My mother-in-law’s ordination and its continuing ramifications…

/ 16 May 2003

Last summer my mother-in-law, Dagmar Celeste, was one of the seven European women (she’s Austrian) ordained on the Danube river by a Roman Catholic bishop no longer in good standing with the church. I suppose this might be seen as a purely symbolic move, but the church recognized it as powerful and immediately excommunicated the women. Since then Dagmar has travelled all over the place sharing both her story, and the years-long journey that led her to take this step. I suppose there’d be not much reason to “blog” about it right now, except that recently Rosemary Ruether, noted feminist and Roman Catholic theologian, commented on it in a column in the National Catholic Reporter. I need to take issue with the central point of Ruether’s argument, namely, that this “protest ordination” somehow “neglects community.” I’m not sure how Ruether arrived at this conclusion, since she was in fact one of the many, many people involved in Dagmar’s discernment process, and she ought to have understood from that process that far from seeing this as a “protest” Dagmar took it very seriously as a further blessing of her call to serve God’s people. Nevertheless, Ruether entered the public conversation and so now I need to do so, too. Ruether argues that such ordinations “should take place in gatherings of the people of God in which communities collectively, perhaps represented by designated leaders, ordain a person to minister to that community.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, but I think Ruether is thinking in far too narrow a vein if she believes that this kind of recognition can only occur within the physical walls of churches recognized by civil society as RC. Dagmar is clearly responding to a call that she has had affirmed both internally and externally (to use the language we use at the Lutheran seminary where I teach, and where women are regularly prepared for ordination). But the communities who have affirmed her call, and who continue to recognize her ministry right now, are not communities that are explicitly institutionalized within the RC church. Far from it. Instead, they are communities of people whose identity is repressed within the church. Gay people, people marginalized by addiction, women leaving violent marriages without the requisite annullment proceedings, people who have accompanied women to family planning clinics — these are Roman Catholic communities so oppressed within the church structures as to not be visible except to each other. No current RC church could have allowed this particular ordination ceremony to take place within its walls without facing severe sanctions. Should the severe dysfunction that our hierarchy is currently engaged in be enough to prevent the visible recognition of the people of God gathered to anoint their leaders? I have been present at some of the meetings Dagmar has had with women and men in local RC parishes. I have seen the joy that lights up the faces of older women — and yes, men, even priests! — who have prayed unceasingly for women’s ordination and who had begun to believe that they would never live to see it happen. Yes, this ordination (and that of the six other women who joined Dagmar) is considered “illicit” by the RC hierarchy. But the last thing that can be said about it is that it took place outside of community.