Communication v. Excommunication: Catholic Women and the Church

Roman Catholicism never ceases to amaze when it comes to the power of Catholic women. Even inveterate church-watchers like me are occasionally taken aback, as we were recently, by the St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke's declaration of interdict against Louise Lears, a Sister of Charity. Her "grave crime" was supporting and attending (with 600 others) the ordination of two Catholic women-both of whom were promptly excommunicated by the same bishop. The day after his declaration, the Vatican announced that Archbishop Burke has been named head of the Apostolic Signatura, its highest court of canon law where such cases are heard on appeal. He will undoubtedly be elevated to cardinal soon. Quid quo pro, perhaps?

Lears was a pastoral minister at St. Cronan Parish, an inner city church in St. Louis, and a religious education coordinator for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The Archdiocese authorized videotaping of the offending ordination service, held in a synagogue no less, to assure that those who attended for such perfidious purposes were not themselves subject to penalty.

For the uninitiated, the 'interdict' in this case (there are several sorts of interdict-who knew?) means that this woman is prohibited from receiving most sacraments (if, God forbid, she were in danger of death she could receive communion according to the law) and from working in any ministry related to the Archdiocese. Interdict differs from excommunication in the technicality that one under interdict is, strictly speaking, still in communion with the larger church while the excommunicated is not. But both decrees effectively drum their recipients out of the corps.

Such decrees do not mean a lot in everyday life, as most thinking Catholics have moved on from the notion that the institutional church dispenses the sacraments the way a gas station provides fuel for a car. Rather, such declarations are meant to bring attention to what the kyriarchal church does not like. They are a chance for bishops to flex the little bit of ecclesial muscle they have left. The whole thing seems rather quaint, like a medieval morality play for a postmodern audience. The words ring a bell, but the concepts do not translate in a world fraught by wars and vexed by global warming. Bishops, it would appear, have a lot of time on their hands.

There is, however, a pattern here. Acting against progressive Catholic women is a tried and true way for men of the Roman Catholic Church to get a promotion. Several contemporary instances show that church history repeats itself. For example, in 1983 an auxiliary bishop from Brooklyn, Anthony Bevilaqua, was dispatched by the Vatican to Michigan where Mercy Sister Agnes Mary Mansour had been appointed to head the state's Department of Social Services. Her office handled funding for abortions for poor women. Though she was personally opposed to abortion, she had accepted the governor's invitation to do a job in a religiously pluralistic setting and she intended to fulfill her commitment. Mansour was forced by Bevilaqua to choose between her job and her membership in her religious congregation. She chose the job on principle, leaving the order reluctantly, and remaining close to her sisters all of her life. Bevilaqua became bishop of Pittsburgh shortly thereafter.

Another such instance occurred in 1986 when then auxiliary bishop Donald Wuerl was dispatched to Seattle. In an extraordinary administrative move, he agreed to take over some of the responsibilities that the Vatican alleged progressive Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was soft on, including women's involvement in ministry and the role of lesbian and gay people in church life. The awkward, not to mention insulting, arrangement failed, with Hunthausen's authority eventually restored. Wuerl was quickly sent home to Pittsburgh where he became bishop, while Bishop Bevilaqua was promoted to the more prestigious Archdiocese of Philadelphia where he was made cardinal three years later. Wuerl has since been rewarded as the head of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (often a place that has a cardinal). He leaves out mention of his Seattle stint on his official biography. I would too.

Moving against progressive Catholic women is apparently a stepping stone to higher privilege in the Roman Catholic Church. If so, the institution must live in deep and abiding fear of our power. The church is structured as a hierarchy with a bright line separating those who are ordained (the clergy) and those who are not (the laity). Clergy not only control access to the sacraments (only an ordained priest can celebrate the Eucharist), but also decision-making on everything from use of facilities (e.g., what groups can meet on church property) to how money will be spent. There is no such thing as a general assembly or a meeting of the whole where lay people would have voice, if not vote. So Catholic women are endlessly creative in our efforts to be church.

Ordination of women is one approach, even though it runs the serious risk of reinscribing the same hierarchical system (albeit with a few women above the bright line). Women's efforts to gain this ground licitly and validly have been thwarted at every turn by Rome. So some women engaged in what they call valid (with bishops who are in full communion with Rome) if illicit ordinations. This began in 2002 with seven women on the Danube and continues to the present with three women ordained in Boston this summer. These women engage in a variety of ministries-as hospital chaplains, house church leaders, campus ministers, etc.-despite their lack of official recognition, in fact in spite of a recent Vatican pronouncement that excommunicated any women ordained and the bishops who ordain them.

Another, in my view more promising, approach is the formation of the Women-Church movement. This consists of house churches in which small groups of women (and some men) engage in sacrament and solidarity as per the Catholic tradition without any structural connection (adversarial or begging acceptance) to the Roman Catholic institution. This movement began in the early 1980s as mostly Catholic in the U.S. and now includes groups around the world with people from a variety of faith traditions. Women-Church is focused on the needs of the world, not the limitations of the Roman Catholic Church. It encourages its adherents to "be" church rather than try to reform a system that is dangerously out of step with reality. Witness the priest pedophilia cases and cover-ups by bishops as the straw that broke the camel's back.

Other recent events clarify the centrality of women in the nexus of religious power. The decision on the part of the Church of England to ordain women bishops in the next decade sent chills through Rome. It responded reflexively that such a move would make relations between the two churches difficult. The University of San Diego recently offered a prestigious chair in Catholic theology to eminent Catholic feminist professor Rosemary Radford Ruether, only to withdraw the offer under pressure from those who would question Ruether's Catholic bona fides. Dr. Ruether is a prolific Catholic scholar who writes in support of many of the issues that the Vatican fears most: women's ministerial leadership, women's reproductive choice, women's sexual choice, women's insistence on ecology and justice. How frightening women's power has become!

Perhaps there really is something to fear about Catholic women's power. Now that there is a growing cohort of Catholic women trained in theology, canon law, and business, we cannot be lied to nor defrauded by the hierarchy. Nuns, albeit in reduced numbers and with a median age well over 70, are leading the green revolution on their own properties such that bishops living in mansions have little claim on Gospel values. Young Catholic women puzzle over the notion that they are not free to be, you and me. Many move on to religious groups where they can be full members, ministers if they wish, and agents of their own spirituality.

Catholic women have the power to transform a seemingly intractable institution into a cooperative community. We are exercising it in a variety of ways with slow but sure results. Power is meant to be shared, not feared. Catholic women do not seek to turn the tables. We seek to open the tables to all who wish to participate, even bishops.

This is the opposite of excommunication and interdict.

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