Female Priesthood

by Alvin Kimel


Is it possible to oppose the pansexual morality of the Episcopal Church and still support the decision of the Episcopal Church to ordain women to the presbyterate and episcopate? Clearly most of those who have committed themselves to the Network and American Anglican Council believe that it is possible. But this has become now a real question for me.

When I graduated from seminary, I, like most of my classmates, had been converted to the 1976 General Convention decision to ordain women. I believed that Holy Scripture did not absolutely forbid it. I believed that the arguments advanced in the theological tradition in favor for the exclusively male priesthood were unpersuasive. I believed that the Church had the liberty to change what was a matter of discipline rather than catholic doctrine. I would have preferred that ECUSA’s decision had been made in consultation with the entirety of the Anglican Communion, and it did bother me a tad that Rome and Constantinople were so emphatically opposed to such a change; but what else could one expect from two traditions that were frozen in the past. Rome was still hung up on contraception and Orthodoxy was still living in the times of the Byzantine Emperors. ECUSA’s decision was a great experiment in catholicity, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So I believed.

Doubts began to arise, however, in the mid- and late-’80’s, as I reflected on the feminist challenge to Trinitarian naming and doctrine. It seemed to me that the moderate feminists were advancing arguments similar in kind to those that had been advanced in the ’70’s for the ordination of women. Both sought to find freedom over against the inherited tradition; both took the approach that the traditional teaching was culturally specific and thus not binding on us today. I did not like what I was seeing …

I recall having lunch, right around this time, with a female Episcopal rector down the road from me, Jane Dixon (yes, the very same Dixon who became the fascistic Suffragan Bishop of Washington). I asked her, What would God have had to do in the past to convince you that he really was opposed to the ordination of women? She had no answer. I realized then that the hermeneutics that led to the ’76 decision was a hermeneutics that would always allow the Church to unbind itself from the dogmas and traditions of the Church, whenever it wanted to be so unbound.

And now we find ourselves in the year 2004. The Episcopal Church has embraced the goodness of same-sex unions. It has self-consciously repudiated the traditional moral teaching of the Church, which is seen as being culturally conditioned and hence nonauthoritative. The pansexual morality of ECUSA, however, is rejected by many who support women’s ordination. They believe that the two issues are completely separate. The ordination of women is permitted by Scripture; homosex is not. The former is a matter of order and discipline; the latter is a matter of revealed moral law.

I am not prepared to argue strongly one way or the other on the question of women’s ordination. I haven’t given it a great deal of thought in twenty years. What concerns me most is the question of authority. For example, in a recent blog article Todd Granger writes, “I do believe that Scripture gives us warrant for the innovation of ordaining women to the presbyterate.” And you know what? He may be right, if the Scriptures are read through a Protestant/Anglican lens. But the two largest and oldest Christian bodies, both of which construe the relationship Holy Scripture and ecclesia very differently than Protestantism, insist that the ordination of women violates the Scriptures. Both deny that this is merely a matter of church discipline. Representing Catholicism Pope John Paul II has pronounced: “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Fr Alexander Schmemann speaks, I think, for all Orthodox when he writes that “the ordination of women to priesthood is tantamount for us to a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole Scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all ‘dialogues.'”

How can Catholicism and Orthodoxy be so certain that the Word of God is so clear? When I read the Scripture, it still does not appear to be definitively clear on the issue. But of course … I’m still reading the Bible as an Anglican. I’m reading it through the lens of a tradition that is ambivalent, if not darn right equivocal, on the nature of Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood and which, until very recently, was not even sure if Eucharist needed to be celebrated weekly. I’m reading it through a tradition that objects to the high status given to the Virgin Mary in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I’m reading it through a tradition that defines itself over against the alleged sacramental magic and idolatry of Western Catholicism. I’m reading it, in other words, as a Protestant. Consequently, I cannot read Scripture in the way that Catholic and Orthodox believers do. And therefore I cannot experience female priests as the violation of Eucharist that Catholics and Orthodox perceive them to be. “Our doctrine is in accordance with the Eucharist,” St Irenaeus wrote, “and the Eucharist in turn establishes our doctrine.”

Personally, I find the arguments in favor of the ordination of women to be more convincing than the arguments against. But that and $2.50 will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The arguments against female priests are not the doctrine of the Church; it is the restriction of males to the priesthood that is the doctrine. Arguments come and go. Some stand up under the test of time and disputation, some do not. But when the bishop of Rome tells me that the Church simply does not have the authority to alter the constitution of the ordained ministry, should that not at least warn me that my reasonings, no matter how persuasive they may appear to me at the moment, may not be true to the revelation as received by the Church? There are elements of ecclesial life that cannot be discursively reasoned to but simply must be accepted on the grounds of authority. When the Orthodox tell me that female priests violate the fundamental symbolic structure of the Divine Liturgy, should that not at least warn me that we may be dealing with a matter that can only be intuitively apprehended? Icons cannot be argued; they can only be experienced.

I guess what I am saying is that my private opinions on the ordination of women ultimately do not matter. There is no way in the world that I can figure everything out by myself. There is no way in the world I can justify all the teachings of the Church to myself. At this point, all I want to do is to listen to what the Church has to say, on the basis of two thousand years of Eucharistic experience and reflection on the Scriptures. As Chesterton wrote: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” If the Church doesn’t know the mind of Christ, I sure don’t.

So to all of you who oppose the ordination of Gene Robinson as bishop but who support the ordination of women to the priesthood, are you so very sure that you are standing on biblical/catholic grounds?

30 April 2004


I’d Rather Not Say has invited further discussion on the vexed question of the ordination of women to the Episcopate and Priesthood. If you have read his previous postings on this subject, you know how deeply he feels about this matter and why. IRNS rightly sees this as touching the essence of the ministerial priesthood and thus the very nature of the Church. He is also distressed by the judgment of the Windsor Report that the female priesthood has been “received,” or is at least in the process of being received, by Anglicanism as a whole. He concludes his article with these words: “It should be apparent by now that these issues call for a decision, and the time is now.”

Personally, I believe that the matter has already been irreversibly decided by the bulk of Anglicanism. There are still some holdouts, but it’s difficult to see how long they can continue to maintain their positions on exclusively Anglican principles. The male priesthood can only be persuasively defended if one truly believes that the priesthood is a sacerdotal, priestly, and sacrificial ministry. But how many Anglicans really believe that at the Eucharist the priest stands in the person of Christ and offers the sacrifice of Calvary for the sins of the living and the dead? How many Anglicans really believe that the priest at the altar is an icon of Christ leading the Church in the re-presentation to the Father of the slain and risen Lamb of God? Within this sacerdotal context, one can intuitively discern the necessity of the exclusively male priesthood; but outside it the male priesthood seems like an artifact from a more chauvinistic era.

Cardinal Newman raised the issue of sacerdotal ministry in debate with ritualist Anglo-Catholics:

Now, if the Catholic view of the Sacerdotium, as residing in the Christian Ministry, be a truth of revelation; if, nevertheless, it is not and never has been held by any Anglican minister, since Anglicanism existed, till the last thirty years; if Anglicans, I say have never believed in the existence of such a gift, nor professed to use it, nor taught and honoured it; if, rather they have called it a “blasphemy,”–who shall say, without a great paradox, that suddenly a small minority of the Anglican body is possessed of it, while the main body, not simply in ignoring it, or in being ignorant of it, but in knowing it too well as claimed by us Catholics, and denying utterly that such a gift was ever made by our Lord to any one? Sacraments of the Church of England has ever claimed, but never Sacrifice. It never, in the Ritualistic, in the Catholic sense of it, has been professed by any Anglican party till now.

