TRADITION AND THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN


HTML Editor's Note: This is the second version of the document issued and endorsed by the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA). The first version is ordinary text without the line numbering of the original. In this version I have marked each line as though it were a paragraph in order to maintain the exact line numbers of the original. This causes the appearance of double spacing and interrupts the flow of the text but permits line-by-line consideration of the material. Please, send me a note if you find typographical errors.

As the authors write:

This paper is offered as a contribution to the discussion of these questions. Thus, the scope and aims of this paper are quite limited. It does not intend to present arguments for or against the ordination of women. The question it raises is whether the reasons given by the Congregation justify the assertion that the definitive assent of the faithful must be given to the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.

1 For consideration at the CTSA convention in Minneapolis:


2 TRADITION AND THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN
(with the original line numbering))


3 Introduction


4 On November 18, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published

5 its reply (or Responsum) to the question whether the teaching presented in Pope John Paul

6 II's Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 1994) is to be understood as

7 "belonging to the deposit of faith (RD, p. 401; ut pertinens ad fidei depositum [AAS,

8 1114]; see list of sources for abbreviations of the texts cited here and hereafter). Its reply

9 was affirmative. Thus, according to the Congregation, the teaching that the Church has no

10 authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women requires the definitive assent

11 of the faithful, since it is "founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning [it

12 has been] constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, [and] it has

13 been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium" (RD, p. 401). Later,

14 the Congregation issued a collection of previously published material devoted to these

15 issues (DII).


16 Because the Responsum maintains that the Church's lack of authority to ordain

17 women to the priesthood is a truth that has been infallibly taught, many have concluded

18 that the question whether women can be ordained has now been so definitively settled that

19 no future pope or council could decide otherwise. However, comments published since the

20 Responsum was issued indicate that not a few Catholic theologians have questioned both

21 the level of its authority and the warrants for its assertions.


22 It is important to distinguish between the Pope's teaching in Ordinatio

23 Sacerdotalis and the teaching of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its

24 Responsum. John Paul II has taught that the Church has no authority to ordain women to

25 the priesthood and that this teaching, grounded in the unbroken Tradition of the Church

26 must be definitively held. The Congregation has declared that this doctrine pertains to the

27 deposit of faith and it has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.


28 With what authority have these statements been made? Cardinal Ratzinger has

29 confirmed that it was not the Pope's intention to issue an ex cathedra definition in

30 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Hence, it is not an infallible papal definition, but an exercise of the

31 ordinary papal Magisterium. According to Vatican II, this calls for a response of

32 religiosum obsequium (LG, 25). Theologians have taken this to mean a sincere effort to

33 conform one's judgment to the judgment of the Pope. Experience shows that such an

34 effort may not suffice to overcome a person's doubts and bring one to sincere internal

35 assent.


36 The CDF's Responsum does not change the doctrinal weight of Ordinatio

37 Sacerdotalis. It does not raise its teaching to the level of an ex cathedra definition even

38 when it declares that its doctrine has been taught infallibly. Canon law makes it clear that

39 no doctrine is to be understood as infallibly defined unless this is manifestly established

40 (Canon 749.3). Hence, whether a doctrine has been infallibly taught is a question of fact

41 and the law of the Church requires that this fact be clearly established.


42 The law of the Church, it would seem, justifies Catholic theologians in raising the

43 question whether the reasons offered by the Congregation "clearly establish" the fact that

44 this doctrine has been infallibly taught. The reasons offered are that this teaching is

45 "founded on the written word of God," has been "from the beginning constantly

46 preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church," and "it has been set forth infallibly

47 by the ordinary and universal Magisterium."


48 Legitimate questions can be raised about each of these reasons, and their probative

49 force. How can it be shown that this doctrine "belongs to the deposit of the faith"? How is

50 it "founded on the written word of God"? Has it "from the beginning [been] constantly.

51 preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church?" Is it a doctrine that "has been set

52 forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium?"


53 This paper is offered as a contribution to the discussion of these questions. Thus,

54 the scope and aims of this paper are quite limited. It does not intend to present arguments

55 for or against the ordination of women. The question it raises is whether the reasons given

56 by the Congregation justify the assertion that the definitive assent of the faithful must be

57 given to the teaching that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly

58 ordination on women.


