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Theologians Assess Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

Theologians Assess ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’

In ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ Rome claims that the exclusion of women from priestly ordination has been infallibly decided by the ‘ordinary universal magisterium’.

Key theologians from all over the world have rejected this claim.

"I would want to be a priest"

  1. The Catholic Theological Society of America
  2. Nicholas Lash, professor of divinity, Cambridge University, UK
  3. Francis A. Sullivan SJ, emeritus professor Gregorian University Rome
  4. Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., professor of theology at Fordham University, New York
  5. Gisbert Greshake, professor of theology at the University of Freiburg, Germany
  6. Ann O'Hara Graff, professor of theology at Seattle University, Washington
  7. Peter Hünermann, professor of theology at Tübingen University, Germany
  8. Sidney Cornelia Callahan, pastoral theologian, USA
  9. David Knight, pastoral theologian, Memphis, USA
  10. Richard Gaillardetz, associate professor, University of St. Thomas, Houseton, USA
  11. Klaus Nientiedt, ‘How Binding? “Ordinatio sacerdotalis” unleashes debate on the Magisterium’, Herder Korrespondenz 9 (1996) pp. 461-466.
  12. John H. Wright, ‘That all doubt may be removed’, America 171 (July 30-Aug. 6, 1994) pp. 16-19.
  13. Fourteen Indian Religious Sisters, theologians and academics.
  14. Fr. Joseph Moingt SJ, editor of Recherches de Science Religieuse.
  15. Hugh O'Regan, editor of the on-line magazine, San Fransico Bay Catholic.
  16. The commission on "Woman and the Church" of the Belgian Bishops' Conference
  17. Links to other assessments on the Internet

1. The Catholic Theological Society of America

In response to ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, the Catholic Theological Society of America set up a Task Force to study the question. The Task Force produced a report:‘Tradition and the Ordination of Women’, which concluded that ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ is mistaken with regard to its claims on the authority of this teaching and its grounds in Tradition.

On June 6 1997, the general assembly of the Catholic Theological Society of America, endorsed this resolution:

“There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of the teaching [that the Church's lack of authority to ordain women to the priesthood is a truth that has been infallibly taught and requires the definitive assent of the faithful], and its grounds in Tradition. There is serious, widespread disagreement on this question, not only among theologians, but also within the larger community of the Church . . . It seems clear that further study, discussion and prayer regarding this question by all the members of the Church in accord with their particular gifts and vocations are necessary if the Church is to be guided by the Spirit in remaining faithful to the authentic Tradition.” The resolution was adopted after a secret ballot; with 216 theologians voting ‘YES’, 22 ‘NO’ and 10 abstaining.

2. Nicholas Lash, professor of divinity, Cambridge

Nicholas Lash says that, in spite of its claims in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Rome has no valid arguments from Scripture or Tradition. Giving its opinion an aura of ‘infallibility’ does not make up for the lack of truth.

Nicholas Lash wrote many books, among them:
* Theology on Dover Beach (1979)
* Theology on the Way to Emmaus
* Voices of Authority
* Newman on development : the search for an explanation in history
* A matter of hope : a theologian's reflections on the thought of Karl Marx
* Change in focus; a study of doctrinal change and continuity
* Banking Laws and Regulations : An Economic Perspective (1987)
* Easter in Ordinary : Reflections on Human Experience and the Knowledge of God (1990)
* Believing Three Ways in One God : A Reading of the Apostles' Creed (1993)
* The Beginning and the End of 'Religion' (1996)

“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”. The attempt to use the doctrine of infallibility, a doctrine intended to indicate the grounds and character of Catholic confidence in official teaching, as a blunt instrument to prevent the ripening of a question in the Catholic mind, is a scandalous abuse of power, the most serious consequence of which will be further to undermine the further authority which the Pope seeks to sustain.”
FULL TEXT: ‘On Not Inventing Doctrine’ by Nicholas Lash, The Tablet, 2 December 1995, p. 1544.

3. Francis A. Sullivan SJ, emeritus professor Gregorian University Rome, adjunct professor at Boston College.

Sullivan is the leading theological authority on the magisterium. He wrote: Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (Paulist, 1983) and Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Church Documents (Paulist, spring 1996).