We know well what is a High Churchman; one who holds the Episcopal form of government, the Apostolic Succession, and baptismal regeneration, perhaps the Real Presence, [but] not the Sacerdotium. Of course, all Anglicans, all Protestants, will admit the word “sacrifice” as a synonym of divine worship, and the word “priest” when used as a correlative to this “sacrifice;” but what does “sacrifice” thus accepted mean?

What Anglican opponent of Anabaptists, Presbyterians or Wesleyans, ever claimed to offer Christ for the living and the dead? Who of such theologians did not believe a doctrine like this to be a bad superstition?… Would not every one of them have promptly repudiated such an intention, had he been asked on the point? Would he not have granted that supposing the Catholic Sacerdotium was an Anglican doctrine, the Anglican Church was no place for him? and that, supposing it was a true doctrine, there was no locus standi for the Anglican Church?

What Anglican Bishop has ordained with the intention of imparting the gift, as ritualists understand it?

In the foregoing century High Churchmen were scarce; but did such pious and strict men as Bishop Horne and Jones of Nayland, did philosophers as Butler and Berkeley, hold the doctrine of the Sacerdotium, or perform its characteristic rite, as the Ritualists do now? To go back still further, will not Hickes and Johnson, to whom Waterland refers, fairly represent the theology of the Non-jurors, and was not the greatest attitude of thought in Hickes and Johnson the sacrifice, not of a victim, but of material bread and wine? Did Beveridge or Bull, Taylor or Hammond, Pearson or Barrow ever deny that “the sacrifices of masses, in which it was commonly said that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt” were blasphema figmenta or perniciosae imposturae? Was the creed of Bramhall, Laud, Field, and Jackson more averse to so stringent an anathema?

The Catholic Church has refined its understanding of eucharistic sacrifice, clarifying the identity of the sacrifice of the Mass with the sacrifice of Calvary, but the assertion of a sacrificing priesthood remains. In this context, the male priesthood simply “feels” right; but Anglicanism, as a body, has always rejected the sacerdotal nature of the ministerial priesthood. Given this rejection, hasn’t the decision on the male priesthood already been made?

25 January 2005


How little can I get away with believing and still be considered a card-carrying Christian? This attitude might be described as the liberal Protestant disease. Those of us who are Episcopalians are well acquainted with this disease, and we know it afflicts most Christian traditions. But I confess that I am always a little bit shocked when I see Catholics expressing similar attitudes.

Consider, for example, the question of women’s ordination. In 1994 Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which he declared that the Catholic Church did not have authority to admit women into the Priesthood and Episcopate. The concluding paragraphs of the letter seem to be clear and decisive:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

Wow, it’s hard to get much more definitive than this. The Pope didn’t just express his personal opinion about the matter. Speaking as pastor to the Church catholic and head of the Episcopal College, he solemnly declared that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women to the Priesthood and that this is to be held definitively by all Catholic Christians. Rome has spoken. Case closed.

Indeed, a layman might even be excused in believing that the Pope’s decree enjoys infallible status. After all, as Bishop Gasser explained to the bishops of Vatican I, for a papal decree to be infallible “there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing, giving a definitive judgement and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church.” It is clear from the letter itself that John Paul II intended to bring closure to the debate by his declaration. Even an Episcopalian can figure out that if I am required to believe something definitively I am no longer permitted to question it.

But things are never as simple as they appear. Catholic theologians, canonists, priests, religious, and layfolk continue to debate whether women may be ordained to the Priesthood. Indeed, it appears that until the Pope actually says something like “HEAR YE THIS, I AM NOW SPEAKING SOLEMNLY, INFALLIBLY, AND DEFINITIVELY. WOMEN CAN’T BE ORDAINED. PERIOD. I REALLY REALLY MEAN IT. REALLY. SO PLEASE STOP DEBATING THIS ISSUE AND PLEASE STOP TELLING THE BRETHREN THAT THE CHURCH IS WRONG. THE MATTER IS CLOSED. HONEST TO GOD. I’M NOT GOING TO CHANGE MY MIND AND NEITHER ARE MY SUCCESSORS. WE JUST DON’T HAVE THE AUTHORITY TO ALTER THE DIVINELY ORDAINED STRUCTURE OF THE MINISTERIAL PRIESTHOOD … REALLY … I’M NOT KIDDING … WHICH PART DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?” progressive Catholics will not be persuaded. And even then I’m not sure.

For example, Progressive Catholic (this is my name for the writer, since I cannot find his name or handle on his site) has recently raised again the question of the status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Is the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium Infallible? Also see his even more recent Truth, Certainty, Infallibility, and Dissent. PC offers some interesting, thoughtful arguments. Unacquainted as I am with Catholic canon law, I cannot judge their cogency. In the end, though, I am left with the feeling that if one is determined enough, one can always find a reason to “conscientiously” dispute papal teaching, no matter how definitive it intends to be. This then raises a question for me: What’s the point in having a Pope at all?! Isn’t he there precisely so the buck can have a place to stop?

Consider the question of women’s ordination. I jumped on the bandwagon back in my seminary days and have had twenty-seven years to experience it in the Church. I know the arguments in favor of it, and several of them are pretty good. But are they so good and compelling as to override a definitive teaching to the contrary by the Supreme Pontiff (assuming one believes what Catholics are supposed to believe about the Pope)? Heck no. Pope John Paul’s judgment is very simple: The Church does not have the authority to confer priestly orders upon women. The buck has stopped and judgment has been made. That’s the way the system is designed to work, presumably under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If the other side had a clear biblical text authorizing women’s ordination, perhaps they might be able to challenge the Pope’s ruling; but they don’t have such a text. All they have are arguments, but arguments only go so far when confronted with historical institution. The situation is analogous to the use of bread and wine at the Eucharist. Why these elements? Because they were the elements used by Jesus and the Apostolic Church, and the Church has authoritatively confirmed their exclusive use. Perhaps it would be more convenient and helpful, especially, say, in Asian cultures, to use other foods and drinks for the sacrament; but the Church simply does not have the authority to change what appears to be dominical and apostolic practice, no matter how compelling the reasons might seem. This is all part of the contingency and historical givenness of the gospel (see my Rice-Jesus).

Now one might have doubts that the male priesthood essentially belongs to the apostolic foundation of the Church; but once the Vicar of Christ has given a definitive judgment on the matter, why continue to doubt? Unless, of course, one is a liberal Protestant at heart in whom private judgment reigns supreme. As Luther once remarked, “Every man is born with a Pope in his belly.”

Speaking as an outsider, I find the phenomenon of Catholic dissent strange. Most agree that the Pope has only dogmatized infallibly on two occasions—the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. It is unclear to me why the Popes felt it necessary to exercise their extraordinary magisterium on behalf of these two doctrines. Neither doctrine was being seriously contested in the Catholic Church; hence Catholics readily and uncontroversially assented to them. Talk about magisterial overkill. When the Church really needs a Pope, though, is during times of protracted theological controversy, during times when there is a need for resolution and the restoration of unity. And this is when the rubber hits the road, because if the Pope comes down on the other side of the issue I feel passionately about, I am then faced with the demand to submit my will and mind to the magisterial teaching. It is in situations like these that submission becomes true obedience. Not to submit is to engage in private judgment; it is in fact to be Protestant.

