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Consecration of a Woman Bishop… Nope!

I read in the news this morning that the consecration of a female Episcopal bishop (Susan Bunton Haynes) scheduled for February 1 at St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, VA was cancelled after a backlash from parishioners and a petition of 3,000 names from the faithful.

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Former auxiliary of Washington, Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout lamented the cancellation. Thanking the bishop for the offer, Haynes changed the venue to the Williamsburg Community Chapel.

Explaining himself, Bishop Knestout stated:

“In granting permission for this ordination to be held at St. Bede, we were welcoming, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council encouraged, those who have in common with us ‘the written Word of God, the life of grace, faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit’ (Decree on Ecumenism, 3). We were following the example of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, who enthusiastically engaged in ecumenical outreach and hospitality. We look forward to continuing our ecumenical dialogue with the Episcopal community and to working with Bishop-Elect Haynes in fortifying the long standing, cordial relationship between our communities and our joint service to the poor. As I assure Bishop-Elect Haynes of my prayers for her and the community she leads, I ask our Catholic faithful to pray for them, too, and to pray that the fruits of the Holy Spirit, along with humility, kindness, gentleness and joy be expressed and strengthened in all our faith communities.”

The bishop is a good man and a caring shepherd.  He means well.  While I would seriously question theological concurrence in this invitation with St. Pope John Paul II or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, most of us would likely agree that we should acknowledge a commonality with Protestants in regard to faith in Jesus, the Scriptures, the need for saving grace, the theological virtues, and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The problem, as I see it, is the missing middle-term that would allow the leap to a false ordination in a Catholic church. When we hit the wall regarding dialogue, the best of churchmen will note the need for charity and our partnership with Protestants in reaching out to the poor (the social gospel). This is well and good as we can even work with non-Christians for the poor and the oppressed. However, here too there is not total agreement as many liberal Protestant faith communities do not respect the right to life of the unborn (not to mention disparity on issues like contraception, divorce and remarriage, active homosexuality, etc.).

My first encounter with Protestants using Catholic facilities came in 1983. Not only was there a major coming together of various branches of Lutheranism, the Lutherans and Roman Catholics had apparently resolved a 500 year dispute on the matter of justification. Lutherans came to Washington from around the country. A church had to be found large enough for all the participants. It was decided that the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception would host the event. As a seminarian at Theological College, I was recruited with others to assist the many visitors. (I have to admit that I took a somewhat wicked delight in reminding Lutheran guests that it was the Holy Year of the Redemption. If properly disposed, pilgrims to the shrine would get a papal indulgence!  I could imagine Luther spinning in his grave.) I remember meeting the famous actor and singer David Soul there; his father was a Lutheran minister and he was very involved with the church in those days. The Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches planned to merge in 1987 (strangely enough, another Holy Year albeit specially called by the Pope).

I had reservations about the gathering and yet it seemed to me possibly expressive of a true ecumenism, i.e. the reassembling of Christendom with the hope (even if unspoken) of reconciliation with Rome. However, when it came to this Virginia happening— there was no real dialogue, no real agreement and no movement to true unity. Indeed, the planned event would celebrate feigned holy orders, a Eucharist bankrupt of the Lord’s presence, and the promotion of heresies: denominationalism and the ordination of women. True ecumenism was an effort to take perennial Catholic truths and practices and make them palpable for separated brethren so that they might come home to the Mother Church. It was not about watering down what we believe or surrendering or polluting the full meaning of the Church’s institution and her sacraments.

Authentic ecumenism would acknowledge human rights or liberties for those outside the Catholic Church; however, it would never falsely compromise the spiritual standing or sovereignty of Catholicism as the one true faith.  While the bishop defends the initial decision as “hospitality to a Christian neighbor in need,” I would argue that this was hospitality taken too far. It would be different if we were truly speaking about a situation of real need as when a church is destroyed by a natural disaster or vandalism and a congregation needs a place for weekly worship. While our focus as Catholics is always upon our Mass as a valid and true worship and sacrifice; all Christians are commanded by divine law to render worship the best they are able, especially on the Lord’s Day. I could see a Catholic church lending its hall for such assistance.  (However, there was no real emergency here. While smaller there were several local Episcopal parishes available.  Indeed a hall or hotel banquet room could have been rented.)  Further, an ordination speaks to the very institution of the Church. Given that we reject Anglican orders across the board and the ordination of women as even a possibility given the revelation we have from Christ and the solemn definition of St. Pope John Paul II, such an invitation posed an egregious mistake. The critics of the Decree on Ecumenism have warned that misreading or interpreting it as is done here can readily lead to religious relativism. Perhaps there is some substance to their critique that it lends itself to such misunderstandings? Catholicism is not simply another denomination alongside Episcopalianism; Catholicism is the true Church instituted by Christ while Anglicanism has forfeited much of its ecclesial identity with the break in apostolic succession. What does such a “hospitality” communicate to women dissenters in the Catholic Church who have been told that Holy Orders is closed to them and that merely attempting to get ordained will result in excommunication? Does it give them false hope? Is it a slap in their faces?

I would argue that here is a case in point where the laity (expressing a genuine “sensus fidelium”) have spoken and have made a difference with their prayers and arguments in opposition. If we are worried about clericalism or absolutism from bishops, then here is something of the needed corrective. Instead of castigation of the so-called “conservative” and “religious right” that have long sought solidarity with the Holy See and the perennial teachings of the faith, maybe the hierarchy should better listen to their concerns?  Those laity who are true “signs of contradiction” are witnesses for us all.  Yes, these voices from the laity may represent only the still faithful remnant.  Those voices that would tolerate sin and most every liberality speak instead for a fallen world.  They would compromise the Gospel of truth for a gospel of nice.  True faith going back to our Jewish roots has never exhibited a blind toleration, always opposing false worship and sin.  The shepherds of the Church, and this includes the Pope, are the servants of the Word and the truth, not the masters. Beyond this immediate news item, no leader of the Church, of any standing, can in principle urge sinful behavior or demand silence in the face of error.  The clergy and laity must walk together, acknowledging their differing roles but always respecting each other’s faith and the divine Spirit that sustains us in the truth and gives efficacy to the sacraments.

The question is also being raised that if a Catholic church can be used for the consecration of an Episcopalian woman bishop and that a false Mass might be permitted upon the altar then why are the SSPX not allowed to use our worship spaces for a real Catholic priest to offer a valid Mass and for far smaller numbers (desperate for a place to worship)?  Why does ecumenism swing only to the left?

2 Responses

  1. The Bishop made an error in judgment in my opinion. I was Episcopalian in my youth and the local Catholic parish allowed our “mission church” to worship in their worship facilities; this made a very positive impression on me about the Catholic Church – actually made it seem authentic and powerful. But, we had a real need, not just a sentimental want. The Episcopalian’s consecration in the Catholic cathedral is a sentimental want.

  2. Pope Benedict had the right formula with the Anglican Community.

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