Review of “Pink Smoke over the Vatican”

“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.

Comments (5)

  1. Tim B

    You’re clearly a Mennonite talking about Catholicism. Unlike Mennonites, which form leadership from the church level up, Catholics form leadership from the Vatican down. Understanding how and why is essential in understanding all of Catholic Theology. If a Bishop ordains a woman, he’s not simply breaking a theological stance on female ordination, he’s breaking a long line of Apostolic Succession which is a major tenet of the Catholic Church.

  2. TimN (Post author)

    Yeah, the movie touches on the concept of Apostolic Succession, which was pretty new to me. I take it that was part of what made the bishop’s ordaining women special was that it maintained the Apostolic Succession (in their view, not the Vatican’s) as opposed to someone just declaring themselves a priest (which one of the women interviewed did).

  3. Tim B

    I guess the question for me would be: “If you fail to recognize basic tenets of the Catholic Church, are you even Catholic?” If a woman declares herself a Priest does she even comprehend Roman Catholic teachings? If I claim to be a member of MCUSA but openly support, say, capital punishment, the wars in the middle east, and horde excessive wealth, am I a part of the organization? You also mention that the Catholic Church does include LGBTQ folks, which is incorrect. The Catholic Church does in fact allow ordination regardless of sexual orientation. Many Catholic Priests, within their own circles, are openly gay and it has been joked about that without homosexuals the Church wouldn’t function at all. The only expectation is that they remain celibate, which, if you recall, is exactly the same standard by which heterosexual priests must live by.

  4. BRDewey

    Thanks for your article, Tim. As Tim B has pointed out, I think there are some general inaccuracies that need to be tended to. Still, I appreciate your review of the film. Fr. Roy is a dynamic follower of Jesus!

    I’d like to offer my own clarification on two points, when you wrote, “I’m Anabaptist, and we don’t believe in the church hierarchy or that priests are a necessary bridge to reach God.” Well, the Catholic Catechism doesn’t teach those things either. Often times Reformationesque cliches don’t work because they aren’t true. As is the case here.

    Catholics don’t “believe in church hierarchy,” they believe Jesus instituted the form and function of church leadership. Catholic teaching is about belief and obedience to the teaching of Jesus, as they see it and as it has been passed down in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It is important to state that plainly. It is about obedience to Jesus. And that is precisely what is being debated within Catholicism itself.

    Lastly, Catholics don’t teach that “priests are a necessary bridge to reach God.” More inaccurate Protestant theological shorthand. The Catechism clearly distinguishes the common priesthood (all baptized and confirmed Christians are priests) and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood. The ministerial priesthood serves and builds up the community of faith (common priesthood). The distinction is important, but does not espouse what you say.

  5. TimN (Post author)


    Thanks for correcting my comments and painting a brief picture of Catholic faith in these two areas.

    The thrust of that paragraph was to challenge some of the ways Protestant men might rush to distance themselves from the experience of the women in the documentary, but I can see how my inaccurate Protestant shorthand ended up just reinforcing those patterns. I apologize. My ignorance is showing.

    At the end of your paragraph on church leadership, you say, “And that is precisely what is being debated within Catholicism itself.” Can you say more about the debate you are referring to?

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