In a decree intended to close loopholes in canon law, the Vatican has said that any attempt to ordain a woman will bring automatic excommunications that can be lifted only by Rome.
It is aimed at a number of rituals worldwide, including one in Pittsburgh in 2006, that claim to have ordained women as Catholic priests. Experts say that because canon law is designed to be flexible and to favor the accused, and because no law previously dealt explicitly with penalties for attempting to ordain a woman, this decree is intended to eliminate all wiggle room.
It was signed by Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
"Remaining firm on what has been established by ... canon law, both the one who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman, and the woman who has attempted to receive the said sacrament, incur latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See," it said.
It called the decree "absolute and universal."
Previously, church leaders had cobbled together responses to claims of women's ordination based on other laws on misuse of sacraments, said the Rev. Joseph Fox, professor of canon law at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. Some of those required automatic excommunication, while others, including one of the most applicable ones, did not, he said.
"This is a law that didn't exist before," he said.
But it won't apply to cases that happened before it was published, he said.
The Catholic Church teaches that only males can be ordained because Jesus chose only male apostles. Advocates for women's ordination cite a reference to a female apostle named Junia in the New Testament.
The decree "is nothing new theologically. It's simply dotting the i's and crossing the t's to make it clear that these people are excommunicated," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
It is aimed at a growing number of such ordinations worldwide, including the one in Pittsburgh, Father Reese said. In most of those cases, the person who conducts the ordination claims to have been ordained by a legitimate Catholic bishop, who they often refuse to identify. The Vatican has said that makes no difference because the ordination is schismatic.
Joan Houk, the McCandless woman ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2006, said the new law made no difference to her because she did not intend to renounce her claim to be a Catholic priest. The diocese had said from the beginning that she incurred automatic excommunication, but it had not been clear to her whether Rome or Pittsburgh was able to lift it.
"I guess if a woman did have second thoughts and decided this was a mistake, it would have been a lot easier to work that out through her bishop. If you had to go to the Vatican it would be a lot harder," she said.
Mrs. Houk celebrates home liturgies, anoints the sick and engages in spiritual direction. She attends St. Alexis parish in McCandless, but has obeyed church orders not to receive Communion.
Ann Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.