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An interview with Professor Dr Joseph Niewiadomski, Professor for Dogmatic Theology at the Theological Faculty in Innsbruck,

“We shall have ordination!”
- so, by any means?!

An interview with Professor Dr Joseph Niewiadomski, Professor for Dogmatic Theology at the Theological Faculty in Innsbruck, during the discussion leading up to the ordination of women on 29 June in Austria. The interview was taken by the journalist Werner Ertel in April 2002 at the University in the Karl-Rahner-Baltz in Innsbruck.

Republished here, with the permission of the professor and the journalist, from “Wir Sind Priesterinnen”, ed. Werner Ertel and Gisela Forster, Düsseldorf 2002, pp. 110-121; translated by John Wijngaards.

For background

Valid, but not licit?

Werner Ertel: Last autumn the American Mary Ramerman was ordained a priest by the Old Catholic Bishop Peter Hickman. She became a priest of a Roman Catholic community with whom she has ever since celebrated Mass according to the Roman Missal. Now the ordination of women from Austria, Germany and the United States are in the offing, on 29 June, at a place which is still kept secret, and these women will not be ordained by and Old Catholic Bishop but by a Roman Catholic Bishop. What do you think of this ordination?

Jozef Niewiadomski: Personally, I am feeling more and more sceptical about that particular undertaking which I consider rather strange. Let us first consider the doctrinal aspect. OK, we do not need to take into account the fact that it will be an Old Catholic Bishop who ordains the women. That has also happened here in Austria. That is not at all a problem. Note however that just because of this fact, already some Old Catholic Churches have split off from the Old Catholic Communion. For instance, the Polish Old Catholic Church has not recognised the ordination of women.

So the question is: What about Catholic Bishops ordaining women under the formula 'valid, but not allowed'? Let us be clear. We need to make some sharp distinctions. I maintain that this ordination will not be valid. It will not be valid first of all, because according to the existing norms of Church Law it is not validly performed. The Church is also a community of law. One should not overlook that. And a community of law defines itself first and foremost through categories of law, and that means: in the present ecclesial community of law, this ordination will not be valid because it contradicts the law. According to this law an ordination requires not only that the ordaining Bishop has the power to ordain, but also that it is men who are ordained and not women. This means that this clash with the law makes this ordination invalid in the ecclesial community.

This also is the difference with the ordinations by Lefèbvre. His ordinations were valid according to Church Law, but not allowed. That is why his ordination in the Church established a schism. His priests are truly validly ordained, but not licitly. Lefèbvre ordained first bishops, who then ordained priests. But in the case you are talking about women will be ordained invalidly.

Dogmatically this has always been the way of doing things in the history of the Church: an ordination that was performed illicitly had to be acknowledged by the ecclesial community in order to assume an ecclesially relevant status. To speak clear language: this ordination will never become valid by itself. Only the Church can make it valid by saying ‘yes’ to the ordination, by declaring it valid. At the moment of the ordination event, a deed is performed that is invalid by law. We have analogies in the ancient Church, conflicts about ordinations that had been performed by the Donatists and so on. This question has not only emerged today, we have often encountered it in history. So far about the formula “valid but not allowed”. According to my opinion this ordination will be just invalid because the Church does not acknowledge this action.

Then one could ask a speculative question: Will the Church ever acknowledge this ordination to be valid? From Church history and the history of doctrine I must conclude that all actions of assuming ordination by force have always been rejected by the Church. With regard to the individuals who submit to this act of ordination, something like a binding impediment against ordination arises for later. If somehow the Church in the future would come to ordain women as priests - - that is quite possible, the next pope or a council could change the whole situation - - , then according to my opinion these women will never be ordained priests. Their ordination will never be acknowledged, since, from the perspective of the community of law whatever your own personal opinion about it, in fact it was an act of violence, therefore usurping power, and that will always be rejected.

Usurping ordination

Werner Ertel: In the Czech Republic and in Slovakia there were priests who were ordained in secret during the Communist persecution. Now some have been ordained again “sub conditione” (conditionally), - - -

Jozef Niewiadomski: No no, in this case there will be an act of presumption, usurping. I believe that these women will not be ordained, or to put if differently, the ordination will never be acknowledged. That is the tragedy for me in this whole situation. Personally, within the context of the integration of women in the Catholic Church, I can only understand this as a group of women, yes even of public opinion in the Church, giving in to pressure which they find unbearable and saying: “Now we are going to do this ourselves!”

