Women Ordained: Stepping on the Vatican’s Toes

By Frances Kissling
Autumn 2002

Generally speaking, powerful institutions and people are not very good at sharing power. Equality and democracy as ideals are fairly recent, and even those institutions committed to these goals fall far short of reaching them. One needs to look no further than the George W. Bush administration to see how fragile these ideals are. Leading the United States, a nation built on equality and democracy, he is willing to go it alone into a war against Iraq.

In undemocratic institutions, the drive to preserve power is more pronounced and often ruthlessly protected. This is certainly true of the papacy and the Vatican. Recent examples of how the institutional church reacts to both reformers and radicals abound. The most painful example of the inability of church leaders to relinquish unjust power is the way in which they have worried more about protecting priests who have sexually abused children than protecting the abused children.

Working within such undemocratic institutions is tricky. Is the institution irrevocably broken? Can it be redeemed or must it be left behind? Can one embrace parts of it that are good and holy while working to change that which is deeply wrong, sinful and destructive? How close can one get to dictators and maintain personal integrity and holiness? How much truth can go unspoken without doing a disservice to the people of God and one’s self? Good people, reformers and radicals alike, have struggled with these questions. Matthew Fox faced that challenge, articulating from within the ways in which the institution showed all the worst characteristics and behaviors of a dysfunctional family before he left for another priesthood (Episcopalian), in which he was free to be himself. Charles Curran tried a more moderate approach, spoke softly, tried not to call attention to himself, engaged with the Vatican, answered, used reason and ended up a Roman Catholic priest in a Methodist setting. Sinead O’Connor went from ripping up a picture of the pope on Saturday Night Live–a rather prophetic act of rage designed to call attention to all those who have been abused by the institution–to being ordained a priest, “Mother Bernadette Mary” by Michael Cox. (Cox was ordained a bishop in the schismatic Palmar de Troya sect, and later formed the “Latin Tridentine Church,” in which he ordained O’Connor.)

[T]he reaction and judgment of Vatican officials should not determine whether or not the women are priests.Who cares whether the Vatican thinks they are priests or not? Do the people of God in a Catholic community accept them is a more appropriate standard.

In Boston, Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) is the latest group to struggle with the reality that, in the minds and hearts of most of the bishops and the Catholic right, there is no middle road and no loyal opposition. Having gone out of their way to define themselves as “mainstream, church-going, check book” Catholics, VOTF, which does not define its goal of structural change within the church as reformist, faced the same fate as Dignity, the radical group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Catholics: in many places, both are denied the right even to meet on church property.

But no group has grappled more with the problem of working for radical change within the framework of the institutional church than the seven women who were ordained on June 29, 2002, on a boat on the Danube between Germany and Austria. And no event has challenged the reform movement, especially the movement for the ordination of women, more than this ordination.

First, there is the rather arid debate about whether the ordinations were valid. The canons of the church say that only a baptized man can validly receive orders and that the ordination must be conferred by a bishop, according to the approved liturgical rite. All, including the women ordained, agree that the ordination was illegal under the laws of the church. Some hold that the ordinations are valid; some that they are not. Various experts make different arguments, with Rome holding that they are illegal and invalid and, within the span of a month, issued a formal decree of excommunication against the women. This should come as no surprise. And, for those who seek justice in the church, the reaction and judgment of Vatican officials should not determine whether or not the women are priests. Who cares whether the Vatican thinks they are priests or not? Do the people of God in a Catholic community accept them is a more appropriate standard.

From a feminist perspective the more interesting question concerns what seemed to be the women candidates’ acceptance of at least one Vatican standard for ordination, that is that it must be performed by a bishop in apostolic succession. The women sought diligently to find such a bishop–and in the end the bishops they found were questionable. Romulo Antonio Braschi, a former Catholic priest who now describes himself as bishop of the “Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Jesus the King,” had already been excommunicated once for schismatic activities, and the other, former Benedictine monk Ferdinand Reglesberger, was ordained a bishop by Braschi earlier this year. If the women wanted clear apostolic succession, they didn’t get it. What they did get was a bishop who acted like most bishops–with arrogance and without full regard for ordination or the women.

Some believe that dialogue with the institutional church is important and a moderate stance on reform with a concentration on less controversial issues such as the priest shortage is the best way to make change and not waves.

