Why you should care

This could be the ultimate glass ceiling for women to shatter.

Last September, Jacqueline Straub wrote a letter to the pope. (First off: People still write letters?) But Straub wasn’t fishing for a papal pen pal. While some might argue she was using pen and paper to beat her head against a wall, Straub, a 24-year-old theology student, would likely counter that she was taking a step toward career change. Using quotes from St. Augustine as backup, she urged Pope Francis to “recognize the signs of the time.” Sassy! And quite possibly delusional. Straub, you see, wants to shatter one of the Catholic church’s most fundamental traditions and become a priest.

You’re probably saying, “Dream on, Fraulein Straub.” That is, if you’re not LOL-ing outright. But this isn’t a passing whim, and Straub — whose pretty and stylish looks are more like a young model’s than an aspiring priest’s — is determined. The charismatic German has been doing round after round of appearances on local and national television, radio and print for the last few years, developing the type of media-friendly message necessary to grab attention. When she’s not watching Desperate Housewives or Bones, Straub also tours the stage, giving speeches to religious groups at home and abroad — soon, she’ll give a high-profile talk at the second Women’s Ordination Conference in Philadelphia. She’s almost finished with a master’s and Ph.D. in theology and canon law, figuring that “we have to change the law if we want to change the church.” The skills don’t stop there: She’s also a boxer — and while she’s in this one for the long haul, neither is she pulling her punches. “If I get beat in boxing, I don’t stop. I stand up and go on,” she says. “I need this endurance in the church too.”

What kind of girls decide they want to grow up to be a priest? Not the child version of Straub. Growing up in the small town of Pfullendorf (population: 13,000) in southern Germany, Straub “hated” church — her parents, a Swiss mom and a German atheist father, dragged her there once a year for Christmas. She actually thought priests were scary. And then, at age 15, Straub joined a friend for a Christian summer camp — must have been quite a friend — and surprise, surprise: She connected with God. “I felt something in my heart,” Straub says. That something was a “calling.” And not just to any old corner of the religious rodeo. She felt the calling to become a priest.

That’s one hell of a Christian glass ceiling for even a trained boxer to punch through, and this is one that could be made out of shatterproof glass. Not only has the Roman Catholic Church specifically outlawed the possibility of women becoming priests, but it has also banned even discussing it formally. (Touchy!) The person who really slammed the door in the face of prospective female priests was Pope John Paul II: In an ’94 Apostolic Letter —in which popes get to lay down the law and decline to ever further discuss the matter — John Paul II declared that the church doesn’t have the authority to make women priests. His clever declaration was a confirmation of Pope John Paul I’s similar finding in ’76 that put the case to rest. The argument? Jesus chose only male apostles, who chose only male disciples. Pope John Paul II feared precisely the reform movement that Straub and others are leading, says Charles Reid, a professor of canon law at St. Thomas University. Because, he says, that would be “an earthquake” for the church.

In that case, consider Straub and others, including Catholic feminists, a major fault line. (Straub does not identify as a feminist, calling it a term for “aggressive” women. She says she simply stands up for women’s issues.) These activists will keep pushing the discussion forward until the pope feels obliged to call an ecumenical council, a meeting to discuss and settle matters of the church — like changing the language of Mass from Latin to whatever the local language is. But first, experts say, the church will likely have to change its view on priests getting married and having kids before they let women become priests. It may seem far-fetched, but Catholics have dramatically changed their mind on certain issues recently — for one, some 60 percent of Catholics now support same-sex marriage in the U.S., according to the Public Religion Research Institute, up from 35 percent a decade ago. Still, ordination for women is a long shot within Straub’s lifetime, says Reid. Straub, a huge fan of Pope Francis, thinks he’ll stick to his agenda of social justice and climate change. But maybe the pope after him, or the one after that. She will be satisfied, she says, “as long as I see it happen on TV as I’m dying in my bed as an old woman.”

Naturally, there are many in the church who would say, despite Straub’s conviction, that her calling isn’t to become a priest. They say it’s not a matter of discrimination, it’s just that men and women have different roles in the church. She’s even lost some friends over this. “Just like a man can’t be called to become a mother,” a woman can’t be called to become a priest, says the Rev. Anthony McLaughlin, an assistant professor of canon law at the Catholic University of America. The Vatican did not respond to OZY’s request for comment.

As for Straub’s letter to Pope Francis? The Vatican’s bro-in-chief replied some four months later, via his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. In true Catholic fashion, the main subject of the letter was avoided — “passive-aggressive” is a little-known Catholic sacrament — instead wishing Straub the best in her studies, a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. What was meant, in words less diplomatic, was: Good luck, lady. But who says Straub is the only one who’s going to need it?

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