Are They Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part IV

Q1: I remember that Archbishop Burke excommunicated a couple of women who claimed that they had been ordained Catholic priests a couple of years ago. Now I read that the Vatican has issued rules about punishing women who do that. Does that undo Archbishop Burke’s punishment of them? Does the Vatican think that he handled it the wrong way? –Sally

Q2: Why did the Vatican lump women who want to be priests into the same document with pedophile priests recently? I understand that women can’t be priests, but are they really as bad as child molesters?  –Laurie

A: It is true that a new document was made public by the Vatican recently, addressing (among many other things) the issue of women’s ordination to the priesthood. But before discussing it, let’s take a look at some of the history that led up to its release.

As we saw back in “Can Women be Ordained Priests?” and “Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?” women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Canon 1024 states unequivocally that only a baptized male can be validly ordained. If a woman, therefore, goes through the identical ordination ceremony, the sacrament of Holy Orders is not conferred upon her, as the sacrament has no effect.

But as many of us already know, there are a number of women, in the United States and elsewhere, who insist that they have been ordained as Catholic priests. Some of them even claim to be Catholic bishops! We Catholics who understand our faith are well aware that these claims are absurd; but there is no doubt that many other Catholics, who are uneducated (or badly educated) in the Church’s teachings, can be confused all too easily by these women. After all, when simple Catholics see a woman wearing priestly vestments, standing at an altar and saying the words of consecration over bread and wine, what are they to think?

In 2008, the then-Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond Burke, issued a public declaration against three Catholic women who had been involved in such an “ordination” in his archdiocese—two of them claiming to have been ordained by the third. He noted that the woman acting as “bishop” had started a new organization here in the US, with a “hierarchy” that is outside the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and he determined that this constituted an act of schism.

Schism is, according to canon 751, the withdrawal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff, or from communion with the members of the Church subject to him. Establishing one’s own clerical structure, with deacons, priests, and bishops who are not subject to the Pope, certainly does fit this definition. Thus the Archbishop found that the woman who claimed to have “ordained” the other two women had, by her establishment of a new hierarchical structure that is obviously not in communion with the Holy Father, committed an act of schism. The penalty for such an act is excommunication (c. 1364.1).

Thus the female “bishop” was found to be excommunicated. As for the other two women, Archbishop Burke noted that by knowingly and willingly participating in an “ordination” by the female “bishop,” and being aware all the while that they were involving themselves in a schismatic organization, they had likewise committed an act of schism and were consequently under the same penalty.

Note that the Archbishop had first sent a formal, written warning to each of these women, advising them of the seriousness of their action and giving them the opportunity to repent (which they failed to do). This was pastoral move on the Archbishop’s part, to warn these women of the gravity of the steps they were taking. As we discussed in “Am I Excommunicated? Sanctions, Part I,” excommunication is known as a medicinal penalty. The Church wants an excommunicated member to understand the seriousness of his actions, and to come back. It is always hoped that the person to be excommunicated will realize the grave nature of his crime, and will repent and return to full communion with the Church.

Just a few weeks after the incident in St. Louis, the Bishop of Winona, Minnesota was faced with a similar situation in his diocese, and correctly declared that the woman who had attempted to be ordained had excommunicated herself. (We’ll take a closer look at the notion of self-excommunication in a future column.)

During this period, there were plenty of other occasions, in dioceses throughout the world, where women claimed to have been ordained Catholic priests, and subsequently celebrated “Mass” and administered other “sacraments.” In the meantime, organizations dedicated to promoting acceptance of the ordination of women were formed, both in the US and elsewhere. It became obvious enough to the Vatican that this was not an issue that would quickly go away! And to make matters worse, there was understandable confusion about the best way for bishops to address the problem when it arose in their own dioceses.

