Who made her a Catholic bishop?

Another day, another mainstream news report on the Womenpriests movement that seems to have been written with the assumptions that (a) people are Roman Catholics if they say they are Roman Catholics (as opposed to being believers who are in sacramental Communion with the Church of Rome) and (b) that the Church or Rome is, or should be, operating on organizational principles that are much looser than, say, the Church of England.

Yes, the Baltimore Sun story referenced here is full of the same kind of PR stuff that the Divine Ms. MZ has dissected many times at this here weblog. The story does, at least, make it clear what the Catholic Church teaches on the key issues here — by quoting the key doctrinal statement. After all, you have to have that Vatican quote in order to have a point of reference for the quotations from the dissenters.

Would we praise some kind of mainstream news story on this issue that offered a true, 50-50 debate between articulate, informed voices on both sides? You bet we would. If someone out there in readerland finds one, please send us the URL.

In terms of essential errors about Catholic tradition, here is a key passage in the story:

Roman Catholic Womenpriests traces its origins to the so-called Danube Seven, a group of women who were ordained aboard a ship in the river in 2002 by three male bishops. Two of those bishops were never publicly identified, while the third, an Argentine named Romulo Braschi, was called a “founder of a schismatic community” by the Vatican. The seven women were excommunicated, but RCWP believes their ordinations were legitimate, providing the “apostolic succession” that made all subsequent ordinations legitimate.

Andrea Johnson, the woman who presided at Saturday’s ordination, was ordained a bishop by a woman who traces her legitimacy to the Danube Seven. RCWP claims more than 40 ordained priests and four ordained bishops in the United States, and more in Canada and Europe.

OK, I know that this is a much more complicated situation than what is described here. I know, for example, that there are “Old Catholic” bishops out there with very marginal claims of apostolic succession who will ordain almost anyone. That may or may not play a role in this story.

But the simple fact is that it is alleged that three Catholic bishops, in the Danube case, ordained some female priests. I get that. But priests cannot ordain bishops. It is bishops who ordain priests. Thus, the crucial question, if the women featured in this Sun story are claiming to be ordained, does not concern the “Danube Seven” at all.

Instead, the key question for journalists to ask is, “Where are the three valid, Roman Catholic bishops — bishops in Communion with Rome — who made Andrea Johnson a bishop?” Johnson must be a Catholic bishop to ordain Catholic priests. Otherwise, this is simply another rite in, yes, what practicing Catholics must consider a “schismatic community.” If Rome gets to define the rules for Roman Catholics, then that’s the facts.

That said, here is the other passage that really jumped out for me, as a journalist:

Andrea Johnson, presiding as bishop, ordained two women from Maryland, Ann Penick and Marellen Mayers, one from Pennsylvania and one from New York in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church of Christ. The church was filled with family members — including husbands of three of the ordinands — and friends, including some who are employed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore but who support the ordination of women. Photography was limited to protect the privacy of those attending the ceremony.

In 1994, Pope John Paul II said the church has no authority to ordain women, “and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In 2008, the Vatican further decreed that women who seek ordination or any bishop who attempts it immediately excommunicate themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, I don’t know how readers will respond to that, but it sounds like the Sun agreed not to photograph the congregation in order to protect the privacy of Catholics — Catholic educational leaders or diocesan staff, perhaps — who could not afford to make public their support of the Womenpriests movement. I don’t know about you, but that seems strange — unless editors had decided to protect those individuals as sources for the story. If that’s the case, perhaps that should be stated?

After all, a few paragraphs later readers learn:

“And we don’t believe we can excommunicate ourselves,” said Mayers, who was employed as a campus minister and religion instructor at a Catholic high school until her superiors learned of her affiliation with RCWP last year. By then, she was well on her way toward the priesthood. “We are still Catholic. We do not choose to separate ourselves from the church.”

Mayers, who grew up in Chicago and Baltimore, worked for more than two decades in campus ministry.

OK, I’ll ask. She was the campus minister at what school? It seems that the Sun editors agreed to leave that out of the report, as well. That sounds like crucial news material, to me. It shows that, in the context of Baltimore Catholicism, the Womenpriests movement may have some important connections. It may be surprisingly mainstream in this very symbolic city for American Catholics.

With a few clicks of a mouse, one can find that Mayers was on the faculty at the very powerful and influential Archbishop Spalding High School.

