Sacrilige: The Passion of Maria Eitz

For a woman who practices as a priest, challenging one of the church’s biggest taboos is the only way to rejuvenate Catholicism.

by madeleine thomas

TPoMEi1photograph by sean havey

Jesus, so the story goes, was on a prophetic mission in the borderlands between Samaria and Galilee when he came across 10 lepers in a village. When they begged him for mercy, he cleansed them, sparing them a lifetime of ostracism. Most Christians read this passage from the Gospel of Luke as a metaphor for Christ’s healing mercy toward society’s outcasts. But at San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church, a gay congregation that has been meeting in the city’s Castro district for 30 years, the story has a special resonance. There, at the Queer Eucharist offered by Maria Eitz and Victoria Rue, the tale also applies to a different kind of outcast: believers who have traditionally been ostracized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Maria Eitz and Victoria Rue are two such outcasts—but they are also defiant insiders. They are so-called womanpriests: a budding fringe movement of Roman Catholic women who have rebelled against the church by declaring themselves priests, ordained according to their own sacraments. The organized network began in Germany in 2002, when Argentinian priest Romulo Antonio Brasch, who had severed ties with the traditional Catholic Church in 1998, ordained seven women from Germany, Austria, and the United States on a boat traveling the Danube River. News of the ordination caught fire: What started with just seven women now includes over 145 worldwide.

For violating Canon Law 1024, which bars women from joining the priesthood, womanpriests face automatic excommunication. But for Rue and Eitz, reintroducing the feminine into the church’s patriarchal structure is both theologically justified and necessary to renew the institution they love. And they are prepared to face the ultimate sanction from the Vatican for their beliefs.

Love in a Time of War

Eitz does not believe in sin or redemption, or that Jesus died on the cross. Nor does she believe in heaven or hell: For her, a divine spirit that oversees an infinite universe isn’t likely to be scrutinizing every human for ostensible failings. In short, she does not subscribe to most of the core dogmas of orthodox Catholicism. Yet her commitment to helping society’s most vulnerable members evinces the deeply Christian qualities that St. Augustine celebrated—faith, hope, and love. And her passion for justice places her in a long Catholic tradition.

Now in her early 70s, Eitz was born in Germany during World War II. After the war, she spent most of her youth in an orphanage near the North Sea. The experience inspired a lifelong devotion to children who are bereft of home, family, and friendship.

Eitz’s early years were filled with pain and loneliness. “What I really wanted was permission to go to the cliffs at sunset to shout into the sun all my anguish,” she says. The orphanage was nondenominational, and Eitz was not raised in any religious tradition. “I didn’t know God,” she says. “I didn’t have a name for what I knew and didn’t know.” But as a child of war, she was drawn to signs of life. “You know how when you destroy a house, it still smokes for a long time, the dust from the bricks and all of that? That was my experience as a little child,” she says. “I remember being in a place like that and hearing a bird, and from that time on, I have always looked for the places where a bird can sing.”

The road that led Eitz to Catholicism was dramatic and tragic—and mysterious. It began at the height of the Cold War, when many children had been kidnapped from their parents and held by Communist forces behind the iron curtain. According to Eitz, between 1959 and 1961 she worked for the Allies as a secret agent in divided Berlin, helping to rescue abducted children. She says that she was recruited for the mission in England while working as a nanny for a British military officer’s family. But she has no documents to prove her claim. “None of us were able to talk about ourselves, where we came from, our background, or even what our names were,” she says. “We couldn’t ask any questions about each other for security reasons.”

That such kidnappings took place—and that intelligence agencies were involved in murky ways—is a matter of historical record, says Tara Zahra, author of the 2011 book The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II. Both the Western Allies and the Communists used children as pawns during and after the war. “There were many children in Eastern Europe whose parents were in the west, and the Communists would not release them easily,” Zahra says. “There were also many children in West Germany whose parents were in the east, and socialist governments were demanding the return of their own ‘kidnapped’ children.” It isn’t necessarily surprising, then, that no documentary evidence exists of Eitz’s self-reported role—such covert operations are designed to leave few traces. In the end, the reader must judge which is more plausible: that a 19-year-old German girl worked as an Allied secret agent, or that a distinguished 72-year-old theologian fabricated the most crucial episode of her life.

According to Eitz’s account, her mission was an extraordinarily dangerous one. If she had been caught by the Communists, she would have been treated as a spy. “The Stasi, the East German secret service, they were highly trained and very brutal,” she says. It was while engaged in this perilous work that she crossed paths with the man who would change her life, a fellow secret agent named Johannes.

Eitz and Johannes met while smuggling children from East to West Berlin and fell in love. They dreamed of traveling the world together and having lots of children. A medical student, Johannes was also a gifted musician who played the organ. Even now, more than half a century later, Eitz can clearly remember him playing the organ at a church in West Berlin, and the great rumbling vibrations that passed through her, over the balcony, and down the aisle to a marble altar overlooked by a life-size crucifix.

Johannes told Eitz that the man nailed to the cross was the god of love. The 19-year-old Eitz, who had little knowledge of Christianity, was skeptical. “Johannes could not have told me anything that was not right, in my mind, except for that,” she says. “I tried to argue with him at great length because, honestly, I knew what love felt like because I loved him with all my life. As far as I was concerned, it had absolutely nothing to do with that guy, that ‘god of love.’”

Not long after the day that he played the church organ, Johannes was killed by Communist soldiers. Eitz was shattered. She blamed God, the supposed “god of love” that Johannes had told her was the mover of everything in the universe. For a long time after he died, even the faintest sound of an organ was unbearable to her.