59


60 I. "founded on the written Word of God"


61 The claim that the tradition restricting priestly ordination to men is "founded on

62 the written Word of God" is twofold: first, that Christ did not call women to the apostolic

63 ministry since he selected only men as members of the twelve; and second, that the

64 apostles themselves, faithful to the practice of Christ, chose only men for priestly offices,

65 those of bishop, presbyter, and their equivalents.


66 Biblical evidence that Jesus chose only men among the Twelve and that it was only

67 to them that he said at the Last Supper, "Do this in remembrance of me" (I Cor 11.24),

68 has been taken to reveal his will that only men should ever be ordained to the priesthood.


69 Here we can do no more than mention some of the reasons why many reputable

70 Catholic biblical scholars have not found this argument convincing. They question the

71 suppositions that Jesus' words to the Twelve constituted ordination as it is understood

72 today; that the Twelve are the only precursors of ordained ministers today, in light of the

73 fluidity of ministries in the early Church; that "the apostles" were coextensive with "the

74 Twelve;" and that by choosing only men for the Twelve Jesus intended to express his will

75 concerning the sex of those who would preside at the Eucharist in the future. Since Jesus

76 left the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make many decisions on its own

77 regarding the organization of its ministry, scholars judge it very doubtful that he intended

78 to lay down such a particular prescription regarding the sex of future candidates for

79 ordination. The majority of exegetes hold, instead, that Jesus' choice of only men for the

80 Twelve was determined by the nature of their symbolic role as "patriarchs" of restored

81 Israel.


82 It is also argued, however, that the fact that the apostles chose only men for the

83 roles of leadership in the churches which they founded shows that they did understand

84 Jesus' choice of only men for the Twelve to have given them an example which they were

85 to follow in choosing their own co-workers and successors. Here again scholars find the

86 argument inconclusive. In the earlier period of the New Testament, St. Paul had a number

87 of women as his co-workers in ministry. In the later period, to which 1 Timothy 2.12-14

88 belongs, it is clear that women were being excluded from roles that involved teaching and

89 authority over men. The reason which the author of the Pastorals gave for this exclusion,

90 however, had nothing to do with an example given by Jesus. Instead, the author based the

91 unsuitability of women for these roles on an interpretation of the story of the creation of

92 Eve and her role in the Fall: "For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Further, Adam was

93 not deceived,, but the woman was deceived and transgressed" (1 Timothy 2.13-14). This

94 passage so interpreted was used as the scriptural basis for the common conviction that

95 women were inferior to men and were more easily led astray, a conviction that certainly

96 contributed to the belief that women were unsuited for ordination to the priesthood.

97 Indeed, there is very little evidence to show that the subsequent practice of choosing only

98 men as bishops and presbyters was determined by an intention to remain faithful to an

99 example set by Jesus, rather than by the kind of reasons proposed by the author of 1

100 Timothy, who was thought to be St. Paul himself.


101 As the majority of the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded in

102 1976, "It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a

103 clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the

104 presbyterate." (PBC, 96).


105


106 II. "from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the

107 Church"

108 While the Eastern Churches, during many centuries, numbered deaconesses among

109 their clergy, and there is plausible evidence that such women were ordained for their

110 ministry, it has been the unbroken tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern

111 Churches to ordain only men to the priesthood. Furthermore, when the question has been

112 raised about the suitability of women for such ordination, a negative answer has been

113 given consistently by early Christian writers, by medieval theologians, and by recent

114 popes.


115 There is no doubt about the traditional practice of excluding women from the

116 priesthood and episcopate, or about the traditional conviction that women were unsuited

117 for such offices in the Church. Obviously, such long-standing traditions must not be lightly

118 changed or dismissed. Yet, as Joseph Ratzinger noted in his commentary on Dei Verbum,

119 "Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be also a legitimate

120 tradition; in other words, not every tradition that arises in the Church is a true celebration

121 and keeping present of the mystery of Christ. There is a distorting, as well as a legitimate,

122 tradition.... Consequently, tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also

123 critically" (Ratzinger, 185). A traditional practice that seemed appropriate in the past may

124 no longer be appropriate in a new cultural context. A traditional conviction, when

125 subjected to critical examination, may be recognized as based on cultural attitudes rather

126 than on divine revelation. It may become clear that it was not really a tradition of authentic

127 Christian faith. The Church has never taken antiquity to be the sole criterion of an

128 authoritative Tradition.


