Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


Women's Ordination Revisited 
by Andrew Walsh


In the 1970s, three great issues polarized the Roman Catholic community in America: the sudden legalization of abortion, the papal ban on birth control, and the debate over whether women could or should be ordained to the priesthood. Since then, abortion has remained a bitterly divisive question; polls indicate that more than 80 percent of Catholic married couples use artificial birth control despite their church’s objections; and women’s ordination has fallen into the murky middle.

Polls regularly suggest that about 65 percent of American Catholics support the ordination of women—a big majority, but not the supermajority who ignore the ban on birth control. Since ordination is under the direct control of the institutional church, the hierarchy has been able to constrain discussion especially since 1994, when Pope John Paul II issued a series of rulings declaring that the church had no authority to ordain women to the priesthood and that Catholics should no longer discuss the matter.

But over the past year or two, the discussion has nevertheless reopened. At one level, a group of women’s ordination activists has sharpened a tactic for forcing the issue into the public eye. But it’s also happening in the precincts of Catholic intellectual discourse.

The activists, a global group called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, surged into public view in 2002, when several of their members, identified as Catholic bishops, presided over a ceremony where they ordained other women to the priesthood and deaconate. Official Roman Catholic spokesmen insisted that those who took part in the ceremony automatically excluded themselves from the Catholic Church and that the ordinations had no validity for Catholics.

Womenpriests counter-insisted that the ordinations were valid because the female bishops had been secretly ordained by sympathetically Roman Catholic bishops.

“Why is Rome so upset with us? Because they know the ordinations are valid,” Bridget Mary Meehan, a spokeswoman for Roman Catholic Womenpriests told Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe on July 20, the day the organization ordained three women in a borrowed Protestant church in Boston’s Back Bay. “We are not intimidated. We feel so strongly. Nothing can stop the Holy Spirit.”

Paulson then quoted a (male) Catholic lay activist who denounced the ceremony as “a sacrilegious parody.” One “must not only be a male to be a Catholic priest, one must be Catholic,” said C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts. “The performers in this theater of propaganda are neither. These women ought to have the intellectual honesty to admit they left the Catholic Church some time ago. Whatever publicity value today’s exercise has, it must be measured against both the manifest fraudulence and irredeemable hopelessness of their cause.”

The Archdiocese of Boston responded in a lower key, asserting in a public statement that the “Catholic Church is made up of women and men, equal in rights and diverse in gifts and ministries.” The “organization called ‘Roman Catholic Womenpriests’ is not recognized as an entity of the Catholic Church. Catholics who attempt to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the women who attempt to receive a sacred order, are by their own actions separating themselves from the Church.”

Ida Raming, a Womenpriests bishop from Germany, told the packed Church of the Covenant congregation that “We know only too well in how many ways Vatican church leaders refuse to acknowledge the equality in Christ that God has established between men and women, and how they constantly try to re-impose the precedence of men over women.” Her organization gives “witness to the whole world that it is not male gender which is not the valid prerequisite for a valid ordination, but faith and baptism, the foundation of our dignity and equality.”

It is clear that Womenpriests’ strategy of public ordinations is designed to shatter Pope John Paul’s embargo on public discussion of women’s ordination. The original strategy, pursued between 2002 and last fall, was to conduct the ceremonies on board boats in a conscious allusion to early Christian symbolism. But in Boston and in St. Louis last November a new setting was chosen: large religious buildings belonging to non-Catholic groups.

In Boston, it was the Church of the Incarnation, a congregation of both the United Church of Christ and the United Presbyterian Church. In St. Louis, it was the Central Reform Congregation, a Reform Jewish synagogue. In both cases, ordained female religious leaders from outside the Catholic Church played a public role in hosting and embracing the ordinations.

The Church of the Incarnation’s pastor, Rev. Jennifer Wegter-McNelly, called support for the ordination ceremony “an important part of this church’s identity,” and said, “we stand with you today.”

Paulson noted that several other Protestant clergy attended to support the ordinations, including the former president of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. “If it looks like discrimination, acts like discrimination, and it feels like discrimination, it is discrimination,” Rev. Nancy S. Taylor said. “Prejudice in liturgical clothing is still prejudice.”

