News: Freedom Fighter, Nun, Bishop

South African woman takes on 'Catholic apartheid'

Mar 22, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Roger Foote

Bishop Patricia Fresen isn't recognized as a bishop by the Roman Catholic Church, which forbids the ordination of women. She's in Cincinnati to celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Women's Ordination, a cause she likens to the struggle to end apartheid in her native South Africa.

Bishop Patricia Fresen, born and raised in South Africa, was a Dominican nun who actively fought apartheid and is now fighting what she believes is an unjust law within her "family," the Roman Catholic Church.

The soft-spoken Fresen, who now lives and works in Germany, followed her calling to be a priest. One of only three female Catholic bishops in the world, she visits Cincinnati this week to talk about her journey.

"I lived during the apartheid years, and I came to understand that a law that is unjust not only must not be obeyed but actually must be broken," she says. "We decided as a group, as a community of Dominican women who believed in justice, to break what we clearly thought to be unjust laws and we opened our schools and hospitals to people of all races. That got a lot of us into trouble. Quite a number of our sisters were imprisoned. But today those schools and hospitals are open to all races, and the apartheid laws have gone."

Invited to earn a doctorate in theology at the Vatican, Fresen was trained by the best in the laws that she's now breaking.

'Conveniently forgotten'
South African church leaders had wanted a "safe" woman teaching in the seminary to help prepare the men who had little to no exposure to women, according to Fresen.

New priests would enter parishes, populated largely by women, and either fall in love or treat women badly, she says.

"I was studying in Rome, and I was the only woman in the class," Fresen says. "The rest were seminarians. They were getting ordained year after year. Watching all these men preparing for the priesthood just gave me such a longing to be able to minister in that way as a woman, and I was excluded."

In addition to being one of the top students in almost all her classes, she saw male students cheating or trying to copy her work and was angered by the "sheer injustice of it," she says.

Through her studies Fresen says she learned that the basis for excluding women from priesthood was human law rather than divine law. Canon Law 1024 states that only a baptized male may become a priest. This is frequently attributed to the belief that, if Jesus Christ had wanted any female priests, he would have ordained them as he did the 12 apostles at the Last Supper.

"It is a terribly specious argument because Jesus did not ordain anyone," Fresen says. "When the official Catholic Church says that, at the Last Supper, Jesus said the words, 'Do this in memory of me' and that is regarded as an ordination, that is a huge mistake. Most of the more reliable, better known theologians and scripture scholars say that, when Jesus said those words, he was handing over the Eucharist to the church as a little group, to commemorate who he was and what he did."

Fresen also debunks the argument that there weren't any women singled out by Jesus for a leadership role.

"Mary Magdalene is called 'the apostle to the apostles,' " she says. "Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to the men to announce the resurrection. But that little bit is often conveniently forgotten."

Fresen argues that the church set a precedent when it ordained women in the recent past.

"During the communist time, there were various women who were ordained to go into the women's prison because no men were allowed in," she says. "It was done secretly because the whole church had gone underground. Later the ordinations of the men that were done secretly were recognized by the Vatican, and the ordinations of the women have not been recognized — but they have also not been withdrawn."

Declining to invalidate the women's ordinations makes it clear that the church recognized them as valid, Fresen says.

Male bishop won't discuss it
When she was 61, Fresen heard about "The Danube Seven," a group of women ordained on a boat in the Danube River in violation of church rules. After exchanging letters with some of them, she was invited to be ordained.

During a visit to Spain she was secretly ordained a deacon and then a priest by a female bishop.

"We believe that the sacrament we have received, the sacrament of orders, is valid because it has been passed onto us by some male bishops, who we cannot name for their protection," Fresen says. "These men are willing to pass on what we call the apostolic succession."

After her ordination Fresen returned to South Africa and told her convent. She expected fellow nuns to celebrate with her. Instead she was told she had to repent or be expelled from the order.

"They were alarmed or shocked or frightened by what I had done," she says. "They were not nasty about it. They felt they had a gun to their head."

Forced to leave the convent, Fresen accepted an invitation to minister in Germany, where she was asked to become a bishop.

"When it was suggested to me, I was appalled and said, 'For heaven's sake, no,' " Fresen says. "In the end I allowed myself to be persuaded just so that I can be one of the ones to continue to ordain, so that the ordination of women can continue. If the bishops that ordained us get found out, they won't be able to continue."

Fresen will celebrate Mass at the Cincinnati Museum Center on Saturday, the World Day of Prayer for Women's Ordination.

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk declined a request for an interview. His office instead released a brief statement.

"The World Day of Prayer for Women's Ordination has no connection to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati or any of its agencies," the statement says. "The archdiocese had offered no encouragement to this event and does not intend to do so in view of the fact that the church's teachings about the ordination of women to the priesthood is clear and definitive."

The refusal to engage in discussion won't stop Fresen or others who want to see women priests (visit

"As we proceed to break the law and take the consequences, which is what we did in South Africa, it will eventually awaken people to the fact that it is an unjust law," Fresen says. "There is a principle in all law, and that is that law follows life. As life changes, the law gets changed."

For more information about the visit by Bishop Patricia Fresen, call 513-771-0629.