Published by Religion Dispatches, December 6, 2012

With controversial issues, Catholic journalists must walk a fine line between not contradicting Church doctrine and raising issues that real people struggle with. But there is one issue that we cannot touch: women’s ordination.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, released by Pope John Paul II in 1994, declares not only that men can be priests, but also “that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” In other words, “discussion over.”

This context explains why so many have been surprised by National Catholic Reporter’s announcement that it endorses women’s ordination. It’s a bigger surprise, however, that it’s taken them this long to do so.

NCR is a unique publication. It’s part of the Church in the sense that its lay editors identify strongly as Catholic, but unlike diocesan newspapers or magazines published by orders of priests, it has no ordained leaders who have to answer back to their bishops or even the Vatican.

NCR, therefore, has followed women’s ordination closely, and many assumed it supported the cause. Its editorial comes after years of detailed coverage of the negotiations leading to the excommunication of Father Roy Bourgeois, a well-known peace activist who attended the illicit ordination of a woman in 2008.

The fact that NCR is just now endorsing women’s ordination speaks to just how strong the Church’s hold on the conversation is. So why now? One of NCR’s own bloggers asked what took the publication so long:

God love Roy. He’s a friend of mine. But he is not the first to be persecuted by the Church for this; the editorial points out the case of Sr. Carmel McEnroy, and Sr. Louise Lears also comes to mind. Bill Callahan is another case in point, though the excuse used for expelling him from the Jesuits was not as clear as in Roy’s case. And there have been countless others. But I’m left to wonder: Did the persecution of a man make a difference? OK, maybe not, but I’m just wondering.

It’s a valid point, NCR’s editor Dennis Coday told me, but it wasn’t about Father Roy. The decision to endorse women’s ordination started as a mundane editorial decision—editors knew their lead editorial would have to respond to Bourgeois’ excommunication. “Very, very quickly, we realized that the focus is not Roy,” Coday said. “Roy is just the latest… In the last two year, the number of people who have been silenced is incredible.”

With bishops, theologians, priests, and even “liberal” Catholic publications unable to discuss women’s ordination, the editors realized that they—the laity—were the only ones left to keep the conversation going.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops isn’t likely to respond to NCR’s announcement, a media representative said. As NCR’s local bishop, Bishop Robert Finn would be the one to respond, but even if he does, he has little moral authority, having been found guilty for failing to report child abuse suspicions. The bishops might not be threatened by the independent lay publication, but women’s ordination was one of many issues that got another group of laypeople to be excommunicated by their local bishop.

In this case, the bishops seem to have left the response to the conservative Catholic blogosphere, skilled at mobilizing its audience. Calling on NCR to remove “Catholic” from its name, however, is nothing new. Comments on the editorial, Coday said, started off overwhelmingly positive but have grown just slightly more mixed as it spreads to conservative corners of the internet. Those Catholics are no more surprised than I am.

The back and forth online may indicate a small victory for NCR. Though the bishops may have succeeded in ending the conversation elsewhere, this discussion is definitely not over.

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