What Is A Priest?

There seems to be some confusion on this point in my comboxes. One online dictionary offers a definition:

1. In many Christian churches, a member of the second grade of clergy ranking below a bishop but above a deacon and having authority to administer the sacraments.

2. A person having the authority to perform and administer religious rites.

To my assertion they were ordained in a religious ceremony, frequent commentator John writes:

Nonsense. Of what “church” are they “priests”? They would say they are Catholic priests, wouldn’t they? They remain laywomen.

First, one doesn’t require a “church” to be a priest. The Old Testament priesthood was not designated for “church” worship, but for the Temple. Other non-Christian religions ordain priests that cover definition #2 above: people who have the authority to perform and administer religious rites.

Second, they might say they are Catholic priests. They might be, if their ordaining bishop is recognized by any of the fringe Catholic traditions. But none of those traditions is in union with Rome. So indeed, the Church would recognize them as Roman Catholic laywomen to the extent they would still see them as members. I leave it to any canonists in the audience to comment on the status of their membership in Roman Catholicism.

My take is that they have clearly left Roman Catholicism behind. They might call themselves “Roman Catholic priests,” but I think that would be as much of an inaccuracy as calling them “laywomen.”

If it makes some conservative Catholics feel better to call them “old, ugly, pretending lay women,” I’d say the locus of scandal has switched. Not to mention some folks have need of new hobbies.

Now, if John or anyone else wants to request a definition of a “Roman Catholic priest,” I’d be happy to oblige. But nobody has.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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16 Responses to What Is A Priest?

  1. John Heavrin says:

    I would never call these women old or ugly, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere many times. Even if they are young and beautiful, they are not Catholic priests, which is what they are attempting to portray themselves as. After all, that is the controversy. To say that they are priests, just not Catholic priests, well, that strikes me as another of your frequent forays into pedantry, Todd.

    It’s a free country. These women, or any women, of any age or appearance, are free to call themselves “priests” if they like, or giraffes if they like. But these women are claiming to be Catholic priests, which is a lie, and which requires a response. If they were claiming to be not Catholic priests, but simply “priests,” then I doubt Burke would waste two seconds on the sad affair. Does he issue excommunication orders whenever a Lutheran or Episcopalian ordination takes place? Come on, Todd.

    And it doesn’t matter in this case who the “ordaining” bishop is. He might be valid to his fingertips, but if the ordinand is not a baptized Roman Catholic male, no ordination has taken place. The action is not only illicit, but invalid. There is no controversy on that score. The problem is that the faithful could be misled and their souls imperiled by this behavior, and Burke has an obligation to respond.

  2. Liam says:

    I see zero point for Catholics to refer to them as priests in an unqualified fashion, since their goal is with respect to Roman Catholicism (they did not choose to be ordained by a specific congregation, or by a Methodist or Lutheran bishop, et cet.) Putative/erstwhile priests at best, without being polemical about it.

  3. talmida says:

    From what I’ve gathered (clicking back on the various links), they belong to a group called Roman Catholic WomenPriests. According to their website,

    “The group “RC Womenpriests” receives its authority from Roman Catholic bishops who stand in full Apostolic Succession. These bishops bestowed sacramentally valid ordinations on the women listed above. All the documents pertaining to these ordinations have been attested and notarized. All minutes of the ordinations, including data about persons, Apostolic Succession, and rituals, together with films and photos are deposited with a Notary Public.”

    Now that’s interesting.

  4. Liam says:

    So they don’t call themselves priests but womenpriests. That seems to eliminate the need to refer to them as priests.

  5. John Heavrin says:

    The matter of Orders is a baptized Roman Catholic male. In this case therefore, the valid matter for the Sacrament was not present, therefore there was no “sacramentally valid ordination.” It’s not just about valid Apostolic Succession on the part of the ordaining bishop, who, by the way, by virtue of his participation in this event, is also thereby excommunicated (if he wasn’t already, which is likely).