(a) In December 1995, Sullivan expressed strong disagreement against the claim of ‘infallibility’ made by the Congregation for Doctrine. His main reasons were that the conditions for such an infallible teaching had not been met.

“The question that remains is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons [against women priests] as Pope John Paul evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.” FULL TEXT: The Tablet 23/30 December 1995, p. 1646.

(b) In September 1997, Sullivan criticised Archbishop Bertone, secretary of the Congregation for Doctrine, for making three gratuitous assumptions: i. that a mere declaration by the Pope can establish infallible teaching by the universal ordinary magisterium of the college of bishops; ii. that all truths that ‘are certainly true and undoubted’ belong to the object of infallibility; and, iii, for a consensus of the international college of bishops a consensus in the past would suffice. It is amazing to see what theological blunders are committed by someone entrusted with such great responsibility in the day-to-day business of Rome’s ‘magisterium’.

“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’ (Canon 749 §3). 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.” FULL TEXT: Theological Studies, vol. 58, September 1997, pp. 509-515.

4. Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., professor of theology at Fordham University, New York

Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., is the author of many books, such as:
* Consider Jesus: Waves of Renewal in Christology (1992);
* Women, Earth and Creator Spirit (1993);
* She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1993);
* How to Paint Miniatures (1994);
* Pauline Theology: Looking Back, Pressing On (Editor, 1997);
* Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Community of Saints

Elizabeth Johnson states that none of the three reasons presented by Rome: from Scripture, Tradition or theology, holds up to scrutiny. Responsible theologians have the duty to express their disagreement, however much they want to respect the magisterium itself.

“The reasons [Rome gives] do not hold up, try as one might to entertain them. According to traditional Catholic teaching, the human faculty of judgment is not free, unlike our will. We can give genuine assent only to what presents itself to our mind as true: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power" (Vatican II, Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1). If a declared teaching or practice continuously jars our mind as missing the mark, as in the present case, it is our responsibility to explore and express the reasons why. This resistance is not to be equated with disloyalty or rebellion, let alone lack of faith, but with a form of loyalty and service.” FULL TEXT: Commonweal, vol.123, January 26 1996, pp. 8-10.

5. Gisbert Greshake, professor at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Freiburg, Germany

Here are some of the books Greshake has written:
* Gottes Heil, Glück des Menschen: Theologische Perspektiven (1983)
* Die Neuzeit (1989)
* Priestersein (1991)
* Resurrectio Mortuorum (1991)
* Geschenkte Freiheit (1992)
* Die Gegenwart (1993)
* Erlöst in einer unerlösten Welt (1995)
* Quellen geistlichen Lebens (with others, 1995-1996)
* Der dreieine Gott. Eine trinitarische Theologie (1997)
* An dem dreieinen Gott glauben. Ein Schlüssel zum Verstehen (1998)
* Die Wüste bestehen. Erlebnis und geistliche Erfahrung (1999).

Gisbert Greshake says that he keeps an open mind regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood. However, he utterly rejects the claim of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ that the question has been infallibly decided by the universal ordinary magisterium.

“ We may not simply assume that the ‘impossibility’ to ordain women stands in a tradition of faith which was and is presented as definitively binding. It must be proved on the basis of canon 749 § 3, in order that it be “clearly established”. But that is finally, and importantly, also a historical question. I do not know any relevant documents from the magisterium from which one could conclude that the possibility of ordination for women was rejected as definitively binding, even less so as definitively binding throughout the continuity of history. And exactly it is this reality “as definitively binding” that matters. ”FULL TEXT: Pastoralblatt 48 (1996) 56.

6. Ann O'Hara Graff, Professor of religious studies and theology at Seattle University, Washington.

Ann O'Hara Graff edited In the Embrace of God: Feminist Approaches to Theological Anthropology (1995)

Ann O’Hara Graff, while outlining the defects in the claims of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, pays special attention to the history of priestly ordination itself. Like other institutions of the church it arose in response to belief in the Risen Lord, rather than from grand designs in Jesus' own mind. And also Rome’s view of its authoritative role belongs to a hierarchical culture of the Middle Ages.

