|July 29, 1974: The Ordination of|
the Philadelphia 11
I was listening to the radio the other day as I was driving and came across Maureen Fiedler’s Interfaith Voices, a program that I always enjoy. Dr. Fiedler (aka Sister Maureen Fiedler IBVM) had a special program commemorating “The Philadelphia 11.” Forty years ago today, July 29th 1974, eleven women deacons in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA presented themselves to Bishops Daniel N. Corrigan, Robert L. DeWitt, and Edward R. Welles and were ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. The eleven women—the first women priests in the Episcopal Church (though not in the Anglican Communion) were the Reverends Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campell (don’t Episcopalians have wonderful names?), Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield. Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig. Katrina Swanson is the daughter of the late Bishop Welles, one of the ordaining bishops.
There was nothing in the canon law of the Episcopal Church to prevent the ordination of women as priests, but the General Convention of the Church in 1970 and again in 1973 failed to approve motions authorizing such ordinations. Surprisingly it was not the House of Bishops that had objected, but the House of Delegates comprised of lay and lower clergy representatives. In search of good pastures, shepherds are often ready to move faster and further than their flocks whose vision is limited by their narrow experience—a reason why we often call those who cannot (or will not) think critically “sheep.” There was a day in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States when we had Shepherds like Richard Cushing, John McNicholas OP, Frank Haas, James Gibbons, John Dearden, Albert Meyer, Paul Hallinan, Bernard Topel, Bernard Sheil, to name a few. (To be honest, I can’t think of many more.) Heck, our first Bishop, Archbishop John Carroll, was even pushing for Mass and the Sacraments in English almost two hundred years before the Church finally came ‘round. But back to the Episcopalians.
Confronted with the fact that there were now eleven women on whom hands hand been laid and the Holy Spirit invoked, the Bishops of the Episcopal Church had to devise a protocol to confront the new situation. At first they were inclined to declare the ordinations invalid in as that the (Protestant Episcopal) Church had not called these deacons to ordination. The sacrament of Orders is not some arbitrary thing that a bishop can do at will. At least in the Reformed Theology—and in fact, (though more in theory than in practice) in Roman Catholic theology—it is the Church that calls the candidate to the ministry and the Bishop is acting not on his own behalf, but as the head of a Church that has called the candidate. In the ordination service—the Roman Catholic Ordination Rite as well as most other ceremonials—the assent of the gathered faithful is asked for by the ordaining bishop. Given that there had been no such call, save from the assembled congregation that morning in Philadelphia, and given that the (Protestant Episcopal) Church had in fact refused to call women to the priesthood, and complicated by the fact that each of the three ordaining bishops were not the head of any (local) Church in whose name they could be acting, but all retired, foes of the ordination of women claimed that the ordinations were invalid. But then Bishop Arthur Vogel, considered to be the best theologian among the Episcopal Bishops (a group not known in general for intellectual prowess), got up and presented a counter-argument: the women had been ordained by duly consecrated bishops and according to the official rites of the Church. The ordinations were therefor valid. The whole matter was replete with irony. Bishop Vogel was a somewhat extreme High Churchman, not one who would be expected to argue for the ordination of women. His argument, befitting a prelate educated at Nashotah House (a seminary that would cause the SSPX astonished confusion for its Tridentine Anglicanism) was pure Catholic Theology. You have a valid minister; you have a valid rite; you must presume valid intention unless there is clear intention otherwise. (As there was nothing in the canon law of the Protestant Episcopal Church) preventing the ordination of women, you also had a valid candidate.) In the end the ordinations were ruled valid but the women were asked not to exercise priestly ministry until such time as the General Convention recognized women’s ordination which they did in 1976—a significant year for several reasons.
