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Ordinations ignite debate over tactics

Passau, Germany

Seven Roman Catholic women, along with two bishops not in communion with Rome but claiming apostolic succession, attempted June 29 to break through the debate in the Catholic church over women’s ordination by presenting a fait accompli: women validly ordained according to the Roman rite, holding themselves out as priests.

The “ordinations,” conducted aboard a pleasure boat on the Danube River between Germany and Austria, brought reprisals from church authorities. According to a July 10 Vatican statement, the women must admit the nullity of their claim to be priests by July 22, as well as ask forgiveness for the scandal they have caused, or they will be excommunicated.

The event also touched off a debate within pro-women’s ordination circles over tactics and timing, over “how far is too far.”

The women now identifying themselves as priests are: Germans Iris Müller, Ida Raming, Gisela Forster and Pia Brunner; Austrians Christina Mayr-Lumetzberger and School Sr. Adelinde Theresia Roitinger; and an Austrian-born American who used the assumed name of “Angela White.”

Reached at her home in Austria, Mayr-Lumetzberger told NCR July 10 that while the women hope for dialogue with their bishops and with the Vatican, they will not back down.

“Our call comes from God, not from the Vatican,” Mayr-Lumetzberger said. “We cannot say it is invalid.”

The two men who performed the ordinations are 61-year-old Argentine Romulo Braschi, a former Catholic priest who claims to have been made bishop in 1999 by a retired Argentinian prelate, and former Benedictine monk Ferdinand Regelsberger, who was ordained a bishop in May by Braschi.

Braschi’s claim to epsicopal status is disputed by church authorities.

Neither man is today in communion with Rome. Braschi describes himself as a bishop of the “Catholic-Apostolic Church of Jesus the King,” which he founded in the 1970s. Braschi claims 250 followers in Switzerland and Germany, though the Munich archdiocese put the number at 50. In 1996, Braschi launched the “Charismatic-Oxala-Nana Union,” devoted to “Afro-Argentinian nature religion.” He is also said to have embraced the Hindu doctrine of karma.

During the ceremony, which took place before some 200 friends, family and supporters, Braschi acknowledged that he has no authority to perform an ordination for the Roman Catholic church.

A third bishop, Dusan Spiner of the Czech Republic, was expected to take part June 29 but did not arrive, apparently due to traffic. Spiner was consecrated a bishop in secret during the communist era by the late Czech Bishop Felix Davidek. During the era of Soviet persecution, the Czech bishops had been given special permission to carry out ordinations without Roman authorization in order to ensure the continuation of the hierarchy.

Davidek ordained a small number of women priests and deacons in the 1960s, including Ludmila Javorova, who later emerged from the underground and became a symbol for the women’s ordination movement.

After the fall of communism, Spiner agreed not to function as a priest and today serves as a parish priest in Slovakia. According to news reports, Spiner ordained the seven women as deacons on Palm Sunday and had promised to ordain them as priests.

Mayr-Lumetzberger told NCR that the women would ask the Czech bishop to re-ordain them sub conditione, meaning in case the June 29 ordination was not valid.

Given that official Catholic doctrine holds that ordaining women is impossible, church authorities have pointed out that the pedigree of the bishop makes no difference in terms of validity.

Bishop Maximilian Aichern of Linz, in whose diocese Mayr-Lumetzberger lives, said that with their act the women had “put themselves outside the Catholic church.” A spokesperson for Cardinal Friedrich Wetter of Munich called the event a “sectarian spectacle” that had “nothing to do with the Catholic church.”

Cardinal Joachim Mesiner of Cologne said the project was absurd, comparing a woman wanting to be a priest with a man wanting to give birth. Roitinger told reporters that she has been threatened with expulsion from her religious order, the School Sisters of Hallein.

The June 29 action split opinion even among supporters of women’s ordination. Some believe it a prophetic challenge to injustice, while others see it as an unconstructive provocation.

The Austrian branch of the We Are Church reform group, the Church from Below movement in Germany, the Women’s Ordination Catholic Internet Library Web site and the New Wine movement in England all discouraged the June 29 event.

The Women’s Ordination Catholic Internet Library said it opposed the move because “church unity is a great value that should be preserved at all costs,” and because “such action, though drawing attention to the issue of women’s ordination, may not help to bring the whole Catholic community to the acceptance of women priests.”

On the other hand, delegates from the U.S.-based Women’s Ordination Conference and the Canadian Catholic Network for Women’s Equality were on hand June 29 to offer support.

Andrea Johnson, who represented the conference June 29, told NCR that she sees the ordinations as a “model” for similar action in the United States.

Up to four American women were planning at one point to take part in the June 29 ceremony, but later backed out because they did not adequately feel part of the local community. Several, however, hope to go forward with similar action in the United States.

Carol Crowley, one of the American women who decided not to go through with ordination this time, said she was looking forward to doing something similar back home.

“Some say ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ ” Crowley said. “But I say, ‘Next year in the United States!’ ”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

Related Web sites

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality

Women’s Ordination Catholic Internet Library

Women’s Ordination Conference

National Catholic Reporter, July 19, 2002