Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Declaration Inter Insigniores
Published in L'Osservatore Romano on Thursday 27 January 1977 and in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis 69 (1977) 98-116
Numbering of the paragraphs by John Wijngaards
Circumstances and origin of the Declaration Inter Insigniores
The question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood seems to have arisen in a general way about 1958, after the decision by the Swedish Lutheran Church in September of that year to admit women to the pastoral office. This caused a sensation and occasioned numerous commentaries.(1)
Even for the communities stemming from the sixteenth century Reformation it was an innovation: one may recall, for example how strongly the Confessio Fidei Scotiae of 1560 accused the Roman Church of making improper concessions to women in the field of ministry.(2) But the Swedish initiative gradually gained ground among the Reformed Churches, particularly in France where various national synods adopted similar decisions.
In reality, the admission of women to the pastoral office seemed to raise no strictly theological problem, in that these communities had rejected the sacrament of order at the time of their separation from the Roman Church.
But a new and much more serious situation was created when ordinations of women were carried out within communities that considered that they preserved the Apostolic succession of order:(3) in 1971 and 1973 the Anglican bishop of Hong Kong ordained three women with the agreement of his synod;(4) in July 1974 at Philadelphia there was the ordination in the Episcopal Church of eleven women-an ordination afterwards declared invalid by the House of Bishops.
Later on, in June 1975, the General Synod of the Anglican Church in Canada, meeting in Quebec, approved the principle of the accession of women to the priesthood;(5) and this was followed in July by the General Synod of the Church of England: Dr Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, frankly informed Pope Paul VI of the slow but steady growth of a consensus of opimon within the Anglican Communion that there are no fundamental objections in principle to the ordination of women to the priesthood.
These are only general principles, but they might quickly be followed by practice, and this would bring a new and senous element into the dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church on the nature of the ministry.(6) It has provoked a warning, first by the archbishop for the Orthodox in Great Britain, Athenagoras of Thyateira,(7) and then, more recently, by Pope Paul Vl himself in two letters to the Archbishop of Canterbury.(8)
Furthermore, the ecumenical sectors brought the question to the notice of all the Christian denominations, forcing them to examine their positions of principle, especially on the occasion of the Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Nairobi in December 1975.(9)
A completely different event has made the question even more topical: this was the organization under United Nations auspices of International Womens Year in 1975. The Holy See took part in it with a Committee for International Womens Year, which included some members of the Commission for the Study of the Role of Women in Society and the Church, which had already been set up in 1973.
Ensuring respect for and fostering the respective rights and duties of men and women leads to reflection on participation by women in the life of society on the one hand, and in the life and mission of the Church on the other. Now, the Second Vatican Council has already set forth the task: Since in our times women have an ever more active share in the whole life of society, it is very important that they participate more widely also in the various fields of the Churchs apostolate.(10) How far can this participation go?
It is understandable that these questions have aroused even in Catholic quarters intense studies, indeed passionate ones: doctoral theses, articles in reviews, even pamphlets, propounding or refuting in turn the biblical, historical and canonical data and appealing to the human sciences and sociology, (11) psychology and the history of institutions and customs.
Certain famous people have not hesitated to take sides boldly, judging that there was no basic theological objection to the possibility of women priests.(12) A number of groups have been formed with a view to upholding this claim, and they have sometimes done this with insistence, as did the conference held in Detroit (USA) in November 1975 under the title Women in Future Priesthood Now: A Call for Action.
The magisterium has thus been obliged to intervene in a question being posed in so lively a fashion within the Catholic Church and having important implications from the ecumenical point of view.
Archbishop Bernardin of Cincinnati, president of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops, declared on 7 October 1975 that he found himself obliged to re-state the Churchs teaching that women are not to be ordained to the priesthood; Church leaders, he said, should not seem to encourage unreasonable hopes and expectations, even by their silence.(13)
Pope Paul VI himself had already recalled the same teaching. He did so at first in parenthetical fashion, especially in his address on 18 April 1975 to the members of the Study Commission on the Role of Women in Society and in the Church and the Committee for the Celebration of International Womens Year: Although women do not receive the call to the apostolate of the twelve and therefore to the ordained ministries, they are nonetheless invited to follow Christ as disciples and co-workers . . .We cannot change what our Lord did, nor his call to women.(14)
Later he had to make an express pronouncement in his exchange of letters with Dr Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury: Your Grace is of course well aware of the Catholic Churchs position on this question. She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. (15)
It is at his order that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has examined the question in its entirety. The question has been complicated by the fact that on the one hand arguments adduced in the past in favour of the traditional teaching are scarcely defensible today, and on the other hand the reasons given by those who demand the ordination of women must be evaluated.
