Letter to Women

The Ordination of Catholic Women in Austria on the 29th of June 2002

John Wijngaards

Français (not updated)

English updated 2 July 2003

Brief Summary

For the latest development - the ordination of two of the women as bishops, see no 10.
Read also the statement on this by John Wijngaards

  1. On the 29th of June 2002, seven Roman Catholic women had themselves ordained priests in Passau, on the border of Austria and Germany, by Bishop Romulo Braschi.
  2. Bishop Braschi is no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church, but the women had no intention of leaving the Roman Catholic Church. All they wanted to do was to wake up the official Church through a prophetic sign: drawing attention to the unjustifiable exclusion of women from the ordained ministries.
  3. On the 5th of August 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a decree of excommunication against the seven women.
  4. Our website, www.womenpriests.org, the Catholic Internet Library on Women’s Ordination, has not been involved in the planning for, or execution of, this ordination. In fact, though our team (www.womenpriests.org) strongly endorses the duty incumbent on Church leaders to admit women to holy orders, we personally do not think that ordinations by ‘outside bishops’ (bishops who do not belong to the Roman Catholic Church) are the appropriate way forward. Read a full statement here!
  5. However, we have great empathy with the struggle of the seven women who decided to establish this ‘prophetic sign’. And in particular, we ask these questions?
    Is the decree of excommunication promulgated by the Vatican is not
    -- a. pastorally insensitive?
    -- b. in violation of requirements in Church Law?
    -- c. disproportionately harsh?
    -- d. untenable in the light of the tenuous grounds on which women are excluded from the ministries? and
    -- e. in contradiction to Jesus’ Spirit of love and truth?

    The authors of the Decree may not have meant it to have these properties, but does such a public action not require much more pastoral wisdom and love?
  6. Gisela Forster and Christine Lumetzberger have opened a website, with mainly Germant documentation, to give updates on the situation. Its URL is: www.virtuelle-dioezese.de .
  7. Klaus Lüdicke, an expert in Church law, has published an article in Orientierung (15 Sept 2002) that is critical of Rome’s response. In a strictly legal analysis he questions (1) whether ordination through a non-Catholic bishop does incur automatic excommunication (as the Congregation for Doctrine seems to think) and (2) whether the Congregation could impose a sentence without a proper legal procedure. We can now offer an English translation of this important text.
  8. The Congregation for Doctrine responded, in a decree signed on 21 December 2002, confirming the excommunication.
    Like other documents issuing from the present government in the Roman Curia, it is a chilling piece of top-down dictator-speak. Whatever its controversial legal merits, it manifests a total lack of pastoral sensitivity to women in the Church, and to these seven women in particular. Thanks be to God that he/she is not a Vatican beaurocrat!
  9. On 28 February 2003, the seven women have written a reply to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
  10. The latest development!
    On 27 June 2003, Christine confirmed that she herself and Gisela Forster, one of the other seven women, had been ordained bishops "during the first six months of 2003 - in secret". The name of the ordaining bishop is not known.
    The "Passau group" have their own website: www.virtuelle-dioezese.de.
    They send out a regular newsletter, in German and English, that can be obtained from here.

Here we offer background information that may enable Catholic and non-Catholic observers to come to a balanced assessment of this particular event.

The ordination event in Passau, June 2002

Detailed eyewitness reports:

Sequel to the ordinations of 29 June 2002

Further Background Information on the Passau ordination

  1. Sources
  2. Who are the women who were ordained?
  3. Who were the ordaining bishop(s)?
  4. Why did these women offer themselves for ordination?
  5. Was the ordination valid?
  6. How do the official movements for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church look on this ordination?
  7. Will the ordination of women ever become a reality as an accepted practice in the Catholic Church?
  8. What is the background to this conflict between the Vatican and reformers in the Catholic Church?

1. Sources

The group of women have established their own website on which they will post more information from time to time (mainly in German): http://www.virtuelle-dioezese.de.

2. Who are the women who were ordained?

From the available press reports it is clear that 7 women were ordained:

Information on the women whose names we know:

Dr. Iris Müller Dr. Ida Raming Mrs. Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger MA

From all available knowledge it is clear that these women are competent, theologically educated, and very well intentioned.

3. Who were the ordaining bishops?

The two ordaining bishops on the 29th of June were Romulo Braschi and Ferdinand Regelsberger.

However, it may be that Mgr. Dusan (Dujan?) Spiner, a Catholic Bishop now working as a priest in Slovakia, will have a role to play. Was he the bishop who was originally supposed to perform the ordinations? Read this excerpt from Der Volksblatt.

The organisers had repeatedly stated that the ordaining bishop(s) would be Roman Catholic(s). This is what Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger stated in an interview with Publik-Forum 22 February 2002, p. 28: “ein römisch-katholischer Bischof”. The same was repeated in another interview in May, Kirche in 05/2002, p. 22 - 24: “zwei römisch-katholische Bischöfe”.