“But I thought you didn’t believe in the Horn, Trumpkin,” said Caspian.

“No more I do, your Majesty. But what’s that got to do with it. I might as well die on a wild goose chase as die here. You are my King. I know the difference between giving advice and taking orders. You’ve had my advice, and now it’s the time for orders.” (C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian)

Bunches of modern Catholics refuse to submit to the authoritative teaching of the Church. Each has his reasons and arguments; each is convinced that his reasons and arguments justify dissent. Apparently, the Pope is only to be obeyed when he agrees with what we have already determined to be true.

Cardinal Newman provides an interesting lesson here. As is well known to Pontifications readers, Newman hated private judgment. The whole point of the Catholic Church, for Newman, was churchly infallibility. “To believe in a Church,” Newman says, “is to believe in the Pope.” Thus Newman severely rebuked as “uncatholic” the spirit “which starts with a grudging faith in the word of the Church, and determines to hold nothing but what it is, as if by demonstration, compelled to believe. To be a true Catholic a man must have a generous loyalty towards ecclesiastical authority, and accept what is taught him with what is called the pietas fidei.” Newman rejected the position that Catholics should only submit to the judgments of the Pope on matters infallible. As the Vicar of Christ, the Pope deserves the full-hearted assent of Catholics.

There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying our Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us.

The See of Peter, Newman writes, “is not in all cases infallible, it may err beyond its special province, but it has in all cases a claim on our obedience.” And lest Newman be dismissed as old hat, we find the same posture of obedience expressed by Vatican II: “Religious submission of mind and of will must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not defining, in such a way, namely, that the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to according to his manifested mind and will, which is clear either from the nature of the documents, or from the repeated presentation of the same doctrine, or from the manner of speaking” (Lumen Gentium 25).

But even Newman found his obedience tested. Though a believer in papal infallibility, he did not believe that the Church should dogmatically define the doctrine. After the Vatican Council passed the definition in 1870, he withheld his assent for many months, hoping that it would not be received by the Church. He urged several of his correspondents to be patient. One of these correspondents, an Anglican, told Newman that his refusal to assent to the conciliar dogma was not unlike the position that he had earlier advocated as a member of the Church of England. Newman found himself at a loss of words and could not refute the objection. Eventually Newman surrendered and gave his full assent to the conciliar definition, as evidenced by his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

For the past forty years, progressive Catholics have found themselves combatting the Pope on one issue or another. They claim the right to dissent and see themselves as the loyal, courageous, and of course enlightened opposition. It appears obedience is not the virtue Catholics once thought it to be. Everyone can now act the Protestant and protest the decrees and decisions of the Bishop of Rome—always in the name of conscience. Assent to a papal decree with which one disagrees is no longer expected. As Anglican priest, Geoffrey Kirk, quipped: “Liberal Roman Catholics long ago adapted the doctrine of papal infallibility to mean the infallibility of the next Pope but one.”

Which brings us to Charles Curran. Curran is America’s most famous Catholic dissenter. In his recent article, A Place for Dissent, Curran continues his heroic battle against the Inquisition—and especially against the morbid Augustinian who once hurt his feelings and who is now Benedict XVI. If Curran is sure of anything, he is sure that he is right and Rome is wrong. Curiously, he rejects the charge that he is nothing but a “cafeteria Catholic”:

I have often appealed to the well-known Catholic distinction between infallible and noninfallible teaching to distinguish what is essential in Catholic belief and what is somewhat peripheral. I strongly object to being called a “cafeteria Catholic.” Here the insistence on what is necessary and central to our faith is most important. One cannot be a good Catholic and disagree with necessary beliefs such as the Trinity, the creative role of God, the saving role of Jesus, the sanctifying mission of the Holy Spirit, revelation in the Bible and in tradition, the sacramental life of the church, and the role of bishops in the church. But one can disagree with some teachings that are not infallible, not central, and not certain.

Something feels wrong about this statement; but I do not know Catholic theology well enough to state precisely what it is. Curran appears to be saying that the essential Catholic beliefs are those beliefs that the Church has explicitly, extraordinarily, and infallibly defined; but if this is what he is saying, he is clearly wrong. The dogmas of faith certainly state some of the core Christian beliefs, but they do not exhaust them. The catholic faith is richer and deeper than the dogmas that controversy has compelled the Church to define. The catholic faith is a whole. The truths of revelation cohere together in a beautiful tapestry, each mutually illumining the others (analogia fidei).

But more importantly, it appears that Curran has arrogated to himself the role of judging what is essential to the Catholic faith and what is not. He sounds just like the typical Episcopal priest. We all have Popes in our bellies!

6 May 2005


When is a theological argument convincing? This question was raised for me by Edwin’s comment on the issue of women’s ordination: “This is a horribly difficult issue for me, because all the arguments against women’s ordination seem astoundingly weak to me, and yet I do not want to set myself up against the Church’s Tradition.” Why does one person find a theological argument in favor of the ordination of women to the priesthood strong, persuasive, perhaps even coercive, and another person does not. Clearly it is not just a matter of intelligence. So what other considerations are at work?

Since theological arguments are rarely of the knock-down sort, we must allow the real possibility that prejudice is determining our convictions. Prejudice works both sides of the street. Some may find the ordination of women to be abhorrent because they are sexist; others may find the ordination of women to be a moral imperative because they are driven by political ideology. We are usually the last to perceive such faults within ourselves. May God deliver us from our prejudices and ideologies.

The only question that matters is, What is God’s will for his Church? What we want, what we prefer, what we think would be desirable or just is irrelevant. This is God’s Church. The ministerial priesthood belongs to him. No one has a right to ordination.

This last sentence needs to be reiterated: No one has a right to ordination. The question of the admission of women to Holy Orders can never be a matter of justice. If God wills an exclusively male priesthood, then his will is good and is to be celebrated and affirmed by all the faithful; likewise if God wills the ordination of women. If we cannot approach this question in a spirit of humility and obedience, trusting that God’s will for his Church is truly good, then we cannot reflect rightly on this question.

The first place we turn to discern the will of God is Holy Scripture. And immediately we are faced with a huge problem. Catholic and Orthodox Christians read the Bible differently than Protestant Christians. Sacramental Christians read the Bible differently than non-sacramental Christians. Traditionalist Christians read the Bible differently than progressive Christians. Feminist Christians read the Bible differently than non-feminist Christians. It is not surprising, therefore, that when we ask the Bible “May women be ordained to the priesthood?” we receive a hundred and one different answers, depending on who is asking the question. The only people who are really, really convinced that the Bible is crystal clear in its answer are those who already knew the answer before they opened it up.

The fact is, orthodox Christians do not go to the Bible with the expectation of finding a blueprint for God’s Church. We do not find in its pages clear instruction on the ordained ministry, apostolic succession, eucharistic presidency, or the seven sacraments. Yet this does not hinder catholic Christianity from authoritatively declaring, for example, that Christ truly wills the threefold structure of bishops, priests, and deacons, validly ordained in the historic succession, for his Church in all times and places. We should therefore not be surprised if we do not find a clear, unambiguous answer to the question of women’s ordination in the New Testament. What we do find is the liberating news that male and female are equally redeemed in Christ, combined with the restriction of pastoral leadership to men, at least on a local basis, with no hint that the latter in any way contradicts or compromises the former.

