On 9 February 2022, the Executive Director for the Association of United States Catholic Priests (ASUCP), Fr. Stephen Newton, CSC, sent a letter to Michael Hichborn, president and founder of the Lepanto Institute. The letter is said to have been sent “at the request of the AUSCP Core Team … in response to Lepanto once again labeling AUSCP a heretical organization,” and it referenced our recent article headlined, “The Synod’s Backdoor for Heretics.” The AUSCP’s letter can be read here.
The thrust of the letter is to ask that both Hichborn and Lepanto “cease continued slander and defamation aimed at the AUSCP and individual members.” As slander refers to the crime of issuing false statements, the AUSCP’s concern is that the Lepanto Institute refers to the AUSCP as an heretical organization, while they claim that the AUSCP “is in good standing with the Catholic Church.” Specifically, the AUSCP is unhappy with our assertion that it has officially endorsed the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Heavily implying legal action should we persist in referring to the AUSCP as “heretical” and repeating our finding that they support women’s ordination to the priesthood, Fr. Newton opened the path to “having a civil discussion” on these matters, and it is in this spirit in which we now respond.
In the first place, Fr. Newton says that the AUSCP is in “good standing with the Catholic Church” and has “the support and membership of several bishops.” However, I’m sure Fr. Newton can understand why it would seem to be otherwise since the AUSCP’s local ordinary, Bp. Daniel Thomas of the Diocese of Toledo, has referred to affiliation with the AUSCP as a “source of grave concern due to the confusion and scandal they have caused.” The reason for this strongly worded statement is that in 2020, a representative of the AUSCP, Ms. Beverly Bingle, had been formally excommunicated by the bishop for sacrilegiously attempting ordination to the priesthood. It is difficult to see how an organization can be “in good standing with the Catholic Church” when the local ordinary refers to it as “source of grave concern due to the confusion and scandal they have caused.”
It should also be noted that an organization that is in “good standing with the Catholic Church” would do nothing to undermine the sound directives of local bishops who forbid priests suspected of heresy from speaking in their dioceses. And yet, in 2013 the AUSCP officially harbored and assisted Fr. Helmut Schuller with publicity and a speaking venue in dioceses where he was forbidden to speak. Fr. Schuller, founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, issued a global “Call to Disobedience” in 2011 (two years prior to the AUSCP helping him speak in dioceses in which he was banned), which called for women’s ordination to the priesthood. Again, this stretches the claim that the AUSCP is “in good standing with the Catholic Church.”
Now, it is important to address Fr. Newton’s claim that the Lepanto Institute is committing “slander” by referring to the AUSCP as an “heretical” organization. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines the word “heretical” as follows:
1: of or relating to adherence to a religious opinion contrary to church dogma: characterized by heresy
2: of, relating to, or characterized by departure from accepted beliefs or standards: unorthodox
While neither Mr. Hichborn nor the Lepanto Institute are making formal accusations of the canonical crime of heresy, we do maintain that positions and statements made by the AUSCP are in direct contravention with established Catholic teaching. That said, the Lepanto Institute is willing to allow the AUSCP the opportunity to clarify certain statements and positions by examining the references and answering the questions below.
In 2013, very shortly after the AUSCP came into existence, the AUSCP signed a letter of support for Fr. Tony Flannery, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, and Fr. Bill Brennan, all three of whom took formal positions in support of women’s ordination to the priesthood.
“That the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) request amendment of canon 1024 which restricts valid sacred ordination to baptized males alone.”
While this resolution was suggested in regard to women’s ordination to the diaconate, it does, by default, open the way to women’s ordination to the priesthood. In fact, it was then followed by another which specifically called for open discussion about the possibility of ordaining women as priests:
“Be it resolved that the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests (AUSCP), call for the study of, and an open discussion for the ordination of women and married men to the priesthood.”
It is unclear whether the second resolution passed or not, but the fact remains that this is a matter important enough to the AUSCP that it is being openly discussed in terms of formal resolutions.
In October 2016, the AUSCP issued a press statement in coordination with the Women’s Ordination Conference and FutureChurch, calling for “full equality for women in the Church.” Katie McElwee, head of the Women’s Ordination Conference, asked men “to prayerfully reflect on male and clerical privilege,” and “to act courageously for women’s full equality in the Church.” Considering that McElwee runs an organization dedicated to the ordination of women to the priesthood, it’s pretty clear what she means by “women’s full equality in the church.” According to the official conference report, McElwee’s statement “resulted in standing ovations and agreement from the whole group.”
At this conference, AUSCP member Michael Crosby drafted a statement of belief in the Trinitarian God strongly indicating a desire to see the all-male priesthood abolished and the priesthood opened to and operated by both sexes. The statement reads:
“This leads us to conclude: Since we are baptized into the Trinitarian God, our Church can only be repaired by rejecting the old order of patriarchy and clericalism in a way that gives rise to a new order of Trinitarian equality wherein there no longer is discrimination against any of its members, domination over the many by the few, and the resources of its sacramental life open and celebrated by all.”
