Schism, scandal, or sideshow? What’s a bishop to do about ‘womenpriests’?

Analysis

In the Episcopalian cathedral of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a Catholic woman will undergo a ceremony Saturday that will declare her a priest — a Catholic priest, specifically, and a member of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement.

The ceremony will get some attention — the woman, Anne Tropeano, has been featured in both secular and Catholic press.

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The ceremony will not validly confer ordination — Tropeano will not be regarded by the Church as a Catholic priest when it concludes.

But the Church does hold that the ritual will have some serious effect —  just not the one intended by the self-proclaimed “bishop” who will perform the rite.

The Church’s law says that “both the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive a sacred order, incur an excommunication latae sententiae.”

That norm has been on the books explicitly since 2007, and, most canonists say, was implicit in canon law well before then. Pope Francis reaffirmed the law directly this June, when he incorporated it into the Church’s newly promulgated penal law. 

But a latae sententiae excommunication is a funny thing.

It is a Church penalty incurred by the commission of some act, but in order to have any external consequences or effects, or even to be recognized by the Church as having occurred, the excommunication has to be declared — confirmed, essentially — by the competent ecclesiastical authority. 

In this case, that authority is the Archbishop of Santa Fe.

Santa Fe’s Archbishop John Wester has not responded to questions from The Pillar about what he plans to do after the “ordination” ceremony in his diocese. It is unlikely, though, that he will declare a penalty of excommunication. Very few bishops have. 

In fact, there are more than 120 Catholic women in the U.S. who identify as priests in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests Association, and almost none of them have been declared publicly by their local bishops to be excommunicated.

Bishops — those who could be tagged both “conservative” and “liberal” —  have told The Pillar that declaring the penalty of excommunication would give too much attention to a “fringe group.”

Even when bishops have made public statements against the “ordinations,” some insist that formally declaring an excommunication, medieval-sounding enough to be clickbait, would “just give them headlines,” or “give the group free publicity.”

That may well be true. Declaring an excommunication would certainly invite a headache.

The counterargument is that the Church’s law establishes a penalty in part to remedy scandal, and when scandal is operative, bishops are supposed to declare that penalty. The appearance of indifference to the simulation of a sacrament is potentially its own scandal, that argument goes. 

That seems to be the position of bishops who have declared the penalty of excommunication, including Springfield’s Bishop Thomas Paprocki.

Pope Francis, by incorporating the rule into the Church’s Code of Canon Law just this year, affirmed that view. 

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Still, while Rome has emphasized its position on the matter for more than a decade, very few American bishops seem to have heard the message, or at least understood their role in declaring a penalty.

Is that sort of thing an extraordinary crisis? Perhaps not. But Pope Francis warned this year that things like this are not entirely insignificant.

“In the past, great damage was done by a failure to appreciate the close relationship existing in the Church between the exercise of charity and recourse — where circumstances and justice so require — to disciplinary sanctions,” the pope reflected in June. 

“This manner of thinking — as we have learned from experience — risks leading to tolerating immoral conduct, for which mere exhortations or suggestions are insufficient remedies. This situation often brings with it the danger that over time such conduct may become entrenched, making correction more difficult and in many cases creating scandal and confusion among the faithful. For this reason, it becomes necessary for bishops and superiors to inflict penalties.” 

“Negligence on the part of a bishop in resorting to the penal system is a sign that he has failed to carry out his duties honestly and faithfully,” the pope warned.

The Vatican is not likely to push for Wester, or any other bishop, to declare a penalty in specific cases. After Saturday’s ceremony, some Catholics who read the headlines will ask why their bishops seem not to respond to a scandalous situation, but they’ll not likely get much traction. YouTube personalities will fulminate, dissenting periodicals will celebrate, and most people will pay little attention.

But will there be long-term, unseen consequences for the life of the Church? Have there been already? Pope Francis, at least, seems to think so.