After nearly five decades as a Catholic nun, Tish Rawles became a priest—and found herself cast out. Now she’s calling on Pope Francis to do what Jesus would’ve done and bring her back.
When Letitia “Tish” Rawles was ordained as a Catholic priest in April, it was the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of yearning—and a practical fix to ministering to the sick and dying at her Cincinnati assisted living facility, where it was often hard to find a priest to administer last rites.“I’ve wanted to be a priest since… probably the fourth grade, as soon as I started attending Catholic school,” she told The Daily Beast. “I always wondered why there were no women at the altar, only men.”
But Rawles didn’t know any female priests then, so she became a nun despite feeling the “deeper calling” of the priesthood. “And I’ve loved being a nun,” she said.
The 67-year-old had that taken away from her last week, though, when the Ohio-based Sisters of the Precious Blood, the order she’d been with for 47 years, found out about her ordination and told her she was out. She was automatically excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which bars women from the priesthood and shows no signs of budging from that position.
Now Rawles and her supporters say they’re appealing to Pope Francis during his Year of Mercy to restore her to the church and to her order. That’s what Jesus would have done, they say.
“This is an opportunity for Pope Francis to take a step towards reconciliation and healing misogyny in the church,” Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests told The Daily Beast. “The full equality of women in the church is the voice of God in our time.”
The ARCWP is one of many organizations pushing for allowing women to be Catholic priests but an outlier in that it ordains women. Meehan said the ARCWP’s female bishops were even ordained by an anonymous male Catholic bishop, linking them to an unbroken lineage leading back to the apostles.
“Did she know it was against the rules, did we know it was against the rules? Of course,” Meehan said. “But we are the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church.”
The ARCWP emphasizes the Catholic concept of “primacy of conscience,” which it says allows it to choose to dissent from an unjust teaching.
“We’re walking in the footsteps of prophets and saints,” Meehan said. “Look at Joan of Arc. They burned her at the stake for what? For following her conscience.”
For Rawles, though, joining the priesthood wasn’t an easy decision.
Even after attending services led by women priests, she tried to convince herself that she was too old, too sick to take on the task herself. Rawles said she suffers from multiple sclerosis, late stage liver disease, and diabetes.
To my mind, the Synod on the Family, no matter what the outcome of the Synod’s final report, or the Pope’s final statement, has been a resounding success. The assembled participants have had the chance to discuss some of the most important issues facing the church, and the discussions have been open, transparent and free. Thus, it has been a great success, and betokens still more openness in the future. Pope Francis has given the church a gift with this Synod.
But this morning something very disturbing was revealed, thanks to a perceptive question by Thomas J. Reese, SJ, former editor in chief of America and currently a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter. Brother Herve Janson, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order noted for its poverty and simplicity, was one of the participants at the daily press briefing. It was noted that he was also a voting member.
Father Reese asked, rightly, “What is the rationale for you being admitted to the Synod and religious women not being admitted to the Synod? (The exchange can be seen on the video below, starting at 42:00)
What does that mean? Basically, Brother Janson is not ordained. Some may not be aware of this tradition, but you can be a member of a men’s religious order and not be ordained: thus the term “Brother.” Brother Janson is neither a bishop, nor a priest, nor a deacon. Technically, his canonical “status” in the church is that of a layman. That is, he has the same “status” as that of a woman religious, or in common parlance, a Catholic sister. And the same status as a laywoman as well.
In response to Father Reese’s question, which produced some uncomfortable laughter from the other panelists (who immediately grasped the challenging nature of the question): Brother Janson said (my translation from the French): “That is a big question….I felt very uncomfortable (malaise)….Before, the distinction was between cleric and lay. And now, it became between man and woman, exactly as you said very well….I asked myself the same question.” Strikingly, Brother Janson said he thought of refusing (renoncer) the invitation to be a voting member, out of solidarity with women religious. (This exchange can be viewed at 42:00 in the video below.)
This is a serious failure for the Synod. Previously, at least as far as I had known, it seemed that ordination was a prerequisite for voting. That is, there were priests who were appointed, in addition to the bishops, as voting members. There were strong theological arguments that could be advanced for that: it was a synod of bishops, and, in Catholic theology, priests participate in the ministry of the bishop through the sacrament of holy orders.
Now, it seems that the prerequisite for being a voting member was not ordination, but being a man.
It would have been extremely easy for the Synod to have invited—as it did with Brother Janson—a Catholic sister to participate in the Synod, with voting rights. Perhaps the head of a women’s religious order could have been invited, or a woman religious who worked in the Vatican, or a woman religious who had experience in the theology of family life. It would also have been easy (since Brother Janson is a layman) to invite another layman or a laywoman to vote.
For me this is the worst kind of sexism. It goes against the Pope’s explicit desire to have more women in “leadership roles” in the church, as he said in Evangelii Gaudium: “We need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church.” (10).