To avoid the rather negative character that must mark the conclusion of such a study, one could have thought of inserting it into a more general presentation of the question of the advancement of women. But the time is not ripe for such a comprehensive exposition, because of the research and work in progress on all sides.
It was difficult to leave unanswered any longer a precise question that is being posed nearly everywhere and which is polarizing attention to the detriment of more urgent endeavours that should be fostered. In fact, apart from its nonacceptance of the ordination of women, the document points to positive matters: a deeper understanding of the Churchs teaching and of the ministerial priesthood, a call to spiritual progress, an invitation to take on the urgent apostolic tasks of today.
The bishops, to whom the document is primarily addressed have the mission of explaining it to their people with the pastoral feeling that is theirs and with the knowledge they have of the milieu in which they exercise their ministry.
The declaration begins by presenting the Church's teaching on the question. This in fact has to be the point of departure. We shall see later how necessary it is to follow faithfully the method of using loci theologici.
It is an undeniable fact, as the declaration notes, that the constant tradition of the Catholic Church has excluded women from the episcopate and the priesthood. So constant has it been that there has been no need for an intervention by a solemn decision of the magisterium.
The same tradition, the document stresses, has been faithfully safeguarded by the churches of the East. Their unanimity on this point is all the more remarkable since in many other questions their discipline admits of a great diversity. At the present time these same Churches refuse to associate themselves with requests directed towards securing the accession of women to priestly ordination.(16)
Only within some heretical sects of the early centuries, principally Gnostic ones, do we find attempts to have the priestly ministry exercised by women. It must be further noted that these are very sporadic occurrences and are moreover associated with rather questionable practices.
We know of them only through the severe disapproval with which they are noted by St Irenaeus in his Adversus Haereses, (17) Tertullian in De Praescriptione Haereticorum,(18) Firmilian of Caesarea in a letter to St Cyprian,(19) Origen in a commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians,(20) and especially by St Ephiphanius in his Penarion.(21)
How are we to interpret the constant and universal practice of the Church? A theologian is certain that what the Church does she can in fact do, since she has the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This is a classical argument found again and again in St Thomas with regard to the sacraments.(22)
But what the Church has never done-is this any proof that she cannot do it in the future? Does the negative fact thus noted
indicate a norm, or is it to be explained by historical and by social and cultural circumstances? In the present case, is an explanation to be found in the position of women in ancient and mediaeval society and in a certain idea of male superiority stemming from that societys culture?
It is because of this transitory cultural element that some arguments adduced on this subject in the past are scarcely defensible today. The most famous is the one summarized by St Thomas Aquinas: quia mulier est in statu subiectinis.(23) In St Thomass thought, however, this assertion is not merely the expression of a philosophical concept, since he interprets it in the light of the accounts in the first chapters of Genesis and the teaching of the First Letter to Timothy (2:12-14).
A similar formula is found earlier in the Decretum of Gratian,(24) but Gratian, who was quoting the Carolingian Capitularies and the false Decretals, was trying rather to justify with Old Testament prescriptions the prohibition-already formulated by the ancient Church (25) -of women from entering the sanctuary and serving at the altar.
The polemical arguments of recent years have often recalled and commented on the texts that develop these arguments. They have also used them to accuse the fathers of the Church of misogyny. It is true that we find in the fathers writings the undeniable influence of prejudices against women. But it must be carefully noted that these passages had very little influence on their pastoral activity, still less on their spiritual direction, as we can see by glancing through their correspondence that has come down to us.
