gained momentum from the scandal. "The energy that's a little bit difficult to keep at a high pitch year after year, when it didn't look like anything was happening, is now at a high pitch," she said.

One reason the support for ordaining women has grown, said Pope, is the belief that the church would have handled abusive priests far differently had women been included in leadership positions.

"If women, especially women with children, had been involved in the treatment of the clergy that had been sexually abusive, one could speculate there would have been fewer priests moved from parish to parish," he said.

Instead, said Pope, the decision-makers acted out of "clericalism," or the belief that clergy have a special privilege and are therefore not accountable to the laity. Pope added that some believe opening the priesthood to women might reduce this phenomenon, on the theory that a more diverse group of people would be less inclined to clericalism.

Raming participated in a ceremony last year in the Danube River in Austria with six other women who wanted to become priests. The church said the ceremony was not valid and ordered the women to stop calling themselves priests. When Raming and the other women refused to renounce their claim, they were excommunicated.

Raming told the crowd yesterday that it was not the ordination ceremony but the excommunication that was invalid. "It is not binding," she said, to a burst of applause from the mostly female audience.

Raming also told the audience that all Catholic women suffer as a result of limiting the priesthood to men. "Lay women in the church have a better status when women are admitted to ordination," she said. She added that women will always be treated as inferior in the church until they are allowed to be priests.

Pope, the BC theology professor, said that women might be able to bring change even if they are never permitted to become priests.

"I don't think that women need to wait for the Vatican to change its regulation restricting ordination to males," he said, "before they can exercise significant power and responsibility within the church."

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