It is also, to use some theological language, a sign. The church teaches, as Jesus did, by both word and deed. The “sign value” of having a voting member who was a woman—even one—would have been immense. It was a huge missed opportunity.
Finally, while some may dismiss my comments as off topic, the decision to not to include women has to do with the family. Sexism is something that many, if not most, of our mothers, daughters and sisters have to deal with. The last thing the Synod should have been doing is creating more problems for the members of our family.
Deeply divided clerics at a landmark Vatican summit echoed the more inclusive tone of Pope Francis on Saturday, extending more welcoming language to divorced and gay Catholics but stopping short of calling for clear alterations in policy and leaving the extent of any change in the hands of the mercurial pontiff.
The meeting — known as a synod — marked the culmination of a two-year process to recalibrate the faith’s approach to families in the 21st century and broke new ground by tackling issues once considered taboo in the Roman Catholic Church. In the most significant pronouncement, the clerics cracked open the door for divorced and remarried Catholics, who the church teaches are technically living in adultery, to receive Communion — a sacrament from which they are currently officially barred.
But the synod did not explicitly condone a change either, leaving Francis room to interpret the will of his hierarchy. The document also recognized the “dignity” of homosexuals, while also saying there was not even a “remote” similarity between same-sex unions and “God’s design on matrimony and family.”
The final communiqué, while a significant bellwether of the hierarchy’s thinking, nevertheless amounts only to a recommendation to Francis. As pope in the benevolent autocracy that is Vatican City, Francis now has the final say.
Liberals at the synod were pragmatic, saying they were impressed they got as far as they did given significant conservative resistance. But the staunch opposition to fast change suggested how difficult it may now be for Francis to translate his revolutionary style into substance.
It also puts him in a highly difficult position. If he fails to change the status quo, he risks disappointing liberal Catholics — as well as many non-Catholics — who have heralded him worldwide as an agent of change. Yet going too far beyond the recommendations could alienate many in his own divided church, triggering an even stronger backlash among conservatives — some of whom are already openly questioning the direction of his papacy.
“What the pope has to do now is take all of this in and decide how to we use it,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington. “He may decide to use bits and pieces in different ways.”
Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago — who is participating in the Synod of the Family at Pope Francis’ personal invitation — said at a press scrum in the Vatican press office this afternoon that the conscience is “inviolable” and that he believes divorced and remarried couples could be permitted to receive the sacraments, if they have “come to a decision” to do so “in good conscience” – theological reasoning that he indicated in response to a follow-up question would also apply to gay couples.
During the lengthy press briefing, the archbishop also spoke approvingly of the so-called “Kasper Proposal,” which would permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion in some cases. Cupich explained that he had distributed Cardinal Walter Kasper’s book, The Gospel of the Family, in which the cardinal had laid out this proposal, to all of the priests in his diocese.
“In Chicago I visit regularly with people who feel marginalized: the elderly, the divorced and remarried, gay and lesbian individuals and also couples. I think that we really need to get to know what their life is like if we’re going to accompany them,” he said.
When asked to give a concrete example of how he would accompany the divorced and remarried in their desire to receive the sacraments, Cupich replied: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that.”
When asked by LifeSiteNews if the notion of accompanying people to “the Sacrament” who had a clear indication of conscience to do so also applied to gay couples in the Church, Cupich indicated an affirmative answer.
“I think that gay people are human beings too and they have a conscience. And my role as a pastor is to help them to discern what the will of God is by looking at the objective moral teaching of the Church and yet, at the same time, helping them through a period of discernment to understand what God is calling them to at that point,” he said. “It’s for everybody. I think that we have to make sure that we don’t pigeonhole one group as though they are not part of the human family, as though there’s a different set of rules for them. That would be a big mistake.”
The Catholic Church teaches that while a person “must always obey the certain judgement of his conscience” the conscience, at the same time, must be formed by the “Word of God” and the “Church’s authority and her teaching” to make judgments that are “in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.”
“Conscience can remain in ignorance or make erroneous judgements. Such ignorance and errors are not always free of guilt,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states.
On Cardinal Kasper’s proposal specifically, Cupich said, “I really do find his treatment of what he calls the Gospel of the family – it’s published in a book, and I gave it, by the way, to all of my priests, I wanted them to read that because I thought it was very rich theologically.”
“I think he has reasoned this proposal well…I am open to looking at all of it,” he said. “I do think that we can’t ignore the fact that there are lots of people out there who feel stuck, and we have to look for a way in which we’re going to reach out to them.”
Cupich said “we should look at a way in which people are not just accompanied but integrated and reconciled.”
Kasper’s proposal has been criticized by faithful leaders in the Church such as Cardinal Burke as a “serious error” since it makes doctrine and pastoral practice appear to be in conflict with one another.
