Most of the sacramental practices of the RCWP would be familiar to contemporary Catholics. They gather parishioners around the Eucharistic table on Sundays, celebrate marriages, anoint the sick, and offer reconciliation. Though their ordinations trigger immediate excommunication, womenpriests insist on their identity as valid Roman Catholics; their institutional freedom from the Vatican enables them to reimagine certain elements of Catholic practice they find troubling. Gone, for example, is the requirement of priestly celibacy. Many womenpriests are mothers and grandmothers, and some are in committed lesbian relationships. They also take a more open, inclusive approach to Catholic sacraments, officiating at sacramental marriages for same-sex couples and offering the Eucharist to all, regardless of age, marital status, or religious affiliation.
Just as important as womenpriests’ service to local communities is their commitment to broader reform within the Catholic Church. As activists, they aim to revive the stalled debate on women’s ordination, moving it from the Vatican’s all-male Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to the “court of public opinion.” They do so, they claim, by speaking directly to the hearts and minds of lay Catholics, often through direct action. In their view, reforming the priesthood and the hierarchy requires something more radical than incrementalism or technocratic change: for RCWP a woman acting in persona Christi is not just a fantasy that could be, but a reality that already is.
Peterfeso notes that much of RCWP’s push for reform emerges from the wreckage of the sex-abuse crisis. She explains that the male priestly body has become a troubling symbol for traumatized laypeople, particularly victims, inspiring “fear and distrust” rather than fostering connection to Christ. Likewise, for many, the altar is no longer a sign of fellowship and communion but one of sexual abuse and exploitation. Female bodies, though, can testify to a “new potential” for the priesthood. Peterfeso witnesses one moving scene in which adult daughters vest their newly ordained mother, gently adjusting her priestly garments as she envelops them in a “giant bear hug.” This distinctly maternal act broadens the symbol of the priesthood to embrace a richer, fuller range of human experience—one that simply isn’t possible when ordination is limited to celibate men alone.
While womenpriests proclaim their resistance to clericalism at every turn, it nonetheless remains a serious challenge for their ministry. Peterfeso explains that the tension between their spiritual charism and institutional authority emerges constantly, often in seemingly mundane ways. Take the question of whether they should wear Roman collars, which presents a kind of Catch-22: “If [womenpriests] claim an indelible, essential transformation,” Peterfeso writes, “they fall into the clerical power trap they seek to avoid; if they do not claim a transformation, they may lose some of their ordained authenticity.” To blur these distinctions, at least during the liturgy, most womenpriests invite worshippers to co-consecrate the Eucharist. Their sacramental authority thus becomes not an exclusive, personal privilege but a communal gift.
Peterfeso also highlights the ways in which some male Catholic priests quietly participate in the RCWP movement themselves. A few serve womenpriests as unofficial mentors. There’s a limit, though, to what these relationships can accomplish institutionally. Because priests depend on Rome for everything from job placements to housing and health insurance, they are not free to reveal these relationships publicly. Nor can they voice public support for women’s ordination. (The recent laicization of Roy Bourgeois and the excommunication of Ed Cachia, both outspoken proponents, indicate how little the Vatican tolerates dissent on the issue.) While womenpriests must forfeit institutional legitimacy and security for the freedom to speak out, at least they do not have to keep secrets.
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