From the outside looking in, it seems the Vatican would be just as happy to throw all its women ministers under the bus.
First, Rome ordered an investigation of all U.S.-based institutes of Catholic women religious, the sisters most people call “nuns.” Then Rome forced what amounts to a hostile takeover of their largest leadership group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Then there is the ongoing debate over whether women can be ordained.
The Vatican initiatives toward the sisters—the investigation and the takeover—seem to have met quiet resolves, at least for now. The investigative reports are in the proper Curia office, and the cardinal who called for the study has long retired. LCWR gently rejected a takeover at its August 2012 meeting, and the group’s leaders pledged to start working with the bishop-overseers by explaining what, exactly, it means to be a woman religious. They will meet again this autumn.
An underlying theme of both events echoed the request of a former LCWR president, Mercy Sister Theresa Kane, who in 1979 publicly asked Pope John Paul II to include women in “all ministries” of the church. The code became the coda: ordination of women as priests.
The Catholic Church does not ordain women as priests, and says it never did. Despite volumes of evidence of ordinations of women to the diaconate, the sacred order responsible for the church’s charity, the priesthood has always been a different story.
Why? Well, the priesthood is rooted in the action of Christ with the Apostles: “do this in memory of me”—and until recently Christianity has uniformly agreed that Christ as head of the church must be represented by a male and that the church does not have authority to digress from his choice. In modern times some members of the Anglican Communion and various Protestant denominations have created women priests and pastors, but the Catholic and Orthodox Churches retain their older tradition.
So, who are the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP)? They say they “stand in prophetic obedience to Jesus who calls women and men to be disciples.” The Catholic Church calls them excommunicated.
Like other breakaway groups, the RCWP traces the provenance of its ordinations to Catholic bishops who, at some point, were in full communion with Rome. Many other groups—the Catholic Apostolic National Church, the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of North America, the American Catholic Church for example—ascribe to the same or similar justifications for existence: the Catholic Church is either too conservative or too liberal.
The RCWP movement falls on the liberal side of the equation, notably affirming same-sex relationships and women priests. Begun with ordinations in Austria in 2002, it has expanded to Canada and the US and, to a lesser extent in Europe and in South America. In the United States the movement is divided between Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA and the smaller Association of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. With about 140 clergy around the world, some of whom are former Catholic sisters, RCWP operates mainly in house churches.
So, what does RCWP mean? Are they Catholic? Are they priests?
The first seven RCWP women were ordained on a Danube Riverboat by Argentine independent Catholic Bishop Rómulo Antonio Braschi and Ferdinand Regelsberger, a former Benedictine monk, whom Braschi had ordained as bishop. The fly in the canonical ointment is that one day prior Dusan Spiner, a Catholic priest whose episcopal ordination in the Czech underground church is acknowledged by the Vatican, ordained six of those seven as deacons. It is unknown whether Spiner, who literally missed the boat the day of the priestly ordinations, ever re-ordained any of the seven as priests or as bishops.
Their excommunication papers speak of their violating the law, attesting to their ordinations’ invalidity because they were illegal. Yet the typical Catholic argument against women priests is that such ordinations are “invalid”—they didn’t take—no matter who performed the ceremonies.
Theological hairsplitting aside, the official Catholic determination is no, they are not Catholic and even within their own movement they are not priests.
Their leaders say no one cares about Catholic officialdom and that people are looking for the ministry of women in the individual worship communities spread out among 29 U.S. states led by RCWP.
Why? Sister Theresa Kane put it well when she explained matters to the pope 33 years ago: “Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its struggle to be faithful to its call for reverence and dignity for all persons must respond.”
Phyllis Zagano is author of “Women & Catholicism: Gender, Communion, and Authority” and recent winner of a Catholic Press Association book award. She holds a research appointment at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.