I believe that whenever one takes steps of this nature one falls victim to a wrong logic. A comparison to the ordination of women by Bishop Davidek does not apply. Bishop Davidek ordained in the firm conviction that only through this act he could save the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic, - - convinced as he was that in the climate of suspicion and espionage nobody would suspect that women had been ordained. His intention was to save the Church, that is why he dared to take this step. But in this case, regarding the women in Austria / Germany, we are dealing with a subjective intention: “We want to be women priests”. That is exactly the point that disturbs me most in this event and why I cannot really agree with what is going on. On the contrary I find it disturbing how it is being organised.

Why all the secrecy?

Jozef Niewiadomski: Lefèbvre was very much aware of what he was doing - - . He announced his step two years in advance, he submitted himself to public discussion. He was looking for legitimisation. He argued. What we find in this case, however, is a strange mixture of publicity and secrecy. The bishops who are prepared to undertake this action are either not able to engage in a public discussion - - which I don’t believe - - , or one has to assume something that would upset me a lot because it is not worthy of holy orders: one presumes openly that if it would be known beforehand who they are, these bishops would be stopped from the ordination with physical violence.

Arguing about excommunication is not relevant here, since these bishops would be excommunicated anyway. Therefore one presumes in the media which are sensation-prone anyway, that these bishops would be impeded with physical violence, be killed off in their public expression or physically murdered. This kind of presumption springs from the logic of a terrorist group and it is not the proper and adequate strategy for this kind of problematics in the Church. The very way in which this ordination has been planned and presented, contradicts what is a necessary part of sacramental ordination.

Doing what the Church does - in unity!

Jozef Niewiadomski: Then we come to the doctrinal question: The intention of the person imparting the ordination must do what the Church does - - faciendi quod facit ecclesia. The question is: What does the Church think about ordination?

According to the teaching of Vatican II, ordination is not a privilege for the individuals ordained, ordination is at home in the ecclesial community as part of holy orders. And the sacrament of holy orders is totally at the service of the Church’s unity. Holy orders are therefore exercised collegially, by bishops, priests and deacons. What is envisaged here, however, is an isolated act of ordination, with the justification, that the only thing that matters is that the ordaining bishop(s) stand in the apostolic succession. All the elements of ecclesial collegiality are thrown overboard on the strength of this one aspect.

That reminds me of the argumentations of Lefèbvre. Even worse, -- and here the association is almost painful --, it reminds me of the history of the anti-pope, Gregory XVII in Palma de Troya. He was a man who had visions of Mary and who imagined to know all kind of things, and here the comparison becomes tragic: he felt called to his position, he claimed to have good grounds for it, then he looked for a bishop to ordain him. He found a retired bishop in the Vatican, who then ordained him and his college and his staff as priests. After the death of Paul VI, he declared himself Pope. It is now just a small group, the Palmarian Church, a wild, religious fantasy that knows no boundaries any more. It was not just a schism in the Church, it grew out to become a sect.

Will it lead to schism?

Werner Ertel: Are you afraid that through the ordination of these women a schism could arise in the Church?

Jozef Niewiadomski: A split in the Church would follow, if there would be bishops who join the ordaining bishops. I do not believe for a moment that even one single Catholic bishop will join these bishops. I guess that a certain number of friends, acquaintances and companions will support these women. It will not cause a larger revolution, it seems to me. I do fear that it may grow into a sect. That’s why the whole thing is somewhat tragic to me. It gradually undermines all the efforts that were undertaken for example in the Diocese of Linz: women qualify themselves through study, take on tasks as leaders of the community, and in this way start creating a certain plausibility. Through this deed all that will be undermined in the Church.

Prophetic value?

Werner Ertel: Professor you ask: what will the Church do to these ordinations? But the women are asking: what will this ordination do to the Church? According to the conviction of these women, Rome will by this action be forced to a response, simply because of the facts that have been established. Otherwise there will be no progress at all with regard to the ordination of women, not in a hundred years.

Jozef Niewiadomski: I must react angrily to that. These women seem to overestimate their own importance. They suffer from a form of modern narcissism and are egged on in this by the media. Today anyone can just express any opinion, and one thing is judged credible, another less credible, according to the cultural climate of the day.

The issue of ministry in the Church is one of the most vibrant searches going on in the Catholic Church. What has happened in the discussion about ministry during the past twenty years, is basically a complete revision. According to the more open and liberal tradition to which I am committed since a long time back, one cannot judge ministry by just one norm (such as apostolic succession). We are happy that Vatican II has distanced itself from the understanding of ministries prevalent in Trent. To speak plainly, there is a world of difference between Trent and what the official Catholic Church says at the moment.

When Lefèbvre took the step of a clear return to the old ministry, a cry of horror and fury went up, everyone saying how terrible it was. Now suddenly we hear enthusiasm, although the arguments are based on the same premise [of apostolic succession] and I ask myself: where is then the difference? Just because it suits me now, should I therefore agree? No! I have to ask myself: How can I justify what I do?