Similarly, when we turn to the Tradition, we find a two thousand year old practice of restricting ordination to Holy Orders to men, yet with little commentary on why this should be so. Perhaps we can cite St Thomas Aquinas as representative of the Tradition. While Thomas recognizes that women may be called by God to the ministry of prophet and to temporal authority, he declares that women cannot be ordained into Holy Orders. Such an ordination is not only contrary to God’s law (illicit); but it is invalid and thus impossible. I doubt very many will find Aquinas’s reasons for this restriction persuasive today; but the reasons offered are not the point. What is important to note is that Aquinas did not see the restriction as merely disciplinary in nature:

Certain things are required in the recipient of a sacrament as being requisite for the validity of the sacrament, and if such things be lacking, one can receive neither the sacrament nor the reality of the sacrament. Other things, however, are required, not for the validity of the sacrament, but for its lawfulness, as being congruous to the sacrament; and without these one receives the sacrament, but not the reality of the sacrament. Accordingly we must say that the male sex is required for receiving Orders not only in the second, but also in the first way. Wherefore even though a woman were made the object of all that is done in conferring Orders, she would not receive Orders, for since a sacrament is a sign, not only the thing, but the signification of the thing, is required in all sacramental actions; thus it was stated above (Question [32], Article [2]) that in Extreme Unction it is necessary to have a sick man, in order to signify the need of healing. Accordingly, since it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection, it follows that she cannot receive the sacrament of Order. Some, however, have asserted that the male sex is necessary for the lawfulness and not for the validity of the sacrament, because even in the Decretals (cap. Mulieres dist. 32; cap. Diaconissam, 27, qu. i) mention is made of deaconesses and priestesses. But deaconess there denotes a woman who shares in some act of a deacon, namely who reads the homilies in the Church; and priestess [presbytera] means a widow, for the word “presbyter” means elder.

But if we do not find Aquinas’s reasons persuasive, does that not mean that his conclusion is wrong? Of course not. Aquinas inherited the Church’s belief that God had unconditionally restricted Holy Orders to men. He did not reason his way to it. He received the doctrine of male priesthod and then sought to provide reasons for the exclusion of women, reasons which he found in Scripture and in the inability of the female sex “to signify eminence of degree.” The tradition comes first, the theologizing subsequently.

Thus while I find the various arguments advanced both for and against the admission of women into Holy Orders of great interest, I believe that it is a mistake to believe that the issue can be solved by a contest of who can provide the best and most persuasive arguments. Such arguments are unlikely to prove probative. Given the complexity and depth of the catholic language of faith, we should not be surprised if we find ourselves incapable of articulating why God has instituted the male priesthood and how it coheres with the deep grammar of cathoic belief and praxis. We experience more than we know; we know more than we can say. Most of us are unable to state the grammatical rules that norm the English language, yet we still know how to speak the language and we recognize occasions of improper speech.

Most Protestants nowadays find the exclusion of women from the ordained ministry to be incomprehensible. But that is hardly surprising. The male presbyterate makes little sense when it is divorced from the catholic understanding of the eucharistic sacrifice and the ministerial priesthood. Thus when a Protestant says, “all the arguments against women’s ordination seem astoundingly weak to me,” I am not surprised. How could it be otherwise? A Protestant would need to be converted to and formed by a lifetime of catholic eucharistic practice before he could begin to intuit the anomaly of female priests.

But aren’t there plenty of Catholics today who are calling for the admission of women to the priesthood? True … but this does not mean that they are speaking out of a catholic mind. For the past forty years, Catholicism, particularly in the West, has been seriously Protestantized, both liturgically, theologically, and devotionally. Eucharist has become a community meal. Catholics have lost a deep existential understanding both of transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice and no longer appreciate the sacerdotal, mediatorial role of the ordained priest. Catholic theologians, and the clergy trained or influenced by them, simply seem to be unaware of how Protestantized and ideologized they have become. Or perhaps they really are aware of it. Back in the ’70’s Yves Congar stormed out of a meeting of a high-level theological commission muttering, “They are no longer Catholic, they are no longer Catholic.” Delete the ecclesiastical label, Luke Timothy Johnson, for example, reads just fine as a moderate Episcopalian or a Hauerwas-type Methodist. And how folks like Rosemary Radford Ruether or Virginia Mollenkott can even be considered Christian, much less Catholic, is beyond the ken of this poor Episcopalian. Hence I do not trust the judgment of progressive Catholics on the issue of women’s ordination. They have lost the sense of the Church. I know their Anglican and Protestant counterparts all too well.

On the other hand, I do trust the judgment of Orthodox theologians on this question. Formed by the Byzantine rite and the testimony of the Fathers, and protected over the past hundred years by both persecution and ethnicity, they have not yet been corrupted by secular modernity. The Eucharist is internalized deep in the Orthodox soul. The Orthodox intuitively recognize the symbolic disruption that admission of women to the priesthood would accomplish; they “feel” the violation of the sacramental life of the Church. Only proficient speakers of a language can recognize when someone is speaking ungrammatically. The Orthodox are proficient speakers indeed of the language of faith. When Alexander Schmemann declares, “The ordination of women to priesthood is tantamount for us to a radical and irreparable mutilation of the entire faith, the rejection of the whole Scripture, and, needless to say, the end of all ‘dialogues'” I am inclined to trust his judgment. Schmemann was truly a man of the Eucharist. I certainly trust him above the 130 Catholic theologians listed over at womenpriest.org. Once again, it’s not just a matter of intelligence, exegesis, or logic—and it’s certainly not a matter of academic certification. It’s a matter of knowing the apostolic faith deep in one’s bones.

It may yet take generations for the Church catholic to express well the reasons why the Church cannot ordain women to the priesthood; but the fact that the Church has not yet expressed herself well does not justify a radical departure from the virtually unanmious practice of the Church over the past two thousand years. The validity of the entire sacramental system is at stake. As Cardinal Dulles has written: “As a final consideration favouring the Pope an the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, one might consider where the burden of proof must lie. To me it seems clear that the presumption must be on the side of tradition. Even if it were shown to be probable that the whole tradition had erred, that probability would not clear the way to ordaining women, for the sacrament of holy orders could not be properly conferred unless its validity were certain.”

Ultimately, I am happy to be guided by the Holy Tradition and magisterial teaching of the Church on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. I deem it far more likely that the supporters of women’s ordination are being guided by cultural and ideological concerns than that God has allowed his Church to err on such a fundamental matter.

10 May 2005


Progressive Catholic (jcecil3) is a braver man than I. I would never have the nerve to bring my wife into an internet argument. Everyone in my household knows that my opinions always crash into little pieces upon the rock of her infallibility. In his article Beating Infallibility to Death, PC dares to go where no man has gone before—or at least has returned to tell about it. :-)

Progressive Catholic’s argument is simple: In their intuitive apprehension of the faith, women are now rejecting the Church’s restriction of the priesthood to men, and we all need to take wake up and take notice. Now PC is aware that he has left himself vulnerable to the charge of stereotyping; but he is willing to risk this vulnerability and pursue the thesis that women experience God more intuitively while men experience God more intellectually. This is a very difficult, if not impossible, thesis to prove, by the way. Philosopher Elizabeth Morelli offered a significant critique of this thesis in her essay “The Question of Woman’s Experience of God,” in Speaking the Christian God. She concluded that to posit a female and male experience of God is to “assert that woman is not quite human, or that there are two distinct human natures.”

