|Last Friday I wrote that I
would be in Passau, Germany, over the weekend to cover the illicit “ordination”
of seven Roman Catholic women by a couple of rogue bishops, in an action
calculated to challenge church teaching on the impossibility of female
(My report from
the event is on NCR’s web site. It is available at http://www.natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives/071902/ordinations.htm).
Both the note and the
subsequent article brought comments such as the following:
“It would seem to
me that if you flaunt what the Church says so severely, one would get ‘kicked
out.’ Who are these folks? Why are you bothering to cover it?”
“Your story on the
women’s ordination on the boat is bizarre …Why did NCR grace such a silly
thing with a reporter? …Kooky ordinations have been going on for years.
When a bishop who is in communion with Rome (at least until the event)
ordains a woman, that will be news.”
I understand the reaction.
To many Catholics, even
those inclined to be supportive of women’s ordination, what happened aboard
the MS Passau, the pleasure boat on the Danube River where the June
29 event took place, will seem excessive. It fails what I call my “grandma
test.” My grandmother, who lives out on the plains of rural western Kansas,
is hardly a “pay, pray and obey” type of Catholic. Yet she would nonetheless
shrink from going to the Mass of a priest ordained illicitly. Complain,
certainly — organize, publish and protest — but don’t take the law into
your own hands. Do that, she would say, and you’ve stepped across the line.
Having acknowledged that,
I’d like to explain why I felt the Bavarian story was news.
Staging a rump ordination
is an extreme step, but the tensions that led these seven women — four
Germans, two Austrians and an Austrian-born American — to make that choice
are nevertheless widely felt. Newsweek reported on May 6 that its
latest poll suggests 65 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination
of women. That finding would be echoed in most of the developed world.
Of course, the Catholic
Church does not set policy according to opinion polls. Serious theological
analysis, regarding both the nature of the priestly office and of the human
person, is needed to articulate what the Church believes about women and
their role in the sacramental economy.
Nor do all Catholic women
think alike. I recently read, for example, a doctoral thesis by Pia Francesca
de Solenni, a young American Catholic woman, at Rome’s Opus Dei-run Santa
Croce University. She embraces John Paul’s notion of male/female complementarity,
which posits that men and women have equal, but distinct, roles, and is
often invoked to defend the ban on women priests. Solenni’s thesis won
a prize from the Pontifical Academies, and is thoughtful and well-argued
whatever one makes of its conclusions.
Nevertheless, there are
millions of Catholic women today angry with what they perceive as the insensitivity
of the church’s all-male leadership to their legitimate aspirations. The
ordination issue is one, though by no means the only, focus for this alienation.
It is that larger context that lends these seven “ordinations” relevance,
and it explains why mainstream secular media outlets (largely from the
German-speaking world) as well as NCR wanted to be present.
Second, while one is
free to conclude this was a “silly” action, these are not “silly” people.
The women said they had
followed a three-year program of theological study and spiritual discernment
before taking this step, and from what I could gather, it seemed they took
it seriously. I listened at length to Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger, Ida
Raming, and Gisela Forster, three of those now claiming to be priests,
and they struck me as impressive.
Raming is a distinguished
theologian who has published a number of books and scholarly articles,
many on women’s ordination. She taught for a time on the theology faculty
at the University of Münster. Mayr-Lumetzberger and Forster are also
both teachers as well, and I suspect good ones. They came across as articulate,
open, and respectful.
On board the boat that
took us down the Danube, I watched the way friends and family of these
women took pride in what they saw as their courage, their pioneering spirit.
To take one example, I interviewed two German teenagers, students of Forster
in a Munich art school: “I’m a very great fan of Dr. Forster,” said Carola
Denzel, 17. “She really cares about our problems, and I think it’s great
what she does. The Catholic Church is so sad and serious, and she can bring
life to it.”
I was struck by the care
Mayr-Lumetzberger’s husband, Michael, and several of her other family members
showed in organizing the June 29 event, serving as hosts and ushers, and
generally keeping things on track. I found myself thinking that people
who inspire such affection and devotion have much to commend them.
Was this in part a publicity
stunt? Of course. Mayr-Lumetzberger herself said the ordinations were “both
a spiritual and a political act.”
Were there elements of
the event that would leave fair-minded Catholics uncomfortable? Again,
You bet. Clergy from other Christian churches, including the Old Catholic
and Lutheran traditions, in effect “concelebrated” the ordination Mass.
The credentials of the two “bishops” were spotty, especially given that
the main celebrant has founded both his own church as well as a group dedicated
to promoting “Afro-Argentinian nature religion.” The liturgy itself was
a curiously post-modern pastiche of traditionalism and New Age touches.
But when reflective Catholic
women such as Mayr-Lumetzberger, Forster and Raming feel themselves driven
to such measures, I take it as a warning sign that something is seriously
amiss. Either the teaching itself is wrong, or it has not been sufficiently
explained, or some other constellation of factors is poisoning the discussion
of women in the church. One can question whether these seven women chose
the proper instrument to express their discontent, but writing it off as
marginal and insignificant misses the point.
If it’s kooky, in other
words, there are an awful lot of kooks out there.
* * *
While we’re on the subject
of women’s ordination, I would like to suggest that partisans in the discussion
stop reducing their opponent’s motives to simplistic pop psychology. Not
every defender of church teaching is looking to move up the ecclesiastical
ladder through facile obedience, and not every supporter of women’s ordination
is a secularized radical lacking respect for tradition.