Back to the question of overestimating oneself, what will the Church do with it? What is the meaning of ministry? Ministry, to speak clearly, cannot overlook the question of the unity of the Church. That is one of the most sensitive points in a modern discussion. There is no longer a question about whether I am a priest and therefore can celebrate Mass or hear confession. By that the Church will certainly not be healed. The Church must presuppose a minimum in consensus with regard to how the ministry should look. If we would go by simply democratic terms and ask: should the Church today admit women to the ordination to the priesthood?, then I do not need to cite the official answer. That is an enormous overestimation of oneself if one thinks that the basis could be simply a popular vote.

Werner Ertel: In Austria, according to reports, about 75% of the population has spoken out in favour.

Jozef Niewiadomski: Austria is not the Catholic Church. That is the problem. Also in Switzerland one always hears: why should I be bothered about other countries, we are Swiss. And when the women say: “Only when we have ourselves ordained, will Rome wake up”, I am not sure whether Rome is really sleeping. For me there is clearly a sign of overreaching oneself here. Of course the Pope has clearly said: No! Every logically thinking person will conclude: it is clear that during this pontificate nothing will change.

I would expect every human being, every institution, to be able to say: once I have come to this understanding, the implication for me is to show a certain patience, and not to force this issue to a head. In stead of saying: now I will show you that I am right. That is an attitude which I do not understand spiritually. That is why I am convinced that it will be counterproductive.

Patience and humility?

Werner Ertel: Do you have no sympathy for the impatience of the women from a human point of view? Their anger about the fact that the Church appeals to the claim that it is God himself who has subjected woman to man, and that on these grounds the Church does not have any power to ordain women? Does that not amount to a humiliation and putting down of women?

Jozef Niewiadomski: What constitutes humiliation and putting down is not decided through a formula, but is decided through society, which judges about values and non-values. If you say today that people have humiliated women for 20 centuries, then you are pronouncing a moralising judgment over your ancestors, on the lines of: ‘They were just stupid sods’. I do not want to be part of that kind of discussion.

I want to state clearly: the beliefs that underlie the theoretical foundation for not allowing women to ordination, have become culturally untenable. That is my opinion. The Church herself has thrown many of these beliefs overboard in quite a few respects. For instance, one of the most important objections of Thomas, namely that woman is in a state of subjection, that woman is not capable of leadership, is untenable today. The whole Middle Ages could not possibly imagine a woman who would sit in judgement over men. That kind of thinking, that was structured through culture, has now been thrown overboard. The Church has now appointed female judges - in the Rota Romana [marriage court], who therefore pronounce judgments on men.

In juridical matters, therefore, women judge men. That is an important advance in history. One question has remained hanging: women’s ordination. In that respect the Church has lost credibility, that I grant. But concepts like humiliation do not ring true in this context. Then I would not understand the world, because I would then say to all those women who cannot go along with women’s ordination: you are blind, you are submissive creatures and so on. It is clear to me that such categories don’t fit.

The media in all this

Jozef Niewiadomski: Politically correct solutions will in the long run harm women themselves. This applies, for instance, when feminists say that there are no differences between the sexes, that only a radical equality exists. I have the feeling that in our modern society the question of the position of women in the Church, has become a favourite topic for the media since they are trying to avoid real religious questions or obscure them. The media exploit this in our liberal societies in which women are subjected to the pressures of this liberal society. Media people can simply say: ‘See how old fashioned the Catholic Church is, how incapable of reform’, and so on.

About this kind of thing the liberal media can speak without fear, because it does not hurt anyone: no bank, no insurance company, no one at university. It does not concern anyone in particular - and therefore it looks as if there is a consensus about this. Certain circles in the Church play along with this. They are of the opinion that we will be supported by the liberal media in all this. Utter rot! These liberal media do not care a damn whether there will be women priests in the Church or not, they don’t care a damn about the Church, they don’t care a damn about God.

Against this background, the question arises whether the modern logic of present-day society can be so easily accepted as far as we in the Church are concerned. The proposed action of ordaining the women is an action planned for publicity, an action which I can hardly judge to be favourable for Church reform, so replete of ambiguities and lacking in clarity, that I say: “For God’s sake, don’t do this!”

Sympathy with the women?

Jozef Niewiadomski: As to the initial question, whether I have sympathy for the women: whether one has sympathy for people depends on understanding their subjective motives. I do not know how the women in question are justifying their action. Of course, I have sympathy for women who feel that they are not integrated sufficiently into the Church. Wherever I have the possibility, I myself am campaigning for women’s ordination, presupposing a clear discussion about the question what is ministry, and so on.