Though PC is the first to admit that truth is not determined by poll-taking, in a sense that is precisely what he is doing, yet without giving us any data to support his claims. Which women are now rejecting the Catholic position on the male priesthood? American women? European women? Asian women? African women? South American women? Catholic women? Orthodox women? Is this rejection universal among Christian women, or do women differ depending on denominational commitment, class, education, status, wealth, culture, nationality?

And once we have all of this data, does it really matter?

In his follow-up article, An Afterthought, PC asks, What is the positive dogma? For some reason PC believes that there is something strange about the negativity of the Catholic restriction: “Something unique about considering the notion that the Church is not authorized to ordain women as infallible dogma is that I cannot think of any other instance where infallible dogma is a negative statement.” I gather he is referring to the precise wording of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis where the Pope says:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

But the Pope’s wording here is simply determined by the controversy and the fact the debate relates to a matter of church order and not to a theological proposition. The dogma, in its positive form, might be formulated along these lines: “The three-fold pastoral office of bishop, priest, and deacon is a gift of Christ Jesus to his Church that belongs to the esse of the Church. By dominical and apostolic institution, the office of bishop and priest is restricted to men exclusively.” (I’m going to leave open the question of deacons, if for no other reason but to give Bill Tighe something to argue about. [grin]) Because we are talking about a ministerial structure instituted by God, declares the Pope, the Church does not have the authority to alter it.

Progressive Catholic has spent a great deal of ink explaining to us why Ordinatio Sacerdotali does not contain an infallible dogmatic definition and why therefore the Catholic may conscientiously dissent from it. At several points the argument descended into a level of canonical technicalities that befuddles most Anglicans, including this Pontificator. But today PC revealed on my blog his true concern: “But I am a white male Roman Catholic with no vested interest in women’s ordination, and I am trying to say that I honestly think and feel that the exclusion of women from ministerial priesthood is immoral and heretical.”

Here is the crux! PC is convinced that the two thousand year old tradition of the male priesthood is immoral and heretical! No wonder why he (and others like him) believe that introducing women into the ordained ministry is a moral imperative and that dissent is justified under all circumstances. No wonder he finds himself in a spiritual and theological crisis! And no wonder he fears the possibility that the Vatican might one day infallibly dogmatize the male priesthood!

Just imagine, from the very first day the Church began ordaining men to the pastoral office, she embodied in herself a ministerial structure that is immoral and heretical. From that very first day, she has been subverting the very gospel she is commissioned to proclaim.

I am not surprised by PC’s admission here. For five years or so, back in the late 80s and early 90s, I immersed myself in “Christian” feminist literature. By and large, feminists really do believe that orthodox Christianity is fundamentally oppressive, sexist, and evil.

Within a Protestantism that has been formed by the critical-historical method, a hermeneutic of suspicion comes easily. Protestantism lives by its protest against the Tradition, fueled by its identification of a “canon within the canon.” In the Episcopal Church, this privileged canon may be termed “radical inclusivity.” It is well described by Philip Turner in his article ECUSA’s God. Given Progressive Catholic’s support of the blessing of gay unions, my guess is that he would be much more comfortable worshipping the Episcopal Church God than the Catholic God.

PC’s dissenting stance is alien to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Both believe that God has entrusted to the Church a divine revelation that cannot be changed in its essentials. Both believe that the ecclesial structures of the Church are apostolically mandated. Both believe that the Church is holy, apostolic, and catholic. Consequently, the claim that the Church has, from the beginning, misunderstood the gospel and embedded this misunderstanding in its ecclesial structure is not only implausible but impossible to entertain.

It is simply impossible—within the circle of catholic faith—for a believer to logically reach the conclusion that the male priesthood is immoral and heretical. In order to reach this conclusion, he must step outside the Tradition and access a different “revelation” than the one entrusted to the Apostles. Only from a stance of disbelief is such a radical critique of the Church possible.

Progressive Catholic is not simply questioning a definitive teaching of the Catholic Church, seeking to understand it better so as to reach a deeper level of assent. He is doubting a definitive teaching, if not rejecting it. The terrible words of Newman quickly come to mind:

When a man has become a Catholic, were he to set about following a doubt which has occurred to him, he has already disbelieved. I have not to warn him against losing his faith, he is not merely in danger of losing it, he has lost it; from the nature of the case he has already lost it; he fell from grace at the moment when he deliberately entertained and pursued his doubt. No one can determine to doubt what he is already sure of; but if he is not sure that the Church is from God, he does not believe it. It is not I who forbid him to doubt; he has taken the matter into his own hands when he determined on asking for leave; he has begun, not ended, in unbelief; his very wish, his purpose, is his sin. I do not make it so, it is such from the very state of the case.

Nor is it possible for a Catholic to appeal to conscience to justify intransigent dissent against authoritative Church doctrine. As philosopher Martin Moleski writes, “Conscience is not an independent source of knowledge. Catholics are not gnostics. We do not believe that we can independently verify the teachings of the Church through the interior light of conscience.”

Perhaps it is easier for an outsider to see what is happening here. We know what it is to be Protestant, and we readily recognize the reasonings of progressive catholics as belonging to our family. Are dissenting Catholics truly Catholic? Consider the following description by Newman on the nature of Catholic assent and decide for yourself:

And so, in like manner, of the whole depositum of faith, or the revealed word:—If we believe in the revelation, we believe in what is revealed, in all that is revealed, however it may be brought home to us, by reasoning or in any other way. He who believes that Christ is the Truth, and that the Evangelists are truthful, believes all that He has said through them, though he has only read St. Matthew and has not read St. John. He who believes in the depositum of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the depositum; and since he cannot know them all at once, he knows some doctrines, and does not know others; he may know only the Creed, nay, perhaps only the chief portions of the Creed; but, whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all. All that he knows now as revealed, and all that he shall know, and all that there is to know, he embraces it all in his intention by one act of faith; otherwise, it is but an accident that he believes this or that, not because it is a revelation. This virtual, interpretative, or prospective belief is called a believing implicitè accept those dogmatic decisions.

I say, “granting these various propositions are virtually contained in the revealed word,” for this is the only question left; and that it is to be answered in the affirmative, is clear at once to the Catholic, from the fact that the Church declares that they really belong to it. To her is committed the care and the interpretation of the revelation. The word of the Church is the word of the revelation. That the Church is the infallible oracle of truth is the fundamental dogma of the Catholic religion; and “I believe what the Church proposes to be believed” is an act of real assent, including all particular assents, notional and real; and, while it is possible for unlearned as well as learned, it is imperative on learned as well as unlearned. And thus it is, that by believing the word of the Church implicitè, that is, by believing all that that word does or shall declare itself to contain, every Catholic, according to his intellectual capacity, supplements the shortcomings of his knowledge without blunting his real assent to what is elementary, and takes upon himself from the first the whole truth of revelation, progressing from one apprehension of it to another according to his opportunities of doing so.