Above all it would be a serious mistake to think that such considerations provide the only or the most decisive reasons against the ordination of women in the thought of the fathers, of the mediaeval writers and of the theologians of the classical period. In the midst of and going beyond speculation, more and more clear expression was being given to the Churchs awareness that in reserving priestly ordination and ministry to men she was obeying a tradition received from Christ and the apostles and by which she felt herself bound.
This is what had been expressed in the form of an apocryphal literature by the ancient documents of Church discipline from Syria, such as the Didascalia Apostolorum (middle of the third century)(26) and the apostolic constitutions (end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century),(27) and by the Egyptian collection of twenty pseudo-apostolic canons that was included in the compilation of the Alexandrian Synods and translated into many languages. (28)
St John Chrysostom, for his part, when commenting on chapter twenty-one of John, understood well that womens exclusion from the pastoral office entrusted to Peter was not based on any natural incapacity, since, as he remarks, even the majority of men have been excluded by Jesus from this immense task.(29)
From the moment that the teaching on the sacraments is systematically presented in the schools of theology and canon law writers begin to deal ex professo with the nature and value of the tradition that reserved ordination to men. The canonists base their case on the principle formulated by Pope Innocent III in a letter of 11 December 1210, to the bishops of Palencia and Burgos, a letter that was included in the collection of Decretals: Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was of higher dignity and excellence than all the apostles, it was to them, not her, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven.(30) This text became a locus communis for the glossatores.(31) As for the theologians, the following are some significant texts: St Bonaventure: Our position is this: it is due not so much to a decision by the Church as to the fact that the sacrament of order is not for them. In this sacrament the person ordained is a sign of Christ the mediator.(32)
Richard of Middleton, a Franciscan of the second half of the thirteenth century: The reason is that the power of the sacraments comes from their institution. But Christ instituted this sacrament for conferral on men only, not women.(33)
John Duns Scotus: It must not be considered to have been determined by the Church. It comes from Christ. The Church would not have presumed to deprive the female sex, for no fault of its own, of an act that might licitly have pertained to it.(34) Durandus of Saint-Pourcain: . . . the male sex is of necessity for the sacrament. The principal cause of this is Christs institution. . . Christ ordained only men...not even his mother...It must therefore be held that women cannot be ordained, because of Christs institution.(35)
So it is no surprise that until the modern period the theologians and canonists who dealt with the question have been almost unanimous in considering this exclusion as absolute and having a divine origin. The theological notes they apply to the affirmation vary from theologically certain (theologice certa) to, at times, proximate to faith (fidei proxima) or even doctrine of the faith (doctrina fidei).36 Apparently then, until recent decades no theologian or canonist considered that it was a matter of a simple law of the Church.
In some writers of the Middle Ages however there was a certain hesitancy, reported by St Bonaventure without adopting it himself(37) and noted also by Joannes Teutonicus in his gloss on Caus. 27, q. 1, c. 23,(38) This hesitancy stemmed from the knowledge that in the past there had been deaconesses: had they received true sacramental ordination? This problem has been brought up again very recently.
It was by no means unknown to the seventeenth and eighteenth century theologians, who had an excellent knowledge of the history of literature. In any case, it is a question that must be taken up fully by direct study of the texts, without preconceived ideas; hence the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that it should be kept for the future and not touched upon in the present document.
The attitude of Christ
In the light of tradition, then, it seems that the essential reason moving the Church to call only men to the sacrament of order and to the strictly priestly ministry is her intention to remain faithful to the type of ordained ministry willed by the Lord Jesus Christ and carefully maintained by the apostles. It is therefore no surprise that in the controversy there has been a careful examination of the facts and texts of the New Testament, in which tradition has seen an example establishing a norm.
This brings us to a fundamental observation: we must not expect the New Testament on its own to resolve in a clear fashion the question of the possibility of women acceding to the priesthood, in the same way that it does not on its own enable us to give an account of certain sacraments, and especially of the structure of the sacrament of order.
Keeping to the sacred text alone and to the points of the history of Christian origins that can be obtained by analysing that text by itself would be to go back four centuries and find oneself once more amid the controversies of the Reformation. We cannot omit the study of tradition: it is the Church that scrutinizes the Lords thought by reading scripture, and it is the Church that gives witness to the correctness of its interpretation.
