Soon, many optimistic, not to say naïve, Catholics—and Protestants—may be shocked to learn that the kindly new Pope Francis has excommunicated an Australian priest for supporting women’s ordination. It turns out there are some pelvic issues it’s all right to be obsessed with after all.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, Rev. Gregory Reynolds, of Melbourne, was notified on September 18 that he had “incurred latae sententiae excommunication for throwing away the consecrated host or retaining it ‘for a sacrilegious purpose’” as well as for “speaking publicly against church teaching.” (Somebody in Reynolds’s small Eucharistic community had apparently given the host to a dog.) But a letter to the priests of the archdiocese clarified that Reynolds’s support of women’s ordination was a primary reason for his excommunication.
I am not among those shocked by this development. As enthusiastic commentary about the new pope flowed out from the media in recent weeks, I was reminded of a comment my husband used to make about the police in Philadelphia back when we lived there. Some poor kid would have shoplifted something and BAM! There’d be three police cars surrounding him. “These boys don’t play,” my hubby would say. Neither do popes and cardinals, no matter how benign they seem.
Other Catholic feminists—Mary Hunt in these pages—expressed wariness of the new pope even before Reynolds’s excommunication. It was not lost on us that even in the much-touted interview on the plane from Brazil, Pope Francis drew the line at women’s ordination. Indeed, the clear hierarchical distinction between genders underpinned by the refusal to ordain women has been the line in the sand since not long after the Roman persecution of the church. But since John Paul II’s 1994 statement declaring women’s ordination absolutely off-limits, it’s been a twofer: something the church “has always taught,” and an example of “papal infallibility.” Never mind that papal infallibility applies only to church doctrine; no pope is going to undercut his own authority.
Of course, the boys’ declaring women’s ordination the line in the sand is something just this side of a death wish for the church. Despite attempts to obscure the fact, the men now in seminaries can’t begin to replace the priests retiring and dying, or to reverse the church closings that necessarily follow. I have been arguing for forty years that women’s ordination is a fundamentally conservative issue; I cannot tell you how many Catholic women I know who would have been perfectly happy living their lives as grunt parish priests, baptizing and marrying and burying people. Instead, they’re picketing cathedrals, or writing articles for Religion Dispatches. But the Vatican forges on, with good Pope Francis in the lead.
Of course, Pope Francis’s position on women’s ordination doesn’t mean he won’t initiate other more moderate reforms in the Catholic church. Indeed, his position on this issue may well be an olive branch to the conservative wing of the church so as to be able to introduce other changes. Pope Bergoglio is a strategic centrist; in Argentina he proposed civil unions as a compromise between the right-wing bishops on one side and the Kirchner government’s efforts to legalize gay marriage on the other.
Then again, describing Pope Francis as a “strategic centrist” may credit him and the rest of the institutional church with more coherence than is warranted. This article initially closed with speculation that Pope Francis’s origins in a machismo culture played some role in his excommunication of Rev. Reynolds. Shortly after publication an article by Phyllis Zagano appeared in my inbox. Francis had apparently spoken negatively about machismo in the original Italian version of his famous interview published last week by fourteen Jesuit journals.
But somehow, the English version published in the Jesuits’ America magazine here in the U.S. omitted the statement. Since then, America has apologized. Maybe the pope sucker punched us by excommunicating Father Reynolds. Maybe he knew nothing about it. Maybe we’ll get a kiss tomorrow. Never a dull moment.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated.