Sixty-seven-year-old Merlene Olivia Doko admits she probably won’t see women officially ordained as Roman Catholic priests in her lifetime.
But that hasn’t stopped the longtime Pismo Beach resident from becoming a leader in a rapidly growing movement to achieve it.
During a Feb. 27 ceremony in a San Jose Congregational church, Doko’s 4-year-old grandson was one of 40 family, friends, interfaith ministers and clergy to bless Doko by laying on his hands as she was ordained the 11th bishop for Roman Catholic Womenpriests.
The international group was born in 2002 when a sympathetic male bishop ordained seven women in the Danube River. The women were promptly excommunicated from the Catholic Church, but maintain that their ordinations are valid.
Now, despite the church’s formal opposition, more than 100 women are in preparation or in service as priests and bishops in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.
“As with the prophets of old, you stand where God asks you to stand, even if the community does not yet support it,” Doko said.
‘Yearning and longing’
Doko said that female priests, like male priests, are responding to a specific call to serve others — which for Doko was a deep “yearning and longing” for priesthood that depressed her “because it seemed so impossible” to achieve.
Roman Catholics do not believe women are eligible to become priests. Warren Hoy, a spokesman for the Diocese of Monterey, which oversees Catholic parishes in San Luis Obispo County, explained that the position originates in the New Testament writings of Paul, which describe the priesthood as “a man’s vocation,” he said. Female priests argue that several Scriptures, including verses in Pauline letters, can be interpreted as supporting the ordination of women.
In the spirit of what Doko calls a “true egalitarian community,” the Womanpriest program is open to anyone who is psychologically and theologically competent, including married and divorced women, lesbians and gay and straight men.
In 2006, Doko became one of the first 12 women in the United States to be ordained a Roman Catholic Womanpriest. That’s when, she said, “doors closed” on her previous parish work.
Hoy said that the church has not excommunicated Doko, but that by her own actions she has left the church. Hoy said the church is ready to accept her back, if she would like to return and accept the rules of the Catholic Church.
But Doko said she does not feel she’s left the heart of the church, which for her is Jesus, God and the Trinity.
“I feel so very Roman Catholic in my whole being.” said Doko, who added that women priests are only objecting to the “manmade” rules of the Catholic Church, which is a human organization as well as divine.
Doko, who holds a master’s degree in theology from Regis University, had spent six years training ministers for the Diocese of Monterey and was involved in the St. Patrick’s Church Liturgy Committee in Arroyo Grande.
As a priest, she coordinated a preparation program for female priests, collaborated with local religious leaders from a variety of faiths, and celebrated communion once a month at a private home with friends she calls the Hungry Hearts Spiritual Community.
As bishop, Doko will serve as a spiritual adviser to the 22 female priests and priests-in-training for the group’s Western region—which spans Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California Hawaii, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
The Womenpriests movement has no headquarters and no church funding and is in the process of gaining nonprofit status — but it believes is has the support of many Catholics.
According to a Gallup survey highlighted in the book, “American Catholics Today,” 63 percent of adult Catholics in 2005 supported the ordination of women.
“If you get a couple of Catholics together for a beer, it’s sure to come up,” Hoy said.
However, the church is not a democracy, as theology scholar John Wijngaards describes in the 2008 anthology “Women as Bishops.” The Vatican, he wrote, fills important positions with candidates who favor its views, which do not embrace the notion that women can be priests.
Devin Kuhn, Cal Poly assistant professor of religious studies and women’s and gender studies, said it will be “a ways off” before women are ordained as Catholic priests.
Kuhn also described the Womenpriests movement as “a hopeful outlet for women who identify as Catholic but are troubled by aspects of the church that can be interpreted as discriminatory — that they feel called to be priests but can’t put it into action.”
Hoy said that other meaningful avenues are also open to Catholic women who feel a call to serve within the church, such as becoming a nun, a lay leader or a director of vocations.
Doko says that members of Womenpriests are hoping the church will be open to talk with them about change. “We’re part of a cosmic shift,” she said, “and there’s always tension at shifts.”