It is tradition that has unceasingly set forth as an expression of Christs will the fact that he chose only men to form the group of the twelve. There is no disputing this fact, but can it be proved with absolute certainty that it was a question of a deliberate decision by Christ?
It is understandable that the partisans of a change in discipline bring all their efforts to bear against the significance of this fact. In particular, they object that, if Christ did not bring women into the group of the twelve, it was because the prejudices of his time did not allow him to: it would have been an imprudence that would have compromised his work irreparably.
However, it has to be recognized that Jesus did not shrink from other imprudences, which did in fact stir up the hostility of his fellow citizens against him, especially his freedom with regard to the rabbinical interpretations of the Sabbath. With regard to women his attitude was a complete innovation: all the commentators recognize that he went against many prejudices, and the facts that are noted add up to an impressive total.
For this reason greater stress is laid today on another objection: if Jesus chose only men to form the group of the twelve, it was because he intended them to be a symbol representing the ancestors of the tribes of Israel (You who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones and judge the tribes of Israel: Mt. 19:28; cf. Lk. 22:30); and this specialmotive, it is added, obviously referred only to the twelve and would be no proof that the apostolic ministry should thereafter always be reserved to men. It is not a convincing argument.
We may note in the first place how little importance was given to this symbolism: Mark and John do not mention it. And in Matthew and Luke this phrase of Jesus about the twelve tribes of Israel is not put in the context of the call of the twelve (Mt. 1-10:1-4) but at a relatively late stage of Jesus public life, when the apostles have long since been given their constitution: they have been called by Jesus, have worked with him and been sent on missions.
Furthermore, the symbolism of Mt. 19:28 and Lk. 22:30 is not as certain as is claimed: the number could designate simply the whole of Israel. Finally, these two texts deal only with a particular aspect of the mission of the twelve: Jesus is promising them that they will take part in the eschatological judgment.(39) Therefore the essential meaning of their being chosen is not to be sought in this symbolism but in the totality of the mission given them by Jesus: he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to preach (Mk 3:14).
As Jesus before them, the twelve were above all to preach the good news (Mk 3:14; 6:12). Their mission in Galilee (Mk 6:7-13) was to become the model of the universal mission (Mk 12:10; cf. Mt. 28:16-20). Within the messianic people the twelve represent Jesus. That is the real reason why it is fitting that the apostles should be men: they act in the name of Christ and must continue his work. It has been described above how Pope Innocent III saw a witness to Christs intentions in the fact that Christ did not communicate to his mother, in spite of her eminent dignity, the powers which he gave to the apostles.
This is one of the arguments most frequently repeated by tradition: from as early as the third century the fathers present Mary as the example of the will of Jesus in this matter.(40) It is an argument still particularly dear to Eastern Christians today. Nevertheless it is vigorously reflected by all those who plead in favour of the ordination of women.
Marys divine motherhood, the manner in which she was associated with the redeeming work of the Son they say put her in an altogether exceptional and unique position; and it would not even be fair to her to compare her with the apostles and to argue from the fact that she was not ranked among them.
In point of fact these assertions do have the advantage of making us understand that there are different functions within the Church: the equality of Christians is in harmony with the complementary nature of their tasks, and the sacramental ministry is not the only rank of greatness, nor is it necessarily the highest: it is a form of service of the kingdom. The Virgin Mary does not need the increase in dignity that was once attributed to her by the authors of those speculations on the priesthood of Mary that formed a deviant tendency which was soon discredited.
The practice of the Apostles
The text of the declaration stresses the fact that, in spite of the privileged place Mary had in the upper room after the ascension, she was not designated for entry into the college of the twelve at the time of the election of Matthias. The same holds for Mary Magdalene and the other women who nevertheless had been the first to bring news of the resurrection.
It is true that the Jewish mentality did not accord great value to the witness of women, as is shown by Jewish law. But one must also note that the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of St Paul stress the role of women in evangelization and in instructing individual converts.
The apostles were led to take a revolutionary decision when they had to go beyond the circle of a Jewish community and undertake the evangelization of the Gentiles. The break with Mosaic observances was not made without discord. Paul had no scruples about choosing one of his collaborators, Titus, from among the Gentile converts (Gal. 2:3).
