“He made eye contact with us!” one protester said. “He looked right at our signs!”
WASHINGTON — Seven people who say they are ordained Catholic priests protested the church ban on women in the priesthood Wednesday outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where Pope Francis met with U.S. bishops. Four of the protesters were women.
The demonstrators, all members of the Roman Catholic Women Priests, staged a “die-in” — a protest tactic where participants lie down and force police or security to remove them — capitalizing on the attention surrounding the pope’s visit. All were later arrested and issued $50 tickets.
The organization has ordained 215 women worldwide since its 2002 founding, even though the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t recognize women clergy. Representatives of the nonprofitWomen’s Ordination Conference attended the rally in support of the protesters. Both groups want the pope to repeal canon law 1024, which states that only men can be ordained as priests.
Priests at Wednesday’s protest include those with backgrounds in social activism and civil disobedience. Several have served time in federal prison for protesting issues like drones and nuclear proliferation. As protest veterans, the priests knew the right location would be crucial for their demonstration. They arrived in front of the cathedral at 5:30 a.m., before sunrise.
Sister Janice Sevre-Duszynska, a Kentucky native ordained by the Roman Catholic Women Priests and one of the leaders of the protest, voiced frustration at what she said was a great injustice. “This is an act of violence, denying priesthood to women,” she told The Huffington Post.
Pope Francis, Sevre-Duszynska said, should draw the connection between the oppression of women within the church and violence against women in the world. Doing so, she said, would heal “hundreds, thousands of years of misogyny.”
“I think folks are forgetting that Pope Francis is the CEO of an institution that’s a patriarchy,”said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, another leader of Wednesday’s protest.
Bourgeois, prominent among Catholic activists for decades of pushing the church to take more progressive stances on issues like the Vietnam War and U.S. military support for violent regimes, only recently turned to the issue of ordaining women. He met Sevre-Duszynska about eight years ago and she drew him into the cause. “It wasn’t heavy theology,” Bourgeois said. “It’s called discrimination.”
Bourgeois grew up in Louisiana in the 1950s and likens the treatment of women in the church to black parishioners being confined to the back five pews of his childhood church. “Sexism, like racism, is a sin,” he said.
After Bourgeois attended Sevre-Duszynska’s ordination in 2008, he said he received a letter from the Vatican demanding he recant his support for the ordination of women or face excommunication. He was expelled from the priesthood in 2012.
As the sky began to grow light Wednesday morning, a security guard ushered the protestors away from the church onto a nearby corner, where they remained for several hours. A stream of fans and devoted worshippers arrived later in the morning to herald the pope’s arrival.
Some expressed disapproval for the women priests’ cause. “There’s no such thing!” one woman said when she heard the name “Roman Catholic Women Priests.” As the protesters and their supporters marched along the street, a rival conservative group bearing loudspeakers attempted to drown out their acoustic guitar.
At around 11 a.m., police ordered those near the cathedral to get out of the crosswalk. “I think this could be the moment,” Bourgeois muttered, before lying in the street. His six companions then fell to the pavement. The group remained there for about 90 minutes — well after the pope’s arrival via another street — until police moved in to make arrests. Some were physically carried off the street.
Police issued each of the protestors a $50 ticket for blocking the road.
The protesters stood on the corner as Pope Francis departed the cathedral, his motorcade passing right by them.
That moment made the day a success for Sevre-Duszynska. “He made eye contact with us!” she said later. “He looked right at our signs!”