    God only knows what “documents” they have in their possession, but basic lack of valid matter can’t be gotten around.

  6. Todd says:

    “The matter of Orders is a baptized Roman Catholic male.”

    Eastern Catholics would frown at this view. The authentic Orthodox wouldn’t be too pleased either. While in schism, Rome has acknowledged the sacramental validity of Eastern orders.

    You’ll find that among the Old Catholics, and other splinter Catholic groups, the matter of valid apostolic succession tends to be fussed over greatly.

    I really don’t get the reticence of either calling someone what they say they are, or declining to call them anything at all. There are ordained priests outside of Catholicism. Some have valid orders. Many don’t. For Roman Catholics in union with Rome, it doesn’t matter; we celebrate the sacraments with validly ordained priests. It’s not hard for travelling Catholics or Catholics new in town to uncover the parish in the neighborhood and make sure they’re not stumbling over a fringe Catholic comunity. But that’s a whole other issue.

  7. John Heavrin says:

    Todd, read the quote posted by Talmida. These women are declaring themselves to be Catholic priests. They are manifestly not, therefore they are liars and a clear and present danger to souls.

    Do you actually deny this?

  8. John Heavrin says:

    “There are ordained priests outside of Catholicism. Some have valid orders. Many don’t.”

    Any females among this group?

  9. John Heavrin says:

    Actually, Todd, I did get canon 1024 wrong. Here it is:

    “A baptized male alone receives sacred ordination validly.”

    So it’s not just that this event was illicit, but that it was invalid. That is, nothing happened. It was a masquerade.

    I feel sympathy for these women, as I feel for anyone who suffers a great disappointment. For the reaction they’ve chosen, in their disappointment, I feel pity. No contempt, no rage. However, it is necessary for Burke to make clear that they are not priests, because, as your stance indicates, many people are willing to consider people to be what they claim to be, even when they are not. Sometimes it makes no real difference if we all agree to pretend. But in a case like this, if makes a great difference.

  10. Todd says:

    John, a lot of people identify themselves in a deceptive way. Caveat emptor, I suppose, for all the rest of us. Conservative schismatics would have us believe they’re right on everything from sedevacantism to that they’ve never been declared in schism.

    I would no sooner go to a SSPX Mass than I would attend a liturgy presided over by a woman priest who presents herself as Catholic. Those who have been Catholic, but who break away always get treated with deeper resentment than those who have never been in union with Rome.

    Strictly speaking, there are Catholics who are not in union with Rome. And while their public self-identification may confuse some, it is accurate to say they present a sacramental system which is both illicit and sometimes invalid in the eyes of a Roman Catholic.

    To be honest, I have not read many of the news reports on these new ordinands. I’ve never frequented any womanpriest web page, so I have no direct experience of what they call themselves. The point of my original post and comments was to address what other people were calling them.

    One one level, these women are ordained in the same sense of Episcopal women priests. I don’t go to Episcopal liturgies as a regular churchgoer, so the issue of my recognition of their Roman sacramentality is irrelevant. They don’t care what I have to say on the subject.

    But a person can conduct religious ceremonies, even those close in appearance to Roman Catholics–but not be–and still be called a priest, if that’s how they identify themselves.

  11. John Heavrin says:

    Todd, if you don’t think these women think of themselves as full-fledged Roman Catholic priests, and are trying to pass themselves off as such to the world, I don’t know what to say. If they were making it clear that they don’t think of themselves as Roman Catholic priests — as exactly that which Archbishop Burke rightly makes clear they are not — there wouldn’t be a problem. It’s a free country, and there are people out there who refer to themselves as priests, bishops, even popes. Who cares? If they claim validity, it can’t just be shrugged off. Of course they will continue to go their merry, or perhaps grim, way. Burke has unavoidable duties in the matter. That’s all this is really about. I’ve certainly said my peace and then some; apologies for all the hot air.

