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The Ordination of Women: Infallibly Taught?

by Peter Burns, S.J.

Originally sent to the Canon1024 e-mail list, run by Luis Gutierrez, for discussion of women's ordination.

I've recently subscribed to this list, and I can see already that I probably won't be staying long. But I just want to point out one fact, and then state in this unfortunately rather lengthy post, my overall view of the question as to whether the impossibility of women's ordination has been infallibly taught or not. (By the way, I have read Manfred Hauke's work, Avery Dulles' writings on the subject, and other material favourable to the official Vatican position.)

Ordinatio sacerdotalis was declared by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to be a teaching act that was, and I quote, "not itself infallible." It was made explicit by the Congregation at the press conference held to publicize its Responsio ad dubium (relating to the Apostolic Letter) that ordinatio sacerdotalis was NOT an exercise of the pope's extraordinary infallible magisterium. This was reiterated in the official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano at the time, and both these points were noted by Fr. Avery Dulles, S.J. (a noted opponent of women's ordination) in an article he wrote for The Tablet last year. I won't go looking for the exact details and more extensive quotes, because I've done this before in other fora and I can't be bothered now, since I lost the relevant e-mail files and the relevant information concerning exact references and dates, etc. But these are the facts. If you don't believe me, hunt them out for yourself.

Although it conceded that the teaching contained in OS was not infallibly taught in virtue of the extraordinary papal magisterium, the CDF nonetheless gave its opinion that the teaching contained in OS was an infallibly taught doctrine in virtue of the ordinary magisterium of the Church as explicated in section 25 of Lumen gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church issued by Vatican II. That is, it was the opinion of the CDF that the doctrine had already, prior to and independently of OS, been taught infallibly by the College of Bishops in union with the pope as a teaching that must be definitively held (tenenda definitive) to belong to the deposit of faith. This mode of infallible teaching requires a clear, constant teaching on the part of the bishops as a moral whole that some point of doctrine has been divinely revealed (cf. Lumen gentium, 25)

There are 3 modes of infallible teaching:

  1. an infallible ex cathedra definition by the pope (this need not follow a consultation with the College of Bishops, though this was the practice in the two clear cases of such a definition, the Immaculate Conception (Pius IX, 1854) and the Assumption of the BVM (Pius XII, 1950);
  2. a solemn definition by a valid ecumenical council of the Church (e.g. the dogmatic decrees on the divinity and humanity of Christ etc, at Nicaea and Chalcedon and many other dogmas); and
  3. a constant teaching, not with any specific definition or formula, by the College of Bishops while dispersed around the world, but maintaining communion with the pope, that a doctrine belongs to the deposit of faith and must be held definitively as such by all the faithful (an example would be the Resurrection of Christ). What the CDF said clearly enough was that OS contains a teaching which has been infallibly taught in the third of these modes. It also EXPLICITLY said that OS was NOT an instance of the first of these modes. And obviously the matter has not been solemnly defined in the second (conciliar) mode.

That is the official Catholic position. I won't enter any dispute about this, because it's silly to argue about facts. And these are the facts about the official position of the Church. They can readily be verified by reading the documents issued by the CDF and the relevant issues of L'Osservatore Romano. The Dulles article is also helpful in this regard.

Now, the next question we must ask: is the CDF's opinion about the infallible status of the doctrine itself infallible? The answer is definitely NO. Why? Because NOTHING the CDF says is EVER infallibly said. The CDF is not the pope speaking ex cathedra, nor is it a valid ecumenical council, nor is it the College of Bishops in union with the pope. The only way a doctrine can be infallibly taught is by one of the 3 modes of infallible teaching I described above. The CDF can give an opinion about if or when a teaching has been infallibly taught, but ITS OPINION IS ITSELF ALWAYS FALLIBLE. THE CDF IS NOT ENDOWED WITH INFALLIBILITY. Of course, the CDF can state a doctrine which has been infallibly taught. But so can anyone. If I simply repeated an infallibly defined doctrine, such as the Assumption, I would say something which has been infallibly taught. I would be uttering an infallible truth. But I would not be infallible then or ever. Same with the CDF. Its opinion on this as on any other matter is fallible.

So what we have is:

  1. No ex cathedra infallible papal teaching about women's ordination;
  2. No infallibly defined dogma of an ecumenical council concerning women's ordination;
  3. A fallible opinion to the effect that the ban on women's ordination has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Church.

Now just because an opinion is fallible doesn't mean that it's false. The CDF spoke fallibly, but did it speak nonetheless truly?

