The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis and a Jewish Reform congregation are on the same side when it comes to advocating for immigrants and the poor, often finding common ground in a zeal for social justice. But when the Central Reform Congregation offered its synagogue for Sunday's ordination of two women in a ceremony disavowed by the Roman Catholic church, it drew the ire of church officials and a pledge to never again partner with the congregation.
Two women who profess to be Roman Catholic - Rose Marie Dunn Hudson, 67, of Festus, and Elsie Hainz McGrath, 69, of St. Louis - are to be ordained by a former nun as part of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a small movement that began in 2002 independently from the Roman Catholic Church. The Reform congregation's rabbi, Susan Talve, informed her friend and colleague, the Rev. Vincent Heier, who directs the archdiocese office for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, of the decision.
Heier told her it was unacceptable.
"It's not appropriate to invite this group, to aid and abet a group like this, which undercuts our theology and teaching,"' Heier said he told Talve.
'We are a house of prayer for all people'
The Roman Catholic Church is framed in hierarchy, which sets rules and offers guidance for the faithful. The Jewish tradition has no centralized leadership, and congregations operate autonomously, answering to their own mission statement.
It was precisely that mission that Talve and her congregation's board relied on when considering the request of the two members of Roman Catholic Womenpriests. But the ceremony defies Catholic church doctrine that reserves ordination of priests and deacons to men only. The women say it is unjust and discriminatory.
The two women are ignoring the warnings of Archbishop Raymond Burke who this week said they will be excommunicated if they proceed with the ceremony. Of the roughly 100 women who have been ordained as priests or deacons worldwide in the Womenpriests movement, including 37 in the US, only the first seven were officially excommunicated by the Vatican, said spokeswoman Bridget Mary Meehan. Others have received letters from their bishop like that sent by Burke, she said. Talve was in her office when the women approached her this fall.
"They said they were looking for a sanctuary, and that got my attention," Talve said. "As Isaiah said, we are a house of prayer for all people."
'Holy Spirit speaking through the faithful?'
The congregation's board voted unanimously to serve as host, drawing on its core values and principles, which include hospitality and providing sanctuary. Heier and Burke pressed Talve and the board to withdraw their offer, saying the act would "cause pain" to the church.
"It's akin to us inviting a group that is contrary to Jewish life," Heier said. "She didn't understand." Heier said he and Talve disagree on abortion and gay marriage, "But this is the straw that broke the camel's back."
Talve said she regrets the church is pained by the decision to host the women, but a decision not to would have hurt others. She said hundreds of practicing Catholics have called to thank her for taking a stand. Heier enlisted the help of the larger Jewish community, but the local Jewish Community Relations Council neither condemned nor affirmed CRC's decision.
In a statement, the council said it regretted any pain the church suffered, but emphasized the autonomy of each congregation. Members of the larger Jewish community and archdiocese said they would not let the decision stop their interfaith dialogue and efforts.
But the archdiocese clearly has drawn a line with Talve and her congregation.
"This is not a lack of forgiveness, but we have to stand for something," Heier said. "It's a matter of principle."
Rabbi Mark Fasman, president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, said the CRC and archdiocese need to work out their disagreement.
But the Catholic church by itself must grapple with the issue of women's ordination, he said. "It's their answer, not ours," he said. "It's not the intention of the CRC to give that answer for Catholics."
Rosann Catalano, a Roman Catholic scholar and associate director of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, said whether the decision was proper and wise "depends on what your priority is".
"If it's interfaith relations, the answer is probably no," she said. "If it's sanctuary and hospitality, maybe you do that realizing you will have to pay a price."
Catalano said many Catholics believe women should be ordained. Indeed, a 2005 Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted after the death of John Paul II found that 64 percent of Catholics polled believed the next pope should allow women to be ordained as priests.
"Is it possible the Holy Spirit is speaking through the faithful?" she asked. "I raise the question."