National Catholic Reporter ®

July 5, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 45

Send This Page to a Friend   | Printer Friendly Version
An illicit ordination of women; an unlikely source questions women’s ordination; hints of a new encyclical

... on the subject of women’s ordination ... 

... 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.  

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 priests. 

      (My report from the event is on NCR’s web site. It is available at 

     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 point. 

     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.

     “Our contemporaries 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 Latin. 

     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 coming encyclical.

     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 orthopraxis.” 
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” a communion.

     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 spirit.

     “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 immortal flesh
• 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

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

© 2002 
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111

TEL:  1-816-531-0538
FAX:  1-816-968-2280