What makes someone a ‘Catholic priest’?

NPR.com is teasing a story with the following words:

Female Priests Defy Catholic Church At The Altar
Four more women were recently ordained as priests in the Catholic Church, risking excommunication.

Except that at the very least that ordination is in dispute. And since one of the disputing parties is, well, how do we put this, the “Catholic Church,” the whole story is oddly phrased. Even this caption:

Roman Catholic “Womenpriests” on their ordination day, June 4, at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Catonsville, Md.

Why is “Womenpriests” in quotations but not “Roman Catholic”? The group calls itself not “Womenpriests” but “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.” And, again, the Roman Catholic Church denies any involvement with the group. The caption is also misleading.

As for the story, it starts off with a bang:

In 2002, seven women were secretly ordained as priests by two Roman Catholic bishops in Germany. After their ordination, a kind of domino effect ensued.

Those seven women went on to ordain other women, and a movement to ordain female priests all around the world was born. …

On a recent June day in Maryland, four more women were ordained as priests. The gallery at St. John’s United Church of Christ was filled with Catholic priests and nuns, there to support the women and the ordination movement — though visitors were asked not to photograph them. Witnessing the ceremony was enough to risk excommunication.

Who were these two Roman Catholic bishops, I wonder. When tmatt critiqued a Baltimore Sun version of this story last week, it was three bishops.

But as is the problem with the previous version of this story, ordination in the Roman Catholic church doesn’t happen via priests but, rather, bishops. While any denomination can ordain people however its leaders and adherents want, the central claim to this story is that these rites are done in accordance with the Vatican. So such claims need to be tested.

The story explains some of the mysteries with the previous Baltimore Sun account. Apparently media outlets are respecting a request for privacy in coverage of the story so that visitors aren’t photographed. Everyone asserts, though, that visitors included members of the Catholic church. I would love to know a bit more about how such claims were verified.

This line is curious, though:

As members of the Roman Catholic Church, these female priests are all breaking church rules, which allow ordination only to baptized males. No member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests has been excommunicated by the Church, but they have felt repercussions. They’ve not only been threatened but also have lost friends and colleagues within the Church — many of whom fear they will lose their jobs if they support the women’s ordination movement openly.

Is that true? What type(s) of excommunication are we referring to here. Is this what the Catholic Church itself would say? That performing an ordination rite such as this is not grounds for automatic excommunication? And what threats are we talking about? And who is issuing these threats? And did we speak with the people who we’re claiming made threats?

Did I mention that nowhere in the entire story is an official within the actual Roman Catholic Church quoted? Isn’t that weird?

I know that stories about Roman Catholic Womenpriests and other similar groups are like catnip for reporters, but we shouldn’t just throw out all of our reporting principles. When the whole point of the story revolves around a disputed claim, it’s usually not a good idea to ignore one side.

This isn’t about picking sides or favoring one group over another but, simply, giving readers information. It’s a journalism thing.

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  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    It takes three bishops in Communion with Rome to make someone a bishop.

    One valid bishop can ordain a priest.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The women were excommunicated in Vatican eyes the second they took their irregular vows and violated Church Tradition and doctrine. Period.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    These bogus ordinations,identified as “Roman Catholic”- but really just another modernist heresy organizing– which any people certainly have a right to do, is only “news” because the media basically covers the story along the lines these women want and is a major reason they put on their charade.
    If they knew the story would be truthfully framed by the media as just another heresy getting organized (Ho-Hum!), I bet they wouldn’t bother.

  • Martha

    Okay, that’s it.

    If these women are priests, then I’m the Queen of Munster. And since my ancestral line is allegedly descended from a son of a High King of Ireland (yeah, yeah, like the other 94% of the population of Ireland), then I’m going to award lands and titles to any who want them.

    Fancy yourself as a knight? A dame? Baronetcy or earldom? No problem! After all, if I consider myself to be of royal descent, why can’t I dub my own knights just like Lizzie over there in the United Kingdom?

  • Martha

    Look, if these women want to call themselves some version of a Catholic Church, fine. After all, if Anglicans can come up with the Branch Theory, and if the Dutch can have their own Old Catholic schismatic grouping, why not a bunch of American women (like the other forty-seven small splinter groups all claiming to be the REAL Catholic Church).

    They can even be priests in their own church.

    What they are not is ROMAN CATHOLIC priests (sorry for the all-caps shouting, but this has to be emphasised). They’re a schismatic off-shoot who are setting up their own denomination in the grand tradition of American religious diversity, but they’re not RC priests of any description. Nor are their lady bishops bishops, because you can’t just get a bunch of priests (males or not) together to declare someone a bishop. So she could be a bishop like T.D. Jakes is a bishop (which as far as I can make is is because he decided that for his non-denominational church, the term for the pastor-in-charge would be “Bishop”, not “Elder” or “Presbyter” or the like), but she’s not a bishop by any definition of churches holding to the Apostolic Succession.