129 The recent documents Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the Responsum on the question

130 of the ordination of women show that the Roman Magisterium itself has recognized the

131 need to reexamine the grounds on which the Church's traditional belief in this matter have

132 been based. Some arguments which have been used in the past do not appear in recent


133 official statements. Other reasons are now being proposed as the basis in revelation for

134 the Church's belief that women cannot be ordained as priests.


135 Studies of the history of this tradition have shown that, while there are some

136 references to the fact that Jesus chose only men among the Twelve, it is undeniable that a

137 consistent argument for the exclusion of women from the priesthood was rooted in the

138 conviction that women were not apt subjects for such ministry because of the inferiority of

139 their sex and/or their state of subjection in the social order.


140 In 1976, the CDF's Declaration Inter Insigniores gave some references to the

141 Fathers in the section entitled "The Tradition Constantly Preserved by the Church." This

142 text is the only place where the CDF has offered patristic evidence. The references

143 provided, however, are all problematic, Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses 1, 13, 2) objects to

144 the superstitious hoax of a Gnostic religious service, but not to the fact that it is women

145 who are involved. Tertullian (De Praescriptione Haereticorum 41, 5) and the Didascalia

146 Apostolorum, Chapter 15, object to women teaching and baptizing, but these activities are

147 possible for women in the Church today and these sources say nothing about their

148 ordination. The Apostolic Constitutions (Bk. III, c. 6), drawing on the Didascalia

149 Apostolorum, confirms the same position without adding anything significant. It does cite

150 Jesus' way of acting, but explains it by the natural inferiority of women. Firmilian, in a

151 letter to Cyprian (among Cyprian's letters, n. 75 in the Oxford edition) objects to an

152 heretical baptism and eucharist performed by a woman under demonic influence; he is

153 directly concerned about the demonic influence, not that the minister is a woman. Origen

154 (Fragmenta in I Cor. 74) argues from I Corinthians 14:34 against women preaching in

155 the Church, something permitted today in some circumstances. St. Epiphanius clearly and

156 strongly opposes the ordination of women (Panarion 49, 2-3; 78, 23; 79, 2-4; t. 2 GCS

157 37, pp. 473, 477-479) but does so because he shares the widespread prejudice of his

158 society that "Women are unstable, prone to error, and mean-spirited" (79, 1.6). Finally, St.

159 John Chrysostom argues not from the example of Christ or the Church's duty to follow

160 him (as the CDF says) but from the greatness of the tasks a bishop must perform. Clearly,

161 these passages reflect a conviction that women are inferior to men and hence unable to

162 perform priestly activities, not that they must be excluded from ordination to the

163 priesthood out of fidelity to the will of Christ.


164 Inferiority and/or subjection in the social order were the primary reasons proposed

165 by most of the medieval theologians and canonists, including St. Thomas Aquinas

166 (Commentary on the Sentences, IV, dist. 25, quest. 2, art. 1) and St. Bonaventure (in his

167 Commentary on the Sentences, IV, dist. 25, quest. 2, art. 1). Commenting on the same

168 section of the Sentences in his Opus oxoniense, Duns Scotus held that the decision to

169 exclude women from *,he priesthood must have been made by Christ. But his argument

170 was that it would have been an injustice to women if the Church had excluded them on its

171 own authority. Today many will agree with his premise but not with his conclusion, since

172 it is based on the idea that Christ could have done justly what it would have been unjust

173 for the Church to do.


174 In sum, the conviction that women are by nature inferior to men and were divinely

175 intended to be subordinate to men in the social order has played a major role throughout

176 most of the Church's history in supporting the belief that women should not be ordained

177 to the priesthood. To the extent that past teaching that women could not be ordained was


178 based on these convictions which are not warranted by divine revelation, that teaching is

179 open to serious theological reinvestigation.


180 Furthermore, sacramental development is a matter of development in practice as

181 well as in teaching. It is an area in which faith and practice are clearly intertwined, and one

182 in which practical implications have often imposed a fresh consideration of doctrinal

183 positions. The development of the practice and teaching of marriage and penance in

184 particular give ample evidence of how the two fields of practice and doctrine interact. In

185 an era where new practical issues emerged, there also emerged a new approach to the

186 understanding of the Church's teaching on these sacraments.