In May of 2019, the AUSCP’s leadership Team formally approved a Declaration on the Status of Women in the Church (which attempts to make a case for women to be ordained to the priesthood):
“The challenge the feminist approach raises for sacramental theology lies not simply in its import for the argument for women’s ordination to the priesthood or diaconate, or even women-inspired liturgies and sacramental actions.” (page 16)
“…Franciscan models of sacramental causality provide us with an opening to reconsider the current Church discipline that restricts sacramental roles primarily to ordained celibate male ministers.” (page 17)
“The baptized have a right to enhanced sacramental opportunities. Limiting ordained ministry to males is an act of injustice to the baptized.” (page 18)
“Likewise, depriving one half of the human race of the capacity to serve as ordained ministers is an act of injustice.” (page 18)
“While one might argue that there is no place in Scripture where Jesus chose to ordain women, one can equally argue that there is no place in Scripture where Jesus chose to forbid it—or, indeed, where he ordained men.” (page 18)
Each of these statements makes an argument for the ordination of women to the priesthood, giving clear indication that the AUSCP is supporting women’s ordination to the priesthood. In addition to this, the AUSCP hosted a webinar in January of 2021 titled, “Is Pope Francis Really Creating a More Inclusive Presence for Women,” and several points in the webinar make an argument for the ordination of women to the priesthood. For instance, the AUSCP-invited speaker, Deb-Rose Milavec (co-founder of the women’s ordination promoting FutureChurch) gave her assessment of how the women’s liberation movement in the Catholic Church ultimately opened the way for women to become “priests” in protestant sects. She then celebrated these Episcopal women “priests” who “pioneered a path,” going on to criticize the Vatican’s reaction to this momentum. She argued that Pope John Paul II “tries to cement [Paul VI’s Inter Insigniores] by claiming Papal infallibility” and “demands silence on the topic and punishes dissenters” while “building an alternate reality” called “complementarity, or as I like to call it, the separate but equal clause in the Catholic Church, kind of a Jim Crow version…”
Add to this the fact that in June of 2021, the AUSCP’s Assembly Coordinator asked a faithful Catholic why she wouldn’t want to be a woman priest, and where it says in the bible that Jesus appointed only men to be priests.
Given these statements and actions, we’re sure the AUSCP can understand why one can walk away with the impression that the AUSCP is endorsing women’s ordination to the priesthood. However, this could be a misperception of ours, so we are willing to allow for the AUSCP to make a formal declaration on this matter, and request that they answer the following three questions with a simple “yes” or “no”:
- Does the AUSCP believe that the ordination of women to the priesthood is possible?
- Does the AUSCP desire or hope for the Catholic Church to open the way for women to be ordained to the priesthood?
- Does the AUSCP believe that the ordination of women to the diaconate is a possible path toward women being ordained to the priesthood?
We look forward to direct, unqualified yes or no answers to these questions.
With regard to the issue of heretical positions not specifically related to women’s ordination, the AUSCP has most certainly taken positions and promoted ideas which are in direct conflict with immutable Catholic teaching. In the AUSCP’s a Declaration on the Status of Women in the Church, the AUSCP specifically called for a “radical transformation” of the Church’s “rules, fixed order, dogmatic formulas, unyielding laws, patriarchy, authority, and obedience,” saying that “the institutional Church needs to consider the evolving insights of science and the universe”:
“This theological framework has produced ecclesial structures that maintain outmoded philosophical notions of nature, gender, and personhood. Rules, fixed order, dogmatic formulas, unyielding laws, patriarchy, authority, and obedience have rendered the Church resistant to the radical interconnectivity that marks all levels of nature. The Church is bound to die out unless the system undergoes radical transformation. Thus, the institutional Church needs to consider the evolving insights of science and the universe. Or, as Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ wrote, ‘the church therefore needs to look to the world to discover God’s designs for the present time.’” [emphasis added] (page 6)
This contradicts Canon 4:3 of the First Vatican Council, which states:
“If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.” (Can. 4:3 of the First Vatican Council)
The AUSCP’s statement also reflects Pope St. Pius X’s description of those who fall into the pernicious heresy of Modernism in his encyclical Pascnedi Dominici Gregis:
“they [Modernists] criticize the Church, as having strayed from the true path by failing to distinguish between the religious and moral sense of formulas and their surface meaning, and by clinging vainly and tenaciously to meaningless formulas, while religion itself is allowed to go to ruin. “Blind’- they are, and “leaders of the blind” puffed up with the proud name of science, they have reached that pitch of folly at which they pervert the eternal concept of truth and the true meaning of religion; in introducing a new system in which “they are seen to be under the sway of a blind and unchecked passion for novelty, thinking not at all of finding some solid foundation of truth, but despising the holy and apostolic traditions, they embrace other and vain, futile, uncertain doctrines, unapproved by the Church, on which, in the height of their vanity, they think they can base and maintain truth itself.”