My opinion is that it made a mistake. It is, in my opinion (no less fallible than the CDF's), simply not the case that the College of Bishops in union with the pope have constantly taught as a moral whole that the longstanding canonical ban on women's ordination is of divine institution or belongs to the divinely revealed deposit of faith, and must be definitively held as such by all the faithful.

What we do have is a longstanding tradition of upholding the canonical ban. But this is obviously insufficient to ground the ban as being one of divine institution, since quite a few changes have occurred subsequent to very longstanding bans or rules. The case of female altar servers is an obvious recent example. During the Patristic era, female altar servers and other examples of female liturgical ministry were explicitly condemned by Pope Gelasius I. Another pope, I can't recall exactly which one, once banned distinctive clerical garb as being contrary to the Gospel. Yet obviously these cases do not concern divinely revealed dogmas. However Gelasius DID base himself on scripture, and described the practice of having female altar servers as being in "contempt for divine truths." Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, taught that women could not baptize since Jesus had not commissioned them to that ministry. Canon law however does now permit women to be baptismal ministers in extraordinary circumstances, and canon law does now permit female altar servers, female eucharistic ministers, and even female exposition of the readings in some circumstances.

During the Patristic era we also had a number of condemnations of women priests. But these were of women priests engaged in the liturgies of heretical sects (e.g. the Collyridians). The ordination of these women was clearly contrary to contemporary canonical norms, and so it is not surprising they were condemned. (I'll return to this point presently.) But let us remember that the Protestant reformers were also condemned for liturgical practices which are now licit in the Catholic Church--use of the vernacular, communion under both species, etc.

What is needed to ground the ban on women's ordination as an infallibly taught dogma pertaining to the deposit of faith is not merely a longstanding canonical ban but a clear and constant teaching by the College of Bishops with moral unanimity and in union with the pope that the ban is grounded on divine revelation and must be held definitively as such by all the faithful. On the face of it, we do not have this requirement in this case.

Merely pointing to the longstanding canonical ban is insufficient. Did the earlier condemnations of women priests go beyond this by being justified with reference to divine revelation? The answer is that only in a minority of cases was an explicit reference made to Scripture or the Apostolic Tradition. In the cases where revelation was appealed to justify the ban, reference was made to the teaching of St Paul and/or the practice of Jesus. However, most of the time the ban was simply assumed and reiterated, not taught as belonging to the deposit of faith. Most bishops probably gave the matter little if any thought after the Patristic era, and made no effort to teach it as a divinely revealed dogma. It was simply a presupposition for most of them, unreflected upon and passively accepted. Do we say this about the Resurrection? The Incarnation? The divinity of Christ? The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and so forth? No! These were all clearly and explicitly taught as belonging to the deposit of faith by the bishops as a moral whole in union with the pope. But the ban on women's ordination as being divinely revealed hardly came up for consideration in the last 1000 years and more (prior to the last 20 years or so).

However, I did say that some--a small minority of bishops (not the College of Bishops as a moral whole)--did sometimes make explicit reference to Scripture. One of them was Epiphanius. But NOTA BENE: Epiphanius got it WRONG when he interpreted the practice of Jesus as forbidding female baptismal ministers! So he is hardly a safe source. And Pope Gelasius I got it WRONG when he held that female altar servers and other females employed in liturgical functions were acting in contempt of "divine truths." (Either Gelasius got it wrong, or else John Paul II has by allowing female altar servers, etc.). So these are hardly safe sources on this matter, and in any case hardly constitute the College of Bishops as a moral whole.

The practice of Jesus: nowhere does Scripture state that Jesus forbade women's ordination. True, the Twelve were all male, but they were also all Jews. Did the Church err by ordaining gentiles? Obviously not. But why should we think that Jesus's choice of only males for the Twelve WAS theologically significant, whereas his choice of only Jews was not? He could have chosen gentiles as he had contact with gentiles (among the Roman forces of occupation for example). But he didn't. Big deal, as far who can be ordained is concerned. Note too, that the apostles seem to have been unsure for a time about the binding and normative significance or otherwise of Jesus's Jewish practices. This was a HUGE issue in the very early Church. Clearly some early Church leaders got it wrong on the significance of Jesus's Jewishness (circumcision, keeping Jewish festivals, dietary laws, etc). Couldn't they have got it wrong on the significance of Jesus only choosing men to be the Twelve? Did they even, in fact, explicitly forbid ordained female ministry at all? This is not at all clear, as the NT seems to contain some ambiguity on this point. For instance, we are told that the 12 were all men, but not that the 72 were all men. And we know that some of Jesus's closest disciples were women, including apparently the first witnesses and heralds of his resurrection. If the twelve were precursors of the episcopate, could not some of these early women disciples of Christ have been among the precursors of the presbyterate?

