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Women say bishops lose under new rule

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Women responding to Pope John Paul II’s recent apostolic letter underscoring Rome’s intolerance of theological dissent say the Vatican is threatening the authority of bishops worldwide and placing its agencies between the papacy and the people.

The document changes the Code of Canon Law to provide punishment for Catholics who question “definitively held” teaching.

Sr. Dianne Bergant, professor of Old Testament Studies and director of the Joint Doctor of Ministry Program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the local ordinary administering an oath based on the Code of Canon Law is responsible for enforcing that oath. “Some insist upon it, and some do not,” Bergant said. “At ordination, whether priests take the oath or not depends upon which bishop ordains them.”

The recent document, however, applies sanctions against all of the “Christian faithful” deemed by Rome to be in error. “The bishops are concerned about losing jurisdiction in their dioceses,” Bergant, a member of the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Agnes, said. In the past, the pope has “ensured enforcement,” she said, by the appointments he makes. The recent document even more tightly limits theological interpretation and moves bishops further out into the ecclesial periphery, she said.

“It seems bishops are constantly being surprised by statements coming out in their names,” said Andrea Johnson, national coordinator of the Women’s Ordination Conference in Fairfax, Va. “I’m concerned about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and others using the power of the ordinary. These people are putting themselves between the papacy and the ordinaries around the world. I do not think this is our tradition.”

While it bears down with more force against dissent, Ad Tuendam Fidem (“To Defend the Faith”) introduces nothing new of substance. It was the lengthy follow-up commentary by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that “started getting into issues,” Johnson said.

“Definitive teaching,” Ratzinger wrote, is to be given the same “full and irrevocable” assent that the faithful must give to “divinely revealed” teaching. “Whoever denies” this, he wrote, will “no longer be in full communion with the Catholic church.” The commentary was much more specific than the document itself, prompting Bergant to ask a question echoed by other women: “Given the pope’s state of health, how much of this was initiated by him? No doubt this is the man’s thinking, but whether this was initiated by him is a different question.”

Regardless of its source, the threat of being censured or excommunicated is especially ominous for women because the cardinal mentioned women’s ordination as one of the “errors” among the faithful that Rome is attempting to stem.

“The pope didn’t specify theologians or even priests” as the sources of error, Johnson said. “He said ‘Christians.’ He said ‘the faithful.’ And in his letter he was not issue specific, but he alluded to ‘women’s issues.’ ”

Sr. Miriam Therese Winter, a Medical Mission Sister and professor of Liturgy, Spirituality and Feminist Studies at Hartford Seminary, said, “There is a widespread and growing number of Catholics working for change whose wisdom must at least be entertained. There is a stereotype that we who wish for this kind of change are militant and out for ourselves, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

Catholics advocating church reform during a time of increasing censure should be careful to avoid this stereotype and pull together, she said. “We can have individual voices, but we must stand together in a more inclusive way.”

Ruth Bertels, a columnist for the diocesan newspaper in Superior, Wis., agreed. “There are other ways you can say things -- with love versus the law -- and get your point across,” she said.

Bertels has written about such issues as a married priesthood and the Vatican’s “pathological mindset against women,” but she says now she’ll have to “come in the back door to say things.”

The recent Vatican document, however, makes getting any point across something of a Catch-22. “Even if I say I’m living within their rules and accepting their boundaries because I respect their authority, I can’t just blot out my mind,” Winter said. “Yet if I don’t blot out my mind, I’ll be cut off from the church. This is heartbreaking.”

In his commentary, Ratzinger called the New Testament the “singular witness” of the first profession following Easter, when a glorified Christ “appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.” The cardinal, however, omitted scriptural accounts of Jesus’ earlier appearance to the women at the tomb and of Jesus’ instruction to Mary Magdalene to carry the news to his disciples, who refused to believe that she had seen the risen Christ.

“We need to lovingly call into accountability a leadership entrusted with guiding us, and to call into accountability an attitude so vindictive that it is telling us not to speak, or even think,” Winter said.

She also said that a leadership entrusted with the church’s care should reciprocate that trust. “If I agree to accept their boundaries, they must agree to know my suffering and to trust that God is trying to say something through me.”

But being a vessel through which God speaks is risky for Catholics in the pew. “You’ve got to be careful about what you say and who hears it,” Bergant said, adding that the letter’s promise of punishment “will have the most serious impact on the people it directly touches.” One of those groups is Catholic women.

“Women are becoming psychologically distant from the institutional church,” said Bertels, the columnist, claiming that her peers in the over-50 age bracket have become increasingly alienated by Rome. These women will stay from a sense of loyalty, she said, but younger, more highly educated women are leaving.

“The further from the church that women get psychologically, the nearer they get to leaving it. Where are these women going to go? Many of them will enter the diaconate and ordination in other churches. But the big problem will be with women who walk out of the Catholic church into oblivion,” Bartels said.

All agree that the Vatican’s insistence upon clamping down on women is fueling support for women’s issues.

“When the Vatican shuts down public exchange and inquiry and says it will rain ‘just punishment’ on people who discuss issues they don’t want discussed, it garners support for those same issues, having the opposite effect of what the Vatican is trying to do,” Johnson said.

Winter said, “We need a larger dialogue. We have a sacred trust from God’s spirit to speak to issues critical to inclusion and justice.”

A sense of justice undergirds the women’s various responses to the document and commentary. “This is a justice issue in the most fundamental sense, because justice is about right relationship,” said Johnson. “No one has a right to priesthood, man or woman, but all have a right to have their call tested.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998