I realize, of course, that Catholic theology and its understanding of faith and assent has developed since Newman’s time. But when one compares Newman with Pope John Paul’s Ad Tuendem Fidem and Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary, it is clear that Newman and the Magisterium are inhabiting the same Catholic universe. The same cannot be said of Hans Küng, Charles Curran, or Luke Timothy Johnson. The Catholic eschews private judgment and freely submits his mind and heart to the authoritative teaching of the Church. And he certainly does not restrict his assent to those handful of doctrines that fulfill the demanding criteria of infallibly defined dogma.

17 May 2005


If Ordinatio Sacerdotalis had been promulgated in 1855, without any additional explanation from the Holy Office of the Inquisition, does anyone doubt that the apostolic letter’s exclusion of women from the priesthood would have been received as a definitive, de fide dogma? This is an unfair scenario, of course, for two reasons: First, because a consensus existed in the Church at that time that the priesthood was restricted to males by divine institution. Second, because the various distinctions in authoritative statements, as set forth, for example, in Ad Tuendam Fidem, were unknown in 1850. Matters were a lot fuzzier. There was also disagreement among Catholic theologians on the authority of papal dogmatic decrees. In 1875 Newman looked back on the state of opinion before the First Vatican Council:

Up to 1870, what was of faith was that infallibility lies in the voice of Pope and Bishops together. The question which followed, what if Pope and Bishops differ? might be answered in three ways, [1] in fact there is no act of infallibility, 2 infallibility lies with the Bishops by themselves—3. Infallibility lies in the Pope by himself. In the Council of the Vatican, the third answer has been made de fide. In saying this I do not mean to imply that the Pope and Bishops ever will disagree, though a portion of the Episcopate may disagree with the Pope—a difference not in fact but an hypothesis. (Letter to Thomas Edwards, 15 April 1875)

Before the publication of the Vatican dogma, Newman does not appear to have spent much time or energy on the limits of papal infallibility. As he wrote to William Wilberforce in 1867: “For myself I have never taken any great interest in the question of the limits and seat of infallibility.” What was important for Newman was the infallibility of the Church. The voice of the Church is the voice of God. “I believe whatever the Church teaches as the voice of God,” Newman explained to Wilberforce—“and this or that particular inclusively, if she teaches this.” Yet Newman was no conciliarist, as well expressed in his Cathedra Sempiterna:

Deeply do I feel, ever will I protest, for I can appeal to the ample testimony of history to bear me out, that, in questions of right and wrong, there is nothing really strong in the whole world, nothing decisive and operative, but the voice of him, to whom have been committed the keys of the kingdom and the oversight of Christ’s flock. The voice of Peter is now, as it ever has been, a real authority, infallible when it teaches, prosperous when it commands, ever taking the lead wisely and distinctly in its own province, adding certainty to what is probable, and persuasion to what is certain. Before it speaks, the most saintly may mistake; and after it has spoken, the most gifted must obey.

It is mere speculation, but I have to believe that after reading the words of Pope John Paul II—“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”—Newman would have immediately acknowledged the papal declaration as definitive and binding on Catholic conscience, especially if it were received and affirmed by the universal Episcopate, as it no doubt would have been.

How would the Vatican I Fathers have received Ordinatio Sacerdotalis? Consider the dogmatic definition of Pastor aeternus:

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.

When John Paul declared that the exclusion of women from the priesthood was “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faith,” was he or was he not defining “a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church”? This may be disputed today, but would it have been disputed at the time of Vatican I? Consider the explanation given by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser to the Council Fathers on 11 July 1870, speaking on behalf of the committee that composed the draft decree:

Not just any manner of proposing the doctrine is sufficient even when he is exercising his office as supreme pastor and teacher. Rather, there is required the manifest intention of defining doctrine, either of putting an end to a doubt about a certain doctrine or of defining a thing, giving a definitive judgment and proposing that doctrine as one which must be held by the Universal Church

A few days latter Bishop Gasser ascended the podium again to elaborate:

My second observation concerns the word ‘define’ as it is found in our Draft. It is obvious from the many exceptions that this word is an obstacle for some of the reverend fathers; hence, in their exceptions, they have completely eliminated this word or have substituted another word, viz., ‘decree,’ or something similar, in its place, or have said, simultaneously, ‘defines and decrees,’ etc. Now I shall explain in a very few words how this word ‘defines’ is to be understood according to the Deputation de fide. Indeed, the Deputation de fide is not of the mind that this word should be understood in a juridical sense (Lat. in sensu forensi) so that it only signifies putting an end to controversy which has arisen in respect to heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking de fide. Rather, the word ‘defines’ signifies that the Pope directly and conclusively pronounces his sentence about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith or morals and does so in such a way that each one of the faithful can be certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman Pontiff; in such a way, indeed, that he or she knows for certain that such and such a doctrine is held to be heretical, proximate to heresy, certain or erroneous, etc., by the Roman Pontiff.

The Vatican Fathers thus eschewed the necessity of specific wording for an infallible papal decree. What is necessary is that the Pope, in his role as universal pastor of the Church, must make clear that “he is defining doctrine to be held by the Universal Church.” For this reason, Gasser could comment that “already thousands and thousands of dogmatic judgments have gone forth from the Apostolic See; where is the law which prescribed the form to be observed in such judgments?”

Is it unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that by the standards of dogma of the nineteenth century Church, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis would have been recognized as an irreformable decree?

But a hundred and thirty six years have passed since Vatican I, during which the levels of dogmatic authority have been further clarified by the Magisterium (see especially Ad Tuendam Fidem) and embodied in Canon Law. Canon 750 is critical for our analysis:

§1. A person must believe with divine and Catholic faith all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium which is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatsoever contrary to them.

§2. Each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals, that is, each and every thing which is required to safeguard reverently and to expound faithfully the same deposit of faith, is also to be firmly embraced and retained; therefore, one who rejects those propositions which are to be held definitively is opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

So what about Ordinatio Sacerdotalis? Following the publication of the apostolic letter, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith offered the following papally approved interpretation:

Dubium: Whether the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, which is presented in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.

Responsum: In the affirmative.

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium (cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium 25, 2). Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith.

In other words, the exclusion of women from the priesthood is to be understood as falling under §2 of Canon 750. In a follow-up letter, Cardinal Ratzinger described John Paul’s declaration as “an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, [that] witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.” This interpretation was subsequently confirmed by the commentary of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith on Ad Tuendam Fidem: “The Supreme Pontiff, while not wishing to proceed to a dogmatic definition, intended to reaffirm that this doctrine is to be held definitively, since, founded on the written Word of God, constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

A door to continued dissent against the Church’s restriction of women to the priesthood was thus apparently left open. At least so progressive Catholics believe (see the various articles at womenpriests.org). The judgment of Richard R. Gaillardetz may be cited as representative of the present dissensus:

The papal declaration itself, as an exercise of the ordinary papal magisterium, is not and cannot be an exercise of infallibility (that is, there is at least a remote possibility that this declaration could be erroneous). This papal teaching act must be distinguished from the infallible teaching of the whole college of bishops in their ordinary universal magisterium. In other words, the authoritative weight of the claims made in the papal declaration depends on the weight of evidence that the conditions for the exercise of the ordinary universal magisterium have in fact been fulfilled. This would require, at the least, evidence of extensive and open consultation with the bishops in the determination that the whole college is in fact united in its judgment that this matter pertains to faith and morals and is to be held definitively. No papal declaration can substitute for the actual substantiation of the fulfillment of the conditions for the exercise of the ordinary universal magisterium set forth in Lumen gentium § 25.2. When a true collegial unanimity is not clearly evident, papal claims to the ordinary universal magisterium risk trivializing the church’s teaching on episcopal collegiality and returning to a time when episcopal teaching authority was viewed as a mere delegation of papal authority.