“The pastoral practice exists to help us to live the truths of the faith, to live the doctrine of the faith in our daily lives. You can’t have a conflict [between these],” said Burke in an interview with LifeSiteNews yesterday.
Others, such as Cardinal Marc Ouellet, have criticized Kasper’s proposal as resulting from a mistaken notion of God’s mercy.
It is “not a matter” of the Church “being more or less ‘merciful’ with regard to persons in irregular situations, but of taking seriously the truth of the sacraments (the gifts of the Bridegroom) and their missionary dimension,” Ouellet wrote in a recently published book on marriage and the family.
Archbisop Cupich had previously responded to a question, in December 2014, about giving Holy Communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians, saying he would “not use the Eucharist or as they call it the communion rail as the place to have those discussions or weigh in which people would be either excluded from the life of the church.”
Since his appointment as bishop of Spokane in 2010, Cupich has developed a reputation as one of the most “progressive” bishops in the U.S. episcopate. Last year, Pope Francis tapped Cupich to lead the Chicago archdiocese, one of the country’s most prominent dioceses, previously led by the conservative Cardinal Francis George.
In 2011 Cupich, then bishop of Spokane, forbade priests in his diocese from taking part in the semi-annual 40 Days for Life pro-life prayer vigil. His response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to redefine marriage focused primarily on decrying discrimination against homosexuals rather than criticizing the imposition of same-sex “marriage.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” and that “under no circumstances can they be approved” since they are contrary to God’s plan for sexuality.
“They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life,” states the Catechism.
The Catholic Church teaches the those who present themselves to receive Holy Communion, which Catholics believe to be the real body and blood of Jesus Christ, must be in the state of grace and be free from mortal sin, which cuts off the life of God’s grace from the soul.
Around a hundred people gathered at the Pilgrim Centre “Santa Teresa Couderc” in Rome, for the international conference entitled Ways of Love: Snapshots of Catholic Encounters With LGBT People and Their Families, sponsored by the “Global Network of Rainbow Catholics”, a worldwide network of organisations that, in the name of “social justice”, demands inclusion and dignity for LGBT people and their families within the Catholic Church and society in general.
The meeting was attended by Catholic pastoral leaders from around the world, who came together to share, through their stories, their pastoral approach and work in favour of LGBT people within their ecclesiastical communities. In addition to drawing up new action plans, a clear and stated objective of the initiative was to apply some pressure to the impending crucial Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the topic of the Family, which opened in Rome on Monday 5th October.
Presenting the event, two of the conference spokespersons, Andrea Rubera and Martin Pendergast, advocated peaceful dialogue with the community and Catholic institutions, stating:
“Taking inspiration from the second Encyclical of Pope Francis, (Laudato Si), we feel that the time has come for us all to build and care for our shared home, the Church, with commitment from every member of the Roman Catholic community. Our shared home does not need struggle or division. We must find a place for each and every one of God’s people, including LGBT people. The experiences that we bring to the conference in Rome on ‘The Ways of Love’ show us that pastoral work, for and with LGBT people, is already a reality in many parts of the world, without creating any problems for the communities in which it takes place. The idea that we wish to put to the bishops gathered in Rome for the Synod is that we can – and we must – find new ways to spread these models of pastoral work and develop new ones.”
The first speech of the day, as part of the “Snapshots of Pastoral LGBT Projects”, was that of Chilean Jesuit priest Pedro Labrin, the national ecclesiastical assistant of the “Christian Life Community” (CLC/CVX) in Chile. Speaking of his initiative “Sexual Diversity Pastoral Padis+”, which promotes the full inclusion of LGBT people within the Catholic Church, Labrin recalled the story of Daniel Zamudio, presenting him as a martyr of homophobia: “The blood of martyrs is still fresh and it is they who help us to understand what the Second Vatican Council meant by the term Church, the People of God. (…) Daniel did not die by God’s will but by the will of homophobes”.
Next, the American nun Jeannine Gramick took the floor: she was the founder in 1997 with Father Robert Nugent, of the “New Ways Ministry” in the Archdiocese of Washington – an organisation founded with the aim of promoting “justice and reconciliation between lesbian and gay Catholics and the wider Catholic community”. In 1999, as a result of her work and in clear contrast with Catholic doctrine Sister Gramick, together with Father Nugent, was the subject of a notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith through which they were “permanently prohibited from any pastoral work involving homosexual persons” and ineligible, “for an indeterminate period, for any office in their respective religious institutions”.