“Placing the ultimate authority to teach (the magisterium) in the office of the pope is consistent with medieval notions of hierarchy that recognize the head of the hierarchy as the summation of the members (clearly a different idea than participants in a democracy would hold) . . . The pope is understood to speak the faith of the whole church and never to speak against the faith of the church . . . .Whether or not one likes the proclamation of papal infallibility, it is not arbitrary, and it is consistent with a particular cultural understanding of hierarchy that was once the accepted norm. That this role was underscored at a time when hierarchy across Europe was finally collapsing (i.e. in 1870 AD) is certainly one of the paradoxes of history.” FULL TEXT: U.S. Catholic, vol.61, April 1996, pp. 6-11.

7. Peter Hünermann, professor of the Catholic Theological Faculty of Tübingen, Germany

These books are among Peter Hünermann's publications:
* Streitgespräch um Theologie und Lehramt (1991)
* Wissenschaft, kulturelle Praxis, Evangelisierung (1993)
* Das neue Europa (1993)
* Demokratie (1993)
* Armut (1993)
* Jesus Christus, Gotteswort in der Zeit. Eine systematische Christologie (1994)
* Ekklesiologie im Präsens. Perspektiven (1995)
* Gott, ein Fremder in unserm Haus? Die Zukunft des Glaubens in Europa (1996)
* Diakonat. Ein Ambt für Frauen in der Kirche (with others, 1997)
* Papstamt und Ökumene. Zum Petrusdienst an der Einheit aller Getauften (1997)
* Und dennoch . . . (1998)
* Das Zeite Vatikanum. Christlicher Glaube im Horizont globaler Modernisierung (1998)

In a book on ‘The discussion on Women Priests in the Catholic Church’ (Frauen Ordination. Stand der Diskussion in de Katholischen Kirche, ed. Walter Gross, Erich Wewel Publications, Munich 1996), Peter Hünermann judges Rome's position in three chapters (see pp. 83-96; 120-127; 129-146). He rejects Rome's scriptural, tradition and theological reasons. He expresses his dismay and surprise at the claim of an ‘infallible decision by the universal ordinary magisterium’. Finally he considers the need of a further ‘refinement’ in the understanding of the magisterium, precisely because it has so often failed - as it is doing now.

“The historical experience of the Church with regard to its own faithfulness to the Gospel shows that it has been characterised by frequent failings and misinterpetations. It is true that the collective Church did not lose faith altogether. The Holy Spirit has kept it somehow in the truth of the Gospel. But this does not mean that the Spirit preserved the Church from falling into numerous errors and confusions. The promise of the Holy Spirit to the collective Church refers clearly to the central and fundamental truths of the faith. From this core the Church has always -- through the help of the Spirit and thanks to the commitment of many saintly men and women -- found the strength to distance itself from sidetracks and errors, and to renew itself. [The same limitation should also apply to the object of infallibility.]” FULL TEXT: Frauen Ordination, pp. 145-146.

8. Sidney Cornelia Callahan, pastoral theologian, USA

Sidney Cornelia Callahan has written various pastoral books, including:
* The Magnificat: The Prayer of Mary
* Parenting: Principles and Politics of Parenthood
* The Working Mother.

Sidney Callahan speaks for millions of Catholics when she expresses her frustration at Rome’s theological and pastoral insensitivity. And it is not just the theological arguments that count. She knows ‘in her bones’ that the ordination of women does not go counter to God’s (or Christ’s) own intentions. To make her appeal even stronger, her protest is formulated as a personal letter addressed to Cardinal Ratzinger.

“The contradictions and inconsistencies in your position explain why most Catholic theologians, and even some bishops, have judged that it would be most faithful to the Holy Spirit to ordain women now. The American laity agree. Because of forty years of prayer, study, worship, and meditation upon the question, I am convinced in conscience that it is God's will that women should be ordained. In this impasse, your instruction that I submit my conscience and believe what you define to be true becomes psychologically impossible, in effect a moral suicide. I can do no other than wholeheartedly believe what faith, reason, heart, expert counsel, and the experience of a lifetime tell me to be true and in accordance with Christ's desires for the church.” FULL TEXT: Commonweal, vol. 123, February 9 1996, pp. 6-7.

