Poor Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington. For being head of the U.S. bishops’ committee on doctrine, he gets to try to untangle for the media here the confusion that occurred here when the Vatican decided to unveil its latest PR fiasco, mixing its announcement of new norms for handling sex abuse by clerics with the announcement that the “attempted” ordinations of women was being added to the “more grave” list of offenses against the church.
One can only wonder how much “more grave” it can get than it already is. Those who have been involved in women’s ordinations are already said to have excommunicated themselves; it is unclear whether one can excommunicate oneself even more if the offense is elevated in status.
Poor Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, had the unenviable assignment when the new norms were released in Rome of trying to draw the distinctions that are, for outsiders, without much of a difference. He said that sex abuse was a moral crime and ordaining a woman is a sacramental crime. Both, however, are grave offenses.
But there is a difference in the punishment. For the moral crime in this case – sex abuse of minors – priests are defrocked, not excommunicated. For the sacramental crime, you’re out. The idea, according to a colleague who knows all about these things, is that excommunication can be reversed if the sinner repents and goes through the necessary steps. Apparently, one can’t reverse a defrocking.
In any event, it is difficult to imagine what practical effect the latest pronouncement about women will have. It seems to me that women intent on being ordained will go on being ordained, getting the notice that they’ve excommunicated themselves, and continue on conducting services, gathering congregations, ministering and challenging the prevailing Vatican thinking.
It would appear that the only retort for Vatican officials would be to shout even louder, perhaps listing ordination of women as a really, really, really grave sin.
Archbishop Wuerl, meanwhile, was left to attempt to convince the skeptics in the United States that the church loves and values women.,
"Women offer unique insight, creative abilities and unstinting generosity at the very heart of the Catholic Church," he said.
But the rules are the rules and they have been since Jesus walked the earth, he said, so they can’t be changed.
I’ll leave the theologians and the historians to take on that last point.
What Wuerl must know, however, is that the language doesn’t match the reality in too many places in the United States. While women do hold positions of importance in some regions and dioceses, in others they’ve learned rather abruptly that a change in bishops can mean they are summarily unappreciated. In some dioceses I’ve visited during the past year, women who hold the position generally known as pastoral associates, realize they are being slowly phased out by deacons, another layer of ordained clergy reserved to men alone.
In other cases, women religious who have held positions as teachers or heads of diocesan education departments have been replaced by priests or deacons. In too many places there is a tacit understanding that women’s hold on those important positions is tenuous, subject always to the whim of the next pastor or the next bishop. There’s no lifetime job security as there is for clerics.
They’re valued at the core of the church, unless there’s a priest or deacon available. And don’t crowd the Eucharistic table, that’s a little too close to the core of things.