Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ordination of Women in Minneapolis Reflects Emerging Renewal of Priesthood and Church

By Michael Bayly

On Sunday, August 16, 2009, Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) hosted its Sixth Midwest Region Ordination in Minneapolis. It was an event that saw approximately 500 people gather to witness the ordination of Mary Katherine Kusner to the deaconate, and Mary Frances Smith, Linda Ann Wilcox, and Mary Suzanne Styne to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Vatican does not recognize such ordinations and last year declared that those ordained within the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement are excommunicated “in latae sententiae” - a type of excommunication which church officials say occurs automatically upon certain actions. RCWP, however, reject this penalty of excommunication, claiming that they are “loyal members of the church who stand in the prophetic tradition of holy disobedience to an unjust law that discriminates against women.” Accordingly, they see their ordinations moving the Church forward “in prophetic obedience to the Spirit.” RCWP’s ultimate goal is “a new model of ordained ministry in a renewed Roman Catholic Church.”

Mary, the woman of Nazareth, as role model

Presiding Bishop Regina Nicolosi reminded those present at Sunday’s ordination that “today’s joyful celebration” was taking place on the feast of the Assumption of Mary. Accordingly, she encouraged the ordinands, those already ordained, and all who “live out the priesthood of all believers,” to “model their lives after the woman of Nazareth.”

In her homily, Bishop Nicolosi (pictured above, second from left) offered a number of reflections on how Mary, the mother of Jesus, may function not only as a “role model for diaconate and priesthood,” but as an image of God.

“Together [many Christians and people of other faiths] have started to explore the feminine face of God,” said Nicolosi. “I believe the figure of Mary can help us in this exploration.”

Acknowledging Mary’s immense appeal to Christians throughout history and across cultures, Nicolosi nevertheless observed that the hierarchical male church “did not always know what to do with her.” Accordingly, “they often manipulated her and made her appear to be either a powerless girl or a bloodless queen on a pedestal, far out of the reach of the average woman. Yet her connection with the people remained strong.”

Nicolosi also shared an insight she gained from a recent trip to Egypt: “I saw the image of Isis with her son Horus on her lap and it became clear to me that Isis builds the connection to the Great Goddess who reigned at the time when God was a woman, and that Mary whose Romanesque depictions look so similar to Isis, carries this tradition into Christianity.”

She shared too Catholic feminist theologian Mary Daly’s critique of Christianity as “a strange religion where the mother bows before the son,” and encouraged those in attendance at Sunday’s ordination to imagine the Father, the Mother, the Son, and Sophia “all up there together, seated in equality, without competition, in peace.”

“Can we bring this image down to earth and model our church after it?” asked Bishop Nicolosi. It would be, she said, a church “where we are all one in Christ Jesus; a church where the phrase ‘in persona Christi’ does not exclude half of the population; a church where Mary our sister can be a role model for priesthood. After all, she did say: ‘This is my body, this is my blood, and she said it at least twice: in the stable and under the cross, and no one stopped her from holding and touching Him then.”

Nicolosi concluded her homily by inviting all present to take seriously the words of the Magnificat, and, like Mary, proclaim a God who pushes down the powerful and lifts up the poor, who feeds the hungry, who invites all without exception to her son’s table.”

“Let us stand under the cross with her,” said Nicolosi, “and wait with her and the community for the arrival of the Spirit. Let us give birth to a priesthood and church that not only proclaims that a woman’s body was worthy to be taken into heaven, but that also acknowledges that a woman’s body is worthy to stand next to the altar.”

A hidden history

According to RCWP, the tradition of women presiding at eucharistic celebrations dates back to the earliest days of the church. Furthermore, the organization states that “historical and archaeological evidence reveals that women served as deacons, priests, and bishops from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD.” Deacons Phoebe, Sophia, and Maria; Priests Leta and Vitalia; and Bishops Theodora and Alexandra are often cited as part of this evidence.

Scholars such as Dorothy Irvins collaborate RCWP’s claims. “We have to remember to approach things from the historical critical method,” said Irvins in a 2003 interview. “Accuracy comes from our attempt to understand evidence in its own time, not projecting today’s ideas on the evidence. We are asking questions they didn’t ask. The teachings of Jesus imply that the early Christian Church was created around a family model. They were brothers and sisters to one another in Christ. The gender taboos and the top down leadership came later. While we do not have a formal job descriptions of early church leadership, the evidence is clear that both genders carried out the various ministries.”

