Why a former nun will be ordained a priest: Discipleship, not clericalism

I am passionate about Jesus’ vision for women disciples in our church — so much so that on Oct. 20, … Continued

I am passionate about Jesus’ vision for women disciples in our church — so much so that on Oct. 20, I will be ordained a priest in Atlanta along with five women who will be ordained deacons. The recent third-century papyrus discovery announced by Dr. Karen L. King confirms what I have always known about my own calling, “She will be my disciple.”

In the 1960s, there were few options for women exploring their vocation. Catholicism was uniform and painted in either/or’s but my love for the God and early ministries with the people fed my desire to serve. I entered religious life expecting to leave in six months because I believed God was not limited the uniform vision presented by the church in that age. My experience of convent life far exceeded those stereotypes.

The day after I entered the convent, we began college courses. We studied, prayed, worked and laughed. The sisters immediately engaged us in renewing our constitution and ending pre-Vatican practices. Through baptism we were all called to serve.

We moved out of clerical notions that separated us from people into living the gospel mandate in homes, neighborhoods and wherever the marginalized lived. I was in my glory. For the first 12 years as a sister, I worked in systems operated by those “renewed Catholic women”. I was never denied access to any institution of higher learning. For me, Catholic was defined as raising each person to heights of excellence in a discipleship of equals.

However, during the last 10 years of religious life, I met up with a clerical culture that viewed religious women and laity as expendable, especially if they challenged current systematic practices. When we spoke about salary fairness, we were asked to leave. When we petitioned for Hispanics to use the church instead of a restaurant, we were evicted. The entire staff of the next parish I worked in was forced to resign when the new pastor took over. These events left me psychologically devastated and I decided to leave and move to Atlanta, the hope of the South.

For the next 14 years, I worked in a Catholic school as well as for the Archdiocese of Atlanta as director of children’s catechesis. What I felt, but did not have words to describe, was the growing politic of clericalism creeping throughout the South by the strategic appointment of bishops and priests. As soon as we had established vibrant systems making sound Catholic teaching accessible to a broad range of adults, our department was totally restructured. This recurring motif happened throughout the South. It was then I realized, after 37 years of service, I, as a woman religious and/or lay ecclesial minister, was expendable. It was my “ah-ha” moment.

I saw that from generation to generation clericalism’s all-male-elite hierarchy dominates Catholicism. It acts as a virus, spreading through healthy people and communities, dividing them, setting one person or group against another, working to make the group smaller and easier to control. It superimposes its self-made rules on the gospel confusing the people of God. Because it is male dominated, women and educated laity are a threat to the culture and their influence must be minimized. Once named, I realized one could not reason, collaborate, negotiate, challenge or control it.

When I discovered the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests is intent on developing an inclusive, renewed priesthood in a community of equals, I found my true calling. Although I have suffered and endured all internal efforts to “get me to leave” and join the already 33 million displaced Catholics in the U.S., I refuse. I choose to become a “Catholic” priest because I am called to work with others who understand that “Catholic” is more about authentic gospel living than the false notions clericalism breeds.

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  • Nathaniel Aumage

    I liked this article. Then i read the comments and was amazed. Anyone who has a problem with this needs to re-examine their values and consider why they are a christian. Almost every comment is saying she’s wrong because the catholic church says its wrong. Good logic. Bullies said lots of things to me in school but that didn’t make it right. The church is a huge and powerful(influential) establishment, and it also very old. And it is hanging onto those very old views.

    2 scenarios:

    I am a man who wants to do good work in a community and let people know just how great the world could be if we all started being nice to each other.

    I am a woman who wants to do good work in a community and let peole know just how great the world could be if we all started being nice to each other.

    If you prefer one of those situations over the other, well, then i look forward to laughing at your comments.

  • Jerry46

    The Catholic Church is the Church established by Jesus Christ (“thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church” Matt. 16:18) The Chuch alone, through the popes in conhunction with the bishops collectively, has the sole authority to determine and present what is the true Faith. This isn’t the appropriate forum to explain this in detail, but if you’re truly interested you should be able to find detailed explanations of the nature and basis of the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Catholic Church) on the Internet.