To clarify the situation from a legal standpoint, the CDF issued a general decree in early 2008, noting that women who attempt to be ordained, and anyone attempting to ordain a woman, both incur excommunication. (Note that in each of these cases, reference is always made to “attempted” ordination, because when a woman participates in a Catholic ordination ceremony, no ordination ever actually takes place.) Now nobody could make the argument that, say, the Bishop of Winona overreacted, or the Archbishop of St. Louis was too hasty. Now no one could suggest that when faced with such women, the best course of action was to impose a lighter penalty, or simply to ignore it.

With the 2008 decree from the CDF, the law seemed clear enough in these cases—so what was the need for the additional, recent Vatican document that our two questioners are referencing? It is actually an updating of another, already existing document. Back in 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a motu proprio document, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela (SST, which translates as, “The Safeguarding of the Sanctity of the Sacraments”), by which he gave the authority to judge certain crimes to the CDF in Rome. At the time, the press widely described the document as one devoted to the issue of clerical sexual abuse. While it’s true that this crime is included in the list of delicts in the document, it is actually only one of several. The main purpose of the document was to give the CDF jurisdiction over crimes involving the sacraments—desecration of the Eucharist, for example, or violation of the seal of confession—and the issue of priestly abuse of children was definitely not the original, central reason for issuing the document. In fact, technically speaking, this crime is not even a delict involving the administration of a sacrament, unless it involves a priest molesting a minor within the confessional (as unfortunately it sometimes does).

The purpose of SST was to ensure that when allegations of such serious crimes are made, they are handled in a uniform, consistent way throughout the entire Church. It is not possible now for (let’s say) a bishop in France to choose to completely ignore an allegation of clerical sexual abuse, while a bishop in Chile imposes the highest possible penalty in an identical situation.  The CDF must be notified of all such allegations, and will determine the way in which each bishop is to handle a given case. In other words, the process for investigating and judging such cases has now been centralized in Rome. SST did not create any new crimes or penalties; it provided norms for the manner in which the penalties already spelled out in the Code of Canon Law would be applied to activities which the code already specified were criminal.

On May 21, 2010, it was announced that Pope Benedict was revising certain sections of the SST norms.  This is the document that our two questioners mention, and while the majority of the provisions of SST remain unchanged, the revision does make some procedural changes (many of which are of little interest unless you happen to be a canon lawyer). The change that seems to be garnering the most public attention is the inclusion of the delict of attempted ordination of a woman as one of the crimes now covered by SST. Since it is a crime that involves a sacrament, it is entirely appropriate for it to be on the list of delicts that are to be handled directly by the CDF.

No longer does a bishop have to decide on his own how best to handle such cases if they come up in his diocese. He now notifies the CDF, providing them with all the necessary information, and it is the officials of the CDF who are responsible for instructing the bishop on how best to proceed. This ensures that allegations all over the world are handled in as uniform and consistent a manner as humanly possible.

Subsequently, many of the women who claim to have been ordained, and the organizations supporting them, have waxed indignant that by including women’s ordination in the new set of norms, their actions are being equated to child sexual abuse. But anyone who reads and understands the purpose of the document can see that it does nothing of the kind. The delicts now included in the new norms are listed together not because they are all equally reprehensible in a moral sense, but because they are to be handled in the same manner procedurally.  We can draw a parallel in US criminal law: in most states, stealing an expensive coat from a department store is a felony, and murder is also a felony. Trials for both crimes will therefore share some of the same procedural aspects—but this obviously does not imply that any state holds that stealing a coat is as morally reprehensible as taking another person’s life! Similarly, nobody in the Vatican has suggested that all of the delicts contained in the list found in SST are morally equal. The objection of these women, therefore, is devoid of merit.

What these women seem to be missing, however, is that all of the crimes found in SST are violations of church law, and as such they should be avoided by faithful Catholics at all costs! In that sense, there is no such thing as a ”greater” or “lesser” delict here. Playing games with the sacraments is no small matter—and the Pope has made it plain that the Church will take seriously all attempts to abuse them.

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