What is going to happen now is an act of battle, and we have to ask ourselves: who will benefit from it, who will draw advantages?

I am of the opinion that it will serve to get the media excited about the socalled incapability of the Church to reform itself. It will probably serve as a short-term affirmation of happiness and satisfaction for the persons involved, who then have the feeling that they have achieved something, that they stand in the centre of history. If I consider Mrs Karin Leiter today who has fulfilled her deepest wish by becoming a priest - unfortunately in the wrong Church as she would admit probably herself, I see that no one pays any attention to her. Who is interested in the fact that Karin Leiter has become a priest? No one is interested, if we are quite honest about it. According to my opinion, there are tragic implications here that we cannot discuss really in the public domain.

Women’s ordination and Church law

Werner Ertel: The ordination of women is nowadays hardly a biblical, nor a doctrinal question is it? - - Is not only a question of a paragraph in Church Law that needs to be amended?

Jozef Niewiadomski: Church Law is, however, part of the consensus of faith of our own time. That should not be forgotten. It is true that a consensus in law has no binding power from a doctrinal point of view, but it is a little bit as in bank transactions. If I'm really clever, if I find the right method of doing so and learn to fabricate counterfeit notes, the bank will, of course, have to face this challenge. It will in due course discover that my money happens not to be a valid means of payment. So it is with the argument: it is only a matter of Church Law. The argument overlooks the position of law in its context.

Werner Ertel: But Church Law can be easily changed, can it not?

Jozef Niewiadomski: Certainly, there are also doctrinal formulas that can be changed - but they will not be changed by someone going his own way and saying: “Now I do it myself”. I have often written and published articles in which I am stating that there is nothing, from a doctrinal consensus point of view, that stands in the way of ordaining women. And that is a position I maintain even now. But the obstacle is the will of the community of law in the Church.

On a farm, nothing stands in the way of a son taking over the property of his father - - only the legal process of the legacy and his father’s will. The son can say: ‘Because I can run the farm better, I simply disinherit the father’. That will not be legally valid. He usurps then his father’s place in the property. What does that mean for the community of law, in this case the secular community of law? The community of law has first of all to protect the rightful owner, otherwise there would be chaos. Yes, if in the course of time there are enough people in the village who want to do things differently perhaps the law could be changed, you might say - but then you are talking about a revolution, a violent act.

My position is: reform of the ministry in the Church has never been achieved through revolutions. Reforms of ministry have been brought about painfully through small steps, and then they have caused schisms. I am convinced that it will come to a small schism. When bishops create a schism only because they want to ordain women, it brings the mad risk with it of creating a church of women.

In my deepest self I am convinced that this act will be counter-productive as far as the question of the integration of women in the Church is concerned. That's why I am stating here in every possible way: I will not be part of it. There are hundreds of Churches, and all claim to go back to Jesus. I want to belong to the frame work of this community of faith and this community of faith comes about precisely by the process in which it interprets the tradition, the biblical tradition. That kind of ongoing interpretation is carried by lots of witnesses. One of the most vocal conflicts in this process of interpretation is: are there sufficient reasons to say that we may not ordain women?

I believe that the longer time goes on, the clearer it will become: “No, there are no valid reasons!” - - But that does not allow anyone to say now: “Therefore I will do it myself, I will force the matter, I will simply do it.”

That is where the mistake lies.

Werner Ertel: We often hear people speak of kairos, of the right moment for the ordination of women. That was the case with Bishop Davidek in 1970 in Brunn. It is also being mentioned now. What if the pressure does not come from liberal society, as you maintain, but from the Spirit of God himself?

Jozef Niewiadomski Ok, then I would say, leave the whole thing to God. As Gamaliel said: “If it comes from God it will continue, then we cannot impede it”. Only as a human being we have to do everything that is part of our conviction to impede it. As a human being I am telling you that it will be counter-productive, because it fossilizes an understanding of ordination which the Church throughout the world has already transcended .

The proposed action reintroduces an understanding of ordination that focuses exclusively on administering the sacrament. It revives an old concept that has already been abandoned by dogmatic theology, namely the ordination that stands on its own. Already the Council of Chalcedon declared that people could only be ordained in specific ecclesial communities - - that ordinations standing on their own have no validity. According to the way we understand ordination today, it serves to guarantee the unity of the community. Which Church will be united through an ordination standing on its own?

I am leaving aside the question of the required theological formation, what quaalifications a candidate for ordination should have. I know some people ask: why should a priest have any theological formation anyway? For me this kind of approach is the most counter-productive step we could take. It will not bother Rome. Rome will simply crush it. But it will be counter-productive to the question of integration of women in the Church.

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