“Pink Smoke Over the Vatican” tells the story of the struggle for women to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. Through interviews and historical vignettes, it portrays the tragedy of deeply gifted women, called by the spirit, but rejected by their own leaders.
In watching the movie, it was tempting at times to distance myself from the Roman Catholic Church. After all, I’m Anabaptist, and we don’t believe in the church hierarchy or that priests are a necessary bridge to reach God. But I realized that the story of the men in this documentary is my story as a Christian man.
The most moving scene in the film is the ordination of women as priests by a woman bishop. The scene brought unexpected tears to my eyes. My mother experienced deep pain from the Mennonite church where I grew up. Her call to leadership as Sunday school superintendent led to some members leaving the church, and she felt abandoned by male leaders. The story of these women joyfully entering the priesthood is my mother’s story and it is my story.
In many ways the documentary is the story of the women at that ordination service and the aftermath: their excommunication. This is also my story as a man in the church. Unless I am an ally to women struggling for a voice, I am no different from the hierarchy who excommunicates them. I grew up swimming in affirmation of my gifts in leadership while my Mennonite female peers had to fight for recognition. Many gave up and embraced their role as “helpmate,” settling for being “separate but equal” in the body of Christ. Those that didn’t still bear the scars.
Identifying with the narrative of this movie also means that I can claim as a role model Father Roy Bourgeois, now at the edge of excommunication for speaking out publicly in support of ordination of women. Throughout the documentary, he speaks powerfully about his call to speak out, not just for women priests in the abstract, but alongside specific women who he has seen called to the priesthood. He names their specific gifts in the struggle for peace and justice.
My calling as a faith-based peace and justice activist came at the gates of the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Ga., during a Eucharist led by Father Roy and others of SOA Watch. It would have been very easy for Father Roy to say the SOA is my struggle, not women. To say: I can’t risk my role as a priest. And in in fact, Father Roy’s stand has cost SOA Watch the institutional support of many Jesuit institutions who previously supported them financially and sent busloads of students to the annual vigil.
In my journey since my Eucharist at the gates of the SOA, I have been privileged to walk with many Catholics struggling for justice in their church and outside it. Pink Smoke makes it abundantly clear that the struggle for women’s ordination is not in isolation from the struggle against racism and militarism. Patricia Fresen, a nun stripped of her order for her ordination as a priest, took a courageous stand against apartheid before its fall in South Africa.
The one missing piece in this narrative is the struggle for LGBTQ people in the catholic church, which is not mentioned. Organizations like Dignity USA have been working for ordination of LGBTQ people since 1969 here in the United States, including women. Unfortunately, no one identified with that movement was interviewed or mentioned in the film.
It is clear that the faith of these women is not only personal, but also communal. Fresen, a theologian, shares about her call to ordination as a bishop after she had already been ordained as a priest. The man who ordained her knew that he didn’t have much time left as a Roman Catholic priest. Fresen said that she wasn’t sure she felt ready, but the pro-ordination bishop told her that her ordination as a bishop wasn’t about her, but about the community calling her. The recurring theme of community and equality deeply resonated with me as an Anabaptist.
Interspersed with these women’s stories is an interview with Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesperson for the diocese of Pittsburgh, who spoke for the church’s official position of sexist exclusion. After each of his arguments against women priests is made, there is a careful and thoughtful response from the other interviewees which laid bare the stark sexism at the root of Lengwin’s statements.
At the end of the movie, Lengwin’s final argument seems to be that, for the “unity of the church,” these women (and the men who ordain them) should simply go elsewhere, essentially giving up on the universal claims of the Roman Catholic Church. But those working for women’s ordination are having none of it. The women who have been thrown out of the church powerfully claim their Catholic faith and identity despite their excommunication. It is their home, and they will continue their struggle to make it their space again.
Crossposted from As of Yet Untitled.