'Being a woman priest is what I feel I am called to do'


The Vatican’s directive confirming its policy of excommunication for those involved in the ordination of women has been greeted with defiance by dissidents in the US and dismay by Irish campaigners

‘SHOCKING.” “A travesty.” “A slap in the face.” “The action of a paranoid, scared, running-for-cover Vatican.” Those are just some of the phrases used by Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan to describe the latest directive from Rome on the ordination of women.

The Vatican’s Normae de Gravioribus Delictis, published two weeks ago, concerns sanctions in canon law for clerical child sex abuse, concelebration of the Eucharist with Protestant ministers, heresy, apostasy, schism – and the ordination of women. It reaffirmed the sanction of excommunication for anyone involved with the ordination of women in the Catholic Church.

Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan is a leader of an ever-growing band of dissidents from this policy. She is “happy to be excommunicated. If they keep going like this there’ll soon be more ‘out’ than ‘in’. We’re at the heart of the church, renewing it. We’re not going to put up with second-class membership any more. We are an empowered community of Catholics. Mysticism and social justice are in my DNA as an Irish Catholic. I love the faith, but this corrupt church has to be reformed. Where are the excommunicated paedophiles or bishops who covered up the abuse of children?”

Meehan is from Crosskerry, near Rathdowney, Co Laois, which the family left for the US in 1956. Crosskerry is one of those still centres of the universe.

“It hasn’t changed since we left,” she recalled. She visits regularly. “So many, many relatives. Every three or four years.”

She will speak at the Humbert Summer School in Castlebar on Friday, August 20th.

Publication of Normae de Gravioribus Delictishas been “a watershed moment” for the Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) group, to which she belongs. It has attracted huge media attention to the RCWP in the US.

Meehan is based in Florida, where, she says, “the publicity is unbelievable”. Members of the movement in Europe have said to her that if the group can make headway in the US, the Vatican will take heed.

Rome just has to “get over the sexism and misogyny”, says Meehan. “To say women are not worthy is so over the top. It is very hateful to women. Very, very hostile to women.”

It has got to the stage, she claims, where people are now seeking out the RCWP as “the Catholic Church has become too toxic now”. Besides, “there were women deacons, priests, and bishops for the first 1,200 years of Christianity, in the Celtic Church too. There is a letter from Rome condemning women priests in the Irish church back then.”

Meehan was ordained bishop last year, having become a priest in 2006, and serves communities in Virginia and Florida.

The first women Catholic priests, the so-called “Danube Seven”, were ordained on that river in Germany in 2002. Five were German, one was Austrian and one was American. The following year saw the ordination of two women Catholic bishops, one German, one Austrian.

As explained on the RCWP website, the ordinations “are valid because of our unbroken line of apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church. The principal consecrating Roman Catholic male bishop who ordained our first women bishops is a bishop with a line of unbroken apostolic succession within the Roman Catholic Church in full communion with the Pope.”

The Vatican does not agree. On May 29th 2008 its Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) stated that the women priests and the bishops who ordained them would be excommunicated latae sententiae(automatically).

The website of Ireland’s Brothers and Sisters in Christ (Basic) movement for Catholic women priests in Ireland has not been updated since October 2007. According to Soline Humbert, this is because Basic, which was set up in 1993, has become something of an underground movement. Anticipating the May 2008 action of the CDF, articles and names were removed from the website to prevent people losing their jobs as theologians, chaplains, and so on.

“Fear is an awful thing, another form of institutional abuse,” she says. “People who believe one thing are being forced to do another. At heart it is a dysfunctional church, where people cannot speak about what they believe in conscience.”

This is all such a long way from the Basic seminar in 1995, when participants included the future President, Mary McAleese, and the retired professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College Maynooth, Fr Enda McDonagh.

Soline Humbert believes she has a vocation for the priesthood and has celebrated the Eucharist in her home every day this past 14 years. “I am not the only one,” she says. “I know several. Some religious sisters do it as well. My first chalice and paten were given to me by a religious sister and another by a community of religious sisters.”

Originally from Versailles, Humbert fell in love with Ireland on a visit in the late 1960s. She attended Trinity College Dublin in the early 1970s and married here. She has two sons. One bishop said to her that “perhaps one of your sons will have your vocation to the priesthood”. She was not impressed. She has not had much luck with bishops.

Then Catholic primate Cardinal Cahal Daly refused even to accept from her a petition calling for women priests. It had 10,000 names. He wrote to her saying he could not do so, as the Pope had spoken on the matter. She wrote a letter to this newspaper so that the signatories could be informed. She quoted from the cardinal’s letter. He wrote to her again, expressing his dismay that she would quote from their private correspondence and saying she could not be trusted.

For Humbert, “it was a moment of insight into the abuse of power. He did not want it known that he had refused to accept the petition”. She tried to get a meeting with the cardinal, without success.

She sent him a Valentine’s card one February. It asked: “What about a date?” The tactic worked. She was invited to Armagh. “It was the toughest meeting. The man was steel,” she says.

She met Cardinal Desmond Connell when he was Archbishop of Dublin. He told her: “A woman wasn’t on the cross and so couldn’t represent Christ. There was not much meeting of minds.”

Cardinal Seán Brady simply refused to discuss the issue with her at all. “He said no, he couldn’t. Rome has spoken,” Humbert says. “He came down like a guillotine.”

Similarly with the late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster. He was visiting Dublin and was shaking her hand as she began talking about women priests. “He withdrew his hand. He left me absolutely . . . as if I had leprosy,” she says.

She had a meeting with the current Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, about six years ago. “He did listen. He warned me, in conscience, that I was risking excommunication. It is not something I want.”

Humbert feels a strong sense of vocation. “In conscience, it is what I feel so strongly I am called to do,” she says. “I do love the church. I have received a lot from it and suffered a lot because of it. It is my church.”

Fr Eamonn McCarthy has also suffered because of his belief that there should be women priests. Currently a curate at Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, he was without a job until 2004.

For four years he was in “a stand-off” with the then Archbishop, Cardinal Connell.

“I pointed out to him that there was quite a range of women with a decent calling to the priesthood. They were not mad. I said I would like it made known to Rome,” he says. He doubts whether it was.

He was out of a job until Cardinal Connell retired and Archbishop Martin took over, when “a posting was made available”. He is unlikely ever to be a parish priest or an office holder in the church. Such people must take an oath to uphold the faith, which includes an acceptance that women should not be priests. McCarthy would refuse to take that oath. There are “a fair few” priests who share his views on women’s ordination but, like him, “they just get on with it”.