Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Three More in Boston

Two in St. Louis last November. Now three more in Boston. Are we witnessing the birth pangs of the ordination of women in the Roman Catholic Church?

Yes, say the women involved. Their ordinations are completely legit, they say, because of their direct connection to a group of women who were ordained priests in 2002 by real-but-renegade Catholic bishops on a boat on the Danube. Later, some of these “womenpriests” (their own title) were elevated to the office of bishop, thus creating their movement’s own bishops to continue the ordinations of other women, all of whom claim to be Roman Catholic clergy, as all were duly ordained by bishops who stand “in apostolic succession.”

So far so good? Not so fast. Against this, the Roman Catholic Church reminds all who will listen that a) we do not ordain women, period, and b) even if some bishop goes through the motions, it doesn’t actually work because “female” just isn’t an ordainable sort of thing (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Kinda hard to explain, but the point is that nothing happened, nothing to see here, folks, might as well keep moving.

What to think?

Like many Catholics, in principle I’m in favor of ordaining women and not particularly persuaded by the arguments currently put forward against it. So when I hear about these ordinations, my inner feminist wants to stand in solidarity with the sheer audacity of these women, as they step forward in faith to take on the heartbreak of excommunication from the church they only wish to serve.

Yet the communal Catholic in me gets a little nervous about the whole Lone Ranger approach, in which the priest in question hangs up her shingle and ends up ministering in the basement of a Unitarian church to the other women in her book group. Set aside the “Roman,” where’s the “Catholic” in a ministry that’s done by the self-appointed and directed toward the self-selected? In other words, in what concrete way are they in communion with us: you know, the motley crew at my local parish, headed by the priest we didn’t choose – and who, by the way, didn’t get to pick us, either.

To what greater community are they accountable, whose authority do they accept? I know, for example, that these women have an understanding of ministry that deeply values inclusive, servant-oriented community life. Is there any other case, other than their own ordinations, in which these theologically progressive women would argue for such a dis-embodied, quasi-magical understanding of sacramental action? Why build your case for being “Roman Catholic” on a single ordination event by some guy who won’t even sit with you in the lunchroom? Where’s the community there? (And how do I call these anonymous bishops to complain that you don’t genuflect enough and your homilies are too long?)

What will be the bottom line? The playbook – get ordained underground, somehow, and hope the Church comes around – was written by Episcopalian women in 1974. It worked for them, for a while, but now the story is unraveling, held together only by exiling significant parts of the world-wide Anglican Communion while Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks with all the grace and clarity he can find to the muddling middle.

Bottom line? Ix-nay, at least as far as Rome is concerned.

Still, these ordinations are happening and they will probably continue. Practically, what will this mean? Like many new movements, most won’t get beyond the first stage, scrappy groups whose members wax and wane and fulminate, and finally move on. Yet others, through some combination of charism and coincidence, may flourish; there are many Catholics who would embrace female leadership and who want both the liturgy they know and the experience of a smaller and more intentional Christian community.

In other words, I'm not persuaded, but that's hardly the verdict on this movement. Indeed, while these womenpriests hope for recognition from Rome, those who gather around these priests may be seeking something much more immediate: this community, in this place, is speaking in a welcoming and sustaining and transformative way. And perhaps that’s enough. Hey, why don’t you come with us this Sunday, bring Sharon and the kids, we’ll have lunch after.

Are these women Roman Catholic priests? Not really but, in an age of do-it-yourself religion, their communities might not really care. And this should catch our attention.

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Welcome to the blog. There are many good Catholic blogs out there, so I’ll have to get a list going at some point here. My fundamental blogging point of reference is probably Joel Achenbach at the Washington Post, who’s pretty good at it. “Pretty good” is what you aspire to in blogdom, any better than that and you violate the genre.

On a liturgical note … happy Feast of the Transfiguration! This is also the birthday of Catherine Mowry LaCugna (August 6, 1952 - May 3, 1997), on earth my Doktormutter at Notre Dame, now in the communion of saints.

Pray for us, Catherine.

I plan to post at least once a week in August, and more frequently after Labor Day. Thanks for reading.