The most spectacular expression of the change which the good news made on the mentality of the first Christians is to be found precisely in the Letter of the Galatians: For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3 :27-28).
In spite of this, the apostles did not entrust to women the strictly apostolic ministry, although Hellenistic civilization did not have the same prejudices against them as did Judaism. It is rather a ministry which is of another order, as may perhaps also be gathered from Pauls vocabulary, in which a difference seems to be implied between my fellow workers (synergoi mou) and Gods fellow workers (Theou synergoi).(41)
It must be repeated that the texts of the New Testament, even on such points as the sacraments, do not always give all the light that one would wish to find in them. Unless the value of unwritten traditions is admitted, it is sometimes difficult to discover in scripture entirely explicit indications of Christs will. But in view of the attitude of Jesus and the practice of the apostles as seen in the gospels, the acts and the letters, the Church has not held that she is authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.
Permanent value of this practice
It is the permanency of this negative decision that is objected to by those who would have the legitimacy of ordaining women admitted. These objections employ arguments of great variety.
The most classic ones seek a basis in historical circumstances We have already seen what is to be thought of the view that Jesus; attitude was inspired solely by prudence, because he did not want to risk compromising his work by going against social prejudices. It is claimed that the same prudence was forced upon the apostles.
On this point too it is clear from the history of the apostolic period that there is no foundation for this explanation. However, in the case of the apostles, should one not take into account the way in which they themselves shared these prejudices? Thus St Paul has been accused of misogyny and in his letters are found texts on the inferiority of women that are the subject of controversy among exegetes and theologians today.
It can be questioned whether two of Pauls most famous texts on women are authentic or should rather be seen as interpolations, perhaps even relatively late ones. The first is 1 Cor. 14:34-35: The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate as even the law says. these two verses, apart from being missing in some important manuscripts and not being found quoted before the end of the second century, present stylistic peculiarities foreign to Paul. The other text is 1 Tim. 2:11-14: I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over men.The Pauline authenticity of this text is often questioned, although the arguments are weaker.
However, it is of little importance whether these texts are authentic or not: theologians have made abundant use of them to explain that women cannot receive either the power of magisterium or that of jurisdiction. It was especially the text of 1 Timothy that provided St Thomas with the proof that woman is in a state of submission or service, since (as the text explains) woman was created after man and was the person first responsible for original sin.
But there are other Pauline texts of unquestioned authenticity that affirm that the head of the woman is the man (1 Cor. 11:3 cf. 8-12; Eph. 5:22, 24). It may be asked whether this view of man, which is in line with that of the books of the Old Testament, is not at the basis of Pauls conviction and the Churchs tradition that women cannot receive the ministry.
Now this is a view that modern society rejects absolutely, and many present-day theologians would shrink from adopting it without qualifying it. We may note however that Paul does not take his stand on a philosophical level but on that of biblical history: when he describes, in relation to marriage, the symbolism of love, he does not see mans superiority as domination but as a gift demanding sacrifice, in the image of Christ.
On the other hand there are prescriptions in Pauls writings which are unanimously admitted to have been transitory, such as the obligation he imposed on women to wear a veil (1 Cor. 11:2-16). It is true that these are obviously disciplinary practices of minor importance, perhaps inspired by the customs of the time. But then there arises the more basic question: since the Church has later been able to abandon prescriptions contained in the New Testament, why should it not be the same with the exclusion of women from ordination?
Here we meet once again the essential principle that it is the Church herself that, in the different sectors of her life, ensures discernment between what can change and what must remain immutable. As the declaration specifies, When she judges that she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she knows that she is bound by Christs manner of acting. Her attitude, despite appearances, is therefore not one of archaism but of fidelity: it can be truly understood only in this light. The Church makes pronouncements in virtue of the Lords promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit, in order to proclaim better the mystery of Christ and to safeguard and manifest the whole of its rich content.
Many of the questions confronting the Church as a result of the numerous arguments put forward in favour of the ordination of women must be considered in the light of this principle. An example is the following question dealt with by the declaration: why will the Church not change her discipline, since she is aware of having a certain power over the sacraments, even though they were instituted by Christ, in order to determine the sign or to fix the conditions for their administration? This faculty remains limited, as was recalled by Pius XII, echoing the Council of Trent: the Church has no power over the substance of the sacraments.(42) It is the Church herself that must distinguish what forms part of the substance of the sacraments and what she can determine or modify if circumstances should so suggest.
