Womenpriests again: The people vs. paper scenario

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Anyone who has ever worked on the religion beat knows the drill.

You are writing a story about a controversial topic, a topic that people in the establishment of a religious body are not anxious to talk about. The rebels, on the left or the right, are anxious to tell their story.They will talk your ear off, as long as you don’t ask them any challenging questions.

Meanwhile, the establishment leaders — on the left or the right — just want the subject to go away. Rather than granting an interview or two, they hand out a printed press release making the usual old arguments against the rebels.

In other words, you end up with a story in which real people get to debate a piece of paper. It is rarely a fair fight.

I think this is what happened in the following Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal story about another ordination in the Womenpriests Movement, but I am not sure about that.

(By the way, the movement’s website spells their name “Womenpriests,” as opposed to “Women Priests” or “WomenPriests.” I keep seeing variations, but, in the future, “Womenpriests” it will be here at GetReligion — unless they change it again.)

The top of this story hits all the familiar points, in a people vs. paper scenario. But here is my question: Did the real Catholic officials refuse to tell their side of the story or did the newspaper’s leaders make a decision to turn this into a people vs. paper scenario? In other words, did the Courier-Journal team refuse to talk to the Catholics, or did the Catholics refuse to talk to the Courier-Journal? More on that later.

But here is the usual personal-voice opening for a Womenpriests story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rosemarie Smead sees herself as preparing all her life for the step she’s about to take.

She was brought up a devout Catholic. She lived for a short time as a cloistered nun. She has theology and counseling degrees. She marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala. — then worked with troubled children there for years. She forged a career as an Indiana University Southeast professor, training school counselors.

Now the petite 70-year-old from Bedford, Ky., is preparing for what she freely admits is a flagrant defiance of Roman Catholic law — specifically Canon 1024, which restricts the priesthood to baptized men. …

Smead is scheduled to be ordained by the dissident Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. The service will take place in a Protestant sanctuary.

It will be the first such ordination in Louisville by the decade-old Women Priests group, which has been holding such services around the world.

“It’s illegal, but it’s valid,” said Smead. “In order to challenge this law, we have to break it.”

The story includes other information. Active Catholics support church teachings on this subject, while inactive Catholics want to see women ordained. And the pieces of paper from the local archbishop say what they say. No humans are interviewed on the side of the church.

It is also interesting to note — once again — that the story does not question in any way the apostolic succession of the women bishops, nor does it talk about the role of Old Catholic splinter groups in the history of the Womenpriests ordinations.

Instead, readers are simply told:

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests traces its roots to 2002 and says it has ordained about 100 women priests worldwide, including several bishops, many leading small congregations independent from Vatican authority.

Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of the association said its first bishops were ordained by a Roman Catholic bishop whose name has not been disclosed, giving them valid orders in the line of succession from the apostles.

Anyone who knows Catholic tradition can see the problem there. It takes THREE valid bishops taking part in the rites to yield a valid bishop — not one. A single bishop can ordain priests, but you need three sets of hands in a rite for a bishop.

Where did the Womenpriests get their other bishops? That’s where reporters — like it or not — simply have to dive into the Old Catholic splinter world. Here’s the wording that I used in a previous post on the topic:

The Womenpriests movement is, of course, the latest in a long, long, long line of Catholic splinter churches built on extra-legal ordinations that can usually be traced to rites allegedly performed by anonymous bishops, splinter Old Catholic rites, or both. From the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, these women are simply liberal Protestants and, like it or not, the Vatican is in charge of determining who is and who is not a Catholic priest.

The Courier-Journal report is also silent on another crucial topic — the theological orientation of this flock. There is one hint near the story’s end (and in the dizzy video at the top of this post):

Many women priests host small churches, as Smead has begun doing in recent months, calling it Christ Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community. Starting May 11, she’ll be leading monthly services, using space at St. Andrew.

St. Andrew’s pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Watson, said hosting the service was natural for a congregation that welcomes openly gay members and whose denomination was a pioneer in ordaining women. “These acts reflect the United Church of Christ’s extravagant sense of hospitality and inclusion,” Watson said.

So who, precisely, is “Christ Sophia”? What is the content — doctrinally speaking — of the word “inclusive” in that parish name?

These questions open a door into a much, much wider debate about Christology, God and the Goddess, feminist theology and, well the Vatican’s current concerns that many women on the Catholic left have proudly moved beyond Nicene Creed, beyond Jesus and into a brave new theological world.

Should the real, live people interviewed in this story have been asked about all of that? Yes.

Were the traditional Catholic leaders offered a chance to discuss these topics, as opposed to being limited to paper responses? I cannot tell.

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.

