Note: This article was written in response to the ordination of seven Catholic women in Passau in June 2003.
While being totally in agreement on the principle, I nevertheless do wonder about the effectiveness of this provocation concerning the church. What is really at stake?
On one side, knowing full well what they were doing and the likely risks, one or two bishops, seven women and some two hundred participants in this ordination have acted on their own authority and by-passed the Roman Code of Canon Law. On the other side, Rome coldly excommunicates the unrepentent offenders. On both sides there is an a priori recognition of the Roman legal apparatus. Running straight ahead into a wall which one knows to be strong enough to resist without a crack, cannot be a really effective action.
The unavoidable failure of the manoeuvre consists in having ordained priests, that is to have reproduced illegally the institutional system of the sacrament of Orders conferred to persons who become ministers ordained as priests, integrated into the hierarchical order of priests, as such members of the clergy and endowed with a sacred (sacerdotal) power which is exercised sacramentally, and in an exclusive manner, in the Mass and in the forgiveness of sins. The Code of Canon Law, the several Congregations of the Roman Curia and the church tribunals constitute the juridical apparatus that the Church has given itself throughout the centuries to safeguard the inside of its fortress: the fundamental principles (the deposit of faith), and the means to apply them. But there exists another protection, an ideological one and no longer a juridical one, which covers both the hard core and the doubtful growths, malignant even, of the gilded surface of the sacralization, to which one cannot touch without committing a sacrilege. One must undertake the removal of the growths and the cleaning down of the hard core.
Can we effect, while remaining fully catholic, a desacralisation as radical as that of the Reformers of the XVIth century? This would be only to pursue the reforms decided by a majority of the Fathers of the Vatican II Council. The Lefebvriste schism which resulted shows a contrario that these reforms not only touch on the liturgical forms but also on the hard core of doctrine. ...
It is true that the desacralisation is not only a matter of the outer layer and does not limit itself to the Mass rites. With the abolition of the tonsure, of the minor orders and the sub-diaconate which, to the faithful, sacralised the future priests in stages and prepared the sacrificer who would stand at the altar of his first Mass, it is a complete social image of the priest which has disappeared, at the same time as the cassock. Desacralisation brings about secularisation and declericalisation. Some have felt they lost their identity. However, the Council texts themselves (Lumen Gentium no 23-24) show that it is difficult to desacralise also the vocabulary that carries the mindsets (priesthood, priestly).
To continue in line with this trend, the Church is helped (or rather pushed) by social changes, changes which she does not control: ordination no longer being a social step up, the clergy has lost its privileges of power and knowledge, and has no longer, in our countries, the strength of numbers. The dislike for going to confession denies to priests the exorbitant power which they exercised over consciences and because of that the Church has lost some of its moral influence, despite disciplinary hardenings. At the same time, more and more lay people become familiar with the ecclesiatical sciences and carry out, in parishes and in dioceses, tasks which were hitherto reserved to the ordained ministries. One is close to the limit of communities without priests, hence this desire - no more this need - of priests of a new type, women or men, married or celibate...
The 1981 study by Schillebeeck in Ministry in The Church (ed.du Cerf) is still relevant. For a serious theologian it is not a question of dumping anything, but on the contrary, of deepening the study of the tradition, the theological reflection and the pastoral practice, in order to open up new horizons for the future (ch.VI,p159ss) but without settling down for a wait and see attitude. As a matter of fact, in a preceding chapter (ch.IV,p.121ss) the author encourages all the constructive kinds of challenges, by justifying "illegality" . (The inverted commas are his). It is enough to quote just a few lines.
"However good the law seems to be, in some cases it finds itself rejected by a large majority and therefore is proved de facto inadequate. From the point of view of the history of the Church, there exists also a way whereby the Christians at grassroots level can develop a church practice which is temporarily in conflict with official church practice. This conflicting praxis, in its Christian opposition and its 'illegality' can nevertheless become in the end the dominant practice of the Church, and end up being recognised by the official Church (and the same process to go on again and again, as time never stands still!) . It has always been thus!"
The priestly ordination of women is one of those illegal conflicting practices. Can it fit in a perspective of the future? I doubt its ecclesiastical effectiveness, but one can imagine alternatives. Such an alternative perhaps already exists which seeks neither provocation nor publicity in the media.
Let us imagine a community which is regularly under the ADP regime (Assemblies Awaiting a Priest) , therefore deprived of the Eucharist, which would choose from among its members a woman or a man , to whom would be conferred, without any other form of ordination, the presidency of its assembly, understood unanimously as a ministry of "priest" to celebrate the Eucharist according to the ritual of the official Church. The local Ordinary could only declare this Eucharist as being invalid, which would probably not trouble much those Christians on the ground.
The PARVIS networks should not be lacking in means to effect illegal conflicting practices. Here is a recent example drawn from the book by Jean Kamp , Ce Grand Silence Des Pretres ( The Priests' Great Silence)(ed. Mols). On pages 277 and 278 I read:
"For the rest, the issue will be settled, even if indirectly, when it will be the community itself which will choose its priests. It will choose them as it wishes, in the way it will welcome the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These times are probably no longer far off.
Recently a group of young people involved in the hospitality of immigrants in Brussels met on a regular basis to share, to support each other and to celebrate the Eucharist. A priest friend was a member of the group. Of course it was he who presided at the Eucharist. Because of a new posting he had to leave the group. The local dean, who knew the situation and who took a real interest in all the initiatives in his parishes, offered in a kindly manner to replace the priest friend at the Eucharistic celebrations of the group. The group had a consultation, and then let it be known to him, in an equally kindly way, that they thanked him very much, but that from now on for pastoral reasons the group would look after itself and therefore function without a priest, and that this would apply also to their Eucharistic celebrations..."
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