In Boston, even as Catholic bloggers flamed away at the Womenpriests and the Boston Globe, the archdiocese kept its cool, closing its public statement on the automatic excommunication of those seeking ordination by noting, “The Catholic Church is prepared and eager to welcome back those who seek reconciliation. As a faith community rooted in the loving ministry of Jesus Christ, we pray for those who have willingly fallen away from the Church by participating in such activities. And we pray that they find reconciliation and comfort in the Catholic Church by willingly returning to the community of believers.”

By contrast, Womenpriests found it easier to get under Archbishop Raymond Burke’s skin in St. Louis. Before the ordination of two women there, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, Burke sent letters advising the women “to renounce your intention to attempt to receive priestly ordination” and a letter to the Jewish congregation’s rabbi asking her not to permit the service to go forward.

In addition, Tim Townsend of the Post-Dispatch reported, Burke pressed the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis to persuade the synagogue to withdraw its offer to serve as host. Rev. Vincent Heier told Townsend that the “archdiocese will not participate in more interfaith events if Central Reform Congregation is ‘a leading player….This is about the integrity of the communities….We don’t invite groups that would be hurtful to the Jewish community into Catholic churches.’”

Rabbi Susan Talve said she didn’t “begrudge any of the anger” in Burke’s letter to her. But she said hosting the ordinations reflected her community commitment to gender equality. “Sometimes you look at your core values, and they guide you and tell you what to do, and sometimes that’s really hard,” she said. “Sometime you draw a line in the sand and you do what those core principles tell you to do, and then you accept the consequences.”

The ceremony went off with 600 in attendance, including a dozen ministers of other traditions, some wearing buttons saying, “God loves us, just ask her,” the Post-Dispatch reported. The paper noted that the two women would begin celebrating the Eucharist each weekend at a local Unitarian Church.

Burke was unwillingly to downplay the significance of the matter, and the Post-Dispatch followed a sequence of events that fell out from the ordination. At the end of November, Heier resigned after 25 years as the archdiocese’s main ecumenical staff officer. When Burke banned Talve from participating in an annual ecumenical advent service at St. Cronan’s Church, the church’s parish council moved the service onto the street outside the church.

Burke also sent the two Womenpriests ordinands a series of three letters asking them to meet with him, to “give them the opportunity to recant, hoping through pastoral means that this could be resolved,” Monsignor John Shamleffer, Burke’s chief canon lawyer, told Townsend.

The women issued a public statement saying they “and all Roman Catholic Womenpriets reject the penalties of excommunication, interdict, and any other punitive actions from church officials. We are loyal daughters of the church, and we stand in the prophetic tradition of hold (canonical) disobedience to unjust man-made law that discriminates against women.”

On March 14, Burke publicly excommunicated the women, as well as the German bishop who had ordained them. “The archbishop made this declaration in the hope that they would seek to return to communion with the church, publicly declare their repentance for their actions and disavow that ordination,” Shamleffer said.

Meanwhile, Burke was also pursuing an attempt to discipline some Catholic pastoral leaders who had attended the ordination service. One was the Rev. Marek Bozek, a Catholic priest already involved in a complex struggle with Burke over control of an inner-city Polish national parish. Bozek participated in the Womenpriests ordination, while serving as the unauthorized pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church. In January, Burke began the process of defrocking Bozek, with a broad bill of charges that the priest was in rebellion against legitimate episcopal authority.

Burke also moved against two of the three members of the pastoral team at St. Cronan’s Church: Sean Collins and Sister Louise Lears, both of whom attended the Central Reform Congregation service and then participated in the street-side Advent service at St. Cronan’s that featured Rabbi Talve as speaker.

The Post-Dispatch’s account of that service quoted Talve as saying the Advent service was “something I’ve been invited to do for many years, and I was happy to do it again.” She continued, “I just pray it doesn’t make any difficulty for our friends.”

Lears was then quoted as saying that the service was “not a protest. It was not a demonstration. It was a prayer service.” Two weeks later, the Post-Dispatch reported that Lears “was summoned to appear for a hearing at the archdiocese’s Catholic Center to answer the charge that she had committed ‘a grave scandal,’ defined by the catechism of the Catholic Church as an ‘attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.’”