From statements in the press, including one by Gisela Forster of the 11th of June, it was becoming clear that the bishop could be Dr. Romulo Braschi. Braschi was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Buenos Aires in 1966. Later he joined the ‘Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Christ the King’ in Argentina. He came to Europe as a charismatic healer, founding small communities in Switserland and Germany.

Braschi was ordained ‘Archbishop of Munich, Zürich, Buenos Aires and San Salvador de Bahia’, and is the present head of the above mentioned ‘Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Christ the King’. Two episcopal ordinations seem to have taken place:

  • on the 11th October 1998, he was ordained bishop by bishop Roberto Padín. Padín seems to be an Argentinian bishop belonging to the same ‘Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Christ the King’, but the facts are unclear.
  • on the 30th of January 1999, when, Braschi claims, he received episcopal ordination from bishop Jerónimo Podestá. Podestá was bishop of Avellaneda in Argentina from 1962 to 1967. His involvement in social action and Church reform brought him into conflict with the Vatican. In 1967 he was relieved of his episcopal position. Podestá became a champion for the abolition of obligatory celibacy, and for support for married priests and their spouses. He died on 24 June 2000. There is no mention in any record of his life of Podestá being a supporter of ‘Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Christ the King’.

Few mainstream Catholics would consider Dr. Romulo Braschi, head of the ‘Catholic-Apostolic Charismatic Church of Christ the King’, to be still a Roman Catholic. But women in the group may well consider him ‘Roman Catholic’ to the extent that he derives his episcopacy from a Roman Catholic lineage of bishops. Read here what Dr. Romulo Braschi has to say for himself.

The other bishop who co-ordained is Bishop Ferdinand Regelsberger, who was ordained a bishop by Romulo Braschi on 9 May 2002.

It now transpires that the original intention may have been for the ordaining bishop to be Mgr. Dusan Spiner, who was ordained a bishop Felix Davidek and who is a practising Catholic parish priest in Slovakia. His episcopal ordination was recognised by the Vatican, though he was asked not to exercise an episcopal ministry. Spiner, it now transpires, was prevented from attending the function in time through traffic congestion. He was, no doubt, the ‘Roman Catholic bishop’ announced by the organisers. Read the report in the Tablet. More news on this may follow.

We know little about Bishop Dusan Spiner at this moment. The fact that he was ordained a bishop by the open-minded and thoughtful Bishop Felix Davidek gives him excellent Catholic parentage. Bishop Davidek ordained women as priests because the local Church in Czeckoslovakia, then under communist rule, required their services. Read the moving account by Ludmila Javarová, one of the women who was ordained by Davidek and who served as Vicar General in his diocese. See also: interview with Javarová.

4. Why did these women offer themselves for ordination?

A new book has been published in German that contains the women’s point of view in greater detail. It also contains a statement by the ordaining bishop(s) and some theologians. "Wir sind Priesterinnen". Aus aktuellem Anlass: Die Weihe von Frauen 2002., Werner Ertel, Gisela Forster (eds.), 180 pages, Patmos-Verlag, Düsseldorf 2002 .

Meanwhile an official statement on behalf of the group has been published by Dr. Ida Raming and Dr. Iris Müller. Read a translation of the statement here.

Further reading on the points raised in the statement:

These women, it appears, have made a difficult decision in good conscience. However risky the outcome of their action, they manifest that the Spirit is stirring in the Church. In the past, prophets have at times been called upon to perform unusual signs. Indeed, Jesus himself cursed a fig tree and drove people, who were protected by the religious authority of his day, out of the Temple with a whip. The Spirit uses various means to achieve her purpose.

5. Is the ordination valid?

The Church has learnt in its history to distinguish in sacramental theology between actions that are licit [= allowed, correct by Church law] and/or valid [= effective, producing their purpose]. There are situations where the celebration of the Eucharist may be valid, even though it is not licit. The same applies to ordinations. Even if an ordination is illicit, i.e. against the law, it may yet be valid, i.e. producing true deacons, priests or bishops.

1. The ordination is not valid if the ordaining bishop is not a true bishop. This depends on how he was ordained and by whom. That is why the pedigree of Romulo Braschi’s episcopacy is important. On the other hand, if the bishops who ordained Braschi are true bishops, even if they minister in another Christian Church and act against Church law, Braschi himself is a valid bishop, and can validly ordain. At least, this is the traditional position accepted in medieval theology and still favoured by Rome.

2. The Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith will argue that the proposed ordinations on the 29th of June are invalid because of the recipients of ordination. According to Rome, women are simply incapable of being ordained. Rome’s views can be read in the documents it issued since 1976. Most Catholic theologians today disagree. Because of women’s equal participation in baptism, both men and women are open to the sacrament of Holy Orders. Moreover, during the first millennium women were given the full sacrament of the diaconate which is part of Holy Orders. The fact that the ordination of a woman is declared invalid by Church law is irrelevant, for the doctrinal reason for this 'law' is flawed. Church leadership itself has admitted it could not exclude women on its own authority.