  • Jon in the Nati

    What type(s) of excommunication are we referring to here. Is this what the Catholic Church itself would say? That performing an ordination rite such as this is not grounds for automatic excommunication?

    As I understand it, these women and whoever apparently ordained them would excommunicated latae sententiae, meaning that a person has effectively excommunicated themselves because of the act they have committed, without the hierarchy having to take action to impose it. Per papal decree, any woman who attempts to be ordained, or any bishop attempting to ordain a woman, incurs such excommunication the moment the act takes place.

    Is it possible that the author simply does not understand the concept of excommunication latae sententiae, and assumes that the women have not been excommunicated because no church authority has publicly said so?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Sorry, they cannot do branch theory without starting with three bishops in ancient apostolic secession AS BISHOPS to consecrate the other bishops on the new branch.

    Anglicanism had that. The Lutherans do too.

    The Orthodox and Rome are estranged, but recognize the validity of their orders. When I said good-bye to a Catholic priest the other day, I asked for his blessing. He’s a priest. He would greet an Orthodox priest as a priest. Old orders.

    Now, this is something even more modern and interesting and strange than the Anglican split.

  • Dan Crawford

    Reporters functioning as employees of the Ministry of Propaganda are not terribly interested of facts of whatever sort. It is no surprise that NPR keeps dredging up these stories and presenting them as news. They would have better served the public by offering a fashion story on a distinctive new wardrobe line for suburban feminists.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas

    “Priestess” — a perfectly good word in some religious traditions, e.g., Taoist/Daoist.

    But it does spook the Christians.

  • John

    I listened to this story while driving on the highway and was struck by a number of things:

    First, the reporter was clearly letting her own bias show through in the reporting, suggesting that she is in full agreement with what these women are doing (something that was pointed out by many commentators on the NPR page for this story.) Now, I don’t know anything about Lily Percy, if she is Catholic or what other faith tradition she might follow, but the slanted way she reported this story, combined with a lack of any opposing view from the official Catholic hierarchy suggests that clear bias on her part. Which is fine if this was an an opinion piece, but makes for shoddy reporting. NPR usually follows good journalistic standards, but they really dropped the ball on this one.
    Newsbusters does a pretty good takedown of this piece.

    Second, there was something in the story which caught my attention, and which suggests a larger issue that the reporter avoided. One of the women claimed that she left the Catholic Church after her parish became more conservative, joining the Episcopalians. This itself is a sign of a much larger change taking place, in that the Church is becoming a more conservative organization, returning to its traditional roots, and that Liberal (or to be more precise, heterodox) Catholicism is very much on the decline, becoming essentially an phenomenon of older folks still rooted in the 60′s. The ages of the women the story focuses on suggests they are from this generation. Liberal Catholicism is becoming a spent force, in part because Catholics who become liberal ultimately stop being Catholic. Those who remain in the Church, especially among the young, tend to be the ones who really believe, and they trend towards the more traditional forms of the faith, especially those men who choose to become priests these days. (This is true of many religions, BTW…Eric Kaufmann in SHALL THE RELIGIOUS INHERIT THE EARTH? goes into it with more detail…) Go to the websites for the National Catholic Reporter and the National Catholic Register, and compare the photos post of the bloggers and columnists. With the Reporter, most of those depicted are over the age of fifty, at least. With the Register, most of them are forty or under.

    See the Catholic World Report for a more illuminating take on this issue.

    In short, very bad journalism on the part of NPR.

  • Julia

    Sorry, they cannot do branch theory without starting with three bishops in ancient apostolic secession AS BISHOPS to consecrate the other bishops on the new branch.

    It seems the branch theory these days has to do with an ancient Celtic connection with the Copts in Egypt before Constantine that pre-dates St Augustine being sent to Canterbury by the Pope. Evidently St Patrick doesn’t count, either.


  • http://www.vivificat.org TDJ

    “Can. 1024 A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.” 1983 Code of Canon Law

    No women can be ordained validly; no woman can ordain another woman validly for she was not validly ordained in the first place. Not even the Pope can validly ordain a woman.

    These WomynPriests events are mere simulations in which nothing is granted and nothing is received. Nothing more, nothing less. They are spectacles in which schism, heresy, and disobedience are disguised under false appeals to prophetic actions and a thirst for media attention.

    Yet the media keeps paying a whole lot of attention to nothing. It’s the nature of the beast.


