WASHINGTON, Aug 07, 2001-- The Most Rev. Diana C. Dale of Houston is a Catholic bishop wearing a pectoral cross over her purple blouse, and a miter when she officiates. She also carries a crosier -- the pastoral crook.

Of course, the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize her as a validly consecrated bishop, although it would, if she were a man.

Diana Dale heads a denomination that belongs to a branch of Catholicism little known on this side of the Atlantic -- the Old Catholics who split from Rome in 1871 after the First Vatican Council adopted the dogma of Papal infallibility.

The Old Catholics have their most important flocks in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland. In the U.S., they have spawned a host of tiny denominations.

Diana C. Dale is the presiding bishop of one of those groups. It is called the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church. "We have some 7,000-10,000 members and 24 priests or seminarians," she told United Press International Tuesday.

The ACOC does not own a sanctuary. "We discourage building churches," she explained, "We do not want to waste money paving new parking lots. We prefer to use existing churches."

Therefore, the Most Rev. Diana Dale must make do with a part-time cathedral, whose congregation of some 50 members is a tenant in St. Paul's United Methodist church in Houston.

Other OCOC clerics who make their living as seminary professors or in a secular field and have no congregations of their own, preach and officiate in the churches of denominations with similar theologies and liturgies, such as Episcopal or Lutheran.

So you couldn't really call the OCOC a sect. It affirms the ancient creeds of Christianity and offers Catholicism's traditional seven sacraments -- Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Anointing of the sick, and Holy Orders.

Unlike their Roman brethren, though, OCOC bishops and priests tend to be married, though Diana C. Dale is not. "That's because as a member of an order, the Sisters for Christian Community, I have taken a vow of celibacy."

So far, the Vatican has always recognized the Old Catholic orders as "valid but illicit" -- illicit because these denominations do not recognize the Pope, but valid because their bishops are in the apostolic succession.

Like their Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox counterparts, they claim a direct lineage of consecration going back to Christ's apostles. Bishops confer this status on the new candidate by laying their hands on his head.

According to Bishop Dale, who is also a professor at Houston's interdenominational Graduate School of Theology, "Our relations with Rome had grown so close that we were invited as observers to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)."

But this does not make her a bishop in the Vatican's eyes. Nor does the fact that she claims to be very much in line with post-Vatican II theology, has completed major parts of her studies at Roman Catholic institutions, and works closely with Roman clerics.

"Her orders are not just illicit; they are invalid," Father Gerald E. Murray, a New York-based canon lawyer explained in a telephone interview Tuesday.

"From the Roman Catholic point of view, women are incapable of receiving the priesthood. And because of this they cannot consecrate priests either. Thus, the orders of priests ordained by her are not valid."

Murray added, "Just like the Anglican churches, the Old Catholics have placed a major obstacle in the way of unity (with Rome) by consecrating women."

Bishop Dale, who was consecrated in 1993 by two male and one female bishop, stated her belief that "the church of the future will be manifest in the collaboration between the different denominations."

Such collaboration, especially in the field of pastoral care, is really her main concern. She is executive director of the National Institute of Business and Corporate Chaplains, whose 4,000 members nationwide hail from all kinds of denominations.

As the chief executive of this organization that certifies clerics for this line of work, she sports a business suit on weekdays, except when she attends clergy conferences.

But on Sundays, The Most Rev. Diane C. Dale vests like any other Catholic bishop, celebrates the Eucharist and gives, as she said, a good, solid sermon.

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