The Catholic situation is somewhat different. First, we have no women deacons. There is a strong movement to ordain women as deacons—there were deaconesses for the first six centuries or so of the Church—and their duties corresponded to the duties of the male deacons though their ministry was directed towards women and the needs of women. There are two reasons why we do not ordain women to the diaconate. It would shake the growing rapport with the Orthodox Churches of the East (Greek, Russian, Syrian) as well as the other ancient Churches (Copts, Assyrians, Armenians), none of whom yet ordain women. (Though the subject of admitting women to the diaconate is coming up for discussion in some of the Orthodox Churches.) The second reason—perhaps a bit more “on the ground” as it were, is that the diaconate is the firewall to insuring we don’t ordain women to the priesthood. As the Episcopalians discovered that July day forty years ago: if they are already deacons, get a bishop to go along and they can move quickly and surreptitiously into the priesthood before you can stop it.
The Catholic situation is somewhat different also in as that Catholic Church Law specifically declares that a valid candidate for ordination must be male. There is therefore, under the current law, no way that the “Church” can call a woman to ordination. It simply would not be valid even with a validly ordained bishop following the prescribed rites. So when we hear that several women were “ordained” on a boat on the Rhine River or in someone’s back yard in Maine, the only “Church” that called them is the community gathered at that time and in that place. Unlike the typical ordination service in which the assembled congregation is representative of the larger Church, such assemblies are not representative of the Catholic Church. The women ordained may be priests, but they are not Catholic priests. The Catholic Church has not called them to priesthood.
A tricky situation would be if a Bishop who was Ordinary of Local Church (in other words, a Bishop who heads a diocese) ordained a woman; that Bishop has a right to act on behalf of and in the name of the Church which he heads. But for him to ordain a woman would take him—and his Church—out of the Roman Communion. So again, perhaps the newly ordained would be a priest—but not a Catholic Priest.
There is the case of Ludmila Javorová, a Czech woman who claims to have been secretly ordained to the priesthood in December of 1970 by Bishop Felix Maria Davídek. Davídek himself had been secretly consecrated Bishop in 1967 during the period of Communist persecution of the Church in Czechoslovakia. Allegedly Bishop Davídek secretly ordained a number of women as they would not be suspected of being priests and would thus have more mobility during what was one of the most virulent persecutions of the Church in the 20th century. Javorová’s disclosure that she had been ordained triggered Pope Saint John Paul II to write his 1994 Apostolic Letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in which he teaches that it is by Divine Law, not human law, that the priesthood is given only to men and that therefore this law is immutable and that consequently the ordination of a woman is ipso facto invalid because the candidate is inherently ineligible. Sounds pretty final doesn’t it?
There is still some argument about the theological soundness of the Pope’s Letter and there is still some (though not as much perhaps as twenty years ago) clamor among Catholics in the developed World for the ordination of women. Now let me make it very clear. I am not disagreeing with the teachings of Pope John Paul or of the Church itself. I am not writing theologically. I am not equipped to do so. I am writing as a historian and only in that capacity. And as a historian I know that I will not see the ordination of women even if I live another generation. (Of course, there was a day when I was told that I would never see Mass in English, but that is beside the point.) No one reading this post is ever going to see the ordination of women in the Catholic Church. Neither—probably—will your children. But the trajectory of history makes the ordination of women in the Catholic Church inevitable. I know, Pope Saint John Paul said that it can’t—by Divine Law—happen. I know, I know. Pope Boniface VIII said that no one who was not subject to the Roman Pontiff could be saved. Pope Pius XI condemned the Ecumenical Movement. Pope Pius IX said that it was theologically erroneous (and most seriously so) to believe or teach that : The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization. “Things change, Kundun!” I am not advocating change but two centuries down the line Catholics will look at the arguments about the ordination of women and wonder “what were they thinking with all the problems of the 20th century and they were arguing over that?” A millennium down the line and the arguments will be as obtuse as the arguments over Homooúsios or Homoiousia though of infinite less consequence then or now. So happy anniversary to the Philadelphia 11. We’d jump in the pool with you to celebrate but seem to have forgotten our bathing suit. And since there are now ladies in the pool, skinny dipping is not an option. Well, it may be for you Episcopalians, but we Roman Catholics are still a bit priggish, aren’t we?