Since I've already effectively excommunicated myself from the Catholic Church, in which I was raised, I'll go ahead and say it: Sometimes, the Vatican boys are just so cute when they're mad.
On Thursday, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a decree against the ordination of female priests, saying flat out that bishops who perform such ordinations and the women who get them will be automatically excommunicated -- meaning the second it's done, the people involved have irretrievably fallen from grace and are no longer Catholics, whether the Vatican ever finds out about it or not. No heaven for you!
"Excommunication is usually 'ferendae sententiae,' imposed as punishment.
But some offenses, including heresy, schism, and laying violent hands on the Pope, are considered so disruptive of ecclesiastical life that they trigger automatic excommunication, or 'latae sententiae.'"
Ordaining a woman priest, or seeking ordination as a woman, is now right up there with laying violent hands on the pope.
I know that for the devout -- which most bishops and women who seek the priesthood certainly are -- this kind of thing can create a soul-shredding internal conflict. These aren't just a bunch of rebellious a la carte Catholics who don't really give a hoot what the pope says; the organization Women Priests, for instance, explicitly condemns illegal ordination but still doesn't want to let the matter drop. "We love our family, the Catholic Church," its Web site says. "We fully accept the authority of the Pope. We respect his personal integrity as an outstanding spiritual leader. But we are convinced that the Pope and his advisors in Rome are making a serious mistake by dismissing women as priests. We feel obliged in conscience to make our carefully considered reasons known, fulfilling our duty to speak out as our present Pope has repeatedly told us to do." For the group, a decree like this is of utmost seriousness.
For me, however -- an observer who still retains some nostalgic affection for the church but is undoubtedly going to hell by its standards -- it just seems like so much ineffectual saber rattling. Throughout church history, there have always been factions flouting Vatican rules that don't sit right with their consciences -- and while that might be a one-way ticket to damnation for some (even most), it's also the only way the Catholic Church ever gets changed. (Remember Vatican II?) From liberation theologians to women secretly taking the Pill to bishops ordaining ladies, resistance is everywhere -- and in many cases, it comes from people who sincerely love the church and respect the office of the pope but can't in good conscience follow pronouncements from on high that are woefully out of touch with their daily reality.
It seems pretty clear that, eventually, the church hierarchy's daily reality is going to force it to reconsider, not the other way around. When it runs out of money and single (apparently) heterosexual men willing to devote their lives to the priesthood, there's little doubt it'll start to look differently at ordaining women and married men -- and do some hilariously tortuous theological retconning to account for it. That's the way it has always gone. So the more members of the hierarchy turn their back on devout Catholics negotiating the real world, the less they look like God's representatives on earth and the more they look like a bunch of petulant, foot-stamping toddlers in funny hats. Awwww!