    Your scenarios are not relevant to Ms. Dougherty’s situation because this isn’t just about a woman who wishes to go out and do good works. Ordination is a sacrament of the Church and, like all sacraments, there must be proper form and matter for the sacrament to be valid. For whatever reason, Christ limited the sacrament of Holy Orders to men.; this is not something anyone, including a pope, may change. Knowingly invalidly simulating a sacrament is a very grave sin that places her soul and the souls of all that participate in serious danger. Worse yet, each time she purports to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass she will be doing the same for herself and all those who participate. Spiritually, it is a very dire situation for herself and all those who will follow her. They all need out prayers.

  • lenber

    All these nuns making waves forgot about their vows and no longer wants
    the hard work for the Lord.

  • Nathaniel Aumage

    fine, if you want to cling to a bible that has been translated and re translated, and originaly written by men anyway, please re read romans 2. You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Please keep telling this women that they are going to hell.

  • MJR13

    This is the first WaPo article I’ve read that was dominated by orthodoxy. Love the comments I’ve read in support of Holy Mother Church. Let’s keep it up, brick-by-brick.

  • Jerry46

    No one is telling them they ARE going to hell; only that the actions she has indicated she plans to make are grave since that subject her, and any others who participate, to eternal punishment ** if they do not repent. ** It is not only appropriate, but out duty, to point out immoral acts, especially in the case where there is scandal in the public forum. The final decision as to each soul’s disposition is left to God alone.

    Scripture is the divinely ispired word of God. While it was men who put the words to paper, the words are those of God.

  • hndmefoo

    Ordained a priest? Maybe in your head, but not in the Catholic Church.

    Makes as much sense as announcing I’m President of the United States because I embrace the “authentic” teachings of American freedom.

    Washing Post… takes all kinds I guess.

  • tony55398

    What happens when a Priest has a sex change or a women, does the women become eligible to become a Priest and is the male Priest no longer a Priest? I say,once a Priest always a Priest, even if they are not allowed to preside at Mass, although technically the Mass still would be valid, though elicit. We would now have a women Priest. There are cases where the DNA of a person is male although the person is female in all outward appearance and characteristics. Where and how does this person stand?

  • mnm619

    If you think Christianity is about telling people how great it is to be nice to each other, you’re not a Christian at all. Christianity is about repentance and the forgiveness of sin. It is about the humiility to fall on one’s knees before God and cry “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is about God’s mercy, and only tertiarily about the works of men.

  • jflare29

    Ms. Dougherty,
    PLEASE reconsider your actions and your views!

    As I read your piece, I don’t see a virtuous revolution taking place, uprooting and overturning the injustice of a misguided institution. I see instead a badly catechized rebel bent on inflicting pain and misery in the Church.

    From your entrance to religious life in the 60’s, through becoming disgusted with how the Church addressed your social justice intentions, now to being “ordained” a priest, I do not see any recognizable traits of a woman determined to seek God. No, I see a woman who has been all too eager to embrace a view of life that more closely resembles a die-hard secular world view.

    Put very simply, your approach seems to me mostly a movement motivated by a passionately sexist view of life.
    You appear to have a passionate hatred for the idea that men and women are qualitatively different and will typically fill different roles in life quite naturally.

    I do hope you’ll repent of your sins. You appear to me to be placing your soul in grave danger.

  • mnm619

    This woman claims to have taught and promoted authentic Catholic teaching, and to have recieved all sorts of relevant education. And yet, she’s under the absurd impression that King’s papyrus has relevance to Christianity. She apparently didn’t look at the papyrus to realize that it’s so fragmentary that we can’t actually tell what it says. More importantly, though, she apparently doesn’t realize that there were many non-Christian religious sects who used Jesus as a literary figure, and that they’re fictional stories don’t tell us anything about Christ or Christianity.

  • reformthesystem

    Mentioning what purports to be a 3d century blurb lacking any provenance and inconsistent with everything in the New Testiment to try to argue for an RC priestly role for females is highly questionable. However, Lutheran Christians have had lady clerics for a long time now. In the 19th century, the Italy based RC institution drastically modified itself to fit in with the social and political environment of the times.

