Several weeks ago there was a momentary tizzy when Georgia Walker, a Catholic woman, was ordained. The Kansas City Star and the National Catholic Reporter proclaimed her to be the first Kansas City woman to be ordained a Catholic priest.
Actually, a different Kansas City woman, Katrina van Alstyne Welles Swanson was ordained as a Catholic priest on July 29, 1974, over 40 years before Georgia Walker. On that solemn morning, in front a congregation of two thousand, she was presented for ordination as a priest in Christ’s holy Catholic Church, just as Georgia Walker was presented recently. Katrina Swanson was ordained by three bishops. One of them was her father, the Rt. Rev. Edward R. Welles, Bishop of West Missouri.
Bishop Welles, of course, was an Episcopalian. Almost everyone would recognize that if Welles was Catholic, it was of a peculiar sort. Katrina and Georgia, and the bishops that ordained them, share a kind of communion with the Catholic Church because they share the same baptism. And perhaps the Catholic Church would recognize that the historic episcopate maintained in the Episcopal Church and claimed by the Womanpriest movement has a certain affinity with essential Catholic structures. They may even claim to celebrate some or all of the same sacraments and preach from the same bible. But Bishop Welles would never have claimed the right to join the council of all the Catholic bishops at Vatican II. Nor would he have ever claimed to believe or to teach everything the Catholic Church believes and teaches. He may have worn a cope and miter and have stood beside the local Catholic bishop, but he would never have claimed to be in communion with him, or to celebrate the sacraments for local Catholic parishioners. He could claim to be Catholic, but only within the context of the meaning of that term as understood by other Episcopalians. All of those ordained by him could only make a similar limited claim. And the bishop who ordained Georgia Walker can only make a similar claim.
The Catholic faith is not about magic, and bishops are not dispensers of magical power. The bishops who ordained the two women were not acting for the Catholic Church. Catholic bishops represent the whole Catholic faith and act in union with the universal church. The bishops who ordained Katrina and Georgia reject much of what Catholic Church understands to be essential to Catholicism, they teach much that is incompatible with Catholicsim and they were not in union with the universal church. So they could not have ordained Katrina and Georgia as Catholic priests, in the most common understanding of the term. The definition of Catholicism made by Katrina’s Episcopal Church and Georgia’s Womanpriest movement does not include communion with the Catholic Church and does not include the full Catholic faith. They can define the word Catholic for themselves and use it within their own context in whatever way their traditions choose. But if all are honest, they will recognize that their definitions are very peculiar.
Georgia Walker is not even the second Kansas City woman to be ordained a priest. In the forty years since the first ordination of women as priests, any number of Kansas City women have been ordained priests. Given the movement of members back and forth between the Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church, it is likely that a few Catholic women were ordained priests in "Christ's Holy Catholic Church" by Episcopalian bishops. It is also possible that others have been ordained priests in one of the iterations of the Old Catholic Church that sprout locally. A little research could determine the numbers, but it really doesn't matter all that much. Episcopal bishops ordain priests for the Episcopal Church. Old Catholic bishops ordain Old Catholic priests. And Womanpriest bishops ordain Womanpriest priests. Only Catholic bishops ordain priests for the Catholic Church. No matter what her ordination liturgy may have claimed Katrina Swanson was only a priest in the Episcopal Church, not the Catholic Church. And no matter what her ordination may have claimed, Georgia Walker is a priest for her movement, but not for the Catholic Church.
The recent attention to Georgia Walker’s ordination does have a potential positive outcomes. It gives us an opportunity to remember a bit of local history and recall headline-making events. Katrina Wells Swanson nor Georgia Walker will not be recognized as Catholic priests for the Catholic Church, but Katrina’s ordination should be remembered as being a historic first, forty years before Georgia’s.