NEW YORK — Churches may have been emptier than usual this past weekend due to fears related to the coronavirus — but according to a group of demonstrators in Manhattan, the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to expand the priesthood to women has led to a decades-in-the-making clearing out of its pews.

A small, but merry band of protestors — made up of a dozen women, two men, and a dog — marched just under a mile on Sunday from the headquarters of the United Nations along New York’s East River to the steps of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue calling for “Equal Rites and Equal Rights,” through the end of the all male hierarchy.

Both the route and the day were intentional, according Kate McElwee, executive director of the Women’s Ordination Conference (WOC), noting it was meant “to demonstrate that women have rights in the world that stop at the doors of our churches.”

The date, March 8, was International Women’s Day, a time when the international community recognizes the contributions of women around the globe — something these protestors say has particular limitations in the Catholic Church.

“We tried to make that very obvious that we have enjoyed many privileges and human rights but as soon as a woman crosses the threshold of the church, those rights become restricted and she enters a place where gender discrimination is allowed,” McElwee, who organized the demonstration, told Crux.

While protestors — some of whom said they have worked on the cause for nearly five decades, while others said they were new to the movement — expressed hope for the future, arguing they are experiencing new momentum, they admitted that they’ve recently been dealt a blow by Pope Francis, who punted on an opportunity to open the priesthood to married men and expand the role of deacons to women in the Amazon region.

Many on hand on Sunday said that after last October’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, they had hoped that the pope would green light both proposals, further expanding the possibility that women’s ordination to the priesthood might not be too far off — all despite past insistence from the pontiff that that door has been closed.

“On the ordination of women in the Catholic church, the last word is clear,” Francis said in 2016 during a press conference following a trip to Sweden. “It was given by St. John Paul II and this remains.”

“But really forever?” the journalist asked him in response. “Never?”

“If we read carefully the declaration made by St. John Paul II, it goes in that direction,” Francis replied.

The pope was referring to 1994’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, where John Paul declared “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

“[Francis] has done a lot of work studying environmental issues, and he has done no work, it seems to me, in studying women’s issues and the issues of gender,” said Sheila Peiffer, who serves as president of the board of the Women’s Ordination Conference. “To me, that’s depressing and demeaning.”

“He has a blind spot when it comes to women,” she told Crux. “Obviously, he’s been great on the environment and really has brought attention to the marginalized. I think maybe what he doesn’t realize is that women are marginalized.”

“It’s one of those things where he has the ability to do more, he should do more. I understand that he has to balance the interest of the whole Church, not just certain factions of the Church, but I think he’s had the opportunity to step up and he just hasn’t taken it,” said Taylor Watson, one of the two men who came out to support the cause.

Watson — who said he was there in honor of his mother, whom he described as “the most Catholic person I’ve ever met” and is active in the women’s ordination movement in the D.C. area — said that despite being one of the only men present, he doesn’t believe it’s an indicator of the general opinion of the vast majority of Catholics on the issue.

“It’s something I think a lot of Catholics believe and there’s a curious discrepancy about the way the Church teaches its members to fight injustice, but also allows an injustice in its own ranks,” Watson told Crux. “I’m happy to be part of something that will address that and take the Church in a new direction, hopefully.”

Working to promote women’s ordination from within the Church, rather than from outside of it, is something several of the protestors highlighted, arguing that rather than leaving for another tradition that already includes women clergy, they are staying put in hopes from reforming from within.

“Church has always been a big part of our lives. We are aware that the Church isn’t perfect,” Watson continued. “We feel that we have an obligation to reform it — not necessarily to split off or pursue other areas of faith which I know a lot of Catholics have done, but to try to change from within and to make it stronger and more inclusive.”

Linda Pinto, co-chair of CORPUS, the national association for an inclusive priesthood, said that she’s been calling for women’s ordination since the 1970’s and says she’s experiencing more hope than fatigue.

“It’s only made me more committed to the fact that we’re going to work for change, the same way our ancestors did,” drawing a parallel to the movement for women’s suffrage started way back in the late 1880’s. “We’re still working on it,” she said.

In 2018, a study on “Catholic Women in the United States” by the Center for Research in the Apostolate commissioned by America Media found that 31 percent of respondents said that the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination was “not at all” important to them, with nearly 50 percent of respondents describing them as “somewhat” or “very much” important. Of those surveyed, 82 percent of respondents said they had not considered leaving the Catholic Church.

As they marched, the protestors sang a revised version of the labor rights song “Bread and Roses,” — with lyrics lamenting  “a million empty churches, vocations cast away” and in front of St. Patrick’s, they chanted “Knock, knock! Who’s there? More than half the Church!”

Following a scripture reading, they symbolically broke paper chains as they recited a litany of grievances — including sexism, clericalism, secrecy, and patriarchy, as the torn paper chains fell to the ground.

Tourists and Mass goers alike watched on as they raised flowers and chanted that “inclusion, equality, justice, transparency, and courage” must “bloom” from within the Church.

As the protestors concluded their demonstration, two ladies who had been watching nearby on the sidewalk approached them. The pair of friends was visiting New York on vacation and wanted to attend Sunday Mass at the cathedral.

“I’ve never heard of this. It’s fantastic and needs to be worldwide,” said Mary Bieter from Idaho.

“Jesus’s message was for everyone not just for men,” added Monica Holly, who was in town from Italy.

The protestors remained outside distributing flyers, while the two ladies headed through the Church doors — both with flowers in tow.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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