That sounds like an important fact to leave out. It almost seems as if Sun editors were involved in making sure that the service went off well, without any key local Catholic voices or sources being “outed” as dissenters. You think?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Marie

    I would have liked some further clarification on what constitutes a valid ordination in the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops ordain Priests, got it, but can Bishops ordain any person or even any male they wish or is there some criteria. Is there a process by which they gain permission to preform an ordination? Are there minimum requirements? It is sort of like the way the President appoints Supreme Court Justices. THe President can’t just walk up to someone and say you are now on the Supreme Court, there is a legal process that has to be gone through. I realize that that is a political process and not a religious one, but the principle is the same. What is the process, under Church law, that validates an ordination? The impression that I get from this article (and the opinion of the RCWP) is that prior to the Pope’s 1994 pronouncement a Bishop could ordain anyone he wished. I don’t buy it. I want more.

  • Martha

    Two comments, and I admit, one of them snarky:

    (a) If they’re Catholic priests, when will someone tell them you don’t wear your stole outside your chasuble?

    (b) How understanding would the United Church of Christ be if the local parish church hosted an ex-UCC congregant who went off and started up his/her own little group and wanted to rent the church for a ceremony “ordaining” UCC ministers? If every newspaper referred to “Joe Bloggs, UCC minister”, would we see clarifications that actually Joe just calls himself one and he wasn’t officially ordained?

  • Martha

    Marie, you are correct that there are rules. The Code of Canon Law sets out the conditions; basically, any man (and you have to be male) who feels called to the priesthood applies to his local bishop who decides whether or not to send him to the seminary, where he has to remain for a period between four-eight years (depending on his educational attainment before entering); all during this time, he can decide to leave, or the bishop may decide that he does not have a true vocation.

    If he makes it all the way through, he will be ordained first to the transitional diaconate (if he’s on his way to full ordination) and then finally ordained as a priest. He then has to be “incardinated”, that is, connected to a parish or religious order – he can’t just wander around saying “I’m a priest”.

    “Can. 241 §1. A diocesan bishop is to admit to a major seminary only those who are judged qualified to dedicate themselves permanently to the sacred ministries; he is to consider their human, moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities, their physical and psychic health, and their correct intention.

    §2. Before they are accepted, they must submit documents of the reception of baptism and confirmation and any other things required by the prescripts of the program of priestly formation.”

    As to who gets to be a bishop, when a see falls vacant or an auxillary is needed, the Pope (through the Papal Nuncio for the country in question) invites a short list of candidates considered suitable to be made bishops; he then makes the final decision and appoints the new bishop, who is then consecrated by (in the case of a diocesan bishop) his metropolitan archbishop, who is the Principal Consecrator, assisted by two other bishops. However, the bishop is considered to be the legitimate bishop of that see from the moment the Apostolic Letter confirming him is drawn up, not from the moment he is consecrated.

    “Can. 377 §1. The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those legitimately elected.

    §2. At least every three years, bishops of an ecclesiastical province or, where circumstances suggest it, of a conference of bishops, are in common counsel and in secret to compose a list of presbyters, even including members of institutes of consecrated life, who are more suitable for the episcopate. They are to send it to the Apostolic See, without prejudice to the right of each bishop individually to make known to the Apostolic See the names of presbyters whom he considers worthy of and suited to the episcopal function.

    Can. 378 §1. In regard to the suitability of a candidate for the episcopacy, it is required that he is:

    1/ outstanding in solid faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, wisdom, prudence, and human virtues, and endowed with other qualities which make him suitable to fulfill the office in question;

    2/ of good reputation;

    3/ at least thirty-Five years old;

    4/ ordained to the presbyterate for at least Five years;

    5/ in possession of a doctorate or at least a licentiate in sacred scripture, theology, or canon law from an institute of higher studies approved by the Apostolic See, or at least truly expert in the same disciplines.

    §2. The definitive judgment concerning the suitability of the one to be promoted pertains to the Apostolic See.

    Can. 379 Unless he is prevented by a legitimate impediment, whoever has been promoted to the episcopacy must receive episcopal consecration within three months from the receipt of the apostolic letter and before he takes possession of his office.

    Can. 380 Before he takes canonical possession of his office, the one promoted is to make the profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See according to the formula approved by the Apostolic See.”

    Three bishops on a boat may or may not have legitimately (as distinct from validly) ordained women priests; there are no valid women bishops, however, in the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Chris Jones


    A valid ordination in the RC Church requires three things:

    * A proper minister to perform the ordination (that is, a bishop ordained in the Apostolic Succession)

    * A proper “form” of ordination, which means the laying-on of hands and an orthodox ordination liturgy

    * A proper “matter” of ordination, which means that the ordinand (according to John Paul II’s 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) must be a baptized male.