On this point, furthermore, we must remember, as the declaration reminds us, that the sacraments and the Church herself are closely tied to history, since Christianity is the result of an event: the coming of the Son of God into time and to a country, and his death on the cross under Pontius Pilate outside the walls of Jerusalem. The sacraments are a memorial of saving events. For this reason their signs are linked to those very events. They are relative to one civilization, one culture, although destined to be reproduced everywhere until the end of time.
Hence historical choices have taken place by which the Church is bound, even if speaking absolutely and on a speculative level other choices could be imagined. This, for instance, is the case with bread and wine as matter for the eucharist, for the Mass is not just a fraternal meal but the renewal of the Lords supper and the memorial of his passion and thus linked with something done in history.(43)
It has likewise been remarked that in the course of time the Church has agreed to confer on women certain truly ministerial functions that antiquity refused to give them in the very name of the example and will of Christ. The functions spoken of are above all the administration of baptism, teaching and certain forms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.
As regards baptism, however, not even deaconesses in the Syriac-speaking East were permitted to administer it, and its solemn administration is still a hierarchical act reserved to bishop, priest and, in accessory fashion, deacon. When urgently required, baptism can be conferred not only by Christians but even by unbaptized people whether men or women
Its validity therefore does not require the baptismal character still less that of ordination. This point is affirmed by practice and by theologians. It is an example of this necessary discernment m the Churchs teaching and practice, a discernment whose only guarantee is the Church herself.
As regards teaching, a classical distinction has to be made, from Pauls letter onwards. There are forms of teaching or edification that key people can carry out and in this case St Paul expressly mentions women. These forms include the charisma of prophecy (1 Cor. 11:15).
In this sense there was no obstacle to giving the title of doctor to Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena, as it was given to illustrious teachers such as Albert the Great or St Laurence of Brindisi. Quite a different matter is the official and hierarchical function of teaching the revealed message, a function that presupposes the mission received from Christ by the apostles and transmitted by them to their successors.
Examples of participation by women in ecclesiastical jurisdiction are found in the Middle Ages: some abbesses (not abbesses in general, as is sometimes said in popularizing articles) performed acts normally reserved to bishops, such as the nomination of parish priests or confessors. These customs have been more or less reproved by the Holy See at different periods: the letter of Pope Innocent III quoted earlier was intended as a reprimand to the Abbess of Las Heulgas.
But we must not forget that feudal lords arrogated to themselves similar rights. Canonists also admitted the possibility of separating jurisdiction from order. The Second Vatican Council has tried to determine better the relationship between the two; the Councils doctrinal vision will doubtless have effects on discipline.
In a more general way, attempts are being made, specially in Anglican circles, to broaden the debate in the following way: is the Church perhaps not bound to scripture and tradition as an absolute, when the Church is a people making its pilgrim way and should listen to what the Spirit is saying? Or else a distinction is made between essential points on which unanimity is needed and auestions of discipline admitting of diversity: and if the conclusion reached is that the ordination of women belongs to these secondary matters, it would not harm progress towards the union of the Churches.
Here again it is the Church that decides by her practice and magisterium what requires unanimity, and distinguishes it from acceptable or desirable pluralism. The question of the ordination of women impinges too directly on the nature of the ministerial priesthood for one to agree that it should be resolved within the framework of legitimate pluralism between Churches. That is the whole meaning of the letter of Pope Paul VI to the Archbishop of Canterburv.
The ministerial priesthood in the light of the mystery of Christ
In the declaration a very clear distinction will be seen between the documents affirmation of the datum (the teaching it proposes with authority in the preceding paragraphs) and the theological reflection that then follows. By this reflection the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith endeavours to illustrate this norm by showing the profound fittingness to be found between the proper nature of the sacrament of order, with its specific reference to the mystery of Christ, and the fact that only men have been called to receive priestly ordination.