Another two weeks later, St. Cronan’s pastor, Rev. Gerry Kleba, was also summoned to meet with Burke. Kleba wrote a long e-mail account of the meeting, widely disseminated in St. Louis, in which he said Burke told him “that the vespers service with Talve had been organized ‘to undermine his role as leader of the diocese.’”

Kleba told Tim Townsend that Burke “wanted me to fire Louise, and I told him that since the case was not yet decided, she was innocent until proven guilty.”

When Lears and her canon lawyer were given access to the archdiocesan files on the case, they found still photographs taken from video apparently made at the Roman Catholic Womenpriests ordination. In July, the National Catholic Reporter published a story alleging that the archdiocese had “authorized someone to record the rite and then used the recording” as evidence to punish Lears.

While insisting that it had “never asked anyone to conduct ‘surveillance’ video-taping,” as the NCR alleged, the archdiocese allowed as how it had indeed sent a witness to observe “the attempted ordination.”

In June, Burke, a canon lawyer by training, was promoted to the Vatican to serve as head of the church’s highest court. Before leaving St. Louis, he placed Lears under interdict, which the Post-Dispatch called “a lesser form of excommunication.” The following month, Townsend reported that Sean Collins had resigned from the St. Cronan’s pastoral team as a gesture of support for Lears, who had also resigned from her pastoral position.

“As the only member of St. Cronan’s pastoral team left,” Kleba chose to focus on the positive, Townsend reported. “I’m really confident that there’s going to be a new archbishop here who’s more pastoral,” the priest told him.

Other bishops have tended to take the less confrontational Boston approach. In August of 2006, for example, a dozen women were ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests in a service on a boat navigating the three rivers surrounding Pittsburgh. “The Catholic diocese of Pittsburgh is forwarding information to Rome about a July 31 riverboat ceremony in which 12 women claimed to have been ordained as Roman Catholic priests and deacons,” Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. “But the diocese is not asking for a declaration of excommunication against the women because church law says they excommunicated themselves.”

“It’s really up to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to act in the way that they deem appropriate,” Monsignor Lawrence DiNardo, the Pittsburgh diocesan vicar for canonical services, told Rodgers. Rodgers noted that Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee had decided to take a similar course regarding one of the women involved in the ordination.

When two women living in his diocese were ordained in 2005, Bishop Sylvester Ryan of Monterrey, California, likewise bumped the excommunication question up the chain of command. His communication director Kevin Drabinski even went out of his way to be conciliatory. “I grant them that they have a very serious feeling about their calling, even though that’s not possible in the church today,” the San Jose Mercury reported on July 21, 2005.

Similarly, the Diocese of San Diego refused public comment when one newly ordained woman began public ministry at a rented United Methodist Church in Mission Hills. “In the packed sanctuary of a rented church...a balding man in a short-sleeved shirt stepped up to the microphone,” Sandy Dolbee of the San Diego Union reported on August 5, 2006. “‘Folks,’ he began ‘I want to welcome you to the revolution.’”

“I am a Roman Catholic woman priest,” Jane Via told Dolbee. “We are Catholic and this is our tradition and we claim it….The institution chooses not to recognize us.”

There is evidence that Catholic dioceses have been mobilizing in other places to try to contain the Roman Catholic Womanpriests movement. On August 25, 2007, the Portland Oregonian reported that the local Episcopal diocese had vetoed a mass to be conducted by Toni Tortortilla in one of its parish churches. “In a letter to the Oregonian, the Rev. Jonathan W. Weldon, a spokesman for the Episcopal bishop, said the diocese had not authorized the invitation. While the Episcopal Church in the United States ordains women, the diocese respects the authority of the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland.”

In Sarasota, Florida, the editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted in a February 26 column that the Diocese of Venice had asked the newspaper to stop running religious service announcements, or at least to remove some words, from a mass announcement at Mary Mother of Jesus Catholic Community House Church. “The problem?” Tom Lyons of the Herald Tribune wrote, “The pastor is listed as Bridget Mary Meehan, ordained R.C. female priest.”

The newspapers editors, he said, had decided not to comply with the diocesan request. “And really, everyone should be glad that newspaper employees will not be declaring who is right or wrong theologically.”

