It is unnerving to think that excommunication is still a real threat in the 21st century. Within both the Catholic and Mormon Churches members continue to be bullied into submission with such threats. Today, speaking out against gender injustice seems to be a sure way for one to end up expelled from her or his community. Kate Kelly, a human rights attorney and Mormon feminist, has become the most recent in a long line to be rebuked for speaking out about gender discrimination and is waiting to learn her fate following a trial by LDS Church leaders.
Within both the Catholic and Mormon Churches, women continue to struggle for the acknowledgement of their full humanity. A primary issue that is continually recognized as one of the most divisive for both traditions is women’s ordination. Many cling to traditionalism and the teachings of the hierarchies of their Churches. Both traditions argue that women are equal but have distinct roles. In Catholicism, the Vatican has been clear that women cannot be ordained because (they say) Jesus named no women apostles and the priesthood exclusion based on gender is in accordance with God’s plan. In the Mormon Church similar beliefs stand; in addition, women are relegated to the role of mother, which is considered the counterpart to the priesthood. Thus, according to the tradition, men and women have distinct but equal roles and women are unable to hold the priesthood because it is not what God desires. To publicly support the ordination of women is punishable by excommunication within both Catholic and Mormon worlds. In fact, according to the Vatican, to support women’s ordination is to commit the gravest crime against the Church – one that compares to pedophilia.
Nevertheless, many continue to argue that the only tradition being supported by denying women the right to be ordained is the tradition of sexism. Roy Bourgeois, a former Maryknoll priest defrocked by the Vatican for his support of women’s ordination, has argued profusely that refusing women the priesthood based on their femaleness is a sin; specifically the “sin of sexism.” Likewise, according to Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Catholic Biblical studies have shown that there is no valid case to be made against the ordination of women from the Scriptures. Rather this rejection reflects fundamentally a sinful prejudice against women similar to traditions that believed that Blacks were inferior and should sit in the back pews of the church. It is the Vatican that needs to recant of this sinful prejudice and accept that it is God who is calling women to be ordained.” From the Mormon perspective, Margaret Toscano, has argued that, “In some ways this issue is even more crucial in the LDS Church than in other religious traditions because the Mormon organization is based on a lay priesthood where all active boys and men have priesthood. What this means is that grown women have less practical and religious authority than their 12-year old sons.”
Responding to the ongoing gender discrimination in the Mormon Church, Kate Kelly founded the Ordain Women movement. It was launched on March 17, 2013 by a few dozen women and men and since has grown to include the profiles of more than 400 Mormons ranging in age from early 20‘s to late 60‘s who are publicly calling for women priests. It has become a central hub for practicing Mormons to express their concerns and call for the ordination of women. It has also become an organizing platform for social action.
On October 5, 2013, about 150 women and their male supporters requested entrance for women to the all-male Priesthood Session of the LDS General Conference. Supporters gathered in Salt Lake City and one by one approached the general meeting, knocking on the door and requesting admittance. One by one, each woman was turned away. While supporters were hopeful, they anticipated the refusal; that said, the movement was successful in eliciting a response.
The use of the Ordain Women site allowed the energy around the movement to accumulate leading up to the Conference. This gave LDS Church leaders time to consider how or whether they should respond at all. Ultimately, Church leaders decided that while they were not ready to admit women into the meeting, women should in fact be able to see the proceedings. Thus, for the first time in history, the LDS General Conference was broadcast so that it could be viewed by women, and by anyone who was interested, over their computers or televisions. While it was not the response that was hoped for, giving access to the meeting virtually was a step in the right direction. The day immediately following the Conference, the Ordain Women site received over 100,000 hits and its traffic continues to grow giving Mormons who support women’s ordination and other issues related to gender equality a place to share their voices.
On April 5, 2014, Kate Kelly led a march on Temple Square again calling for the ordination of women. Just two months later, LDS Church Leaders responded calling for the excommunication of Kelly. Sadly, LDS Church leaders continue to feel so threatened by the possibility of women in leadership roles that their only recourse is to eliminate any person who attempts dialogue. Kelly’s efforts have made an incredible impact in the Mormon Church and no doubt, will continue to do so. While LDS Church leaders may be able to dismiss her, they cannot dismiss the issue of gender inequality. I wonder, when will the Mormon and Catholic Churches stop excommunicating its members and enter dialogue about their patriarchal ways? Until then, I am thankful for women and men like Kelly and Bourgeois who continue to take stand despite those who attempt to bully them into submission.
*As Kelly faces excommunication, so does John P. Dehlin, the creator of a website and podcast that offers a forum for Mormons who are questioning their faith. His local church leader has given him until today, June 18th, to resign from the faith or face an excommunication hearing.
Gina Messina-Dysert, Ph.D., is Dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She has authored multiple articles, the book Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence (Routledge, 2014), and is co-editor (with Rosemary Radford Ruether) of the anthology, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century (Routledge, 2014). Her WATER Teleconference, “In Search of Healing: Confronting Rape Culture and Spiritual Violence,” can be accessed here. Gina’s research interests are theologically and ethically driven, involve a feminist and interdisciplinary approach, and are influenced by her activist roots and experience working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences, and in the national news circuit including appearances on Tavis Smiley and MSNBC. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the globe. She continues to be active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing for those who have encountered gender-based violence. Gina can be followed on Twitter @FemTheologian and her website can be accessed at http://ginamessinadysert.com.