    An ordination that conforms to those requirements is considered “valid” although an ordination may be “valid but illicit” if it doesn’t conform to all of the requirements of canon law. For example, anyone being ordained as a bishop must be approved by the Pope. A man who is ordained as a bishop without the Pope’s approval is still a “valid” bishop but is “illicit.”

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Recall how Bishop Lefebvre was condemned for consecrating bishops without the approval of the Holy See.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    This is terrible reporting.

  • Molly

    (a) If they’re Catholic priests, when will someone tell them you don’t wear your stole outside your chasuble?


    Thank you. I knew something was bothering me…they really do look like Methodist ministers, which is what they should just go become.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    One note: priests are incardinated into a diocese and assigned to a parish. if they belong to a religious order, they can be assigned to any parish, school, or other ministry for which their order has the care.

    Molly, how the women feel deep down is beyond my ken, but I wonder about the reporters blithely calling them Roman Catholic priests. I recognize we live in a society where the individual is supreme and sticking it to the man is a cultural imperative , but you’d think college educated reporters would have a little more on the ball.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Spiking many, many comments that attack the Catholic Church or attack the Womenpriests.

    Folks, focus on the journalism issues.

    Note, for example, that NO ONE has mentioned the Sun’s interesting decisions to, in effect, ignore the connections between this rite and local Catholic life.

  • Doorman

    If someone can willy nilly call themselves a female (when biologically they are a male) or a male (when biologically they are a female) and the media culture just accepts it without critical analysis, why would anyone expect them to make any sort of attempt at analyzing and pointing out the obvious. Group membership almost always requires the acceptance by the group of the individual by the groups stated laws, by-laws and traditions. You can’t call yourself a US Citizen unless you are 1. Born here or 2. Naturalized a citizen by the accepted process. You can’t call yourself a Yankee, without a valid contract accepted by the Yankee management. Group’s are inherently hierarchical. I wonder how ‘Get Religion’ would react if I started presenting myself at news events as a Getreligion journalist. I bet they would very quickly engage their lawyers to force me to stop calling myself an agent/representative or journalist of Getreligion. Why won’t they then afford the same rights to the Catholic Church, which by the way has only existed for about 2000yrs…..

  • Julia

    NO ONE has mentioned the Sun’s interesting decisions to, in effect, ignore the connections between this rite and local Catholic life.

    Do you mean the local bishop?

  • John D

    Is it a newspaper’s job to assign a new name to a group? The group calls itself Roman Catholic. There’s another, larger group that also lays claim to that name. Surely, beyond a brief note, “this group is not affiliated with the Vatican,” it’s not the newspaper’s job to go any further.

    To go from another comment, if I were to start a new group called the United Church of Christ, sure, I’d have to make the occasional weak smile, “no, no, we’re not that UCC, we’re the other one,” but I think my group could call ourselves that.

    Or I could start a group which took the songs of Luther Vandross as our religious text and call ourselves Lutherans.

    If there were an article about my Lutherans and the reporter said, “though the group call themselves Lutherans, they aren’t the real thing,” we could be offended. The reporter would not have “got religion.” The reporter could write, “although not affiliated with the groups that take Martin Luther as their founder, these Lutherans have a lot more soul,” we might be able to live with that.

    There’s no trademark law here. The Vatican doesn’t get to own the words “Roman,” “Catholic,” or “Church.” Nor the words “bishop” or “priest.”

    If these women describe themselves as Roman Catholic priests, it’s not the reporters job to contradict them. They are so entitled to call themselves this.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    “Is it a newspaper’s job to assign a new name to a group? “

    I could call myself Rhode Island. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m not Rhode Island, that Rhode Island is a littl bit larger than I. I see nothing wrong with a reporter pointing out the identity of a person or organization.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    Okay, John D. I thought more about what your wrote and decided you are probably right. I belong to a Church that calls itself the Catholic Church but isn’t in Communion with B16.

  • John H

    Chris Jones,

    One point of clarification. The matter of ordination is the laying on of hands. The form is the apprioriate word used by the minister.

    So I think you are trying to say that there also must be a proper recipient, namely a baptized male.

  • sparks1093

    “We do not choose to separate ourselves from the church.”

    I love that quote! They choose by their actions to separate themselves from the Church.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Who said anything about the bishop? Please address the issues in the actual post.

    John D:

    The issue is not what they call themselves, so much. The issue is whether they are in Communion with Rome, which is what makes someone a Roman Catholic. That and the fact that the bishop doing the ordination was, it appears, made a bishop in a manner that was highly irregular if not totally in violation of centuries of tradition.

    For example: There are female bishops in the Anglican Communion. They were consecrated by bishops, at least three, who have apostolic succession through centuries of Anglican bishops and, thus, back into ancient lines.

