Newswise — Will the next pope allow women to become priests? An Associated Press poll found that 60 percent of U.S. Catholics think women should be ordained, and a religious studies professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, says that there are signs that the Catholic Church may be headed that way.

According to Associate Professor of Religious Studies Kelley A. Raab, author of the book "When Women Become Priests: The Catholic Women's Ordination Debate" (2000, Columbia University Press), women have been gaining "symbolic power" in the church, which may eventually lead to real power.

"It is my conviction that women priests will not be officially permitted in the Catholic Church until there are women priests," Raab states. "In other words, Catholic women must be seen in a priestly role, in particular celebrating the Eucharist, in order to be approved and ordained as priests."

She continues, "If acceptance of women priests requires exposure to women priests, how can women claim symbolic and political power in the Catholic Church " especially when separate, autonomous, legislative bodies do not exist nor is there lay involvement in decision-making processes? For at this point, there are no Catholic women deacons, nor is there a Catholic equivalent to the Episcopal House of Deputies. A growing number of Catholics committed to women's equality have become impatient with formal channels and are choosing to disobey church law. This activism is likely both to engender greater support for women priests and to heighten tensions within the church."

Raab believes that there are harbingers of change within the church, however.

Specifically, she points to three ways that women are gaining greater symbolic power with the Catholic Church:- As "pastors" " some women are becoming more visible in priestly roles as administrators of priestless parishes.- Instances where courageous (male) priests have risked their own careers by putting women in positions of power in their communities.- Some women have claimed symbolic power by celebrating the Eucharist "unofficially," i.e., without consecration by a priest.

"These women, over time, will cause parishioners to view them symbolically as priests," Raab states."We can see that Episcopal women clergy attest to the power of symbols to affect people's psyches in deep and enduring ways. Episcopal women achieved ordination by taking advantage of the transformative power of ritual. Through celebrating the Eucharist, they convinced others that women's ordination was just and also beneficial to the church. In time, Catholic women will do so as well."

In "When Women Become Priests: The Catholic Women's Ordination Debate," Raab explores the symbolic implications of women at the altar, addressing critical issues about the effect of a female priest on the parishioners she would serve, on the sacrament of communion and on the significance of the symbolism of Jesus that priests maintain during certain ceremonies. Interviews with women in the Episcopal priesthood are included to support Raab's views.

A member of the St. Lawrence faculty since 1999, Raab is a graduate of Colgate University, with a master of divinity degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary, a master's degree from the University of Chicago and the Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa.

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