One may well ask: what happened? Many contend that when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire in 312, the Christian community was caught in a cultural conflict as it moved from worship in house churches where women’s leadership was accepted, to worship in public places where women’s leadership violated Roman social codes of honor and shame. In the fourth century, male church leaders at the Council of Laodicea suppressed women leaders because of the belief that women were created subordinate to men. Interestingly, it was during this same time period that the image of Mary of Magdala was changed from that of a strong female disciple and proclaimer of the Resurrection to a repentant prostitute and public sinner. Scholars such as Dr. Jane Schaberg believe this was done deliberately to discourage female leadership in the church. It also supported the rise of a male-only and, in time, celibate priesthood.

New forms of priesthood and church

RCWP Bishop Patricia Fresen (pictured at right), who spoke in the Twin Cities last month, believes that this male-only, celibate priesthood is “on the way out.” She maintains that we are also witnessing in our time the end of clericalism, i.e., the dividing of people in the church into the ‘nobility,’ who are the clergy, and the ‘serfs,’ who are the laity. “That gap is closing,” she says.

Fresen also believes that the “Roman imperialism, whereby the Vatican imposes Roman culture on all of us,” is similarly coming to an end. “Despite Vatican II’s emphasis on collegiality,” said Bishop Fresen, "the pope still rules the Church with the Curia, not with the college of bishops. But I believe that the Church’s feudal, imperialistic structures will go, and there will be - let me dare say it - a democratic Church.”

She finds evidence of such a democratic church in the new forms of community and priesthood that are emerging in both Europe and the U.S. Often known in the U.S. as intentional eucharistic communities, these “new forms of community” are comprised of small groups of people who gather around married priests or women priests. Some communities have no ordained priest at all. What they do all have in common, says Fresen, are “democratic structures – with people elected to be leaders, even their priests, and for a limited term of office. Everybody shares in the way the community is run. That’s what is coming.”

In places all over the world, says Fresen, the sensus fidelium, the ‘sense of the faithful,’ is growing. “We, the people, are making up our own minds. We are better educated. We are more aware. And we are not willing to wait for the ‘official’ hierarchical church that is holding on desperately to old forms. That way of being church is being left behind.”

A matter of justice

Bishop Fresen also discussed apostolic succession, noting that there is a growing understanding of this concept that is much broader than the one the official church presently has, and which has been called ‘passing on the baton’.”

Although Bishop Fresen and other RCWP deacons, priests, and bishops are ordained in that narrow understanding of apostolic succession, they say they do so as they are claiming the right for women to be ordained in the same way as men. “It’s a matter of justice,” says Bishop Fresen. Yet she also maintains that the “narrow understanding of apostolic succession will not go on forever.”

She believes the church will in time embrace the emerging community form of choosing and ordaining, a form that is developing alongside the RCWP movement and the married priests movement. “All three will go along for quite some time,” says Fresen, “and then find a new way of forming something new. But they all need to be present now.”

A paradigm shift

Fresen places the phenomenon of the “emerging church” in a larger context by acknowledging the “huge paradigm shift that humankind is presently experiencing.”

She notes that people are saying that every 500 years or so there is a “great convulsion in human consciousness, in its evolution.” Fresen contends that the last major convulsion or shift, as far as the Church is concerned, was probably the Reformation.

“Now we are obviously coming to the point of another paradigm shift,” she says. “We can see signs of it in the economic recession, which is a sign, many maintain, that something has to change. Related to this is our awareness that humanity and its relationship with Earth is changing and needs to change if we are to survive. We are learning to respect Earth rather than exploit her. But it’s terrible that we always seem to have to get to a point where things are so critical, when they’re breaking down, before we are willing to learn. And it’s the same with the Church. I believe that what is coming to an end in the paradigm shift that we are in is forms of domination. We are learning to be mutually respectful rather than for one group to be dominating another. If we think of humankind and Earth, men and women, of clergy and laity, we are learning to be less dominating and more mutually respectful, to find equality rather than dominance. In chaos theory, when systems change, the most aggressive form of chaos comes just before the transformation of the system. So it gets to its worst before it changes. That seems to be happening with regards to Earth, the economy, and the Church. The domination is getting worse and worse. But the change is about to come. In fact, it’s already here.”

For growing numbers of people, Sunday’s RCWP’s ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood is just one sign of this necessary change that’s already taking place in our midst.

See also the previous Progressive Catholic Voice post:
“We Are All the Rock”: An Interview with Roman Catholic Womanpriest Judith McKloskey
Ministry, Not Maleness, is the Theological Starting Point for the Priest
“Spiritual Paternity”: Why Homosexual Men Cannot Be Ordained Catholic Priests

Images: Michael Bayly.