It’s all very confusing. I have to wonder whether this confusion is an inevitable result of the Church’s decision to dogmatize papal infallibility. When matters were murkier, an authoritative declaration from the Supreme Pontiff that the male priesthood must be definitively held by the faithful would probably have been received by the faithful as de fide. But today, such is no longer the case. Newman appears to have foreseen this problem. In December 1869 Newman jotted down the following note: “I doubt whether you do not lessen it by defining it.” Once the matter is dogmatized, the theologians and canon lawyers must then step in and delineate precisely when a papal definition is infallible and when it is not. As a result, those who are intent on withholding assent, for whatever reasons, can always demand more proof that the conditions for irreformability have been fulfilled. Thus Gaillardetz: “The burden lies with the ecclesiastical magisterium, not only to assert that the church’s teaching on the exclusion of women from the priesthood has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium but to ‘clearly establish’ that fact.”

In essence, the dissenters to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are telling us that John Paul II overstepped his prerogatives. Given that he has not, by progressive lights, demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that the universal Episcopate has definitively taught, either diachronically or synchronically, the exclusion of women from the priesthood, then he cannot legitimately close debate and command us to firmly accept the doctrine. Nicholas Lash went so far as to describe Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as a “scandalous abuse of power.” Oh my. And all the Pope did was do what Popes have done for two thousand years—speak truth and protect the deposit of faith. It’s almost as if they didn’t want a Church with a Pope.

Questions for dissenters to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Is it not the case that the Catholic Episcopate has in fact received Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (see, e.g., the USCCB pastoral document), and doesn’t this reception confirm the papal claim that the divine institution of the male priesthood must be definitively held by all? And if we are going to be ecumenical, as all progressive Catholics claim to be, shouldn’t we also take into account the unanimous judgment of Eastern Orthodox bishops on this issue?

2 March 2006


What is the dogmatic status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis? As a new Catholic, this is a fascinating question for me. The more I read on the subject, the more fascinating it becomes. Does it contain an infallible definition? Is it binding on Catholic consciences? May an informed Catholic faithfully disagree with its claim that the Catholic Church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”?

These questions were raised immediately following the promulgation of the document in 1994. In the Responsum ad Dubium (1995), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared: “This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”

This appears to be saying that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is irreformable, not because the Pope says so, but because the Church, through the ordinary magisterium of her bishops, says so. In this case, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not, in and of itself, add anything to the authority of the teaching. It simply confirms that this doctrine belongs to the Deposit of Faith and thus requires the definitive assent of all Catholics. In an accompanying letter, Cardinal Ratzinger amplifies:

In response to this precise act of the Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, explicitly addressed to the entire Catholic Church, all members of the faithful are required to give their assent to the teaching stated therein. To this end, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the Holy Father, has given an official Reply on the nature of this assent; it is a matter of full definitive assent, that is to say, irrevocable, to a doctrine taught infallibly by the Church. In fact, as the Reply explains, the definitive nature of this assent derives from the truth of the doctrine itself, since, founded on the written Word of God, and constantly held and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary universal Magisterium (cf. Lumen Gentium, 25). Thus, the Reply specifies that this doctrine belongs to the deposit of the faith of the Church. It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the Church did not arise with the publication of the Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In the Letter, as the Reply of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also explains, the Roman Pontiff, having taken account of present circumstances, has confirmed the same teaching by a formal declaration, giving expression once again to quod semper, quod ubique et quod ab omnibus tenendum est, utpote ad fidei depositum pertinens. In this case, an act of the ordinary Papal Magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.

A fallible witness to an infallible teaching? If this is the final word on the matter, then it is difficult to see how Ordinatio Sacerdotalis can, in itself, be definitively binding on Catholic conscience, for its authority ultimately rests on the soundness of the debated claim that the ordinary magisterium of the Church teaches the exclusion of women from the priesthood as a definitive truth. As Francis Sullivan writes:

The question whether a doctrine has been infallibly taught is not a matter of doctrine, but a matter of fact, which has to be “manifestly established.” What must be “manifestly established,” when the claim is made that a doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium, is that not only the pope, but the whole body of Catholic bishops as well, are proposing the same doctrine as one which the faithful are obliged to hold in a definitive way. I do not see how it could be said that a papal declaration, of itself, without further evidence, would suffice to establish this fact.

In other words, a fallible papal decree, by itself, is insufficient to establish the infallibility of a given doctrine. We need evidence, Sullivan says—specifically, evidence that demonstrates that the episcopate of the Church has, with a moral unanimity, either taught in the past or teaches in the present the definitiveness of the male priesthood. Or as Nicholas Lash pointedly states: “Neither the Pope nor Cardinal Ratzinger can make a teaching to be ‘founded on the written Word of God’ simply by ascertaining that it is so founded. Nor can they by assertion, make it a matter that has been ‘constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church.'” Because such evidence is allegedly lacking, progressive Catholics claim the right to dissent from Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

Yet Sullivan’s critique ignores one notable fact about Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Pope John Paul II clearly intended to end debate on this subject:

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

He is not offering an opinion or a determination of probability. As universal pastor and head of the episcopal college, the Pope declares that the Church lacks authority to alter the constitution of priesthood and asserts that all must firmly accept this truth. Roma locutus, causa finita est. Despite Ratzinger’s initial assessment of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis as a fallible witness to an infallible doctrine—an assessment that is itself fallible—a few theologians have argued that the document enjoys the authority of an ex cathedra decree. Perhaps the strongest argument along these lines has been offered by Fr Ansgar Santogrossi (also see the discussion by E. L. Core). His arguments should not be dismissed out of hand. Santogrossi reads the apostolic letter as containing a dogmatic definition:

One should note what John Paul II did not say in the decisive passage of OS. He did not say “we confirm that this judgment has already been definitively proposed by the ordinary and universal magisterium.” The decisive passage of OS does not bear on this question which is in the domain of “dogmatic facts.” Rather he declares a divine thing (or an act of Christ) and he declares that this thing is definitive tenendam. Through the context provided by Pastor aeternus of Vatican I, the Report of the Deputation on Faith for Pastor aeternus, LG 25, and the practice of the Church attested to by an event during the Council of Trent and by Pius XI, it is manifest that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis contains an ex cathedra definition.

I confess that when I read Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, it sure reads to me like the Pope intended to dogmatically bind the mind and conscience of the Church. Yet as we have seen, the subsequent interpretations of the CDF, with the approval of the Pope, have denied that the document contains an ex cathedra definition. Hence it is doubtful that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis fulfills the canonical requirement that a solemn definition must be “manifestly evident” (canon 749.3). We are thus faced with an alternative: either Pope John Paul II overstepped his authority in attempting to bind universal Catholic conscience through a fallible act of ordinary magisterium, or he exercised his dogmatic authority in a way not easily squeezed into the categories of Vatican I & II, particularly as these have been interpreted by post-conciliar theologians. The Church’s understanding of her dogmatic authority is a developing reality. There is no reason to believe that this development has ceased.