  • FrH

    Only one bishop is required for validity:

    Can. 1014 Unless a dispensation has been granted by the Apostolic See, the principal consecrating Bishop at an episcopal consecration is to have at least two other consecrating Bishops with him. It is, however, entirely appropriate that all the Bishops present should join with these in consecrating the Bishop-elect.
    ———

    A canon like this doesn’t make a sacrament invalid unless it specifically says that it is. Since it is clearly possible sacramentally to ordain validly with only one bishop (otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for the Holy See to grant a dispensation to do it), and since this canon doesn’t say that an episcopal consecration by one bishop is invalid unless dispensed, it isn’t.

    The womenpriests are still out of luck because women can’t be priests, of course.

    • Kyle

      I don’t think you read that right. Lets cut out the descriptors and read it more cleanly:

      “Unless a dispensation has been granted … the Bishop … is to have at least two other … Bishops with him. It is … appropriate that ALL (emphasis added) Bishops present should join.”

      So without special permission, the minimum is three, but more than three is encouraged. Matches the article perfectly.

      • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

        Yes, but Kyle, licitness and validity are not the same. An earlier canon says that a bishop must also get permission from the pope to ordain other bishops; if he proceeds without permission, it’s an act of schism, and the are ordinations illicit but nonetheless valid. That is why Bishop Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X is a real bishop. Likewise, a bishop is supposed to have other bishops – to signify collegiality (along with being in union with the pope) – in order to ordain a bishop licitly, but validity does not appear to be affected. For in the case of an emergency – say a prolonged persecution with delayed and fractured communications, a bishop would have to be able to ordain other bishops so that the Church can continue to exist.

      • Another Fr. H.

        The second sentence, which you emphasize, has no bearing on the issue — it simply relates to what the bishops (however many their number) who happen to be present should do. Rather than just standing around during the consecration, they should join in. The pertinent part of the canon is that first sentence, which says that the normative way to consecrate a bishop is with three other bishops (the “principal consecrating bishop” and the “two other bishops”). But, as the first FrH correctly pointed out, there is a possible exception given the proper dispensation. This exception is to the presence of the “two other bishops,” which would leave the one principal consecrating bishop. It is kind of like (though not exactly) the cases of emergency confirmation by a priest, who is not the ordinary minister; or the permission given for dispensation from the form of marriage. The law of the Church wouldn’t allow for an invalid ordination. Hence, this exception which allows for one consecrating bishop, indicates that there are possible occasions when one bishop will suffice for validity, thus contradicting this non-essential point in an otherwise well-written article by Mr. Mattingly.

        • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

          I don’t think there is a contradiction … in no way would the Apostolic See grant a ‘dispensation’ in the case of ordaining a ‘Womenpriest’. So the validity of the Bishop’s ordination is definitely in doubt.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    It is not that the priesthood is restricted to men because Canon Law says so, rather the causal association is the other way around. That’s just one of the manny typical difficulties of this type of story.

    It is amazing how boilerplate they’ve become, too.

    But the biggest annoyance, of course, is the unchallenged and basically accepted notion that the putative ordinations are in fact valid.

    • http://coalitionforclarity.blogspot.com/ Robert King

      Well, there is an established organization (RCWP) that recognizes the ordinations as valid. So, a journalist ought to report that these are valid ordinations in the eyes of RCWP, just as they should report that a Baptist minister or an Anglican priest is validly ordained in the eyes of their own congregations – despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize their ordinations as valid.

      The controversy, which takes skill and prudence to report, is that RCWP contends that their ordinations are valid Roman Catholic ordinations, while the Roman Catholic Church herself insists that they are invalid.

  • FW Ken

    Is there any evidence anywhere that breaking the rule had in any way effectively “challenged” it? Has the Catholic Church responded in any way except to note that the women have excommunicated themselves? All in all, has the bravery of these heroic women done anything other than create new sects?

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      Nope. It’s a mere rule by the way. The fact that this does not come out in these stories is part of the boilerplate.

      • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

        I meant, it’s “not” a mere rule.

    • http://areformedcatholicinthepcusa.blogspot.com Reformed Catholic

      In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, yes, its a sect no more, no less. And in the eyes of many orthodox Protestants, the use of Sophia in worship basically shows them to be pagans, not Christian.

  • tmatt

    FrH:

    Previous Wowmenpriests stories have mentioned three bishops in the first rite, with Old Catholics involved. Three is normative, right?

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Yes, tmatt, three are normative. It’s part of the apostolic succession tradition and having “two or three witnesses.” Just look at the http://catholic-hierarchy.org/ website and you’ll notice that for just about every bishop there is listed the principal consecrator and the co-consecrators. The dispensation is granted by the Vatican and is clearly not the norm since it is a dispensing from the norm.

  • David F

    Can’t see how it’s valid in the Catholic sense. This is simulation of a sacrament and a guaranteed automatic excommunication for all involved.

  • David F

    I see don’t see how these women are either “brave” or “heroic”. There’s plenty of cultural comfort for this kind of disobedience.