  12. Jimmy Mac says:

    In the not-too-distant future (in Roman Church time, of course) there will be a pronouncement to this effect ….

    “As the Church has always taught ….” and these kinds of ordinations will be made licit.

    Sooner or later, wisdom will prevail and the value of the Eucharist over a no-longer satisfactory church discipline will win out.

  13. Of course, the East has a slightly different take on matters.

    We would say that a deacon is the icon of Christ the servant. A priest is the icon of Christ the sacrificer and sacrificed. And a bishop is the icon of Christ the teacher.

    In all of these orders, the important thing is not the label, but the iconification, and the grace of Christ which makes it possible.

    If a woman should say that she has been made into an icon of Christ the sacrifice, or Christ the Teacher, I should look, not simply to what she says, but what she does, or what Christ has done in her. As I recall, St. Teresa of Avila said that through Christ’s grace, she had become priest and princess and prophetess. As a Doctor of the Church, she has spoken truly for both East and West, in that through the mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist, we are all of us, male and female, priest and prince and prophet.

    But if such a one were to say that she was an ordained priest or bishop, I would have to say, with both the Church of East and West, that she has taken upon herself more than that Church has granted. And she has departed from what that Church teaches and does. She has excommunicated herself from that Church. And that is far more a thing of sorrow than of scandal.

  14. Tony says:

    Todd, I have been listening to the back and forth between you and John, and I was reminded of the old Abbot and Costello skit “Who’s on First?”

    You seem to want to use this issue to beat “conservatives” over the head with, drawing on their most uncharitable members and seeming to attempt to tar John with the same brush. I think this is unfair.

    Now were these women claiming to be Orthodox priests, or Episcopal priests or even “fringe Catholic schismatic” priests, I wouldn’t have a quarrel with them.

    You mentioned “caveat emptor”. We have bishops whose job is to watch out for their flock so that their charges don’t have to caveat. This is precisely what the bishop in this case is doing. He’s issuing a public pronouncement on these poncho ladies’ membership in the Roman Catholic Church (which is what we were disucssing and the whole point of the argument).

    A woman is invalid matter for Holy Orders in the Roman Catholic Church. And much like the little girl who was given a rice-cake for first communion, sometimes the bishop needs to step in and clarify what the Roman Catholic Church teaches.

    You and I and John know that if our priest has a vagina, her sacraments are not valid. But others may not understand that. They may have been led astray by the ordinary ministers of the media, and the National Catholic Reporter.

    Souls are in danger, including those of the poncho ladies in question. They don’t need to be ridiculed based on their age or appearance. But they need to be told that after the age of reason, “playing priest” isn’t cute anymore.

  15. Todd says:

    “But others may not understand that. They may have been led astray by the ordinary ministers of the media, and the National Catholic Reporter.”

    Doubtful. Conservatives take the high road with lay awareness on changing the words to the Mass, something with a wide range of judgment, but not on women’s ordination, something which the Church has always taught against?

    I think y’all, including Bishop Trautman, have to come up with something better that the poor, poor ignorant laity schtick.

  16. Tony says:

    “Doubtful. Conservatives take the high road with lay awareness on changing the words to the Mass, something with a wide range of judgment, but not on women’s ordination, something which the Church has always taught against?”

    When you say “the Church has always taught against”, we get from the National Catholic Reporter:

    All this proves conclusively that women as much as men were admitted to the sacrament of holy orders. The Council of Trent defined that holy orders are imparted through the imposition of hands with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, and that the diaconate is the first level of the sacrament. But how can we be sure that men and women were ordained in the same way?

    As with most of the National Catholic Reporter stuff, this is a “Screwtape moment”. I guess I’m not too concerned with laity who can discern good theology from bad, but the Kool Aid drinkers who subscribe to this particular rag (and those they influence) need to be corrected by the unambiguous words of someone with a mitre, shepherd’s crook and Apostolic succession.

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