    This makes them Anglican bishops, valid to Anglicans and their succession must be taken seriously by Anglicans. Does that mean Rome must take them seriously? Not really, says Rome. They are not in Communion with Rome. Thus, they are not Roman Catholics.

    Tomorrow, if all of the world’s Anglicans declared that they are officially Catholics, the Sun would almost certainly point all of this out.

    Instead, we get a report in which the Sun offers no real factual material on Catholic traditions or Traditions and, instead, makes an actual historical, factual mistake at a key point.

    And most strangely, the Sun ignores key NEWS ELEMENTS OF THE STORY in cooperation with those holding the rite, failing to tell us who these women are in terms of their connections to local Catholic life and institutions.

    Who was in the room celebrating with them? Who are their most powerful supporters? How significant was this event?

  • Jon in the Nati

    I belong to a Church that calls itself the Catholic Church but isn’t in Communion with B16.

    Difference, though, is that the Orthodox churches don’t go about holding themselves out as being in communion with the See of Rome (i.e., part of the Roman Catholic Church as commonly understood). Regardless of how ‘catholic’ the Orthodox (rightly) consider themselves to be, no one is led to believe that they are Roman Catholic. The Orthodox are not making organizational claims that have no basis in reality.

    These women and their supporters are, on the other hand, making such claims, and they deserve to be called on it by reporters.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    This is a no-brainer: the ordinands aren’t holding themselves out to be members of a church called “the Roman Catholic Church”, but members of that Roman Catholic Church. The challenge for reporters (a challenge they generally fail) is to objectively present that situation and not simply publish a press release for RCWP (yes, I know I’m exaggerating, but only a bit).

  • RW

    As sad as this to admit – don’t hold your breath waiting to hear any type of response from the diocese or Archbishop O’Brien. The priestesses of Catonsville have been around for quite awhile with little or no action by the diocese.

    I am not expecting him to reign down fire or even suggest we picket them. I would just like a statement from his offices that what they are doing is both against canon law of the ‘authentic’ Roman Catholic Church and upsetting to see. I’d like some clarification about what are ramifications to anyone who participates in any celebration they perform (because it is not a valid Mass).

    The silence from the offices in this situation is deafening – especially when accompanied by the applause of employees of the diocese who were in attendance.

  • Dave

    I agree with tmatt, the paper was likely protecting folks within the local Catholic sphere from being “outed” as supporters of womenpriests.

    As to whether someone could call themselves the other UCC: The Unitarian Universalist Association formed in 1961 as a merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. In 2000 a breakaway group of UU theists tried to call themselves the American Unitarian Association. The UUA forced them to stop legally.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    “Thank you. I knew something was bothering me…they really do look like Methodist ministers, which is what they should just go become.”

    This United Methodist minister responds to that by reining in both unecumenical words and gestures, and simply pressing the dislike button. Leave us out of it.

  • Don

    … The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1577) states: “Only a baptized man (vir) validly receives sacred ordination.” The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ’s return. The Church recognizes herself to be bound by this choice made by the Lord himself. For this reason the ordination of women is not possible.”

    It adds a bit more (#1578):1578 No one has a right to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Indeed no one claims this office for himself; he is called to it by God. Anyone who thinks he recognizes the signs of God’s call to the ordained ministry must humbly submit his desire to the authority of the Church, who has the responsibility and right to call someone to receive orders. Like every grace this sacrament can be received only as an unmerited gift.”

    Canon Law simplifies: “Can. 1024 A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”

    Declaring yourself to be ordained in contravention of the rules of the Church does not make it so. In fact, as you point out, it results in automatic excommunication.

    But frankly, anyone who has so little respect for the rules of the Church in which they claim priesthood as to publicly flaunt them couldn’t be all that bothered by excommunication, could they?

  • Fr Theodore

    It is interesting that the article uses various forms for the word “excommunication” four times, but never bothers to define what excommunication means.

    Also, TMatt on a comment you made.

    For example: There are female bishops in the Anglican Communion. They were consecrated by bishops, at least three, who have apostolic succession through centuries of Anglican bishops and, thus, back into ancient lines.

    This makes them Anglican bishops, valid to Anglicans and their succession must be taken seriously by Anglicans.

    They must take it seriously, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to accept it. As I recall , the female US Episcopal Presiding Bishop was not allowed to wear her miter when preaching in an English Cathedral last year. The reason given was that the CofE did not (at that point) have women bishops. Of course this may change soon.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Father Theodore:

    Of course, Anglicans argue about that. Of course. That’s why I said, “Take it seriously” instead of “automatically agree with it.”

