Sunday, November 23, 2008

Seriously, Excommunication over Women’s Ordination?

The Vatican has threatened Father Roy Bourgeois with excommunication if he doesn’t take back his position that women be ordained priests.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith notified Bourgeois by letter on Oct. 21 and gave him 30 days to respond. The deadline seemed suspiciously timed to the annual weekend demonstration of School of the Americas Watch (SOAW). Since 1990 thousands of people have gathered at Fort Benning, Ga, to demand closure of the U.S. Army’s combat training school for Latin American soldiers.

Bourgeois responded to the Vatican on Nov. 7 with a letter refusing to comply because he said the Church’s teaching on this issue was wrong and he could not in good conscience support it.

Bourgeois, 70, entered the Maryknoll Missionary Order after serving as a U.S. naval officer for four years, including one year in Vietnam where he received the Purple Heart. In 1972 he was ordained and sent to Bolivia for his first mission. He has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America since 1980 after a Salvadoran death squad raped and killed four American churchwomen. In 1990 he founded the SOAW.

What led to this altercation between the Vatican and Bourgeois was his homily at the ordination of Janice Sevre-Duszynska, 58, on August 9 in Lexington, Ky. She was the sixth woman ordained this year in the United States, according to the NCR.

Actually, the last slap down on women’s ordination occurred in 1994 when Pope John Paul II placed a gag rule on the subject after persistent calls for ordination were uncorked in 1979 by Sister Theresa Kane who pleaded with the pope to reconsider his position. It’s now timely to talk about it once again.

The Church claims that the priesthood should remain male because Jesus was a man, his 12 apostles were all men and the Church has never had women priests.

The Women’s Ordination Conference counters these arguments by citing two Scripture passages:

“In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:28

“Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them, female and male, God made them.” — Genesis 1:27

The early Church did not have an ordained priesthood. Breaking bread and doing good works for others was considered a shared responsibility of both men and women. Celebrating the Eucharist was a reminder of their commitment to be like Jesus—not in physical appearance, but in word and deed. Archeologists have even found images on frescoes, mosaics and tombs of women serving these ministerial roles dating from 100-820 C.E. in the Mediterranean region, according to the Women’s Ordination Conference.

Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Church has reversed its position on many issues so it’s entirely possible it could do the same with women’s ordination. For example, one of the Church’s most blatant blunders was its belief that the sun revolved around the earth. When Galileo (1564-1642) proved that theory inaccurate, the Church accused him of heresy and restricted him for the last 10 years of his life. In 1992, the Church publicly forgave Galileo for his “crimes.”

Corrupt bishops and priests and the practice of indulgences and other financial abuses led Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The Church responded with the reform-oriented Council of Trent (1545-63), which founded seminaries for priest training, urged religious communities to return to their spiritual foundations and encouraged new spiritual movements that focused on the devotional life and personal relationship with Jesus.

The Church has also succumbed to change on its own accord. For example, the Italians seemed to have control over the papacy after four and a half centuries until 1978 when John Paul II, a Pole, and his successor, Benedict XVI, a German, started a “new tradition.” Some people think the next pope will come from Africa or Latin America.

The past 30 years have seen women all over the world make giant strides in taking on leadership roles. One almost made it to the U.S. presidency. So it was not totally surprising that on June 29, 2002, seven women stepped up to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Since then, over 60 others have followed, most of them Americans, according to the Women’s Ordination Conference. Four of the women priests are bishops and nearly 100 more are in a preparation program sponsored by the Roman Catholic Women Priests.

The idea of women priests is no longer an aberration, according to a September 2005 Gallup Organization survey where 63 percent of U.S. Catholics said they supported ordaining women and only 29 percent indicated that an exclusive male, celibate clergy was “very important.” The Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in April 2005 found the same thing.

The Episcopalian Church can probably be thanked for much of this attitude change. It started on July 29, 1974, when 11 women forced the issue by finding three bishops willing to ordain them. Two years later, the 72nd General Convention in Philadelphia passed a resolution declaring that “no one shall be denied access” to ordination on the basis of their sex. In 2006 the Episcopalians elected their first presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The Vatican is undoubtedly fearful that women’s ordination will further divide the Church. The dissension suffered since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has been enormous and no one is in the mood for much more. Catholics left the Church in droves. Priests and nuns quit. Vocations plummeted. Recently, parish closings are affected by a priest shortage and the pedophilia scandals have caused mistrust and anger.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported last February that 28 percent of adults have left the faith in which they were raised with Catholics coming out as the largest group—about 10 percent out of a population of 305 million Americans.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for an institution to change, especially one as huge, as old and as steeped in tradition as the Catholic Church. But traditions are man-made, not God-made. And one might conclude that this confluence of events signals God’s call for the Church to renew itself yet again.

The Church has endured difficulties in the past and it has adjusted. Quite frankly, today’s problems are so great, we need every leader we can get. To eliminate half of the population from priestly leadership is to see the world with only one eye or to fix it with only one arm.

Gender shouldn’t determine whether or not a person is fit to be a priest. Neither should class, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation for that matter. The priesthood should be open to men and women who are called to it. And those who advocate for women’s ordination, like Father Roy Bourgeois, should not be punished for their public stands. We need to concentrate our energies on the things that matter!

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