Like any good priest, Judy Lee knows how to use a Bible story. One of the readings for Roman Catholic Masses on a recent Sunday, from the Book of Wisdom, recounts how the Hebrews defied the pharaoh by worshipping God "in secret." That passage resonates at the house in Fort Myers, Fla., where Lee is conducting Mass for 25 Catholics gathered in front of a coffee-table altar in defiance of the Pope. "Rome says you'll be thrown out of the church for being here," says Lee, "because I'm a woman."
Lee, 67, considers herself a validly ordained Catholic priest. The Vatican disagrees. "The Catholic Church ... has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women" because Jesus had no female Apostles, Lee was told in a letter from the local bishop, the Rev. Frank Dewane who also informed her that she had been excommunicated for ignoring that doctrine. Lee's reply: "Rome can impose all the rules it wants on women, divorced people, gay people. But it can't stop us."
She and the more than 100 other women who claim to be Catholic priests in the U.S. and abroad can thank the church for one thing: its hysterical response to their movement in July the Vatican branded female ordination a delictum gravius, or grave crime, the same label it has given pedophilia has elicited enough attention to lift their profile out of the catacombs. As TV-news trucks waited outside, Nancy Corran, 37, took holy orders on July 31 at the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, a five-year-old San Diego splinter parish with 150 members. Rome's latest decree, says Corran, "was outrageous even for the church." Says Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at the University of Notre Dame: "It's a sign the church knows this isn't going away."
That's the hope of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group founded eight years ago in Europe. It has since ordained women like Lee and Corran in more than 20 American states and Canada. Womenpriests and other organizations promoting female Catholic clerics, like the Women's Ordination Conference, don't expect to change Vatican doctrine anytime soon. But their growing following signals that Catholics, already incensed by the never ending clerical sexual-abuse crisis, are losing patience with Rome's refusal to let women into the leadership of a church to which more than 20% of Americans belong. "We're the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church," says Bridget Mary Meehan, a Womenpriests bishop and former nun. "We no longer accept second-class status in our own religion."
Meehan, 62, once did ministry work that included "everything a priest does," she says except saying Mass. So in 2006 she was made a priest by a group of German female theologians who four years earlier had been ordained by a renegade cleric and who were made bishops, they claim, by a sympathetic European bishop whose identity they won't reveal. If true, that Da Vinci Code like scenario, they argue, gives the Womenpriests the legitimacy of apostolic succession, the priestly line that dates back to Jesus' Apostles.
Like Meehan, most of the almost 80 Catholic women ordained in the U.S. hold advanced religious degrees and have logged years of lay work in the church, from premarriage counseling to serving Communion. Many are married another doctrinal no-no, since Catholic priests, with rare exceptions, must be celibate and they often have outside jobs to make ends meet. Mary Magdalene Apostle's pastor, Jane Via, is a San Diego County prosecutor.