  1. Those "Roman social codes of honor and shame" were not just Roman. Those social codes were common currency for the entire Mediterranean peasantry whether Greek, Palestinian, Roman, what have you.

    If and to what degree Jesus acted in concert with or counter to those social codes is not an easy question to answer.

    If and to what degree Paul acted in concert with or counter to those social codes is not an easy question to answer.

    If and to what degree Jesus' followers acted in concert with or counter to those social codes is not an easy question to answer.

    Moving to our present, the question of if and whether the woman/womenpriest's movement is continuous or discontinuous with the earliest Christian tradition may be a moot point. This movement may or may not be continuous or discontinuous with many early Christian tradition. Following Elaine Pagels, whether that continuity or discontinuity is with what Pagels calls the "orthodox" or the "gnostic" parties is very interesting to me.

    If the woman/womenpriest's movement is discontinuous with the earliest orthodox traditions - as I believe it is - it hardly matters to womenpriests. Womanpriests have started their own, new tradition for their own reasons.

    I respect these woman as people, as women, and I respect what they say they are, just as I respect the clerics of all religions. But I do not recognize or receive them as Roman Catholic priests.

  2. Mark, in your last paragraph, you say you do not recognize or receive these ordained women as Roman Catholic priests. Is the sole reason that they are not recognized or received by the Bishop of Rome in union with all the other male bishops in communion with Rome? I'm curious if their juridical status is the only factor in your rejection.

  3. It's not their juridical status and not their biological sex - its their theology. Here is a testable hypothesis: the Womanpriest/Womenpriests movement is a modern continuation of the "gnostic" party as described by Elaine Pagels in her book "The Gnostic Gospels."

    Having women claim to be priests is not the biggest problem here. The bigger problems are in fundamental theology, doctrine of God and doctrine of Jesus. Let me say up front that I do not image God as an old, white, male sitting on a fancy chair somewhere in the sky, either. My own imagery is more along the lines of "unapproachable light," like staring at the Sun, but I digress.

    Can a Womanpriest read the salient sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Mystery of the Trinity, or the Hypostatic Union, and not get her red pen out? Or can she put her initials next to those sections and say "Yep, that's my Faith, that's what I practice and teach. I wouldn't change a word."

  4. Hmmm. I find the whole phenomenon deeply moving and inspiring. Do labels really matter at this point in time, or tribal distinctions. I'm not sure. I can see a problem with the designation, "Roman Catholic priests." They are not quite there yet. Perhaps it is best to see them as inhabiting a space in the future for a church that has not yet been born and to which they are pointing the way. And until such time as they are fully accepted, they must bear the burden of a certain ambiguity of status. On the edge, neither within nor without. As a good scripture scholar once told my class years ago, 'Spirit precedes law.' And such 'precedents' are usually messy with human frailty and miscalculation and must be tested for the fruits of the spirit. Speaking for myself only, and I don't wish to privilege my own intuitions over others, every time I contemplate this new phenomenon I feel a deep sense of interior peace. It just feels 'right' to me, however difficult it may be at present to justify or explain theologically. I also think it's greatest significance is that it has broken through the psychological barriers. We now see women priests on the altar who insist on their connection with the roman tradition and it just seems so perfectly ordinary and unsurprising.

  5. Mark, can you tell us in what way the women priests are in the traditon of the gnostics? Does it have something to do with God images? Forgive me if I am in the slow group, what are you saying about women not being able to accept the trinity and the hypostatic union?

  6. I'm saying, in my reading of Pagels, that women priests and gnosticism always seem to go together. I just checked the Hennepin County Public Library's online catalog. They've got copies of "The Gnostic Gospels" at just about every branch. The call number is 273.1 P.

    What I don't get about the whole Womanpriest movement is the assertion that it's something new. Its not, its old as the hills - as are the problems that seem inherent in it. This movement is not the rediscovery of the original Christian orthodoxy. It is a continuation of an ancient Christian heterodoxy.

  7. It's also interesting to keep in mind that Gnostics were the conventional thinkers of their day, not the revolutionaries. They accommodated distinctively Christian thought in ways that made it more palatable to Hellenistic elites. Therefore, the ranks of martyrs are not filled with Gnostics, but their opponents, who were a far greater threat to the established order.

    Of course, via anachronism, people retroject a kind of oppressed victim status onto the Gnostics in an effort to leverage modern day issues. But that dog, in the end, won't hunt.

  8. Thanks so much for sharing this. I think that online ordination can easily cut down this process. I had a friend who went through the process to perform her sister's wedding ceremony because it is what their father wanted.