187 The same principle is applicable in the case of ordination. As was remarked by

188 Saint Jerome, while the terminology of presbyter and bishop was constant in the early

189 tradition on order, the custom and practice of these orders had evolved due to changing

190 circumstances (Epistula CXLVI: PL 22, 1192-4; In Titum 1,5: PL 26, 562-3). In the

191 Middle Ages and in the time of the Reformation, the episcopacy and priesthood were

192 subjected to new structuring and given fresh doctrinal explanation in face of historical

193 circumstances. The Second Vatican Council ushered in a new era of the practice and

194 theology of ministry on account of changing ecumenical and historical circumstances. It is

195 within this new practical and doctrinal context that the issue of women's ordination has

196 arisen, so that new questions have to be considered.


197 In addition, adequate evaluation of the reasoning prohibiting the ordination of

198 women requires moral as well as theological assessment since, as both Inter Insigniores

199 and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis acknowledge, "The nonadmission of women to priestly

200 ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity nor can it be construed as

201 discrimination against them" (II 35-39; OS 3). The "Vatican Reflections on the Teaching

202 of 'Ordinatio -Sacerdotalis'" focus the issue sharply, identifying as "an absolutely

203 fundamental truth of Christian anthropology, the equal personal dignity of men and

204 women" (VR, 404), thereby disavowing gender discrimination and any contemporary

205 appeal to the inferiority of women as grounds for excluding them from ordination. The

206 implication is that were any practice to entail unjustifiable discrimination, it would be

207 judged immoral and foreign to the deposit of faith.


208 The argument from divine law, that "Christ established things this way" (OS 2), is

209 not in itself sufficient to satisfy questions of unjust discrimination. The insufficiency here

210 lies not so much in the fragility of scriptural and historical warrants for the argument, but

211 in its failure to meet the demands of traditional Catholic moral theology. That is, the

212 Catholic moral tradition has consistently premised itself on the belief that the divine will is

213 not arbitrary, and that moral norms must thus overall "make, sense." Hence, it is never

214 sufficient to say simply, "This is the law." God asks not only for obedience but also for

215 some degree of understanding.


216 Indeed, the papal documents and the CDF statements recognize this specific

217 difficulty by proposing additional arguments from the "appropriateness" or "fittingness" of

218 this practice in the divine plan for the Church (II 25; OS 2; VR, p. 405). Certain Roman

219 texts justify the restriction of ordained ministry to men by appeals to iconic

220 appropriateness and/or to beliefs in a natural gender complementarity. The use of these

221 appeals in support of gender role differentiation has been contested in Catholic moral as

222 well as systematic theology by those who argue that the "effective history" of the practices

223 supported by these appeals can be shown to involve consistent patterns of superiority

224 and inferiority, domination and subordination, rather than of equality.


225 While the magisterium presents arguments for fittingness as an explanation and

226 corroboration of what is taught, rather than as the foundation of the teaching, it is always

227 necessary to study tradition to see how much these arguments have affected teaching

228 about matters of substance. All discussion of theological anthropology, therefore, in its

229 influence on the question of ordination, needs careful examination.


230 The purpose here, however, is not to resolve problems such as these either in

231 opposition to or in agreement with the Vatican documents. It is, rather, to underline their

232 seriousness; and in so doing to recognize that an adequate inquiry into the question of

233 whether the nonordination of women is a matter of divine revelation includes an

234 examination of the morality of the practice.


235


236 III. "it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium"

237 The final strand of the converging arguments supporting the restriction of ordained

238 ministry to males is the claim that "it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and

239 universal magisterium."


240 This statement of the Vatican Congregation makes it clear that the claim that the

241 doctrine excluding women from ordination to the priesthood has been infallibly taught is

242 not based on the dogma of papal infallibility, but rather on the teaching enunciated by

243 Vatican II about the infallible teaching of the whole body of Catholic bishops, including, of

244 course, the Bishop of Rome. The following is the statement of Vatican II to which the

245 Response of the Congregation refers:


246 Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the

247 prerogative of infallibility, they do nevertheless proclaim

248 Christ's doctrine infallibly even when dispersed around the

249 world, provided that while maintaining the bond of

250 communion among themselves and with Peter's successor,

251 and teaching authoritatively on a matter of faith or morals,

252 they are in agreement that a particular judgment is to be

253 held definitively.