Let me offer a case in
I was recently re-reading
the 2001 book I Call You Friends (Continuum) by former Dominican
Master General Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, a man generally identified as shading
to the left. He is certainly no male chauvinist. I saw Radcliffe a couple
years ago share a stage in Rome with Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, one
of the truly gifted orators of our day, and Radcliffe left no doubt as
to his sympathies for Joan and the critique of the church’s approach to
women that she represents.
Yet in the first part
of the book, taken from a 1999 interview in the French newspaper La
Croix, Radcliffe makes some remarks on women’s ordination that may
surprise his admirers among Catholic progressives.
are too ready to conclude, without hesitation, that women should be ordained.
If women can be university professors, judges or prime minister, it seems
obvious to our contemporaries that they should be priests. Well, it’s not
so obvious to me. Ordination is a sacrament, which means that it belongs
to the order of the symbolic. Presiding at the Eucharist is, above all,
a symbolic role and not a claim to status. Now, modernity is blind to the
symbolic: it can conceive priesthood only in terms of power or status.
The fact that almost all decisions in the Church are, in fact, in the hands
of the clergy can, it is true, contribute to this misunderstanding. So
we find ourselves in a situation where modernity is calling on the Church
to recognize the equality of the sexes while the Church calls on modernity
to recognize the profound importance of the symbolic.”
My point is not to endorse
Radcliffe’s analysis, but to note that this is a more complex issue than
it seems when slogans are being shouted across barricades.
There is a new papal
encyclical in the works, to be the 14th of John Paul II’s pontificate.
The theme is “Eucharist and the Church,” though we won’t have a formal
title until it goes over to the Secretariat of State for translation into
The project is being
handled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the pope
should have a serious draft to review sometime this summer. The document
may appear within the year, although sources say debate is on-going over
whether there should be a list of disciplinary measures to clean up alleged
“abuses” in Eucharistic practice within, or alongside, the new encyclical.
It was no coincidence,
then, that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger chose to deliver a major address on
“Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity” at a diocesan Eucharistic congress
in Benevento, Italy, on June 2. The address was printed, in full and over
more than a page, in L’Osservatore Romano June 19.
Insiders understood that
we were being offered an anticipation of some of the key points of the
Ratzinger began by hearkening
back to the early church, a period in which he said there was “no difference
between what is today distinguished, in facile fashion, as orthodoxy and
This is a reference to a distinction drawn by
some liberal theologians, who suggest that having the correct doctrinal
beliefs (orthodoxy) may be less important than involving oneself in the
struggle for justice (orthopraxis).
The early church, Ratzinger
says, knew that “no orthopraxis without God can save.”
“It was the great deception
of Marxism,” he says, “to tell us that we had already reflected enough
on the world, now the time had come to change it. … Simple change became
destruction — we saw it and we are seeing it.”
For that reason, Ratzinger
suggests, it is not enough merely to do the Eucharist, but to reflect
on what it means.
Ratzinger argues that
the essential element of the first Eucharist as recounted in scripture,
Christ’s last supper, is not the meal itself but the prayer of praise offered
by Jesus to the Father. To translate that into current liturgical terms,
the centerpiece of the Mass is the Eucharistic Prayer. It is for this reason,
Ratzinger says, that Catholics cannot follow some Protestants into referring
to the celebration as the “Lord’s Supper.” It is not merely a supper, but
an act of thanksgiving — a “Eucharist.”
What the Eucharist reveals
about the Church, as Ratzinger sees it, is its identity as a communion.
He breaks off into a rather lengthy excursus on the rivalry between the
theological journals Concilium and Communio, founded respectively
by the progressive majority and conservative minority after the Second
Vatican Council (1962-65). Ratzinger, who took sides with the conservatives,
defends the choice. The church “holds” councils, he writes, but it “is”
Yet, he warns, the concept
of communion too can be misunderstood. In the early years after Vatican
II, it was often blended with the notion of the Church as the “People of
God,” which Ratzinger feels led to an excessively horizontal and democratic
“When a great phrase
becomes a slogan, it is inevitably consigned to a reduction, in fact to
a banalization,” he says.
Ratzinger argues that
the real “communion” of the Church is with Jesus, and through Jesus, with
God himself, with light and love. It is in and through this divine communion,
not through quasi-parliamentary structures or protest movements, that we
are truly united with one another.
Ratzinger then takes
up the concept of solidarity, arguing that it must not be confused with
a socialist political project devoid of religious motives or aims.
“Today we can observe
the panorama of rubble by a theory and social praxis that did not take
account of God,” he says. The true spirit of the Eucharist is not merely
to feed the hungry, according to Ratzinger, but to lead them to the living
bread of Jesus Christ.
Hence for Ratzinger the
correct doctrine of the Eucharist implies the following: “Christianity
departs from the one Lord, from the one bread, who wants to make of us
one body, which has always aimed at the unification of humanity.” Noting
that globalization is currently moving in the direction of unification,
Ratzinger warns that any attempt at unity apart from God will end in “total
destruction, hate and a struggle of all against all.”
Ratzinger concludes by
arguing that the Eucharist is a “sacrament of transformation.” He identifies
five interlocking transformations implied in the Eucharist:
• The cross, an instrument of death, becomes a
sign of life
• The mortal body of Jesus is transformed into
• The bread and wine of the Mass are transformed
into the body and blood of Jesus
• Men and women are thus transformed into one
body with Jesus
• All of creation is transformed, becoming a
“new city,” a “new paradise”
The Eucharist invites
us into this process of transformation, Ratzinger says, and we must understand
and live the Eucharist in this way.
Don’t be surprised if
you’re reading some of these ideas again soon, next time under the signature
of John Paul II.
* * *
My new book Conclave: The
Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday)
is available at http://www.amazon.com/
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111