  • Elijah

    All of this is fine and good but the original point stands: why will no reporter ask any questions of actual Roman Catholics? Clearly chapter and verse can be cited on why these women are not Roman Catholics – so why isn’t anyone being given the opportunity to do so? That’s a far more interesting problem than another group of heretics who want to claim the power of the Catholic Church without actually being Catholic.

  • Bain Wellington

    For the record, the automatic excommunication of women who attempt to receive sacred ordination (and of those who pretend to administer it) was first imposed with the publication on 30 May 2008 of a general decree in that regard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

    This provision was duly incorporated (at article 5.1) into the revised norms “de gravioribus delictis” promulgated in May 2010 (pursuant to the 2001 Motu Proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela”). There was a modest firestorm of complaint in the media at the time regarding the inclusion of this specific provision among norms which also address clergy sexual abuse. For the getreligion angle on that occasion see Mollie here. Cue diatribe about short-term memory loss among professional journalists – but it seems Mollie herself might have forgotten the details of that 2010 story (see her comments above after the fourth block quote).

    Even before the revised norms, however, there were certainly cases of individual women being excommunicated “ferae sententiae” (the non-automatic kind). In March 2008 Raymond Burke (then Archbishop of St. Louis and now Cardinal Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura) issued a decree of excommunication of Patricia Fresen (pretended bishop), and of Rose Hudson and Elsie McGrath (pretended recipients of sacred ordination from Fresen in 2007 in a synagogue in St. Louis), and on 21 December 2002 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had itself published a decree of excommunication (the case of the so-called Danube Seven) regarding events that had occurred in June 2002.

    According to the romancatholicwomenpriests website, Fresen, Hudson and McGrath are all members of “Roman Catholic Womenpriests” as are two of the Danube Seven (a third is listed in the “in memoriam” section of the website) so the NPR story is wrong on the factual issue of RC~WP members’ excommunication: the refusal of the women in question to “accept” their excommunication changes nothing.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    Oh dear, I am shocked, shocked! that NPR puts its worldview ahead of objective reportage.

    Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

  • H. Winn

    Here is a quote (ironically from a former Anglican Bishop, no less) on the occasion of the first English Ordinariate ordination that will answer your question:

    “Mgr Newton stressed: “First and foremost then you are to be ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. What happens to you today will give you a new authentic authority to your ministry.
    “You will discover in the words of Lumen Gentium that ‘There can be no genuine priestly ministry except in communion with the Supreme Pontiff‘”


    So, now you know.

  • Martha


    I was basing the Branch Theory reference on two (actually, make that three grounds)

    (1) Depending on who these mysterious two or three bishops on a boat were, (e.g. I have my suspicions that they were members of some of the Old Dutch off-shoots rather than Roman Catholics, but since no-one has ever identified them, we’ll never know for sure), they may (or may not) possess the Apostolic Succession


    (2) Since Anglicans claim the Apostolic Succession and permit the ordination of women to Holy Orders,


    (3) These women may claim to be, in the Anglican tradition, members of a Catholic church (not the Anglican version, it is true, but I’ve always felt the Anglican case was special pleading; if they can claim to be a branch of the Church Catholic, why not the Lutherans? They’re just as much in the Apostolic Succession as the Anglicans, having had validly consecrated bishops in their ranks.)

    I’m more interested in what the United Church of Christ position is; it does seem to me to be needless ‘rubbing their noses in it’ with regard to the local parish and the bishop by hosting these kinds of ceremonies, but I’m betting that the national organisation would say that it’s up to each local church what they do. Who is the rector/vicar/minister in charge of this church and is it a woman, who would therefore be doing this as solidarity with the sisters against the oppressive patriarchy?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Speaking as an Anglican (of largely A/C sympathies), who is on the fence about women’s ordination and has no intention of crossing the Tiber any time soon, I just don’t get what these women are trying to do.

    There are plenty of churches out there that do ordain women. Some of them- the Old Catholics and, arguably, the Anglicans- even have a fair claim to be the heirs of ancient tradition. There are plenty of options for women who want to be priests while having links to apostolic tradition. The Roman Catholic Church isn’t one of them. Why don’t these women join the Dutch Church, or the Anglican Church, or any one of a number of other options.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    It reminds me of nothing so much as that fellow in ‘Monty Python and the Life of Brian’ who said he was being discriminated against because he was denied the right to bear a child.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Is Lily Percy a reporter for a local station? NPR has an excellent religion reporter in Barbara Bradford Haggerty (whose name I might have just misspelled or otherwise mangled). NPR news has a far better track record than most broadcast media for reporting on religion.