“What seems to me white, I will believe black if the Church so defines.” That was the scrappy obedience 500 years ago of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits.
Catholic priest Jane Via says it’s time for a redo of that mind-set.
“Catholic priest Jane Via”? Whoa! I better back up.
Jane Via could fit any of the cliché occupational guesses for a conservatively dressed lady of 67 with librarian glasses and modest hair.
But they would all be wrong. She’s a revolutionary. Not the bomb-throwing, raggedy beard type, but a woman who, by her own revolt, wants to push her church into a 90-degree turn so abrupt it would leave skid marks on history.
Until 2002, she commanded little public attention. She was a former professor of religious studies at the University of San Diego who had gone to law school and become a prosecutor for the district attorney. Interesting, but not fascinating.
However, in that year, she read about some women in Europe who had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church for daring to seek the priesthood. That was the tripwire that turned her into a sort of Martin Luther (forgive the analogy) on behalf of Catholic women.
For progressive Catholics, the Vatican II council under Pope John XXIII that began in 1965 was a harbinger for hope that the church would liberalize on several key issues. Via was especially eager for a stronger role in church affairs for women.
It didn’t happen, at least not to her satisfaction.
“I had already left my local parish because I was just very unhappy there. The priest said things from the pulpit that I thought were irresponsible and sometimes outrageous, so I was without a parish.”
With that disappointment for background and the example of the excommunicated women for inspiration, Via embarked on several years of planning and study that resulted in her ordination to the priesthood in 2006.
Wanting to do it right, she was ordained by a woman bishop who had herself been ordained by a sympathetic bishop, thus fulfilling the required “apostolic succession” for the priesthood.
She says of that decision, “I wanted to start a parish for fallen-away Catholics like my husband and two children, divorced and remarried Catholics, gay and lesbian Catholics, and Catholics like me who could no longer worship in a “canonical” (established) church with good conscience.”
While still working as a prosecutor, which she did until her 2011 retirement, Via became involved with the Immaculate Heart Community in Los Angeles, and from it was given guidance in founding her own congregation.
“We rented space in a (San Diego) Methodist church in 2005. We advertised it just on my personal email list among my friends. The first night, we thought maybe no one or maybe 10 people would come, but 100 people came.”
There are all kinds of reasons why Via should not be a Catholic: She was raised in a nominal Protestant family, she bridles at numerous doctrines of the Catholic Church, and she could find a welcoming home as a minister in numerous Protestant churches. However, at an early age she became simpatico with Catholicism and has stayed the course.
It’s been a trying relationship for both, mainly over the role of women.
She says that as a professor of religion, she came to realize, “Much of Catholic doctrine (regarding women) is not supported in the New Testament. That brought me into intellectual conflict with the church. Why can’t women be ordained? In the Catholic Church, meaningful authority and decision-making is vested in ordained persons. If you keep women out of ordination, you deprive them of a rightful share of power.”
You have a strong sense of social justice.
“I do, especially about women. That’s my focus. I can’t do everything, so justice for women in the church is what I’m trying to work on.”
The parish church she founded, Mary Magdalene the Apostle Catholic Community, meets Sunday evenings in a Lutheran Church in Serra Mesa. The church administers the sacraments and has a recognizable Catholic liturgy, she says. Attendance averages 70 to 90. It’s something of an eyebrow-raiser that a majority tend to be men.
Via is pastor emerita but will soon lead services when the current priest-pastor, Nancy Corran, goes on maternity leave. (How much must traditionalists suffer?)
Via prefers to be addressed as pastor, or her academic title, doctor. She is uncomfortable with reverend, thinks Jesus spoke against “father” in the Sermon on the Mount and believes that “mother” is an outmoded title. She is happy to just be called Jane. She does not wear a clerical collar.
She has not yet recruited her husband and two children back into the fold.
Most conventional priests would rather embrace Typhoid Mary than commune with her. However, she is aware that some silently urge her on in her quest for a more open and accepting Catholicism.
“Many are sympathetic. I’ve had messages from priests that would love to come celebrate with us but know they can’t. They would get in trouble if they had any meaningful contact with me.”
She has not met the new Catholic leader of San Diego, Bishop Robert McElroy, but would welcome the opportunity.
“He’s supposedly quite progressive. I would welcome him to San Diego and say that I understand that he can’t acknowledge us, but that we, as an independent Roman Catholic community, acknowledge him.”
As an ex-professor of religion, Via discusses Christianity as a sportswriter would baseball.
I ask: Some say Christianity is almost in free-fall. Do you agree?
“Yes. I think we’re in a time of radical cultural transition and that it’s entirely possible that Christianity will die out in the next couple hundred years. If it doesn’t change, it will die.
“It has to become nonauthoritarian. It has to become critically thoughtful about itself. It has to change based on what we’ve learned in science and history and the world. We’ve got to give up the concept that morality is confined to sexuality. We have to look at broader human relationships, and speak out on behalf of the oppressed. We have major changes to face.”
In her own way, she would go into the temple and overturn tables. As a pastor, she embraces gays and lesbians, divorcees and remarried couples. She also wants an end to celibacy for priests.
She thinks the subordinate role of women in the church flies in the face of the growth of women clergy among Protestants and Jews. She also believes there are innumerable nuns who could easily transition into priests.
Despite her judgments against the established church, she speaks kindly of Pope Francis, the man who could fulfill her every wish.
“He’s a delightful human being, I think. I appreciate that. It’s nice to have someone in office who is friendly and gregarious.”
Given your dissatisfaction with so much of the church, isn’t that like saying he’s a good Rotarian?
“I’m really delighted he’s working on cleaning up the Vatican Bank and he’s trying to develop a more collegial papacy. I’m happy with him in many ways, but he has not addressed the women’s issue in any meaningful way, and I don’t think he’ll be able to.”
Couldn’t he if he wanted? He’s the man.
Permit me to be a devil’s advocate: If he’s remembered 500 years from now, it won’t be for cleaning up the bank.
“I would guess that, partly, he still lives with the mentality in which he grew up, in which women really aren’t equal. If he decided to ordain women, he would lose (the backing of) so many clergy who support him now. If he wants to get anything accomplished in his lifetime, he’s going to have to do all those other things first.”
Who are your historical role models?
Was she a prostitute?
“No. There is no evidence that she was.”
Then why have we turned her into a prostitute?
Via’s answer is that as Christianity expanded into Europe, it morphed into a philosophical distaste of body and sexuality. Biblical roles took on a sexist distortion, i.e., turning Mary Magdalene into a prostitute, Mary into a virgin, and the 12 apostles into bachelors.
Jane Via is resolute that her modernized-Catholic movement is on the right side of history, and that the changes she stands for will one day be commonly accepted.
The visionary has a centuries-long role in Christendom, but so does the heretic. Time tends to separate the two, but no longer does either have to fear the flames of the stake.
That’s a welcome change for most Christians.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org