Newnan woman challenges Catholic Church on female priests

On Saturday, Diane Dougherty will defy centuries-old Roman Catholic tradition when she is ordained a priest in a ceremony that her church will neither recognize nor accept.

Nevertheless, the first invitation she sent was to Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.

She doesn’t expect him to attend.

Dougherty is part of a controversial movement to ordain women as priests and deacons. The women are doing so despite the fact the church has said they will be automatically excommunicated, which means they will not be able to participate in any church sacraments.

“He won’t [attend] because of the pope and this is a hierarchical institution,” said the 67-year-old former teacher and nun, who will be ordained by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. “I don’t know if he wants to attend, but he is a black man. He understands social justice. He’s a very sensitive and loving individual. I just can’t imagine he doesn’t have empathy, although he has written that he does not.”

In a statement, the archbishop stood firm, saying the church has no authority to ordain women as priests “since among His twelve Apostles, Jesus Christ did not include any women in spite of His open association and friendship with women throughout His ministry.”

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is more blunt.

“I can say I’m the queen of England and it doesn’t make it so,” she said.

Still, Dougherty plans to go ahead with the ordination at First Metropolitan Community Church in Atlanta. Another Georgian, Barbara Anne Duff of Macon, will be ordained a deacon.

The women claim valid orders because an unnamed bishop with apostolic succession ordained the first female bishops, said Bridget Mary Meehan, a bishop of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests who will perform the ordination Saturday.

Dougherty, who is not registered in a parish, will initially preach in her Newnan home.

So far, about 150 women globally have been declared priests or deacons, although the Vatican doesn’t recognize them.

“Priesthood means as a disciple, I stand with all people in the name of Christ, sharing the love of God,” Dougherty said. “And this is why this hurts. They say we can do ministry but can’t stand at the altar.”

The role of women is a big issue in the church, said Eugene Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University.

“It’s a big shakeup in some ways,” he said. “There’s an element of power involved. The Catholic Church has been male, and all of a sudden you’re asking them to let women into the decision-making area of the church. They’re going to be resistant.”

Times, however, are changing, he said.

As early as 2005, the year John Paul II died, a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll showed a majority of U.S. Catholics, 55 percent, felt the next pope should allow women to be priests. Forty-four percent opposed the ordination of women.

The subject has created conflict even within Dougherty’s family. Her sister, Mary Bray, says she was “shocked and a little torn” when she first heard about her sister’s decision.

But Bray, who lives in Ohio, changed her mind after numerous conversations with her sister.

“If they feel God is calling them to do something,” Bray said, “they shouldn’t be prohibited from doing that just because of their gender.”

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I follow my church’s teachings,” said Gordon Shenkle, a computer consultant from Tyrone. “It’s not something that’s up for debate as far as I’m concerned.”

If the Vatican decided to accept women as priests, Shenkle said, “then I would accept it as well.”

“Part of belonging to a church,” he said, “is accepting the church’s teachings on morality and leadership.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

X