Yet she could not forget what Johannes had told her. She felt driven to investigate the bodiless presence of that love in which he had so strongly believed, if only to refute him. “Somebody very wise told me, if you want to show how mistaken somebody is, God or otherwise, you’d better learn about that person,” Eitz says. But her inquiry ultimately revealed a more profoundly generous spirit than she had anticipated: “Each time Jesus did something that was against the law, he pounded another nail into the certainty that he would die. I realized much too late that, in a way, that was also what Johannes had done. That’s when I truly began my studies.”

A Love Supreme

Eitz immigrated to the United States in 1963, in her early 20s. Her religious quest never led her toward the convent—for her, the life of a nun was too oppressive. Instead, she earned a master’s degree in theology at Marquette University, a Catholic and Jesuit school in Milwaukee. In 1959, Pope John XXIII created the Second Vatican Council, ushering the Catholic Church into the modern era. Eitz began her studies at the height of Vatican II, a period when the church began to break away from many of its former conservative creeds. Catholics began to speak out publicly for civil rights. Many nuns even discarded their habits.

Eitz’s calling, as always, was with children. She played a major role in organizing the evacuation of orphaned South Vietnamese children to the United States during the fall of Saigon, a controversial mission known as Operation Babylift. (Eitz adopted children from Vietnam herself.) She did extensive relief work in drought-ravaged Africa. And she founded Respite Care, a childcare service for at-risk children that she ran for more than 35 years out of her home near Golden Gate Park.

After Vatican II, which lasted from 1962 through 1965, the church swung back hard to a more traditional stance. Eitz, who had started her career teaching theology in schools and seminaries, was increasingly disturbed by the Vatican’s turn toward patriarchal conservatism. The final straw came in 2001, when the Vatican reiterated its guidelines for translating the Bible and announced that splitting divine figures into masculine and feminine parts should be avoided. For Eitz, the church’s outright refusal to acknowledge the presence of the feminine in religion was an intolerable step backward.

Around this time, Eitz began attending Sophia in Trinity, a San Francisco community rooted in Roman Catholicism that celebrates “a radically inclusive God,” according to their website. Victoria Rue, who presides over both Sophia in Trinity and the Queer Eucharist at Metropolitan Community Church, urged Eitz to become a priest. Rue herself was familiar with the spiritual and political call: She became a womandeacon in 2004 and a womanpriest the following year. “People in the community saw Maria as a deeply spiritual woman whose vision of life, and of God, is very inclusive of many different kinds of people and many kinds of experience,” Rue says. Eitz was ordained in May 2013, becoming the first female Catholic priest ordained in San Francisco.

Now Rue and Eitz hold the Queer Eucharist together. The decor at Metropolitan Community Church reflects the group’s nontraditional take: There’s no sign of a crucifix, and the stained glass windows lining the chapel are patterned with rainbow flags and other nonreligious imagery. Both women reject the tradition of wearing priestly vestments—why, they joke, would they dress like men who dress like women?—but everyone in the congregation dons a stole, usually purple or rainbow-colored. There is a Eucharist, the traditional Catholic sacrament in which bread and wine are consecrated to commemorate the Last Supper, but in this congregation, the bread is broken over a blend of feminist, queer, and liberation theology. Like the passage about the lepers, each gospel is related back to some aspect of the LGBTQ community.

“If the sores are gone, what about the other things that were not accepted?” Eitz asks the congregation, mostly gay men, and Rue, who is a lesbian. “Does that still make me a leper? If we show ourselves, will that make us whole?”

The service, conducted in a small circle, feels more like a group meditation than a church service. The prayer at each Queer Eucharist doesn’t involve kneeling and pleading for forgiveness—instead, it’s practically yogic. After each blessing, the congregation members take a deep breath, stretching their arms overhead before crossing them over their hearts in a gesture of affirmation. Some pray for loved ones lost to AIDS, while others ask for reassurance that God doesn’t discriminate against differences in sexuality. Eitz is contemplative and soft-spoken when it’s her turn to offer a prayer. It’s a simple request: “I’d like to pray for everyone who feels not accepted.”

Rebel with a Cause

A question raised by the existence of renegade Catholics like Eitz is obvious: Why don’t they simply leave the church? Why remain in an institution that regards homosexuality as sinful, defines abortion and contraception as mortal sins, and prevents women from holding positions of power?

Part of the answer lies in Eitz’s academic background and training. Theologians are trained as scholars and are often more willing to challenge dogmas than the average parish priest. But another part no doubt lies in the unique constellation of events and personal tragedy that led Eitz to join the church in the first place and dedicate herself to finding the real meaning of the “god of love.” One senses that for her, abandoning the church would be as unthinkable as forgetting Johannes.

Eitz believes that it’s not scripture that mandates the shunning of certain groups—it’s the people who interpret it. By reintroducing the feminine into Catholicism and celebrating it as a religion of love, not of sin and guilt, she’s doing what many Catholics do: picking and choosing the facets of the religion that work for her. The difference is that she’s doing it as a religious leader.

Eitz warns that if the Catholic Church doesn’t open itself to more inclusive ways of worship, it risks losing the interest of millennials for good. She hopes to inspire younger women to see beyond Canon Law 1024. “When young people come in, we celebrate them like gifts,” she says. “There is an awful lot of work that needs to be done. Unless we have young people in our movement, we will become something that will not carry on into the future.”

Eitz hopes that if enough women do follow suit, one day female church leaders will be part of the religious mainstream, not a tiny sect worshipping beneath the hierarchy’s radar. Says Eitz, “I’m grandmothering it for young people, you know?”