Again, referring to the AUSCP’s Statement on the Status of Women, on page 8, they write:
“Outmoded understandings of the biological basis of sex itself, and what these mean for the differences between men and women, affect not only Church teachings but also the way in which the Church governs itself and behaves in the world.”
And this statement directly corresponds to the proposition condemned by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors, and reiterated by Pope St. Pius X in Pascendi, where he wrote in paragraph 42:
“Let the Modernists and their admirers remember the proposition condemned by Pius IX: ‘The method and principles which have served the ancient doctors of scholasticism when treating of theology no longer correspond with the exigencies of our time or the progress of science.’”
Page 9 of the AUSCP’s document on the Status of Women says this:
“Galatians 3:28-29 makes it clear, ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs to the promise.’ As adopted children of God, we are all one in Christ and heirs to the Kingdom. There should be no hint of subordination or hierarchy in the Church.”
By contrast, The Council of Trent declared:
“If any one saith, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers; let him be anathema.”
Furthermore, the AUSCP’s statement falls in line with the condemned proposition (54) which Pope Pius X included in Lamentabili Sane:
“Dogmas, Sacraments and hierarchy, both their notion and reality, are only interpretations and evolutions of the Christian intelligence which have increased and perfected the little germ latent in the Gospel by an external series of additions.”
In a program called “The Bridge Dialogues,” a collaborative effort between the AUSCP, FutureChurch, and Voice of the Faithful, a case is made that Christ did not institute a hierarchy and that there was no distinction between priests and laity, claiming (on page 69):
“In its earliest days, the Church had no clergy, no laity, simply a community of believers.
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2: 42, 44).
Very soon during that first century, however, it became necessary for the people to elect representatives to distribute food, keep accounts, and perform administrative functions that would leave the missioners (apostles) free to spread the word of God. From such modest beginnings, we read further in the Acts of the Apostles, arose needs to affirm the true leaders within a community, to settle disputes among members and between cities, and to counteract false teachings. Century after century, as the Church grew in size and breadth, this need to establish structure increased.”
Again, this statement directly defies the Canons of the Council of Trent and first the condemned proposition of Pope St. Pius X identified above.
In addition to this, the AUSCP has taken gravely scandalous positions in favor of the homosexual adoption of children, allowed its friends to disseminate materials promoting same-sex “marriage” at its annual assembly, and routinely participates in the promotion of lgbt activism, all of which is in direct contravention with universal Catholic teaching on human sexuality.
Given the troubling statements and actions of the AUSCP pertaining to all of the above, especially as they contradict immutable Church teaching, we’re sure they can see why it appears that their positions are heretical. In addition to the three questions above regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood, we further afford the AUSCP the opportunity to definitively declare allegiance to the universal and immutable teaching of the Catholic Church by answering the following questions either yes or no:
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the priesthood confers an ontological change upon the soul of a priest at ordination, by which the priest then obtains an indelible mark with powers granted by the Holy Spirit to absolve sin, consecrate the Holy Species of the Eucharist, Confirm the baptized, consecrate priests and bishops (for bishops), and administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction, and that no one else has this power?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that only those who have received the sacrament of holy orders may give a homily at Mass?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was divinely instituted by Christ, and that this hierarchy was never and can never be a mere “community of believers”?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the visible hierarchy constitutes one of the four marks of the Church and cannot be changed?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the Church’s teachings, including scripture, cannot be brought “up to date” to meet the “needs of the times”?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the doctrines and dogmas of the Faith, whether pertaining to theological precepts or moral teachings, cannot and will not change, regardless of new philosophical or “scientific” understandings?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that doctrines and dogmas may develop but cannot “evolve”?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that all same-sex sexual activity is objectively a matter of grave sin?
- Does the AUSCP affirm with the Catechism that sexual desires for members of the same sex are intrinsically disordered?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the act of contraception, whether within or outside of marriage, is intrinsically evil?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that providing children to same-sex or transgender couples through adoption constitutes the grave sin of scandal?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that same-sex “unions” cannot be blessed?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that same-sex attraction and transgender ideologies do not constitute a state of being or identity for anyone, but are rather conditions related to concupiscence against which such individuals must struggle and overcome?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that Hell is a place of eternal torments and that human souls go there for all eternity should they die outside of a state of sanctifying grace?
- Does the AUSCP affirm that the obstinate denial of (or pursuit to change) even one defined doctrine or dogma of the Catholic Church constitutes heresy, and such an act automatically places them outside of the Church?
Should the AUSCP affirm all fifteen of these questions, and deny the three pertaining to women’s ordination, then the only other thing we would ask is for the AUSCP to explain how those answers line up with the statements and actions quoted in this article.
We look forward to receiving the AUSCP’s response.