    • The True Will

      As Mark Shea frequently says, they are “bravely facing the applause of their peers.” Including the “news” media.

  • Dixibehr

    ““It’s illegal, but it’s valid,” said Smead. ” Wrong. She was invalidly ordained. Not everybody can receive every Sacrament. An unbaptized person can receive no Sacrament but Baptism. Children below the canonical age cannot validly receive the Sacrament of Marriage. And no woman can receive the presbyterate or episcopate. Period.

  • catelexico

    All elements involved in a sacrament have to be valid. A women is not a valid candidate, so it wouldn’t matter if three bishops participated. One must intend in a sacrament to do what the Church does. What the Church does has to be what it has always done; orthodoxy precedes heresy, and there is no expansion of the deposit of faith. It’s preposterous to say the Church from the beginning intended to have women priests and we are only finding this out now.

    • Diane

      Exactly. A woman cannot be validly ordaned for the same reason that Oreos and milk cannot be consecrated.

  • FW Ken

    David F -

    It was sarcasm.

  • catelexico

    The “Sophia” in the story may be the pagan or gnostic female wisdom, and the association with Christ would then be a nasty bit of syncretism. Sounds like a good angle for a reporting investigation !

    • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com Nathaniel Campbell

      Really? Is that why the great cathedral church of Constantinople, in which Catholic bishops celebrated mass for 700 years, and Orthodox bishops continued for centuries thereafter (until it was converted into a mosque), was called, “Hagia Sophia”, or “Saint Sophia”? Does Holy Wisdom not appear in your copy of Proverbs 8, or Wisdom of Solomon (!) 7-9, or Sirach / Ecclesiasticus 24?

  • Martha

    Three things:

    (1) If I never again saw the words “devout Catholic” in a newspaper story, I could die a happy woman. Even if you’re reporting on the forthcoming announcement of St. Bridget of Kildare’s feast day being made a Solemnity of the Universal Church, rather than a local feria.

    (2) “It’s illegal, but it’s valid,” said Smead. No, it’s not. That’s the WHOLE FREAKIN’ POINT (apologies for shouting, and believe me, I resisted the temptation to festoon that with exclamation points). It’s both invalid and illegal. It’s simulating a sacrament. It’s about six different infringements of canon law. It’s like substituting Coca-Cola for altar wine. Need I go on?

    (3) Inclusive Christ Sophia. Once again, if I never saw another blinkin’ reference to Pistis Sophia and half-digested warmed-over Gnosticism adulterated with watered-down feminist/womanist/mujerista theology, I would be a very happy bunny. I am not a very happy bunny right now, you may be able to tell.

  • Martha

    Good points of the story:

    (1) They do refer to them as “the dissident Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests”, so at least there is acknowledgement that this is not allowable behaviour.

    (2) They do make mention of the fact that there is a difference between ‘self-identified’ Catholics and those who actually attend Mass: “National and Kentucky polls have shown around two-thirds of all Catholics — but a minority of those who frequently attend Mass — support ordaining women.”

    But I would love to know why the UCC church was able to do this – permit the ceremony to be held on its premises and give the “Christ Sophia Inclusive Catholic Community” space to hold services every month. Is there no denominational oversight? Is there anything a local church could do that would incur sanction or even “That’s not really helpful” from the governing body? If the Rev. Andrew was, for instance, hosting White Power groups in the parish hall, wouldn’t there be some kind of finger-wagging from the wider UCC?

    • The True Will

      Pretty much not. The UCC IS congregationalist.

      • Martha

        That has me very tempted to suggest some Roman Catholic parish start hosting “ordinations” of UCC “clergy” and see how they like it :-)

        • Chris M

          I believe the response from the UCC would be something along the lines of: “wow, groovy..”

          • Martha

            So I can declare myself the Papess of the UCC with the power to make binding decisions over the entire denomination? Just call me Popess Junia I! :-)

  • Wills

    For a sacrament to be valid you must have valid matter as well as validand licit form. A valudly ordained priest can’t for example celebrate the Eucharist even using the proper prayers with Coca-Cola and potato chips. Nor can anyone validly ordain women because women are the wrong matter for the sacrament of holy orders. No matter how many bishops are involved…..

  • http://bdk@catholicism.org Kelso

    Right? Left? The so-called “Left” just is not Catholic, period. As to “right.” Well, if you are Catholic you are “right,” period. It’s like the modifer “traditional.” If you are Catholic you are traditional. There is no such thing as a “liberal Catholic. I’s an oxymoron.

    • Richard Mounts

      That’s the problem with trying to use common political terms (left, right, conservitive, liberal, etc) as adjectives with religious nouns. Most Cathlics I know use the terms “orthodox” or “heterodox.” Of course a reporter would have to explain the difference between “orthodox Catholics” and members of the “Orthodox” church.

      (Do I have that last bit right tmatt?)

  • Pingback: From Reuters: Another by-the-book Womenpriests story


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