    In the wake of the technological developments in the role of the human female body in the 1960s and the vast expansion of womens’ roles in all areas of human life that accompanied it, the RC aspect of Christianity is desperately in need of further reform of itself along lines of increasing womens’ participation in its 21st century priestly role. References to cryptic scriptural fragments and semitic culture in Palestine 2000 years ago are no justification for not embracing that kind of further reform.

  • Jerry46

    One’s sex is determined by their genetic makeup and is not changed by surgical alteration of their external genitalia.

  • tony55398

    In the case of women who have male DNA, are they eligible to become Priests? After all they are in truth male though their genitalia are female. Okay know it alls answer this.

  • cl00bie


    Quite simply because a woman is invalid matter for the Sacrament of Holy Orders. It would be like trying to consecrate Oreos and milk into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Impossible.

    Now she might be some kind of priest in some other schismatic sect, but the fact is, by participating in a simulated sacrament (Ordination) she and those participating will incur Latae Sententiae excommunication. So Roman Catholic priest? Nahhhh…

  • cl00bie

    Go forth and do good work in a community and let peole know just how great the world could be if we all started being nice to each other. You don’t need to be ordained to do that. I do that now. If you want to be a social worker, you don’t even need to be professed religious to do it.

  • amelia45

    As a Catholic woman, I applaud the voices that continue to speak for married priests, women priests, sacraments for the divorced, contraceptive decisions made by women, election of bishops by the diocesan laity, and equal gay rights in society.

    It is possible to be Catholic and have a mind, despite the efforts of the Church to deny it.

  • amelia45

    Nathanial – there are Catholics who agree with you. Very many. We are seeing it in priests groups, lay groups, and groups of religious. What we need is a Church to come into the modern times – God made the universe and man to evolve, and evolution means change. Trying not to evolve is trying to stop God’s plan and purpose.

  • Agustine AZ

    Thank you but no! If you are a woman and feel as if there is no “empowerment” under the RCC…you really need to heal and walk closer to Virgin Mary. After the dive in course I had on Theology of the Body, and having read Edith Stein and Saint Teresa of Avila, I am confident, happy, and free to be a woman and Catholic. I really can’t understand all the low thoughts of many women who want to act like men and do whatever they do. As if being a WOMAN would be BAD. Reform your inner self through Christ and ask help from Virgin Mary, who kept in silence and contemplated all things. That is our role model, not what ever other churches are doing.

  • Agustine AZ

    define “Catholic”, because it sounds like Vegans for meat, what ever is your opinion.

  • Agustine AZ

    I’m part of the Church… bulling? Truth is the new Intolerance. If it hurts, it must be because it is uncomfortable! And go figure what kind of “attack” you are reading, go and educate yourself and PRAY PRAY PRAY!

  • mikestech

    Congratulations on becoming a Protestant, Diane.

  • Charles R

    Women in our Roman Catholic Church (RCC) have achieved great things against the odds because the Holy Spirit has in-spir-ed (literally “in spirit-ed”) them. There is no basis in the gospels or authentic Pauline epistles for excluding women from ministry. The RCC priesthood was created by men, not Jesus of Nazareth. He was a Jew with no intention of creating another religion. We are heirs of a Jewish Messianic sect which was transformed into a Greco-Roman religion. Jesus had many women followers and several supported his ministry financially. Mary of Magdala was his student and close companion. She was the first witness of his resurrection and commissioned by Jesus as “the apostle to the apostles” in John 20:17 “Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brothers, and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

    Paul’s authentic and definitive statement on the equality of all in God’s eyes is from Galatians 3:27-28, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” A primary argument for men being priests is that only they can represent Christ since he was a man. But here Paul tells us if we are “baptized into Christ we have put on Christ.” If women have put on Christ surely they can represent Christ as priests and bishops! To deny it would be to deny Christ’s baptism.

    Additionally Paul mentions many women as equal coworkers in evangelization in his letters underlining that all are equal in Christ. The passages were he restricts women are not statements of foundational theological principles but examples of the cultural limitations of Paul or the early churches he worked with or interpolations by later scribes into his authentic epistles or later epistles written under his name. Most scholars agree the last six Pauline epistl