PARTY CRASHERS AT THE GATE: Comedian Groucho Marx famously joked he would never belong to any club that would allow him as a member. It was such a great line that zillions of people have been stealing it since. But Bishop Patricia Fresen, speaking Monday night at Trinity Episcopal Church to a solid crowd of gray-haired Birkenstock Catholics (mercifully, without socks) — who never recovered from the brief window of hope, opened 50 years ago by Vatican II — sought to turn Groucho Marx’s dictum on its head. By that, Fresen is intent on crashing a party that’s repeatedly 86’d her.
Like a lot of people, Fresen believes women should be ordained as priests. But, unlike a lot of people, this ex-Dominican nun from South Africa actually got ordained. And like even fewer, she became a bishop and has since ordained countless women priests. For these heresies, Fresen got the boot from The Church. “It’s not as terrible as some people think,” she said. “I’ve been ex-communicated five times.” Short and stout, Fresen is a determined sprite who calls to mind former tennis great and civil-rights champ Billie Jean King. Probably it was just the über-wide 1978-vintage lapels she sports. Or maybe it’s that in pre-Mandela South Africa, she ran a Catholic school that admitted both black and white kids, violating the express laws of apartheid. In any case, she knows a thing or two about remaining dry while spitting into the winds of history.
Back when I was still taking direct orders from the Vatican about what movies I couldn’t watch, I’d have known Fresen was going straight to hell. Since then, things have changed. At least, sort of. The new pope, Francis, is so unpredictably delightful and charismatically open-hearted he makes the ever-giggling Dalai Lama look like a dour nihilist in dire need of pharmaceutical intervention. But even Francis has his limits. “That door is closed,” he famously intoned on the subject of women priests. This from a man who just declared if little green men from outer space landed on Earth — presumably from Mars — he’d happily baptize them. But where the ordination of women is concerned, God, it turns out, has a penis. Most Catholics are understandably uncomfortable discussing this fact in mixed company. Back in 1994, the Vatican sought to address this question — however delicately — by decreeing, “Women are not made in the full image of God as man was.” That, by the way, qualified as serious progress for the church. Not so long ago, the acclaimed Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas concluded women were “deformed males” and seriously questioned if they had souls or were, in fact, fully human.
Hey, you’ve come a long way, baby.
But rules are rules, and the Vatican would not be the longest-running centralized authoritarian regime in world history — dictating the moral boundary lines for no fewer than 1.2 billion people — without them. Still, it seems their application can be selective at times. When Pope Francis decided to elevate two famous former Popes — John XXIII and J2P2 — to the pantheon of saints, he fast-tracked the Vatican’s notoriously slow and deliberative canonization process. More than that, he flat-out waived the Vatican’s strict two-miracle requirement for Pope John XXIII. While I appreciate the shrewd political gesture involved — unifying the two warring factions within the church embodied by these two popes — Francis is dancing at the precipice of the proverbial slippery slope. If we can toss the two-miracle rule — however bogus the Vatican’s basis for documenting alleged miracles — when it suits our fancy, what else can we choose not to believe and get away with it?
Clearly, there’s the church dictum — issued by Pope Paul VI while wearing the cloak of infallibility — against birth control, which 98 percent of all Catholics openly ignore. (Turns out Paul VI is also being fast-tracked for sainthood.) What’s next? Allowing divorced Catholics to receive the sacraments? Married priests?
Most definitely, Fresen says. And after that, married priests. But I’m not holding my breath on the latter. Two weeks ago, the Vatican’s chief orthodoxy enforcer came down hard on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious — made up of high-ranking American nuns — condemning them as “radical feminists.” They ran afoul of the Vatican by seeking to honor a prominent theologian who got sideways with the enforcers for expressing a preference for “nonauthoritarian” images and references of the Almighty.
Fresen told a story about ordaining two women priests in St. Louis back in 2007. The proceedings took place in a reformed Jewish synagogue because Catholic facilities were strictly off-limits. The singing was sublime, the tears copious. All kinds of transcendent stuff was in the house. But so were spies dispatched by the archbishop at the time, Raymond Leo Burke, who photographed everyone who received communion. Burke tracked them down and demanded they repent or face excommunication. This is the same guy who opined that any Catholic who voted for any pro-choice candidate was committing a mortal sin, which carries a sentence of hell without possibility of parole. Shortly after lowering the boom on Fresen, Burke was promoted to the exalted rank of Cardinal. Today, Burke sits on the committee responsible for regulating the process by which the church produces priests. I don’t know for a fact whether hell actually exists, but I’m guessing it will be a very cold day down there before the Vatican allows any descendants of Eve — it was, after all, all her fault — to perform priestly duties.
Given the vast gulf between the church Fresen supports and the church that actually exists, I remain mystified why Fresen is so intent on crashing this particular party. Even so, I’m gratified. If and when Fresen makes a dent, it will become a vastly better party. And although it took about 500 years, the Vatican eventually admitted it was wrong about Galileo and acknowledged the Earth actually revolved around the sun. You see, miracles do happen. I’m just not sure which saint is responsible for that one.