Women are not mentioned at the Last Supper. But again, this doesn't guarantee that none were present or that their absence was intended by Jesus to be determinative of a ban on women's ordination.

St Paul: the Apostle writes against women doing all sorts of things which they are now allowed to do--e.g. speak in church, instruct and have authority over men, leave their heads uncovered during liturgy. These things are now allowed. So the Apostle's teaching must be seen as a contemporary disciplinary norm, not a teaching about divinely revealed dogma. The "command of the Lord" saying at 1 Cor 14:37 is clearly addressed to < strong>who claims to be a prophet or to have spiritual powers, and concerns the whole of Paul's teaching on the use of spiritual gifts contained in earlier verses. It does not refer specifically to women's role in the liturgy. (Does anyone really think it is a "command of the Lord" that women must not speak in the assembly? We now have women readers, so obviously this cannot be so.) Women are catechists, theologians, pastoral administrators--so they do instruct and have authority over men now, and with the Church's blessing. Are these roles in contradiction of divinely revealed truth? Either we must say that Paul's remarks are to be understood as disciplinary, not doctrinal, or else we must say the Church now licenses heretical practices. Obviously we must choose the former.

So on the face of it, there is nothing in Scripture which reasonably justifies the conclusion that the ban on women's ordination is divinely revealed dogma. The Patristic bans either misinterpret Jesus's practice (e.g on baptism, liturgical ministry) or don't invoke it. Or else they invoke Paul, who clearly must be read as giving disciplinary norms in this matter, not doctrinal ones. Hence these Patristic interventions are themselves not terribly reliable as indications of the true content of the deposit of faith on this matter. The condemnations of women priests are in any case directed at heretical sects which violated prevailing canonical norms, NOT at orthodox Catholic women respectfully seeking a change of the disciplinary norms. The parallel with the Protestant reformers is clear. Some of the condemnations directed at them were not in fact based on doctrinal considerations, and many of the resulting bans in Catholic liturgical practice have subsequently been overturned, although only several hundred years later. Who, 40 years ago, could have imagined legitimate Catholic lay female ministers of the Eucharist? If the Reformers had done this, they would have been even more heartily condemned! Only subsequently would we have seen this as based on disciplinary not doctrinal considerations.

The prevailing norms of the Patristic era were carried over into later canon law and not much reflected upon by subsequent generations of bishops. Thomas Aquinas does deal with the question, but attributes the impossibility of female ordination in part to a supposed defective and inferior character of women's human nature (following not Scripture so much as a very suspect portion of Aristotelian anthropology). Hardly a sound view, and in any case not a definitive or infallible one.

I submit the following conclusions:

  1. The practice of Jesus is clearly inconclusive.
  2. Paul must be interpreted as speaking about discipline rather than dogma when he discusses women's role in the liturgy.
  3. The Patristic condemnations relied on inadequate exegesis of the Gospels and the relevant Pauline texts to ground a canonical norm, and in any case were directed at heretical sects which had violated that norm, NOT at what is now the current situation, i.e. Catholic women respectfully seeking a change in the canonical norm.
  4. Later authors such as Thomas Aquinas relied on an untenable anthropology.
  5. There has been a longstanding canonical ban, but this is far from being decisive evidence in favor of the view that women's ordination has been infallibly taught as being impossible in virtue of divine revelation. Other canonical bans have been changed, so independent evidence of the doctrinal status is needed, not just the fact of the canonical ban itself having been followed for generations. The content of revelation itself must be examined, not merely the canonical tradition, and Scripture gives us no good reason to rule out women's ordination.
  6. Individual bishops and even popes in earlier times clearly made mistakes about what women can and cannot do in principle (e.g. baptize, engage in certain liturgical ministries).
  7. There is no substantial evidence of a constant teaching by the College of Bishops as a moral whole that the ban on women's ordination is not merely a canonical ban but a divinely revealed dogma pertaining to the deposit of faith, to be definitively held by all the faithful. Most of them never even considered the question in this form, but simply presupposed the canonical ban, and if questioned, might have appealed to St. Thomas or the canonical practice itself. This is simply NOT equivalent to teaching a doctrine as having been divinely revealed, and as such, being owed the assent of faith by the whole Church.

Hence, the CDF gave not only a fallible opinion but one that is mistaken. The requirements for infallibility in the ordinary magisterial mode have not been met. The ban on women priests could still be a true doctrine. But it has not, I respectfully submit, been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium as belonging to the deposit of faith.

Peter Burns, S.J.

4 January 1997

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