By Joan Oleck
Sunday, June 29, 2003
As the Catholic Church struggles with its sex-abuse scandal, German theologian Ida Raming--who received what authorities called an illicit ordination last year--calls her excommunication fraudulent and presses the cause of women in the priesthood.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--On a recent spring evening, a gray-haired, sturdy looking woman with a no-nonsense haircut and sensible shoes performed long-forbidden rites in a candlelit gazebo.
In a park adjacent to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, the woman read from Gospel texts during a liturgical mass and performed the communion rite of transubstantiation, during which adherents to Catholicism believe that wafers and wine are "transformed" into the blood and body of Christ. She had just finished speaking to an audience of about 150 about her campaign for women's ordination and her own struggles toward that goal. The mass that followed attracted about 50 participants
The woman was German theologian Ida Raming. A year ago--on June 29,
2002--Raming was one of seven women ordained as Roman Catholic priests by Argentine Romulo Braschi, a former Roman Catholic priest who himself had been ordained a bishop of the church and then left to form an alternative church. The ceremony Braschi performed took place aboard a boat moored on the Danube River between Germany and Austria. The move--bluntly calculated to challenge Rome's baptized-males-only rule for priests--caused the expected sensation.
The Munich archdiocese promptly pronounced Braschi as a head of an underground church and a charlatan and the women's ordination illicit. As for the women, the archdiocese excommunicated them: They were forever banned from participating in the church's sacred rites, including Confession and Last Rites, during which adherents believe sins are forgiven.
Yet, far from retreating, Raming proclaimed the excommunications a fraud. And she has since been pressing the challenge in speaking engagements in Germany and Austria. This past spring, she visited New York as part of a U.S. tour that also went to Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Boston and ten other cities. Women's Ordination Conference of Fairfax, Va., cosponsored the tour with Catholics Speak Out, a project of the Quixote Project in Hyattsville, Md., which works for racial and gender equality in the Church and in society.
Every step of her way, Raming has said that women who feel called to the priesthood should come forward. To defend that heretical stance, Raming, a Biblical scholar, has turned with confidence to the Scriptures.
"All baptized in Christ . . . and there are no distinctions . . ." she quoted from the New Testament's Book of Galatians, while speaking at a New York press conference. "In Christ there is no 'male' and 'female,'" Raming said forcefully. The Catholic Church cannot say that "in heaven we know there is equality" but discrimination "must be done" here on earth. "We have the Lord's Prayer," Raming continued, and "that says 'your will shall be done on earth and in heaven.'"
Significantly, the German activist conducted her mass outside the walls of Union Theological Seminary after a student group objected that to do otherwise might stir the wrath of the Archdiocese of New York. That's important because the archdiocese provides internships to graduates seeking work in the Catholic Church. (The archdiocese's spokesperson said that Cardinal Edward Egan follows Rome's lead on the woman's ordination issue.)
During Raming's tour, the church's higher-profile controversy over the sexual abuse of children lingered in the background. Asked by Women's eNews to compare the two issues, Raming, whose first language is German, was blunt about one distinction in particular: The alleged child abusers had not been excommunicated, she said
In her own case, Raming said it took the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--the enforcement arm of the Vatican with institutional roots in the Inquisition--just 23 days to inform the women that they had been excommunicated. Such alacrity hurt, Raming acknowledged at a press conference at the Church Center for the United Nations in early May. "We had expected there would be something," she said, "but so quickly and so hard, so severe, we did not know. So it was a shock." She added that she and her followers did not accept that the excommunication decree was coming from God, or the whole Catholic community, because many Catholics "approve our decision and they are approving women's ordination, as well."
There is indeed support, as Raming's sponsorship by the Women's Ordination Conference makes clear. The group, which works for the equality of women and men in the church's priestly ministry, claims a paid membership of 3,000 and oversees offshoot groups such as the Young Feminist Network, also based in Virginia, for young Catholic women. Erin Hanley, a former spokesperson for Women's Ordination Conference, said that another offshoot called Rapport, which carefully guards its privacy, consists of 30 women waiting in the wings for ordination. Other women are also hoping for ordination, by Roman Catholic authorities or by alternative Catholic groups. One group, Spiritus Christi, in Rochester, N.Y., follows more inclusive practices and has ordained several women.
Raming and others began petitioning the Vatican to consider women for the priesthood as early as Vatican II, which in 1963 approved the use of modern-day languages in place of Latin, allowed more lay participation, and--some say ironically--announced the "eradication of discrimination" in the Church.
In 1976, Raming published a groundbreaking study, since translated to English, which examined the roots of Canon law 1024. This was the 1917 church law excluding women from the priesthood. Raming has traced its origins to old sources. One example comes from Medieval literature. She has documented, for instance, a bizarre 12th century incident that involved a then-canon authority named Balsamon. Raming discovered that he blamed the disbanding of an office of deaconesses at the time on an apparent official aversion to having menstruating women presiding over church ritual. "The defilement of the ministry by those menstruating expelled them from the divine and holy altar," Balsamon wrote.
Raming has also found precedent for women serving not only as deaconesses and teachers, but also as prophets. According to readings by her and other feminists of the New Testament, the disciple Paul in his Letter to the Romans bid his audience to "greet Junia who is great among the apostles." According to this same textual analysis, Paul also asked Roman consideration for "Phoebe the deacon, who has worked hard in the Lord."
At the same time, however, Paul would not let women speak in church, according to an oft-quoted Biblical reference from Timothy. The reasons for that are debated in feminist circles. The main point, however, according to Elizabeth Johnson, a professor of theology at Catholic-run Fordham University in New York, may be that female Church leaders existed at all. Johnson, who shared the podium with Raming at an event held at that campus, said her theology students frequently complain that they never heard about these women.
"How come?" Johnson asked rhetorically, during an interview. "Because men did the studies, or chose conveniently not to mention them and suppressed their names."
Joan Oleck is a freelance writer in New York.
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