National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 2, 2003

Protest ordinations neglect community


At a recent Call to Action conference in Northern California I was asked about how I thought women’s ordination would happen. I made my usual joke about not wanting any bishops to “lay hands” on me. More seriously, I suggested that the very lack of adequate numbers and quality of priests in the Catholic church meant that more and more of the ministry is being done by theologically educated lay people, mostly women. This is giving Catholics increasing experience of good ministry coming from women. Many bishops would like to ordain these women, but are prevented from doing so by church policy. But I suspect that, as this continues, there will be a breakthrough at the top to change the present exclusion. This change, like most change in the church, will come from the bottom up.

After this talk, a friend expressed her disappointment in this answer. She said she thought we should just go ahead and ordain women, suggesting doing so in a protest action in front of cathedrals. I expressed my ambivalence about ordination in this format as public protest. This exchange brought to mind a phone call that I received last spring. Another friend, a life-long dedicated Catholic, told me that some bishops in Austria were ready to ordain women, and she was thinking of going to be ordained. She added that she would probably be excommunicated. What was my advice?

At that time I expressed my ambivalence about this gesture, but said she had to make up her own mind. She decided to go ahead with it and was excommunicated, along with several other women who participated in this ordination that took place on a boat on the Danube River June 29, 2002. This spring, one of those women, Ida Raming, a scholar of canon law who has long written on issues of women and ministry in the Catholic church, is traveling through the United States speaking on her experience. What do we make of this ordination?

These events have impelled me to clarify what I think about such ordinations carried out “irregularly” as acts of public protest. My ambivalence about them is not primarily about their usefulness as strategies for advancing the cause of women’s ordination, but rather is rooted in my view of the theology of ordination. For me ordination is a covenantal act carried out within a Christian community in which the people of God confirm a person as a priest and pastor for the community and the person ordained pledges to serve that community as priest and pastor.

Historically Catholics have ceded this act of ordination to bishops as representing both the local church and the communion of local churches in the universal church. Other Christians, such as Baptists, see ordination primarily as a congregational action. The local church as a congregation ordains for service to that particular community. Other pastors and local church leaders can be invited to “lay hands” on the ordinand. I myself have twice been invited to participate in “laying hands” on people being ordained in a Baptist setting. One was a friend being ordained to a social ministry in Washington, D.C. The other was the first woman to be ordained by the Baptist church of Nicaragua. I believe both of these approaches to ordination, episcopal and congregational, are valid and are rooted in the same assumptions; namely, ordination as a covenantal act within the church.

I do not object to bishops being the ones who ordain, if it is understood that they represent the local as well as the universal church. I believe the validity of their act of ordaining is rooted in this relation to the church. It does not flow literally from an apostolic secession that imagines the power to ordain as a “magic touch” passed down from bishop to bishop through two millennia. At the same time, when bishops grow so derelict in carrying out their responsibility to ordain a ministry in adequate numbers and quality to serve the church, then the church as people of God have a right to take back the power to ordain and carry it out themselves. It seems to me that this is the case today in the Catholic church.

The Catholic church has become fixated on maintaining a celibate male priesthood that has become dysfunctional. It is neither providing adequate numbers or quality of priests that are needed by the local churches. Huge amount of funds that should be used for the ministry and social mission of the church are being wasted to defend this dysfunctional system. Meanwhile well-qualified women and married men wait in the wings to be accepted or carry out the actual ministry without full authority. It may be time for the people of God to take back the power to ordain.

But such ordinations should not take place in protest gatherings in front of cathedrals or on boats in the Danube. They should take place in gatherings of the people of God in which particular communities collectively, perhaps represented by designated leaders, ordain a person to minister to that community. Lacking bishops or other such leaders as representatives of the universal church, that ordination can be understood locally; that is, to serve that particular community. This is not a protest act. It is a serious and solemn expression of a relationship of trust and service between a community and one they call to ministry.

What then do we say about the validity of the ordinations on the boat in the Danube in June 2002? I believe those women were courageous. They risked their identities as Catholics, and incurred a curt dismissal. I do not accept that excommunication, but I also have some reservations about ordinations that do not stand within a calling community.

As we listen to Ida Raming and others of that group speaking to us in various venues in the United States, perhaps we should surround these women, lay our hands on them and declare them to be called to serve us as people of God. In this way we can make up somewhat for the defects of that ordination on a boat in the Danube and maybe move the discussion along in a way that bishops and even the pope may finally have to hear.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter professor of feminist theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 2, 2003

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