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They perform baptisms and legally recognized marriages. They say Mass in private homes or sanctuaries lent by Protestant churches. Lee ministers to the homeless of Fort Myers, which has one of the nation's highest home-foreclosure rates. "I was drawn to the strong moral imperative of Catholic social teaching," she says. "That's the doctrine that matters."
Most of the U.S.'s 65 million Catholics consider the church's logic behind the ban on female priests to be as thin as a Communion wafer. In a May New York Times CBS poll, 59% said they favor ordaining women. Groups like Womenpriests maintain that the New Testament and early Christian art show that women like Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus' most trusted followers, were apostles, priests and bishops before medieval misogyny took hold of the church.
Church leaders deny any sexism and insist that July's delictum gravius statement never meant to compare women's ordination to pedophilia per se. Still, critics feel that in its panic to defend doctrine, the Vatican is forgetting decency. What's more, says Kaveny, Rome's heavy-handedness has "gotten Catholics who had before been largely quiet about this issue saying, We should discuss this again."
Conservative Catholics say this is really about feminist politics, and certainly there is overlap. The Womenpriests use a liturgy that stresses gender neutrality ("In the name of God our Father and Mother ..."), and they don't toe the Vatican line against birth control and abortion, endorsing instead the Catholic tenet of informed individual conscience. They also favor the kind of new-age, Mother Earth music that can grate on even progressive Catholics.
What really spooks Rome, the women say, is their drive to reform an insular, hyper-hierarchical church that betrays early Christianity's more democratic culture and whose bosses have too often protected pedophile priests. "We don't want to just add women to the structure already there," says Corran. Via, who works with child-abuse victims, notes that the church has excommunicated her but not one pederast cleric. "We can no longer indulge this self-preserving all-male system," she says. Asked why they don't go to the Episcopal Church, which ordains women, they say they won't abandon their religion and its sacraments because of a defective church. "We're leading, not leaving, the church," says Meehan.
It's debatable whether female ordination would help empower the Catholic laity or soften the church's overweening clericalism. Women, after all, know how to abuse authority too. But reform is a key draw for Catholics who attend Womenpriests Masses and who the church says face excommunication as well. "If you look at the history of Christianity, large-scale reforms always started with small movements like this," says Ray Trybus, 66, a Jesuit-educated lifelong Catholic and dean of psychology at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif., who attends Mass at Mary Magdalene Apostle. "Women tend to bring a different tenor and perspective that governments and corporations have benefited from and which the priesthood now needs to include."
Numbers may force Rome's hand. Since 1985, the number of U.S. Catholic priests has plunged almost a third, to fewer than 40,000; more than 3,400 American parishes are without a resident priest, up from 1,051. To replenish the ranks, the church will probably let male priests marry before it ever ordains women. But the female priests say this should be about doing the right thing, not just the numerical thing. That's the chant from their makeshift altars and with an unintentional assist from Rome, they're finally being heard.
This article originally appeared in the September 27, 2010 issue of Time magazine.