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