“Pink Smoke Over the Vatican”

April 16, 2011 at 9:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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Lately people I know have been going to a film about the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.” This week a member of the international women’s movement to which I also belong, the Grail, posted a request for the rest of us to donate money to make it possible for this film to be shown more widely. Here’s my response to her request.

Dear friends:

I would like to say a few words about this film, “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.”

As some of you may know, I have been active in the movement for Catholic women’s ordination for almost forty years. Along with Grail members Eleanor Walker and Janet Kalven I attended the first meeting of the Women’s Ordination Conference, in Detroit, in 1975. I served on the national board of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC) , the primary US organization working for RC women’s ordination, for five years, and as president of that board for two years. I have collected signatures outside churches for women’s ordination and addressed national assemblies of the wider women’s ordination movement.
The Roman Catholic WomenPriests (RCWP) movement, of which the women in this film are, I believe, members, is one phase of the movement for Catholic women’s ordination.  RCWP began with ordinations on a boat in the Danube some years ago, and members of the group are ordained regularly as priests and deacons here in the US and around the world. Their members have also been ordained bishops.
But nothing is simple. We never just wanted women priests. We wanted what Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza calls a “discipleship of equals,” in which laywomen and ordained women would not be assimilated into the same clerical hierarchy that has characterized the Catholic Church for centuries. And of course, there were ordained Catholic women long before Roman Catholic WomenPriests became, ostensibly, the Catholic women priests. My good friend Judy Heffernan was ordained by the Community of the Christian Spirit (CCS) in Philadelphia in the early 1980s and has been celebrating the liturgy with that group since then. But CCS did not ordain any bishops.
I am wary of the arrival of official women priests and  bishops in the women’s ordination movement. When I gave the keynote address for the 30th anniversary of the Women’s Ordination Conference in 2005, one of the RCWP bishops, Patricia Fresen, was the other keynoter. Afterwards WOC, the organization whose board I had served on, and for whom I had raised money, published Patricia’s talk  but not mine. Maybe it was an oversight. Or maybe talks by bishops are just more worthy of publication than talks by laywomen.
Because “Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” focuses on women priests and bishops, it risks re-inscribing the clerical hierarchy that some of us have been fighting to change for decades. If you see the film, I trust you will keep this in mind. Also,  another way to support women’s ordination is to make a donation to the Women’s Ordination Conference at http://www.womensordination.org/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,4/


In 2007 I also wrote an article for The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion on ethical questions related to the Catholic women’s ordination movement (and RCWP in particular). It expands on some of the points I make above and also raises questions about the whiteness of the women’s ordination movement overall. If you’d like to have a copy you can drop me a note at New York Theological Seminary, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 500,  New York, NY 10115 with your email address and I’ll send it to you. Or if you have my email address, feel free to write to me.

P.S. I have no idea why this post appears in different sized fonts on my actual blog page. When some younger people come for my birthday party tomorrow maybe one of them can fix it for me! Sorry.



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  1. Dear Marian and All,
    Your mentioning the 1975 Women’s Ordination Conference stirred memories, and an ache. My partner and wife Arlene Anderson Swidler spoke there. Last night I heard Bishop Patricia Fresen – now living in Stuttgart not far from our old home, Tubingen. Her presentation on Compassion would have brought forth manifold echoes from Arlene were she there.She would be deeply pleased to see this movement for love and justice continuing, even flourishing. I have to affirm the ongoing work of all of you twice: once for me and once for Arlene – Amen! Amen! Len and Arlene


  2. Dear Ms. Ronan:
    In your recent article about the film, Pink Smoke Over the Vatican, you whine about WOC publishing Patricia Fresen’s speech and not your own when the two of you spoke in Phila. in 2005. I talked to someone who was there and heard both speeches. Patricia compared the sin of racism with the sin of sexism. You disagreed and said that the two were not comparable.

    While racism is a terrible crime against humanity, sexism crosses every racial, ethnic, religious, and political boundary. It promotes rape, econonic and sexual exploitation of women and girls. It seeps into every single layer of society. WOC obviously thought that Patricia’s speech was more timely than yours. Get over it, and move on and accept that the women’s ordination movement will have several voices and some may be more prophetic than others. Parallels will be made between the women’s ordination movement and the women’s suffrage movement that happened almost a hundred years ago. At that time, there was a strong element of disagreement among the women as to methods of attaining suffrage. Historians have written papers and dwelt over this disagreement and even characterized it as “female bickering”. Women’s ordination will eventually happen. Please don’t help contribute to future male historians’ characterizations. This is a time for unity not discord.

    Have you or Mary Hunt, Diana Neu, Eliz. Schussler-Fiorenza or other feminist theologians ever recently talked to these ordained women bishops or the many women priests who are not all featured in the Pink Smoke film? Have you ever bothered to visit any of their communities and see their pastoral work , their emerging ministries and more importantly talk to the people they serve? Assumptions should not provide the basis for academic dissertations.

    Bruce Thiel


  3. Few would disagree that the current Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement stands on the shoulders of giants. Many people worked for many years to make this happen. As Malcom Gladwell writes, there comes a “tipping point” when “things hoped for” become true.

