A Cincinnati nun was excommunicated and dismissed from her Roman Catholic religious order last week after admitting she has been secretly acting as a priest since this spring.
Sister Letetia "Tish" Rawles, who has been a nun for 47 years, told the leaders of her order she was ordained in April as part of a movement that has been rebuked repeatedly by the church for violating Catholic teaching. Rawles, 67, has presided over religious services in secret and ministered to people who lived with her in a Cincinnati nursing care facility.
While other women have been ordained priests in violation of Catholic teaching, Rawles is believed to be the first member of a religious order in Greater Cincinnati to acknowledge taking that step and to face dismissal because of her actions.
Supporters appealed to the Vatican on Tuesday to allow Rawles, who is critically ill, to remain with the Dayton, Ohio-based Sisters of the Precious Blood. They said she has served the church as a teacher and care giver for decades and should be allowed to remain a nun, even if the church does not recognize her as a priest.
"Here's a woman who has devoted 47 years of her life in service to the people of God," said Janice Sevre-Duszynska, spokeswoman for the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. "And now she's being thrown out of her community."
Rawles said she felt called to the priesthood since childhood and wanted to respond to that call before it was too late. "I thought that before I die, I want to fulfill God's call and my life-long dream to become a priest," Rawles said in a statement Tuesday.
The Catholic Church, however, is unequivocal in its rejection of the ordination of women priests. Pope John Paul II told the faithful 20 years ago that "the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." Subsequent popes have said nothing to change that position, which the church has held for centuries.
Under church law, Rawles was excommunicated, or separated from the church, the day she was ordained a priest. Sister Joyce Lehman, president of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, said the religious order had no choice but to dismiss Rawles.
Lehman said she spoke to Rawles last week after learning she may have taken part in the ordination ceremony in April. She said Rawles confirmed she had done so.
"She has gone against what the Catholic Church teaches," Lehman said. "We didn't make a big decision to do this. She was dismissed as a result of her actions."
Catholics have debated the ordination of women for years, and national surveys show a majority of Catholics believe the church should permit it. A Pew poll in June found 59 percent of Catholics support the idea.
Some have argued women priests would alleviate a serious priest shortage in the United States and in other parts of the world, while others say there is scant support for a male-only priesthood in the New Testament and that some historical evidence suggests women did act as priests in the early church.
But the Vatican's position shows no sign of changing. The case against women priests is based on the writings of church fathers, as well as New Testament references cautioning that women "could not teach or have authority over a man."
Yet a small but growing movement has sought to ordain women while continuing to push for change within the church. Sevre-Duszynska said 77 women have been ordained through a two-year program overseen by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, and about 220 have been ordained worldwide. They do so even though ordination means immediate excommunication from the church.
"We also are created in the image of God," she said. "We also feel the call to the priesthood."
Lehman said she and other members of the Sisters of the Precious Blood were shocked to learn a member of the order had spent two years studying to be a priest and then had taken part in an ordination ceremony.
"She kept it secret from us," Lehman said. "There's no way she didn't know the consequences. This isn't something that should have been a surprise to her."
Although Rawles no longer is a member of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, Lehman said the order would make sure she continues to receive medical care and housing.
"We are in the process of setting up some means of financial support," she said. "Not because she was in the order, but because she is a person in need."