Woman in Priestly Garb Sounds ‘a Great Echo’
By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
As a child, she prayed to St. Rita — much venerated in Sicily — asking for her intervention to become a priest.
But the Roman Catholic Church has no place for women among its clerical ranks, as the Vatican stated forcefully over the summer when it decreed that the attempt to ordain female priests is to be considered one of the most serious crimes against church law.
Ms. Longhitano’s spiritual journey eventually led her to the Old Catholic Church, a denomination that split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century, mostly over the issue of papal infallibility. She studied theology at the University of Catania.
On May 22 — coincidentally, the feast day of St. Rita — Ms. Longhitano, 35, was ordained a priest in a ceremony in an Anglican church in Rome. She is now known as Mother Vittoria, and is preparing to lead a congregation in Sabbioneta, Lombardy (though last month she celebrated her first Mass in Sicily, where she was on vacation).
There are fewer than 300 practicing Old Catholics in Italy, according to Fritz-René Müller, the Switzerland-based bishop who ordained her. But for Italians unaccustomed to seeing women in priestly garb, Mother Vittoria’s ordination “had a great echo; it was a small earthquake,” he said.
It reverberated especially loudly against a backdrop of mounting dissatisfaction — even in this traditionally Roman Catholic country — with what many perceive as the Vatican’s inadequate response to the global pedophilia scandal sweeping the clergy. Widely covered by the Italian news media, her ordination seemed to present another instance of a changing society at odds with the Vatican and its worldview.
“It was a strong signal, a way of opening the way,” said Mother Vittoria. “Rome is the center of Christianity; I think I gave a sense of hope to sister Catholics.”
Perhaps, but her Roman Catholic sisters will have to bide their time.
In July, the Vatican made revisions to internal laws to include the attempted ordination of women among its “more grave delicts,” or offenses, making it comparable to heresy, apostasy and pedophilia. Since 2008, the ordination of women has carried the penalty of excommunication, both for the woman and the person trying to ordain her.
Equating ordination of women with a crime like pedophilia drew howls of outrage from many Catholics.
“Perhaps those who crafted the document are on to something,” two professors at Seattle University — Fran Ferder, a Franciscan nun and clinical psychologist, and John Heagle, a priest, psychotherapist and canon lawyer — wrote last month in The National Catholic Reporter. “The refusal to allow women into the inner sanctum of ecclesial power may well be related to clergy sexual abuse, and to the Vatican’s impotence in addressing this crime in a truly pastoral way. Is the attempted ordination of women a crime, or is the real crime the refusal to allow it?”
Erin Saiz Hanna, executive director of the Washington-based Women’s Ordination Conference, argued that placing the ordination of female priests in the rank of “highest crime” suggested that the Vatican was on the defensive “because our movement is growing.” She said that about 100 women had become Roman Catholic priests since a group of seven women were ordained in 2002 in a ceremony on the Danube River in Austria — though they are clearly not recognized by the church.
At the time the document was issued, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, the chairman of the Committee on Doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “Women offer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosity at the very heart of the Catholic Church.”
But, he added, “the Catholic Church through its long and constant teaching holds that ordination has been, from the beginning, reserved to men, a fact which cannot be changed despite changing times.”
Mother Vittoria said that she was actually optimistic about the effects of the recent Vatican pronouncement, and that she believed that the ban on priests could ultimately open the road to having female deacons, who are also not currently allowed in the Roman Catholic Church. “The world is changing, and I see that there’s growing support for women,” she said.
Vatican observers were more doubtful. In fact, the closing of Vatican ranks to women may be leading more people to the open doors of the Old Catholic Church, Bishop Müller said.
“People are coming to us, I think because we are a free Catholic church, and are not dependent on the Vatican’s centralism,” he said. The Italian and Swiss churches are part of the Union of Utrecht, a federation of Old Catholic churches that are in full communion with the Anglican Church. The clergy can marry and have children.
That is not to say that the Old Catholic Church did not have its own growing pains about admitting women to the clergy. The first woman was ordained in Switzerland, for instance, in 2000 after “years of debate,” he said, and some Old Catholic dioceses — Poland, for one — still do not accept the ordination of women. “Polish women don’t want to, but maybe they will in a few years,” he said. Currently women make up about 10 percent of the clergy in Union of Utrecht in Switzerland and in Germany, he said.
Because Italy is predominantly Roman Catholic, it has also gone practically unnoticed that Italian women have taken on central roles in some Protestant faiths. Pastor Maria Bonafede is the moderator of the Waldensian Church; Alessandra Trotta was elected president of the Methodist Church in Italy last year, and Anna Maffei is the president of the Christian Evangelical Baptist Union of Italy.
Even Mother Vittoria has a predecessor in the Old Catholic Church — Mother Teodora Tosatti, who was ordained in 2006 in a ceremony in Bonn, Germany.
The document issued over the summer by the Vatican made it clear that excommunication was in store for anyone involved in the ordination of a woman.
“We were excommunicated in 2008, but we rejected it,” said Bridget Mary Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Womenpriests organization, who was ordained a priest in 2006 without Vatican consent. “What matters is that we follow our conscience.”