IN 1994, St John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which, “to remove all doubt” in a matter which “pertains to the Church’s divine constitution”, he declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” He went on: “This judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both since indicated that the question is no longer an open one for Roman Catholics.
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis claimed that the exclusion of women from the ordained ministry “has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents”.
Neither of these claims, however, is entirely unproblematic. The possibility of women’s ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood was raised as part of a general consideration of the part played by women in the Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Paul VI accordingly asked the Pontifical Biblical Commission to assess the New Testament evidence.
In June 1976, the commission duly reported the unanimous opinion of its members that the New Testament material “by itself alone” did not settle the question “in a clear way and once and for all”. The commission went on to report that, by a majority of 12 to five, its members considered that the Church might one day be able “to entrust the ministries of eucharist and reconciliation to women, in light of circumstances, without going against Christ’s original intentions”.
MANY in and beyond the Vatican considered that this expression of an opinion on the larger theological issues exceeded both the Biblical Commission’s remit, and its competence.
In January 1977, at Pope Paul’s request, the Holy See’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), published its assessment of the issues, drawing very different conclusions.
That document, Inter Insigniores, reviewed the question in the light of scripture and subsequent ecclesial teaching and practice, concluding that “the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.”
Although Inter Insigniores came down firmly against the possibility of women’s ordination, its authors conceded that “we are dealing with a debate which classical theology scarcely touched upon.” While they claimed to base their rejection of women’s ordination on “the Church’s constant tradition”, their document acknowledged that the writings of the Fathers on the matter often displayed “the undeniable influence of prejudices unfavourable to woman”. But they said that these prejudices “had hardly any influences on their pastoral activity, and still less on their spiritual direction”.
They similarly conceded that medieval Catholic discussions of the matter “often present arguments on this point that modern thought would have difficulty in admitting, or would even rightly reject,” having in mind such views as that of Aquinas that women could not be priests because “it is not possible in the female sex to signify eminence of degree, for a woman is in the state of subjection.”
THE CDF’s Inter Insigniores emphasised the fact that Christ had chosen no women apostles, and the continuation of an all-male episcopate in the apostolic churches. This conscious exclusion of women from “the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly”, they considered, was, for St Paul, “bound up with the divine plan of creation”, and so could not be considered the mere “expression of a cultural fact”.
In any case, the priest at the altar represented Christ, whose incarnation “took place according to the male sex”. This, “while not implying any alleged natural superiority of man over woman”, nevertheless “cannot be disassociated from the economy of salvation”.
Arguments based on Paul’s declaration in Galatians 3.28 that “in Christ there is no longer any distinction between men and women” were in reality a confused appeal to purely secular notions of gender equality; for the passage had nothing to do with ordination to ministries, but “only affirms the universal calling to divine filiation, which is the same for all”.
To consider the ministerial priesthood as a question of human rights was “to misjudge its nature completely”.
ST JOHN PAUL II took Inter Insigniores as the basic argumentative justification for his 1994 ruling, and it was, indeed, a serious attempt to address the issues for and against women’s ordination. But much of the CDF’s reasoning in it prompted serious questions.
To recognise that “classical theology” had “scarcely touched on” the question, while simultaneously asserting that the Church had a “constant tradition” of teaching on the matter, is, on the face of it, paradoxical. Acquiescence in cultural norms or conventions is not self-evidently the same as “constant teaching” on an issue of faith.
Equally doubtful was the claim that the misogynistic cultural prejudices often on display in Patristic writings had no effect on the Early Church’s pastoral practice or theological assumptions. So, too, was the claim that the conclusions of medieval theologians on the matter were correct, even when apparently based on arguments that “modern thought . . . would . . . rightly reject”.
NONE of this, of course, is to prejudge whether the age-old exclusion of women from the ordained ministries of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches is right or wrong. Many Roman Catholics regret the ecumenical obstacles that Anglican ordination of women places between our Churches.
But before the RC Church can be said to have made its mind up on the matter, it must surely first seriously consider it. A single document, however weighty, from a Vatican dicastery, and a papal ruling based on that document, however emphatic, do not constitute the “definitive” voice of Roman Catholic tradition.
The Pope is not an inspired oracle. He is chief custodian of that tradition, and its judge of final appeal. But, in well-ordered societies, judgement comes at the end, not the beginning, of the judicial process. Loyal Roman Catholics exercised by these questions, whatever their personal expectations of the outcome, must hope that this Pope, or another, will permit that process to proceed.
Dr Eamon Duffy is Professor of Christian History at Cambridge University. This article is based on his remarks at the Tablet/Church Times event in Magdalene College (News, 3 July).