254 The reference of the Responsum to Lumen Gentium 25, 2, means that according to

255 the Congregation, all the conditions laid down in that paragraph for infallible teaching, are

256 actually fulfilled in this case. There is no doubt about the fact that Pope John Paul himself

257 has taught that the doctrine excluding women from the priesthood is to be held

258 definitively. But papal teaching alone, unless it is a solemn definition, is not enough to

259 make the doctrine infallible. For a doctrine to be taught infallibly by the ordinary and

260 universal magisterium it has to be evident that the whole body of Catholic bishops is

261 teaching the same doctrine and obliging the faithful to give it their definitive assent.


262 How evident does this have to be? Canon 749.3 of the Code of Canon Law replies:

263 "No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this fact is clearly established."

264 In other words, the burden of proof is on the one who claims that a doctrine has been

265 infallibly taught. A statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, even

266 approved by the Pope, does not settle the issue. As noted earlier, whether a doctrine has

267 been infallibly taught is a question of fact, and canon law requires that this fact be clearly

268 established.


269 In the present case, this means that it has to be a clearly established fact that the

270 whole body of Catholic bishops is agreed in teaching that the doctrine excluding women

271 from ordination to the priesthood is a truth to which the Catholic faithful are obliged to

272 give an irrevocable assent. How could this be demonstrated? In his encyclical on the value

273 and inviolability of human life, Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul indicates one way in

274 which this could be done: namely, by consulting all the bishops. In that document the Pope

275 specifically referred to an "aforementioned consultation" when he declared that he was

276 teaching "in communion with the bishops" who "albeit dispersed throughout the world,

277 have shown unanimous agreement. . . " (EV, no. 62). Another way it could be

278 demonstrated is suggested by Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law, where it says that

279 when a doctrine is proposed as divinely revealed by the ordinary and universal

280 magisterium, this is "manifested by the common adherence of Christ's faithful." In support

281 of its assertion that the doctrine excluding women from the priesthood has been taught

282 infallibly by the ordinary, universal magisterium, the Congregation did not and indeed

283 could not, appeal either to a consultation of all the bishops or to the common adherence of

284 the Catholic faithful.


285

286 Conclusion


287 Vatican II declared, "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own

288 truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power" (DH, 1).

289 Consequently, in accord with the responsibility proper to Roman Catholic theologians, this

290 paper offers considerations on some of the fundamental issues raised by the Responsum of

291 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It draws upon well-known and widely

292 accepted principles of Roman Catholic theology. The paper supports the conviction that

293 the whole Church, and especially its pastors and theologians, must continue to inquire into

294 the exercise of the Church's authority and responsibility in this matter.


295 There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching and

296 its grounds in Tradition. There is serious, widespread disagreement on this question not

297 only among theologians, but also within the larger community of the Church. Once again,

298 it seems clear, therefore, that further study, discussion, and prayer regarding this question

299 by all the members of the Church in accord with their particular gifts and vocations are

300 necessary if the Church is to be guided by the Spirit in remaining faithful to the authentic

301 Tradition of the Gospel in our day.


302

303 SOURCES

304


305 DH Vatican II. Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom).

306 DII Dall' "Inter Insigniores" all' Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." Documenti e

307 commenti. CDF: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.

308 EV Pope John Paul II. Evangelium vitae. Origins 24 (6 April 1995), 690-

309 730.

310 GS Vatican II. Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in

311 the Modem World).

312 II Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Inter Insigniores; On the

313 Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood. Origins

314 6 (February 3, 1977), 519-524.

315 LG Vatican II. Lumen Gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).

316 OS Pope John Paul II. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Origins 24 (June 9, 1994),

317 50-52.

318 PBC Pontifical Biblical Commission report. Origins 6 (July 1, 1976), 92-

319 96.

320 Ratzinger Ratzinger, Joseph. "The Transmission of Divine Revelation,"

321 in Vorgrimler, Herbert, ed., Commentary on the Documents of

322 Vatican II, vol. 3. New York: Herder and Herder, 181-198.

323 RD Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Reply to the dubium

324 concerning the teaching contained in the apostolic letter

325 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis." (October 28, 1995). Origins 25

326 (November 30, 1995), 401, 403. Official text in Acta

327 Apostolicae Sedis 87 (1995), 1114. (AAS)

328 VR "Vatican Reflections On the Teaching of 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,'"

329 Origins 25 (November 30, 1995), 403-405.

330

331


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