Sister Gramick said she converted to a broader and more authentic interpretation of the Gospel after meeting a lesbian, and she spoke of her tireless work in favour of LGBT people. In particular, Gramick stressed the commitment of her parish in the referendum campaign in favour of same-sex marriage equality, a commitment that has made a decisive contribution to changing the opinion of many Catholics, convincing them to vote in favour of gay marriage. Sister Gramick said that she received the approval of the bishop himself for her work, who, despite being publicly known as a conservative, showed great compassion for the LGBT cause. Following the gay marriage victory, according to Sister Gramick the bishop conceded defeat, admitting: “You have won and we have lost; it is you who talk of love and acceptance and not us!” Then Sister Gramick, hoping that the experience of the “New Ways Ministry” may extend from the United States out into the world, offered those at the conference some guidelines and pastoral advice to put into practice in their own parishes and communities: the importance of direct communication with the bishops of the dioceses; the involvement of parishioners, putting them in touch with their bishops to demonstrate to them the faith of lesbians, bisexual, transgender and transsexual people who need to feel accepted, not only by parish priests, but also by the most senior hierarchies of the Church.
Next to speak was Martin Pendergast, a member of the Pastoral Council of Westminster for LGBT Catholics, who shared his own experiences by presenting the projectAll are welcome. After declaring that “homosexuals have the right to effective and welcoming pastoral care” and “the same rights as heterosexuals to receive the sacraments”, Pendergast, who lives happily with another man, stressed that the initiative All are welcome had received the support of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of the Catholic diocese of Westminster. Pendergast then recalled the vicissitudes of his LGBT community in recent years, highlighting with satisfaction how the current church of “Jesuit Farm Street” held a popular “gay Mass”, open to Catholics of all sexual orientation, creating a truly inclusive community where “pastoral needs and concerns are welcomed by the parish and the diocese”. He also hoped that the example of the pastoral work in “Farm Street” may, in the future, become a model to be exported to all other dioceses across the world, stating that there are already many ecclesiastical communities that are interested in the work they are doing. With this is mind, Pendergast gave some practical suggestions, recommending that the model should “not be imposed from above but grow from the roots of pastoral practice.” He then concluded his speech, expressing the hope that in the next Synod on the Family: “a real listening process can be opened up on a global, national and diocesan level, so that the pastoral needs of LGBT Catholics and their families are not given a “one size fits all” pastoral model, but a response that takes into account each and every individual aspect, also leading to grace”.
It was then the turn of Italians Pino Piva and Anna Vitagliano to take the floor, presenting their joint initiatives in the LGBT field. Jesuit Father Piva talked about his project Church, a home for everybody, launched on 3rd April 2014 and still in progress in the parish of San Saba in Rome “Where people, not stereotypes, meet”. The initiative, launched in the parish and ardently supported by Monsignor Matthew Zuppi, auxiliary bishop of Central Rome, is an “invitation to meet and share spiritual experiences with others, seen from the viewpoint of each individual: secular or religious, elderly or young, gay or straight, single or married, cohabiting or divorced”. According to Father Piva, the future of pastoral work must continue in this inclusive direction, so that people are heard before any words of blame or condemnation are spoken.
Anna Vitagliano then presented the initiatives organised as part of the Spirituality of Frontiersproject held at the Casa del Sacro Cuore in Galloro in the province of Rome. This is a two-fold educational initiative consisting of a “spiritual weekend retreat”, linked to the Roman initiativeChurch, a home for everybody and “Training workshops for pastoral ministers and spiritual leaders”.
The day’s proceedings were concluded by the most anticipated and important speaker of all due to the position he holds, the Dominican Bishop Raúl Vera López from the Mexican diocese of Saltillo, known for his views that are openly in contrast with Catholic doctrine, in favour of the rights claimed by LGBT and promotion of abortion. The bishop started by declaring that he felt honoured and privileged to be breaking new ground together with the LGBT community. He then praised the skill and organisational capacity of the gay rights movement, likening the LGBT community to the tiny ants in a Mexican proverb which, through their perseverance and hard work, manage to defeat monsters far greater than themselves: “those who are small and well organised overcome the monsters; you are well organised and you will win.”
Lastly, Bishop Vera López pointed the finger at those priests who, he said, use the Bible as a club to beat poor sinners, and urged them to open their eyes to today’s social changes. At this point, having declared his support for all kinds of family, gay and straight, he addressed the audience with a heartfelt and urgent appeal: “We need you to create a more inclusive church; you are our saviours. (…) The Church did the same work with migrants and subsequently society began to change. (…) Now, Pope Francis needs us. He has cast aside the doctrine and has taken up the Gospel of mercy, peace and love. Please help us!”
This international conference organised by the “Global Network of Rainbow Catholics” shows only too clearly the historic conflict taking place within the Catholic Church. The now famous and overused phrase of Pope Francis from July 2013, “if a person is gay and seeks God, who am I to judge” has proven to be an extraordinary boost for the LGBT community which, in spite of the doctrine, is today seeking a revolution within the Church in the name of the Gospel and God’s mercy. The numerous guest speakers demonstrated that this process is already underway and, in some cases, is also benefiting from significant support within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.