  • Peggy R

    The elephant in the room that jumped out at me was that the Bmore Sun may have deliberately agreed to provide cover for possibly several archdiocesan employees who attended this event. Wow! Recall that a rather dissenting woman religious in STL was at the local women priests “ordination” event a few years back. Then-Abp. Burke disciplined her. Further, that event took place at a liberal synagogue with a female rabbi. Local Catholic-Jewish relations took a nose-dive after that.

    The language employed by the media giving these women’s claims credence, is annoying. I’d like to see words like “ordination” and “priest” in quotes since they are not officially recognized as such by the Church. Alternatively the media should regularly say words to the effect that “they consider themselves” such.

    I’d like the media to ask these ladies their plans. Where to they plan to serve? Under what authority? Do they have “flocks”? How do they respond to the Church’s assertion that they explicitly separate themselves from the Church with this “ordination”? What do they believe about their eternal souls and excommunication, disobedience? If they don’t believe what the Church teaches on women’s ordination, etc, then what Church teachings do they believe? Will any other lay people go on the record supporting this? Does the archdiocese have something to say? Esp, to archdiocesan employees who attended the event?

  • nodame

    Thanks for your posting: excellent analysis and provocative questions exposing the hypocrisy of the journalists at the Sun.

  • nodame

    ABout the stoles:

    They style of wearing the stole that way is called “outtee.”

    I’ll leave it to the readers to come to their own conclusions.

  • Don

    To circle around and take another look at this piece from a communications perspective, it seems to me that the media coverage of the event (Baltimore Sun) is strikingly average. The sad thing is that it could easily have been better.

    The Sun’s writer (Dan Rodick) or headline writer obviously thought the controversy important enough to warrant a subhead “Defying Vatican, group holds ceremony at Protestant church,” an old and increasingly tired media habit to sensationalize that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one.

    What does disappoint is that to look at Mr. Rodick’s bio, he has been around long enough to see than there is an irreconcilable gap between “canon law and a Vatican decree that promised excommunication” and the closing line of his article: “They do all the things Catholic priests do, and they celebrate Mass twice a month — usually once at St. John’s, once at someone’s house — and with anyone who wishes to attend.”

    Simple fact: they don’t do all the things real Catholic priests do, and they cannot celebrate Mass. To end the piece with this kind of statement betrays either ignorance of the subject or editorial intent on the part of the author, and I do not believe Mr. Rodick could ever be considered ignorant.

    I believe the reading public has a right to expect more of someone who has Mr. Rodick’s experience and ability.

  • Don

    Re: previous note should read Dan Rodricks. My apologies to Mr. Rodricks for getting his name wrong – my eyes and the typography on this screen are not on the best of terms at times.

  • Brad

    … Apparently there are men present but by the overwhelming sound of the women in the audience hooting and hollering, we can guess at the demographics. I’m sure they are all “our friends and neighbors” who we see in the pews and going to receive communion.

  • Julia


    You had raised the issue of the connection between the “ordination” and local Catholic life.

    the connections between this rite and local Catholic life.

    I wasn’t being snarky asking about the local Catholic bishop. I was trying to figure out what you meant by “local Catholic life”.

  • Mary Ann

    Many of the questions posed thus far may be answered by reading the information at http://www.romancatholicwomenpriests.org. One may agree or disagree, but the information is clearly presented.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~acbfp/ The young fogey

    A recurring recent story in bad journalism on religion: biased reporters promoting this vagante sideshow to get back at the church they’re mad at.

  • William Thorn

    This story reads like a mediocre press release that was forwarded as a “news” story with none of the normal journalism practices: check assertions for factual accuracy, background sources, interview Church experts and authorities. A good copy editor would have pointed out dozens of holes and unsupported assertions and a lack of balance.

    A puff piece, this story doesn’t meet the basic criteria of a story in Reporting 101.

  • Kat

    I enjoy the interesting debate and would just like to add to the mix that although Marellen Mayers did teach at Archbishop Spalding, the school she was fired from is Maryvale Prep School in Brooklandville, MD. I found it thoroughly surprising that this was not mentioned in the Sun, as everyone at MVP knew the story of her firing and subsequent excommunication. It has never been a secret, or at least one not well kept. It disappoints me that Maryvale was not mentioned nor was any reporting done on who these women actually were. Mrs. Mayers was obviously keen to talk about this experience, as she is quoted in the article. Believe me when I say that there is a story behind her affiliation with Maryvale and learning a little about what has driven these women to their choices would have been much better reporting.

  • http://www.mylourdes.org Andrew

    They can’t even vest in the correct manner. The STOLE goes UNDER the CHASUBLE. And these women want to be priests? Give me a break.