Adding to his string of interdictions, suppressions, canonical admonitions and excommunications, St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke on March 14 issued an ominous written "Declaration of Excommunication" [PDF] against two St. Louis women who dared to join the arbitrarily all male, hopelessly depleting ranks of the Roman Catholic priesthood.
Ordained last November at the Central Reform Synagogue in St. Louis, these are the unlikely faces of the new schismatics. Elsie McGrath is a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, with an MA in theology and 30 years of devotion to Catholic lay ministry. Rose Marie Hudson is a mother and grandmother, too, with a masters in pastoral studies from Loyola University and 12 years in prison ministry. They are part of the growing and exuberant Roman Catholic women priests' movement, which carries forward the tradition of women deacons, priests and bishops that dates back to the ancient Church.
But Archbishops Burke didn't stop there. He also excommunicated the leader of the women priests' movement, Bishop Patricia Fresen, who ordained the two. She is a former Dominican nun who lost everything--her religious community of 45 years, her home, her job and her country, South Africa--to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest, and then, a bishop. (Fresen's episcopal ordination was conferred by a Roman Catholic bishop in good standing, whose identify she and the other women have agreed to protect.)
Fresen lived much of her life in South Africa, where she fought for decades with her religious community to defeat apartheid. In fact, she integrated the elementary school she ran long before it was legal, for which she was one day dragged away in handcuffs and thrown in jail. The community lost all of the state money that supported their school, sold a building for cash, and kept the school opened, defying the law until the law changed.
Fresen views the Catholic Church's canon 1024, which forbids women priests, as a similarly unjust law. She advocates a strategy of respectful revolt. So do all of the Roman Catholic women priests.
Many of these new priests have gone on to public ministry, reaching out to Catholics hungry for an inclusive Church. According to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, there are ample pickings. Catholicism is the U.S. denomination that has experienced the greatest net loss of members; roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics.
McGrath and Hudson co-pastor their own parish and have no worries about being excommunicated. "It won't get in the way," McGrath told me. "It will probably boost our numbers."
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