A young radical in robes, Kathleen Stringert unwittingly became a Catholic Church pioneer in her suburban Pittsburgh parish nearly 50 years ago.
At the time, allowing girls on the church altar was rare, but Stringert's mother fought for her to become an "altar girl," a single female presence among the male priest-helpers.
"I didn't realize then that I was breaking such ground," Stringert said. Now, all but two U.S. Catholic dioceses — Arlington, Va., and Lincoln, Neb. — allow girls to be "altar servers."
In other ways, though, Stringert, now 58 and living in Harrisburg, Pa., says not much has changed for women in the Catholic Church. Only men can be ordained as priests, thereby shutting women out of the highest echelons of Church power.
"I don't know why in this day and age we can't be communion-giving and ordained as priests," Stringert said. "I can't see any reason, except that it's going against tradition, but what the heck."
The question of women's power, or lack of power, in the Church resonates at a time when Catholic traditions have fallen under scrutiny. The taint of the sex abuse scandal plaguing the Catholic Church has led some to scrutinize long-held rules such as the male-only priesthood and the celibacy mandate for priests.
While many Catholics, especially older ones, still favor the all-male priesthood, an ABCNEWS poll suggested that a majority opposes it. About six in 10 Catholics, women and men alike, said women should be ordained, while 35 percent favor the traditional policy.
Two-thirds of Catholic women opposed the policy of not allowing priests to marry compared to a little more than half of men. The poll also found that women were more likely to be critical of the Church's recent troubles.
Women were 16 points more likely to call sexual abuse by priests a crisis, and 10 points less likely to approve of the church's handling of the issue.
A Man-Made Rule, or Christ's Example?
Supporters of female ordination argue that excluding women from the priesthood is a "man-made" rule, and not one explicitly mandated by the Bible's teachings.
Those who defend the tradition, including the Vatican, say Jesus Christ himself set the example for the all-male priesthood by choosing male Apostles, his leading disciples. In a 1994 letter to Catholic bishops, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Vatican's position reserving priesthood to men alone, and the Church does not sanction an open discussion of women's ordination.
For some Catholic women, that's just fine.
"We have an all-male priesthood because Christ instituted it that way," said Patricia Feighan of Women for Faith and Family, a national organization that supports the Church's traditions. "The role of the priest is to stand between man and God and that is a role that is typically male, and the role of the woman is to give life and nurture."
Others say men just make better priests, and women's skills are better used elsewhere.
"Men were probably made to lead and women to support and perhaps to be more involved with family," said Susana Venis, 48, who teaches college Spanish in West Lafayette, Ind. "Of course, to have a good priest you need good women to support that priest."
Family responsibilities often make it difficult for women to accept such positions, Venis said. "When you are in charge of something you need to put all your energies into it, while women, we are more complex. We have a lot more to do."
Women Wielding Clout
Many other Catholic women, though, are questioning why they cannot take greater leadership positions in the Church. Some suggest that if the Church were less paternalistic, much of the sex abuse problem may have been avoided altogether, or at least handled better.
"I think the church is making a huge mistake in leaving women out of the picture," Rea Howarth, coordinator of Catholics Speak Out, said. "It's an apartheid of gender. It's really rooted in ancient attitudes that women are basically subhuman."
Although women cannot be ordained, a recent study by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the national organization that represents more than 1,000 elected leaders of U.S. Catholic sisters, shows how religious sisters and other Catholic women wield clout in other ways in the Church.
Women indeed make high-level executive decisions for the Catholic Church affecting its personnel, property and policies, the four-year study found, in positions such as chancellors, tribunal judges, diocesan finance directors, directors of Catholic Charities, vicars and pastoral directors.
The discussion of women's power in the Church should expand beyond ordination, said Sister Kathleen Pruitt, president of the Leadership Conference.
"When we focus on just ordination, we miss the overall dialogue of how do we look at the whole range of gifts of men and women and the freeing up of those gifts into the service of the Church," Pruitt said. "In the context of that discussion, the issue of ordination or non-ordained ministry [for women or married men] would in effect be on the table for discussion."
Nonetheless, the Leadership Conference recently has expressed to church leaders the importance of incorporating women into the discussions about any reforms in light of the sex abuse scandal.
Different Voices at the Table
"Women bring a different voice to the table," Pruitt said. "We must be heard."
The Leadership Conference has also been invited in an "observer" role to the U.S. bishops' June meeting in Dallas — where the Church's handling of the sex abuse scandal is expected to be a major topic.
Still, for some Catholic women, their current possibilities for leadership positions are not enough.
Some say women do most of the "grunt" work in the Church but don't share enough in the major decision-making. Allowing women to be ordained would be a symbolic nod to gender equality and an assurance that women's voices are heard, some say.
"Without women the church would be in a mess," said Judy Courtien, 48, a religion teacher in Alexandria, Va. "They're stuck in neutral and don't want go forward. It's fine to draw lines and say these are the rules, but things change."
Although the Catholic Church is not a democracy, some Catholic women activists say women can force change. One way is to withhold donations unless demands about women's roles are met, Howarth said.
"You rule by the consent of the governed," she said. "If people decide they're going to be responsible donors, they're going to essentially say 'no we're not settling for that.' It will change."