The patriarchal mindset of Bishop Braschi, the ordaining bishop was evident when he chose to ordain a male bishop locally “so that the women would have a local bishop to take care of them.” If the women needed a local bishop to take care of them, why not ordain first as priest and then as bishop Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, whom by all accounts has been leading the group for the past three years? If you are going to break the law, why not go all the way? I am reminded of the founder of Catholics for a Free Choice, Patricia Fogarty McQuillan, who crowned herself pope on the steps of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in January 1974. Now there was a woman who thought big.

One cannot but wonder how the women felt when they prostrated themselves on the altar before the bishop. For a man to prostrate himself before a bishop may well be an appropriate expression of surrender; for women who have been treated as objects, sexually used by church officials and denied access to the sacristy other than to clean it, this is beyond the pale of acceptable acts. All behaviors can be interpreted in several ways; most often they are interpreted to suit our preconceived notions about the issue. For me, the prostration and the whole ordination on male terms indicated the extent to which these women were willing to go to make a powerful symbolic act which would show resistance and capture the imagination of all Catholics, provoking both visceral and intellectual reactions. After all, had the women done the “feminist” thing and been ordained by the community of their sisters, few would have paid attention. It was the use of the ritual and a bishop, however questionable, that got the Vatican’s goat. The little rituals conducted by women in Danskin leotards and gauzy fabric just don’t cut the mustard among the curia. They’ve got a much classier wardrobe.

Anti-woman Catholics have reacted predictably. Austin Ruse of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute so profoundly objectified the women that he referred to them as the improper “matter” for ordination. Many secular women’s groups were elated. At long last, Catholic women had acted. The Women’s Ordination Conference (US) approved. Some groups did not. All who questioned the strategy were respectful of the women’s decision. We Are Church, United Kingdom, issued a statement that it “operates within the law of the church.” New Wine, a UK women’s ordination group, expressed concern that the ordinations would make it difficult for them to dialogue with church officials on the issue and John Wijngaards, a respected supporter of women’s ordination, feared that the ordinations and the resulting excommunication would put the movement on the “fringe” of the church and marginalize it.

The support and concerns mirror the discourse within the reform movement in the US. Some believe that dialogue with the institutional church is important and a moderate stance on reform with a concentration on less controversial issues such as the priest shortage is the best way to make change and not waves. Others take a more radical approach that includes a hard line on even controversial issues and a more openly critical stance in the face of injustice within the church.

Where that debate will go remains to be seen, as does the effect that the ordinations will have. We have at least ten ordained women priests. Only one, Mary Ramerman, has a parish. Two are inactive-Ludmila Javorova and Sinead O’Connor. How will the remaining seven live their priesthood? How will the reform community worldwide facilitate and seek out their priesthood? Will we see them celebrate mass at the Call To Action conference this year? Will they be present at the Katholikentag in Germany? Will they write for our publications and will we publish them?

And what kind of priests will they be? When I asked several of them this question via email, the answers were impressive. They were humble, at this moment a bit uncertain of what possibilities will be open to them, understanding of especially women’s needs for ministry.

Two years ago, I had an interesting exchange of correspondence with a board member of the US Women’s Ordination Conference. She had written to ask some very good questions about CFFC and our positions on abortion. It took me a while to respond and she kept bugging me. I included in my response some questions about what the ordination of women might mean for women. Would women priests have something to offer women on the abortion question, for example, that male priests for the most part have not? Would women priests have the courage to speak out publicly in favor of legal abortion as has Father Robert Drinan (one of the few)? What would they say from the pulpit about this issue? Could I call on them to provide non-judgmental counseling to women who are pregnant? Would they go to the abortion clinic with women when they choose abortion as the most moral choice they can make? Would they stand with other women clergy against the violence at abortion clinics? I am still waiting for an answer and for that reflection to go on within the women’s ordination movement.

The prophetic and honest decision of seven women in Germany and Austria to be ordained, to follow the call from God to serve women, was the right thing to do. It is not the only strategy, but it is one that needed to be done. The jury is still out on how these women- and the others who have been ordained and will be ordained-will deal with some of the toughest issues that face priests. Will women priests do better by women who are single and sexually active, lesbian or straight? Will they lead in proclaiming the moral agency of women, their right to conscience and right to be trusted to decide when, whether and how to have children? How will they show solidarity with the nearly 600,000 women who die each year in childbirth, during pregnancy or from illegal abortions?

We certainly hope that the prophetic stance will not end with ordination.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Catholics for Choice