Lyons also observed that Meehan’s congregation, like that of almost all of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests discovered by journalists, was a very modest operation. “Even though a feature story in the Herald-Tribune 10 months ago helped double the attendance, 20 people is still a good turnout,” Lyons wrote. “So I think the Diocese will survive the challenge.”

Meanwhile, on a more academic plane, public discussion of women’s ordination has been re-opened by Roman Catholic theologians. The first move came at the end of 2007, when a nun named Sarah Butler, a professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, published The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church. Defending the exclusion of women from the priesthood, the book caused some stir because Butler had published academic work in the 1970s that took the other side.

In a March 27 talk at St. Joseph’s, Butler declared that, despite Vatican statements to the contrary, “We must acknowledge that it is still a question.”  No one, she noted, “denies that differences over the ordination of women pose a major obstacle to progress toward restoring unity with Protestant and Anglicans. But many Catholics, too, think that the reservation of priestly ordination to men constitutes a serious injustice. Nothing they have read or heard since they drew this conclusion has prompted them to reconsider it. Some of them feel called up to engage in a ‘prophetic’ protest against the `institutional Church.’

“Others remain silent, in obedience to the directive in the Church’s teaching authority that Catholics should no longer advocate this change, but their confidence in the Church’s teaching authority has been badly eroded. For these, at least, the work of explaining the tradition of reserving priestly ordination to men is clearly unfinished. Their lingering misgivings dampen enthusiasm for evangelization and, along with many other factors, impede our ability to attract vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.”

This is not the way a typical defense of Vatican prohibitions begins, and it immediately attracted attention. Robert J. Egan, a Jesuit theologian who teaches at Gonzaga University, called attention to it in an April 11 article in Commonweal, and an exchange followed between Butler and Egan in the July 18 edition of the magazine.

Two aspects of Butler’s defense of the male-only priesthood stand out. The first is her willingness to dismiss many of the arguments Catholic theologians have made against admitting women to the priesthood, especially those that assert the inferiority of women. The second is the influence of John Paul II’s theological arguments from the mid-1990s.

Butler’s strategy for defending the exclusion of women from the priesthood is based on a distinction, which follows John Paul’s work, between the reasons for the church’s exclusion from the priesthood and the theological arguments made in defense of doing so.

Feminists and many others have opposed Catholic teaching, Butler maintained, mainly because they have disagreed with some or all of the theological arguments made over time on behalf of the male priesthood: the “natural resemblance” of men to Christ, the moral superiority of the male sex, and the complementarity of the sexes that produces valid differences in the options open to them.

But, Butler claimed, where the church starts is with Christ’s decision to call only men in the group of twelve apostles. The exclusion of women from the priesthood is not commentary on the worthiness of women, it is “[t]radition traced to the will of Christ, not to a decision made by the Church.”

Granting that baptism makes male and female equal in status as Christians, Butler emphasized the status of priesthood as sacrament to which most men and all women are not admitted: “It is not because of equality and complementarity of the sexes that some Protestants ordain women, and the Catholic Church does not; it is because we disagree over whether Holy Orders is a sacrament.”

According to her, the key reason to defend a male priesthood is that it is a defense and expression of the Catholic doctrinal tradition that “the bishops are the successors of the Apostles…that the charge given to the Apostles was handed onto their successors, the bishops who receive the fullness of the sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Eagan responded vigorously and negatively to Butler’s strategy of moving the women’s ordination question behind the barricades of a sacramentally defined priesthood.

His most urgent complaint was that there is no such thing as a “New Testament priesthood.”

“Is there any compelling reason to connect this group in any way with the categories of presbyter and episcopos? There does not seem to be. The Twelve were not thought to play a role that needed to be institutionalized and extended into the communities’ ongoing histories,” Eagan wrote.

“Consequently, to many Catholics it seems far-fetched to insist that because no women were chosen to be among the Twelve, no women could later be chosen to be elders or overseers, especially when there is general agreement that women did play significant leadership roles in early Christian communities, even to a surprising extent.”

Not surprisingly, the back and forth did not stop there. As things stand, it’s clear that papal attempts to lock down discussion have produced no new Catholic consensus on women’s ordination, and that pro-ordination partisans will neither shut up nor stop voting with their feet.

So look for a 60ish, grandmotherly member of Roman Catholic Womanpriests in a rented room near you.


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