3. In modern theology the ecclesial aspect of ministries and ordination, which was very important in the Early Church, has been rediscovered. A person is not ordained for oneself but for and within a particular faith community. The question is: for which Christian community is a specific minister ordained? The Church has not fully digested or integrated the implications of this new understanding. Ordination is not a magical action that can be performed by any validly ordained minister irrespective of the context of that ordination.

6. How do the official movements for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church look on this ordination?

Here are some of the major statements that have come out from movements around the world. It is clear that all strongly endorse the need for the Catholic Church to remove its unjustified ban from women’s ordination, even though not all agree on the best way to wake up the Church to this need.

Some groups had already spoken out before the event:

* The "We are Church" Movement in Austria, even though it sponsors the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, had already officially expressed disagreement with the proposed ordinations on the 29th of June before the event.
Read the statement by Ingrid Thurner, Chair of "We Are Church".

* Even the somewhat radical Initiative Kirche von Unten (IKvU = Intiative Church from Below) in Germany, though initially receptive of the proposed ordination plan, withdrew its support later on account of the ordaining bishop.
Read the statement by Bernd-Hans Goehrig, leader IKvU.

* The “New Wine” group in Great Britain, an association of Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood, regretfully distanced itself from the action.
Read the statement by Jackie Hawkins, New Wine representative.

* The “We Are Church" movement in Germany had given a short response on their website. Their statement extends general support to women's ordination but did not make any comment on the present situation.
Read WAC German response here.

Even if some reform groups in the Church believe that the 29th of June event is not the ultimate way forward, all are strongly united
(a) in wanting to see women admitted to the ordained ministries, and
(b) in their admiration for the courage and good intention of the women concerned.

7. Will the ordination of women ever become a reality as an accepted practice in the Catholic Church?

The answer is: Yes, it will!

The reasons for this optimism are:
a. The groundswell of support for the ordination of women (about 70 %) in all countries where Catholics have easy access to education.
b. The overwhelming weight of academic evidence from all branches of theology which the central leadership in Rome will not be able to suppress indefinitely.
c. The fact that the Church has actually ordained women as deacons in its past.
d. The history of reform in the Church which always follows the pattern of initiatives of renewal, attempted suppression by a conservative leadership, then implementation of the reforms.

Evidence for this view is reflected in the copious information displayed in this website.

8. What is the background to the conflict in the Catholic Church?

Most theologians are in total disagreement with the official central ‘Teaching Authority’ of the Church regarding key issues of Catholic faith and practice. Though theologians are supposed to have the right and the duty to express their honest opinions, they feel harrassed and persecuted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Theologians have publicly rejected the Congregation for Doctrine’s stand on women priests.
They object to Rome’s policy of silencing responsible theologians.
They feel the time has come for speaking out and public dissent.

Most thinking Catholics have lost confidence in the leadership of the Church. The recent clerical paedophilia crisis in many countries exemplify unease among the faithful. They realise that many fundamental reforms are called for in the way the Church is governed. The Church needs to shed unnecessary past accretions and adapt ourselves to the new world in which we find ourselves, as the Church has done during other crucial periods in its history. Here is a vision of what many hope the future could bring:

© We as a Church will need to gratefully and happily accept all the new sure facts established by modern science. This calls for a new theology. The recognition that the universe and life came about through evolution, has far reaching consequences for the way salvation comes to us. We need a refined image of God, an understanding of salvation history that incorporates evolution, a reformulation of the Incarnation as happening "from the Beyond within", a discarding of two-tier supernaturalism without discarding the reality of God, and much more. A massive task needs to be done to ensure that Christian faith is a rationale obsequium, a reasonable proposition, also for our contemporaries.

© We as a Church will need to recognise the value of human and Christian autonomy. Moral theology needs to be reformulated to do justice both to the demands of Gospel morality and the genuine adult responsibility of each individual. The official church bodies will need to change their image as paternalistic, male-dominated, autocratic bodies.

© We as a Church need to reform the pastoral structures of our organisation as a Church, to faithfully implement the principle of co-responsibility laid down by Vatican II. Lay people need to be given room to exercise their role as responsible members of the community, without minimising the specific mandate given to priests and pastors.

© We as a Church will need to work out more sensitively our place in a pluriform society. While proclaiming the unique mediation of Jesus Christ in the universal salvation of humankind, the positive contribution of other religious traditions needs to be assessed and incorporated into our Church's own heritage whenever this is helpful.

The above is just a sketch of what needs to be done. As an official Church we have begun this process of integration through the vision enshrined in Vatican II. That vision now needs to be implemented and worked out in detail.

John Wijngaards

Ordinations 29 June RC women called to the priesthood Theologians on the teaching of the CDF The duty of speaking out Mistaken teachings by Popes in the past Womenpriests home page

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