Issue Date: November 9, 2007
By PAMELA SCHAEFFER
Two Catholic women are being ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests here Nov. 11, prompting outrage from Catholic officials -- outrage that, surprisingly, is directed less at the women aspiring to the Catholic priesthood, or at the movement ordaining them, than toward a rabbi who agreed to host the event.
The women to be ordained are Elsie Hainz McGrath, a retired writer and editor for a Catholic publishing house, and Rose Marie Dunn Hudson, a former teacher. Bishop Patricia Fresen, who was for many years a Dominican nun, ordained the women as deacons Aug. 12 and will perform the ceremony here. The women are among a growing number of deacons, priests and bishops ordained in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. Based on responses to formal invitations, Hudson said organizers are expecting 300 to 400 to attend.
Noting that ordaining women is forbidden by Catholic canon law, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke wrote to Rabbi Susan Talve, senior rabbi at Central Reform Congregation -- the synagogue host -- urging her to revoke her offer of hospitality. Meanwhile, the director of the archdiocesan Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Fr. Vincent A. Heier, has excoriated Talve for her role, likening it to a Catholic pastor inviting a Holocaust denier to speak, and describing Talves action as a major setback to the areas strong, hard-won Jewish-Catholic relations.
The president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, Rabbi Mark Fasman finds it inappropriate for a synagogue to host an event no Catholic parish would allow and, though stressing that he speaks only for himself, acknowledged that among rabbis he is not alone. He is worried that what should be a Catholic issue -- whether women can be ordained -- will provoke a backlash against Jews.
Responding to Catholic concerns, the Jewish Community Relations Council released a statement Oct. 26 distancing itself and other Jewish congregations from Talves decision, stressing that Judaism is non-hierarchical and congregations are autonomous. It is our hope that an isolated act on the part of a single congregation will not be allowed to disrupt the long tradition of continued dialogue and mutual respect between our Jewish and Roman Catholic communities, the statement said.
The fracas is one that Ronald Modras, professor of theological studies at St. Louis University, finds both fascinating and profoundly symbolic. Its a remarkable demonstration of sisterhood, he said. You have women of two faiths, Catholic and Jewish, standing together against patriarchal exclusion. He referred to Talves risking the ire of Catholic officials and rabbinical colleagues, both groups predominantly male, and the Catholic womens bucking Catholic law.
Talve, founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, a former president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association and herself active in interfaith affairs, is the most prominent female rabbi in St. Louis. Her urban congregation is noted for its inclusiveness and commitment to social justice. While Talve said she regrets the pain her action has caused to Catholic and other Jewish leaders, she is not backing down.
These two lovely women who say they want to serve their community approached us. One of our core values is hospitality and providing a shelter of peace for those who are looking for a safe place. It seemed in keeping with these values, which come right from the Torah, to provide a space for them, she said.
This isnt the first time Heier, the archdiocesan official, has found Talves values misguided. She has done a number of things in the past few years that I think are borderline in terms of sensitivity, pushing an agenda I dont always agree with. In this latest action, he said, she has moved beyond the bounds.
For Talve, the surprise is not such anger, but the number of positive responses she has received. Just as St. Louis Jews take differing stances on Talves decision -- she secured the unanimous vote of her board and the support of her congregation before agreeing to serve as host -- many Catholics have come forward to thank her for sharing her sacred space. I have received dozens of letters, scores of e-mails and many phone calls from Catholics -- women religious especially -- who are in support of our hosting the ordination and understand the values that are guiding us, she said. It is painful and sad for me that there are people in the Catholic community who are offended by this.
The Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement dates to 2002 when seven women were ordained priests by an Argentinian bishop. Since then, according to members of the movement, other male bishops in full communion with the pope, have ordained three women bishops, including Patricia Fresen, the former nun. By the end of this year, more than 40 women will have been ordained by the movement.
And more are in the pipeline. Roman Catholic Womenpriests presently has about 150 women in various stages of formation around the world, according to Gerry Rauch, vice president of the Womens Ordination Conference board. Every time there is a public ordination, the numbers grow, she said.
The movements leaders contend that the ordained women stand in the apostolic line descending from Jesus and his apostles -- a succession that the Catholic church regards as a hallmark of clerical authenticity. So their ordinations are valid, they say, if illegal under church law.
Catholic officials dont agree. Lawrence J. Welch, professor of systematic theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary and spokesman for the St. Louis archdiocese on the upcoming ordinations, told NCR that as far as the archdiocese is concerned, it isnt a Catholic service, or ceremony or liturgy, because it is not in unity with the church. As for the male bishops who performed some of the earlier ordinations, they were not acting in union with the pope, so any claims to women in apostolic succession is wrong, he said.
In keeping with a form developed by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, both McGrath and Hudson have completed a course of pre-ordination studies and were previously ordained as deacons. Both women are converts and both have long been involved in service to the church. Each has four children and 11 grandchildren. (McGrath lost a 12th grandchild to a car accident three years ago.)
Hudson, a longtime teacher, was certified by the St. Louis archdiocese as a lay pastoral minister in 1998, after completing a two-year formation program, and received a masters degree in pastoral studies in an extension program offered by Loyola University, New Orleans. She was the first woman to serve as parish council president at her former parish, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Farmington, Mo.
McGrath worked with the St. Louis archdiocese to develop a family life commission, earned an undergraduate degree in theology at St. Louis University while working as a secretary in the theology department in the 1980s. Invited to join the editorial staff at Liguori, the Catholic publishing house, she stayed for 12 years, while earning a masters degree from Aquinas Institute of Theology in 2002. Her late husband was an ordained deacon in the St. Louis archdiocese, and she attended courses with him throughout a rigorous formation program.
Beginning Dec. 1, McGrath and Hudson will lead a faith community, celebrating Saturday evening liturgies at First Unitarian Church in St. Louis, across the street from Talves synagogue. I dont know what kind of attendance we will have, Hudson said, but I know there are many people on the margins of the church, and we think they will come. If they want to attend their own parish as well, they will still have that option on Sunday. She added: We are not calling our community a Catholic parish. We dont want to be schismatic. But we will not hide the fact that we are Roman Catholic priests.
Talve, while refraining from offering an opinion on what the Catholic church should do, wishes the women well. I understand the call of women who want to serve in this way, and I believe women have something special to give. I have experienced this in my own life.
Pamela Schaeffer recently returned to the NCR staff after six years working with the Religious of the Sacred Heart in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007
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