What I am is what I am -- Womenpriests and The Age

A story this week in The Age, Melbourne's major daily newspaper, leaves me puzzled. I am not sure what the paper's religion editor, Barney Zwartz is doing in his article "Ex-nun a cardinal sinner in the mind of the church". Read at one level, it c0uld be a silly puff piece. Yet there are hints the story could have a deeper meaning--wheels within wheels--where The Age's editorial voice is heard by its allowing the subject to impeach herself.

It also raises the philosophical question for journalists: to what extent may a person identify themselves? What shapes reality? The social construction given by the subject of a story, or an outside arbiter--an eternal truth, natural law, the AP style book?

Take a look at The Age story. Is it a puff piece, or absurdist fable? "We report, you decide" as Fox likes to say.

The subject is the visit to Australia of one of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group that defines itself as an:

international movement .. [whose purpose is] .. to primarily spiritually prepare, ordain, and support women from all states of life, who are theologically qualified, who are committed to an inclusive model of Church, and who are called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to minister within the Roman Catholic Church.

The gist of the article is that one of its leaders, Bishop Patricia Fresen, is visiting Australia to build support for the organization in hopes of expansion down under.

The article begins with a flourish:

Patricia Fresen prefers being quietly subversive to openly confrontational, but the 70-year-old former Dominican nun is like a purple rag to a bull to the Vatican.

She says she is a Catholic woman bishop, properly ordained by a male bishop in the sacrament passed down by laying on hands from the first apostles. The official church says that by that act she ceased to be a Catholic and it has excommunicated her (banned her from the church).

Bishop Fresen - now a bishop in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests church - rejects the excommunication.

Cute. I confess I had to think for a moment before I got the color joke, (e.g., substituting purple, the color associated with a bishop, for red), but the meaning is clear, Bishop Fresen is an irritant to the Roman Catholic Church.

The language in the second sentence however begins to cloud the issues. Bishop Fresen says she is a "Catholic woman bishop"--the word "Roman" being conspicuous by its absence--while the "official church", which one presumes is the Roman Catholic Church due to the reference to the "Vatican" in the first sentence, says 'no she's not' and has excommunicated her. The bishop responds by saying she rejects this rejection and the author's voice identifies the former Dominican nun as "now" being a bishop in the Roman Catholic Womenpriests church--note here we have the first use of the "Roman" descriptor.

Follow me so far? Former nun c0nsecrated a bishop for a dissident group/sect rejects her excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church for having participated in the consecration service.

The article continues with the information that Bishop Fresen is South African by birth, and thus may cloak herself in the mantle of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Stirring justice quotes inserted here: "An unjust law must not be obeyed but broken.''

The bishop also adds that she is not alone in being a rebel, gathering those who use birth control, the divorced and remarried, and sexually active gays into her camp as fellow excommunicates from the Roman Catholic family.

A historical note is offered, as is a word about the church's present size and the sort of people it has attracted:

[History] Roman Catholic WomenPriests was launched in 2002 when an anonymous Catholic bishop ordained seven women secretly on a boat on the Danube. Bishop Fresen was ordained a priest in 2003, a bishop in 2005 and excommunicated in 2007. .. [Numbers] Now the group has nearly 200 women priests in North America and Europe, .. [Members] "Nearly all are people on the fringes of the church, who want to be Catholic but are very critical of some aspects. They are forming churches with much more communitarian structures, much more accountability on the part of the leaders."

The article closes with Bishop Fresen's belief the Petrine system is on its last legs.

"Benedict, a German Pope, is very unpopular in Germany. He's become a figure of fun. I think he's bringing the papacy to a quick end, and I don't think there will be many more popes elected this way," she says.

The authoritarian structure based on the Pope and Vatican bureaucracy is collapsing, she says, and soon the Bishop of Rome will be just another Italian bishop. But the church will survive, and she will be a part. ''I am still a Roman Catholic, very much on the edges. They don't want me, but I'm not going. As [theologian] Hans Kung says, 'Less Pope, more Jesus.' "

That's the story. Read on one level, it comes across a being more of a press release on behalf of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement than a news story. Bishop Fresen speaks, but no voice from the "official" Roman Catholic Church is heard to give these claims context.

Why can women not be priests in the Roman Catholic Church? What does it mean to be excommunicated? Is the bishop an irritant to the Roman Catholic Church, or is she even on its radar? No answers here to these questions.

The statement that a Catholic bishop consecrated the first Womenpriests needs to be expanded. Yes, a Catholic bishop did consecrate seven women priests on Aug 5, 2002 at a ceremony held on a Danube steamer. The catholic bishop in question, Rómulo Antonio Braschi, is a bishop of the Charismatic Catholic Church of Christ the King in Argentina.

All Roman Catholics are Catholics but not all Catholics are Roman Catholics. Old Catholics, Anglo-Catholics, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and host of other groups lay claim to the moniker 'catholic'. You can even listen to Dr. J. Vernon McGee, the noted Presbyterian preacher and popular radio Bible teacher, preach on this point in his sermon: "You are a Catholic priest".

A superficial reading shows it to be an incomplete, rather one-sided mess. But could there not be more to it than this? Perhaps The Age is giving the bishop a pulpit and thereby allowing her to impeach herself. No contradictory voice is needed because the subject's views are so extraordinary.

Support for this view could be derived from the structure of the article. In the closing paragraphs Bishop Fresen makes her strongest statement about Benedict being a "figure of fun" and the imminent collapse of the Petrine system that will leave the pope as "just another Italian bishop."

This is great stuff for a reporter, yet it is buried in the closing paragraphs. The Age starts out with who she is and ends with what she believes, when what she believes is more newsworthy. Could it be the story is setting is subject up for a fall by closing in this manner? Or is The Age content to let Bishop Fresen craft her own identity?

As thinkers from John Locke to Margaret Mead and today’s many “social constructionists” like to say, people are simply whatever they are conditioned to be. Bishop Fresen believes the church's construct of gender being determinative as to ordination violates the deeper meaning of Scripture.

The Roman Catholic Church takes the opposite view, believing it is not possible for women to be priests because Christ himself chose no women to serve among the Apostles. It lacks the authority to contravene Christ’s example. Its precise position is that articulated by John Paul II in 1992: "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women."

How then should a journalist approach these competing claims? "I am what I say I am" vs. "You are what you are."

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