9. David Knight, pastoral theologian, Memphis, USA

Fr. David Knight is a pastoral theologian and pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He is well known for his popular and practical books, among them:
* His Way (1981, 1997)
* Cloud by Day/ Fire by Night (1985)
* Confession Can Change Your Life (1985)
* His Word, Letting it Take Root and Bear Fruit in our Lives (1986, 1998)
* Best True Ghost Stories of the 20th Century (1986)
* Lift Up Your Eyes to the Mountains. A Guide to the Spiritual Life (1988)
* Make Me a Sabbath of Your Heart (1988)
* Mary in an Adult Church: from Devotion to Response (1988)
* Blessed are They: Call to Conversion (1988)
* Chastity Who Lives It? The Baptized Christian’s Call to Conversion (1990)
* Good News About Sex (1991)
* Armchair Retreat (1994)
* Reaching Jesus: Five Steps to a Fuller Life (1997)
* I Can Read about Alligators and Crocodiles (1999)
* Living God’s Word (1999)

David Knight says that his main concern is pastoral: to avoid Catholics who disagree Rome’s statement regarding the ordination of women being driven out of the Church. He explains that ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’ is not infallible, in spite of the misleading language of the Congregation for Doctrine’s own words or the misguided commentary of some bishops. He ends with a warning.

“ Suppose we leave Catholics with the impression--which they are being given now, intentionally or not--that this doctrine has been declared true by an exercise of the church's infallible teaching authority. And suppose that the next pope decides to ordain women after all--which could very easily happen if in fact the opinion of the present pope and of his committee on doctrine is wrong. If people then began to leave the church in droves, saying that the church had contradicted her own infallible teaching, we would be in a very weak position trying to explain, after the fact, that the teaching of John Paul and his doctrinal committee never was really infallible, and that we really knew it all the time but just never said anything. There is error in excessive affirmation as well as in denial. It is as much an error to say there are four divine Persons in the Blessed Trinity as to say there are only two. And it is as wrong to make the pope more infallible as it is to make him less. On the practical plane, to give the impression, intentionally or not, that something is being taught infallibly when it is not, is pastorally irresponsible and dangerous.” FULL TEXT: U.S. Catholic, vol. 61, April 1996, pp. 11-13.

10. Richard Gaillardetz, associate professor, University of St. Thomas, Houston, USA

Richard Gaillardetz is specialised in questions of the Magisterium and infallibility. For his dissertation he researched ‘the Theology of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of Bishops’. He wrote a classic study: Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church,Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1997. Studying Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the Responsum ad Dubium, Gaillardetz comes to the conclusion that the Congregation for Doctrine has not clearly established the infallibile nature of the ban on women’s ordination. Credits.

“It may be appropriate at this point to recall the canonical principle cited at the beginning of this article: ‘no doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such.’ I infer from this canon that 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. The questions which I have raised in this article suggest that the claims of the CDF, at this date, have not been "clearly established." ” FULL TEXT, Louvain Studies 21 (1996) pp. 3-24.

11. The Commission on Woman and the Church of the Belgian Bishops' Conference,

In response to Ordinatio Sacerdotalisthe ‘Commission on Woman and the Church’ of the Belgian Bishops Conference, made several criticisms of the arguments used by the Pope. "Who may dwell within your Tent?"

Not everyone agrees with the official position of the Church expressed in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Many people have misgivings about the arguments the Pope employs when excluding women from priestly ministry. They object to the way in which the "special nature of woman" is understood, as well as to the interpretation of the data from Scripture and Tradition. They point to the heavy cultural load resting on the ideal of the priestly ministry on account of the past clerical image of the Church and the stress on essentialism. They ask that more attention be given to women who feel called to the priesthood and to the fact that women are also excluded from other leadership functions simply because these are tied to the priesthood. FULL TEXT ‘Who may dwell within your Tent?’ Louvain1998, pp. 55-67.