In 1997, Archbishop Tarciscio Bertone, Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published a thoughtful piece, “Magisterial Documents and Public Dissent.” Bertone asks us to consider the significance of the fact that in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the Pope, in his role as head of the episcopal college, has authoritatively confirmed a doctrine as taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church:

In the light of these considerations, it seems a pseudo-problem to wonder whether this papal act of confirming a teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium is infallible or not. In fact, although it is not per se a dogmatic definition (like the Trinitarian dogma of Nicaea, the Christological dogma of Chalcedon or the Marian dogmas), a papal pronouncement of confirmation enjoys the same infallibility as the teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium, which includes the Pope not as a mere Bishop but as the Head of the Episcopal College. In this regard, it is important to make clear that when the Responsum ad dubium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the doctrine taught in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis mentions the infallible character of this doctrine which is already possessed by the Church, it simply meant to recall that the doctrine is not infallibly proposed only on the basis of this pontifical document, but that it confirms what has been held everywhere, always and by everyone as belonging to the deposit of faith. So it is essential to maintain the principle that a teaching can also be infallibly proposed by the ordinary, universal Magisterium by an act that does not take the solemn form of a definition.

Sullivan believes that Bertone has confused two distinct questions:

It is important here to distinguish two quite different acts of papal teaching authority. One is had when the pope teaches a point of doctrine about which it is clear and certain that not only the pope, but all the bishops as well, are teaching the same doctrine as definitively to be held. In this case, the papal teaching shares the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium. The other case is when, in teaching a point of doctrine as definitively to be held, the pope declares that this doctrine is infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. Here the pope is saying: “Not only do I teach this doctrine as definitively to be held, but all the other Catholic bishops do so as well.” I do not see how such a declaration, which would be an act of ordinary papal magisterium concerning a question of fact, can be said to meet the conditions laid down by Vatican I for an exercise of papal infallibility.

But Sullivan has overlooked the subtlety of Bertone’s argument: specifically, he has overlooked the significance that the Pope issued his letter as head of the community of bishops. How does the Pope know that the ordinary magisterium of the Church teaches the definitive nature of the doctrine of the male priesthood? Not just by engaging in historical research or by conducting a poll of living bishops. He knows because he and his predecessors have taught and presently teach the definitive nature of this doctrine, and the other bishops of the Church continue in communion with him (cf. Lumen Gentium 22, 25). On this basis, Msg. Brian E. Ferme, dean of the School of Canon Law, Catholic University, argues that a solemn pronouncement is unnecessary to secure certainty about what is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church:

As a matter of fact there is a third type of act or declaration on the part of the Roman Pontiff which is described as a confirming or reaffirming act. This refers to the case in which a doctrine taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium can be confirmed or reaffirmed in a declaration by the Roman Pontiff (without recourse to a solemn definition), in which he declares explicitly that the doctrine belongs to the teaching of the universal and ordinary magisterium as either a truth that is divinely revealed (first paragraph [of canon 750]) or as a truth of Catholic doctrine (second paragraph [of canon 750])…. This distinction is clearly important for our understanding of the exercise of the teaching authority of the ordinary and universal magisterium as there has been the tendency to hold that until there had been a solemn intervention, for the post part by the Pontiff, it could not be said that the ordinary and universal magisterium had taught a doctrine infallibly. The fact is that a solemn intervention, or a defining act, is not required to ensure that a teaching is in fact definitive and infallible when taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium because it is itself a subject of the infallible teaching charism in the Church and thus can teach definitively and infallibly. It must not be forgotten that the Pope himself is part of this same ordinary and universal magisterium and that the bishops dispersed throughout the world must be in communion with the successor of Peter and themselves (communionis nexum inter se et cum Petri successore servantes) when they teach definitively. (“Ad Tuendam Fidem: Some Reflections” [Periodica 88 (1999)], pp. 600-602.)

In an earlier article, Ferme proposed that the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in contrast to a solemn definition, be understood as “authoritatively declarative.” Clearly, new juridical categories are needed. Ferme’s interpretation of papal confirming acts accords with Pope John Paul’s personal interpretation of what he did in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis:

Therefore, the doctrine that the priesthood is reserved to men possesses, by virtue of the Church’s ordinary and universal Magisterium, that character of infallibility which Lumen gentium speaks of and to which I gave juridical form in the Motu Proprio Ad tuendam fidem: When the individual Bishops, “even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving among themselves and with Peter’s Successor the bond of communion, agree in their authoritative teaching on matters of faith and morals that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely, they infallibly proclaim the doctrine of Christ” (Lumen gentium, n. 25; cf. Ad tuendam fidem, n. 3). (Address of the Holy Father to German bishops, 1999.)

In the Encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, as well as in the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, I wished once again to set forth the constant doctrine of the Church’s faith with an act confirming truths which are clearly witnessed to by Scripture, the apostolic Tradition and the unanimous teaching of the Pastors. These declarations, by virtue of the authority handed down to the Successor of Peter to ‘confirm the brethren’ (Luke 22:32), thus express the common certitude present in the life and teaching of the Church. (“Magisterium Exercises Authority in Christ’s Name,” 24 November 1995.)

We appear to be in the midst of a development of doctrine. It is not surprising, therefore, that controversy attends this matter. One thinks of the debate between Newman and Manning back in the 1860s. Hermann J. Pottmeyer has raised critical questions about this development (“Fallibly Infallible?” [1999]); but still he acknowledges that one cannot accuse John Paul of contradicting the norms of Vatican I & II. The mere fact that neither council mentions papal confirming acts does not mean that such acts are in any way improper. On the contrary, they seem to be eminently proper, especially during those times of controversy when the Church needs her supreme pastor to authoritatively attest the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Richard Gaillardetz has suggested that papal confirming acts should be understood as akin to the seal of a notary public. “With this ‘notary’ exercise of papal teaching,” Gaillardetz writes, “the pope would be, not imposing a new teaching, but rather setting his ‘seal’ on that which has emerged in the consciousness of the Church.” But the persuasive force of the notary confirmation is still contingent upon the persuasive force of the evidence. It should not be employed when serious doubts exist: “The notary transcends their authority, however, when they affix their seal in the face of doubts regarding the authenticity of the signatory simply because they themselves are committed to the contents of the document.”

Lawrence J. Welch, however, has noted that a papal confirmation is more than a statement of consensus achieved. It is also a judgment about what constitutes authentic doctrine. Such a judgment is hardly needed when the consensual teaching is unchallenged; it is needed precisely when the teaching is challenged or denied. “When the papacy functioned as a court of appeal in the first millennium,” observes Welch, “the bishop of Rome did not limit himself as a notary who simply confirmed the end result of a process. The popes understood themselves as making a judgment about matters that were disputed at the time” (“Reply to Richard Gaillardetz on the ordinary universal magisterium and to Francis Sullivan,” Theological Studies [September 2003]). Pope John Paul’s employment of doctrinal confirmations is plausibly construed as a retrieval of ancient practice.

5 March 2006


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