    I would agree that nothing is ever simple. Life itself is complex. Which is why I have trouble understanding why Marian Ronan and others persist in believing that RCWP is NOT a discipleship of equals.

    I guess I’m sorry that RCWP doesn’t meet the requirements set forth in the above comment that RCWP is not what the theologians are looking for, but it seems to me that Marian has not visited any RCWP communities or talked to any member of RCWp to learn if her perception is true. I know she has not spoken to me once since my ordination in 2006, and we both have belonged to SEpa-WOC for years.

    I believe Marian now lives in New York. There are two RCWP communities in that vicinity; one in NYC and another in Newton, NJ. She could visit her friends in Philadephia and attend The Community of St. Mary Magdalene. I hereby extend a cordial invitation.

    In our Community of ST. Mary Magdalene which is located in a Phila. suburb, I am the priest. However, I am just a member of the community with no special privileges. Everything our community does, we vote upon. If I am not present at mass, another member presides. We have multiple preachers as well. In addtion, we have interactive homiles where members of the congregation might disagree with what I have said. All of us pray the words of institution together. The Eucharistic Ministers pray the offertory prayer and remain with me at the altar durng the Eucharistic prayer. We hold up the elements together and pray the great amen. I do not distribute communion and I receive last.

    In addition, if she had read the RCWP structures document, she would have learned that bishops have no temporal power in the organization. They exist only in a pastoral capacity. The reason there are American bishops is be/c the movement is growing so rapidly, we couldn’t have Patrica Fresen flying over from Europe several times a year to do ordinations. She doesn’t have the energy and the organization doesn’t have the finances.

    If RCWP hopes to reform the RC church and provide a new model of priesthood, then we need to have ordinations that are valid, if illicit. This is another reason why RCWP has bishops.

    I would strongly urge Marian and others to read our documents and visit our communities before making statements that are, in reality, nothing but assumptions.

    I would also like to say that RCWP had no hand in the making of “Pink Smoke.” That was the film maker’s project. She interviewed us and chose what she thought was important. So, if things seemed to be left out, it needs to be taken up with the film maker and not the organization. The film was her baby, not ours.

    And lastly, academicians ignore the pastoral aspect of priesthood. Certainly, Ronan, Schussler-Firorenza, and Radford Ruther are ready for a priestless liturgy. That is their prerogative and they should worship in a manner that best fits their liturgical needs. They should not, however, speak for others or assume that other Catholics think as they do.

    The people in the pews to whom I minister – who are articulate and well-read -are not interested in being the priest. People who attend our mass are looking for something that is very close to the traditional RC mass without the patriarchy. They want the parts of the mass, prayers that they recognize. They expect the Eucharist every Sunday. Perhaps at some point, there will be no need for priests. That point remains in the future.

    Marian, I’ll be waiting for your visit to St. Mary Magdalene.

    Eileen DiFranco, RCWP


  4. Amen to Dr. Ronan’s plea for a “discipleship of equals.” The taste for power and status is what corrupts the patriarchal priesthood.

    Many years ago, a priest friend of mine took himself and his ulcer to a hospital emergency room on two occasions. The first time he went in jeans and sweatshirt. If you’ve ever gone alone and in pain to an emergency room, you probably know how long he had to wait, how brusquely he was treated.

    The second time he wore a clerical collar. Immediately, “Father” was reverenced and bumped to the head of the line–and you know the rest. The scales fell from his eyes. He didn’t like it a bit. He still remembers it with embarassment. Would that we all had his sensitivity to the injustice of special privilege.


  5. I am a friend and supporter of the RCWPs since 2005, even though now I have left the RC Church and belong to another international organization – Enlightennext, where women are forging a post-postmodern model for women.

    I am pleased by most of the comments here. It is so easy to be in an ivory tower and not have a broad enough perspective to see that people are on different levels of conscious development and have to first be met where they are. I remember reading Marion Ronan’s article (and I sent it to Patricia Fresen). Reading her post now, I also hope that she can “get over it,”drop her grudge, see more clearly what is really happening, acknowledge her contributions to the cause and with some humility, move on.

    My main point is: when will privileged women start transcending their egos enough to support one another instead of competing and tearing up and bickering with each other? This is the reason we are unsuccesful in taking a stand to move everyone forward and then are labelled as “those bickering women!”


  6. The RC Women priest movement is a feminist snakepit. Years ago some so called women priests refused to concelebrate with a male priest because of “patriarchy.” They actually gave this as a reason. This is nothing but the infusion of secular feminist politics into a realm where it does not belong. My exposure to the RC Women Priest movement years ago opened my eyes: these are cliquish, social agenda driven types moved by ego and the “place of women in society” more than true spiritual concerns. The search for truth to them means nothing if it is not seen through a secular feminist agenda. Their so called Masses are filled with pop up innovations and on-the-spot inventions; they turn tradition upside down; they are like members of WICCA. Truly sad.


  7. As one woman priest on here mentioned, “If I am not present at Mass, another member presides.” Here we have this fiasco in a nutshell. A priest can be anybody; anybody can say Mass; anybody can do it. This is so sad and deluded. Again, this is like the polemics of Marxism or liberation theology. We hope that one day these wannabe fantasy priests will see the light. Perhaps they will.


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