12. Other Assessments available on the Internet

  • “But what about the claim that the teaching is infallible according to the rules of the ordinary, universal magisterium? Have the four conditions for the legitimate exercise of this authority been met? The answer is no. Regarding the first requirement, it must be bishops who exercise this kind of infallibility. Except for the bishops that might be members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, no bishops that we know of were ever consulted on what they are teaching or believe about the ordination of women. Even if the opinions of some bishops were sought, it is clear that the second requirement is not met, namely that the bishops are teaching this way while in union with each other and the pope. The issue simply has not been raised when the bishops are together in solemn assembly where such matters are brought to the body. Third, there is room for serious doubt that the teaching on ordination should be considered to be a matter of faith or of morals. Many reputable theologians, including those assembled by the Vatican itself to study whether there was any basis in scripture for the ban against ordaining women, simply do not find in the gospels a basis for this teaching. Fourth and finally, we would be hard pressed to show that the bishops agree on one view that must be held by the faithful on this issue. Enough bishops in this country alone have made their opinions known so as to assure us at the very least of differences of opinion in this matter. Not even one of the four conditions necessary for an exercise of this kind of infallibility has been met.”
    Diane M. Caplin Ph.D., lecturer and associate director at Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women, Baltimore Maryland.
  • “The bishops collectively are supposed to have engaged in sedulous investigation of the deposit of divine revelation beforehand, and the teaching cannot be anything new, or added on to the original deposit of faith. The bishops cannot just invent a new doctrine which previous generations of bishops had no way of knowing was contained in the deposit of faith. Has the College of Bishops ever, then, as a moral whole, though dispersed around the world, but in communion with one another and with the successor of Peter, agreed on the judgment that women cannot be ordained, that this judgment is a doctrine belonging to the deposit of faith, and that is to be held definitively or conclusively as such? On the face of it, this has never happened. Remember they have to teach this doctrine with moral unanimity. They have to teach it as belonging to divine revelation. They have to teach it as a doctrine to be held definitively by all the faithful. Where and when has this happened?” Peter Burns SJ.
  • “The National Coalition of American Nuns is surprised and deeply disturbed that the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has used the claim of infallibility to support and perpetuate the injustice of the Church's teaching which excludes women from the ordained priesthood. The National Coalition of American Nuns holds that this teaching cannot be infallible because the teaching is unjust and, therefore, in error . . . Because there is no universal assent yet from bishops, theologians, or the faithful on the question of ordaining women as priests, any statement claiming to be infallible on this issue is premature and inappropriate.” Resolution adopted by the National Coalition of American Nuns on December 8, 1995.
  • “Can an office of the Vatican declare a papal statement infallible? And can they do it ex post facto? Any time they want to? Maybe hundreds of years rather than months after it was written? Why is it that when bishops all over the world ask for this issue to be discussed, they are simply ignored? When, on the other hand, one of the Vatican congregations addresses the issue unilaterally -- even defines its undefined terms -- without consultation from the world’s body of bishops, let alone the people of God, the subject is happily opened in order to be closed. And without a bishop in sight. Have we come to the point where the bishops of the church are even more ignored than the women of the church?” Sr. Joan Chittister OSB.
  • “It is significant that the declaration claimed that such a teaching reflected the infallibility not of a special papal pronouncement, but of the ordinary magisterium. For such a claim of the reliability of the ordinary magisterium itself depends on an idea having general acceptance in church history, including the contemporary church. But is is precisely such a broad consensus that is lacking today. Not only have most Protestant churches, including the Anglican communion, carefully examined this ban and rejected it on scriptural, theological and moral grounds, but a large number of theologians, many priests and bishops and close to a majority of Catholics are questioning such a ban. In such a case, when an idea no longer has a consensus in the church, it is clearly impossible to declare that it is ‘infallible’ on the ground that it enjoys a consensus.” Rosemary Radford Ruether.

With regard to the universal ordinary magisterium, read here a detailed discussion of the five conditions for its infallibility, and why they have not been met.

John Wijngaards

Read: Theologians and the Magisterium, by Richard A. McCormick. From Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward, 1994, Chapter 7.

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