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Taking on the Church

Christine Schenk: We have women who experience a call to priesthood, but that call has not even been processed or recognized, or even talked about among church leaders.

(Christine Schenk) doesn't look tough enough to take on the challenge.... But she has.

Christine Schenk: We are running out of priests in a huge way. Right now, worldwide, half of all parishes do not have enough priests.

Hunched over one of two desks in the tiny space she uses as an office, she doesn't outwardly display the temerity and tenacity required to face off against an institution, thousands of years old. An institution boasting more than one billion members, highly respected, even revered, the world over. An institution this Catholic nun with her master's degree in Theology has given her own life to serve. But tough - she is.

Christine Schenk's belief in all she says has shaped her life. This Sister of St. Joseph's has become a national figure, interviewed by papers from New York to Seattle, by ABC News, even by the National Catholic Reporter. It's all happening because she is trying to affect change.

Christine Schenk: We are working within our church to make this happen - toward the day when women are in the deaconate to begin with - toward the day when both women and men's Priesthood gifts will be recognized.

Women's Priesthood gifts - an idea that is anathema for devout Catholics. An idea most would claim doesn't deserve discussion. Yet the now 13-year-old Cleveland-based organization Futurechurch charges purposely into the fray. Schenk operates Futurechurch from the basement of a west-side rectory building, a place I had to walk through the church laundry to find. Yet challenged at every turn, ridiculed by the very people they claim to most want to help, the estimated 5,000 members push on.

Bob Tayek: There always have been people that are voicing their concerns and asking for certain change in the church.

The speaker is Bob Tayek, communications director for the 820,000-member Cleveland Catholic Diocese. Far from the basement of a rectory, in his nicely appointed 4th floor office, Tayek was patient and willing to address concerns. But the statements he reads from a papal letter are, have been, and for at least the remainder of this papacy - will remain - the end of any argument.

Bob Tayek: When the pope has said, and rightfully so, that this isn't open for debate, this aspect isn't. Christ could have made any decision he wished, under free will, it was his decision that the priesthood be for men only. That is the belief of the Catholic faith.

Citing the very works and words of the spiritual head of their church should seemingly slam the Vatican doors on the toes of the radicals, unless the radicals also choose to use scriptures in their arsenal, re-interpreting what the apostles wrote.

Bob Tayek: It was Jesus and a whole cadre, probably 30 or 40 women and men, accompanying him around Galilee, learning the new ways of God, the new justice of God, the new kingdom of God which he came to proclaim.

Futurechurch persists in its claim that women need to have the priesthood. Their arguments lie in the dwindling number of male priests in the church.

Dwindling by anyone's count, but reaching a critical shortage in the organization's view. It's a shortage Futurechurch insists could challenge the very meaning of catholicism.

Futurechurch: There is no way the Catholic community worldwide is having access to the mass, the thing that's everything to Catholics. It's the worship that means everything to Catholics. The mass... the mass is sort of who we are, it's how we define ourselves, it's how we identify ourselves as Catholics. It is the thing that gives us go in living our Christian mission in the world.

They would simply ordain women as priests, alongside men. Men (are estimated to) serve an average of 1,200 parishioners each in the United States, but they say a priest serves 4,000 members each in African nations (and) 8,000 members apiece in South America. Disputing almost all that Futurechurch, and similar national organizations claim - is the Medina-based group, Save Our Church. Lead by a former Baptist minister convert to Catholicism, the Catholic men and women of Save Our Church have been protesting regional appearances by Schenk's group since early March. Save Our Church Director David Webster would not agree to a taped interview, but sent us page after page of pamphlets and statements criticizing Futurechurch, likening them to Jim Jones' cult, disputing their numbers on the declining Catholic priesthood, placing the name of Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla in their own literature, implying sanction, and offering for sale, a book which it claims debunks all the statements made by Christine Schenk, and advances the idea that the women of Futurechurch, are in reality forming a wicca coven.

Christine Schenk: At first it bothered me. Then I remembered Jesus himself was persecuted by people who very much disagreed with his take on Judaism. I take consolation in that and in the Apostle Paul, who was basically thrown out of all the best synagogues in the western world, because he was proclaiming Jesus Christ as the savior.

Rather than lash out, the Diocese stands behind a written statement that calls Futurechurch ministry "inconsistent with church teaching," then points proudly to what women can do in the Catholic faith, short of performing as celebrant.

Written Statement: Many of them are now working themselves and are working, as pastoral ministers, as administrators in parishes, I mean really making the decisions and operating as such in those roles, allowing then for the sacramental minister to go and be able to exercise his role as the celebrant of the mass of the sacraments.

Yet Tayek understands the frustration, fully admitting that there are women - who, if the call came, would be ready. And qualified.

Bob Tayek: There's even an office at the Vatican, which is still researching, trying to determine if women could even become members of the Deaconate, in other words reach the level of deacon in the Catholic Church. There's a lot of discussion that's been going on for some time, and it continues to be discussed.

In the meantime, the Cleveland Diocese is still celebrating last month's ordination class of 10 men, and looks forward to a predicted larger class, later this year. The need for female priests, for the current years at least, is not evident in northeastern Ohio. Schenk knows it will be a long fight.

Christine Schenk: They think that we're something that we're not. They don't understand our deep commitment to Jesus, to the Christian message, our deep love for the church that needs women's gifts in a visible way as much as it needs men's.

In Cleveland, Rick Jackson, 90.3.