In itself such a quest is not without risk. However, it does not mvolve the magisterium. It is well known that in solemn teaching infallibility affects the doctrinal affirmation, not the arguments intended to explain it. Thus the doctrinal chapters of the Council of Trent contain certain processes of reasoning that today no longer seem to hold.
But this risk has never stopped the magisterium from endeavouring at all times to clarify doctrine by analogies of faith. Today especially, and more than ever, it is impossible to be content with making statements, with appealing to the intellectual docility of Christians: faith seeks understanding, and tries to distinguish the grounds for and the coherence of what it is taught.
We have already discarded a fair number of explanations given by mediaeval theologians. The defect common to these explanations is that they claimed to find their basis in an inferiority of women vis-a-vis men; they deduced from the teaching of scripture that woman was in a state of submission,of subjection and was incapable of exercising functions of government.
It is very enlightening to note that the communities springing from the Reformation which have had no difficulty in giving women access to the pastoral office are first and foremost those that have rejected the Catholic doctrine on the sacrament of order and profess that the pastor is only one baptized person among others, even if the charge given has been the object of a consecration.
The declaration therefore suggests that it is by analysing the nature of order and its character that we will find the explanation of the exclusive call of men to the priesthood and episcopate. This analysis can be outlined in three propositions: (1) in administering the sacraments that demand the character of ordination the priest does not act in his own name (in persona propria), but in the person of Christ (in persona Christi); (2) this formula, as understood by tradition, implies that the priest is a sign in the sense in which this term is understood in sacramental theology; (3) it is precisely because the priest is a sign of Christ the saviour that he must be a man and not a woman.
That the priest performs the eucharist and reconciles sinners in the name and place of Christ is affirmed repeatedly by the magisterium and constantly taught by fathers and theologians. It would not appear to serve any useful purpose to give a multitude of quotations to show this. It is the totality of the priestly ministry that St Paul says is exercised in the place of Christ: We are acting as ambassadors on behalf of Christ, God, as it were, appealing through us-in fact this text from 2 Corinthians has in mind the ministry of reconciliation (5: l 8-20)-you have received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus (Gal. 4:14).
Similarly St Cyprian echoes St Paul: The priest truly acts in the place of Christ.(44) But theological reflection and the Churchs life have been led to distinguish the more or less close links between the various acts in the exercise of the ministry and the character of ordination and to specify which require this character for validity.
Saying in the name and place of Christ is not however enough to express completely the nature of the bond between the minister and Christ as understood by tradition. The formula in persona Christi in fact suggests a meaning that brings it close to the Greek expression mimema Christou.(45) The word persona means a part played in the ancient theatre, a part identified by a particular mask. The priest takes the part of Christ, lending him his voice and gestures.
St Thomas expresses this concept exactly: The priest enacts the image of Christ, in whose person and by whose power he pronounces the words of consecration.(46) The priest is thus truly a sign in the sacramental sense of the word. It would be a very elementary view of the sacraments if the notion of sign were kept only for material elements.
Each sacrament fulfils the notion in a different way. The text of St Bonaventure already mentioned affirms this very clearly: the person ordained is a sign of Christ the mediator.(47)
Although St Thomas gave as the reason for excluding women the much discussed one of the state of subjection (status subjectionis), he nevertheless took as his starting point the principle that sacramental signs represent what they signify by a natural resemblance,(48) in other words the need for that natural resemblance between Christ and the person who is his sign. And, still on the same point, St Thomas recalls: Since a sacrament is a sign, what is done in the sacrament requires not only the reality but also a sign of the reality.(49)
It would not accord with natural resemblance, with that obvious meaningfulness, if the memorial of the supper were to be carried out by a woman; for it is not just the recitation involving the gestures and words of Christ, but an action, and the sign is efficacious because Christ is present in the minister who consecrates the eucharist, as is taught by the Second Vatican Council, following the encyclical Mediator Dei.(50)
It is understandable that those favouring the ordination of women have made various attempts to deny the value of this reasoning. It has obviously been impossible and even unnecessary for the declaration to consider in detail all the difficulties that could be raised in this regard. Some of them however are of interest in that they occasion a deeper theological understanding of traditional principles.
Let us look at the objection sometimes raised that it is ordination-the character-not maleness, that makes the priest Christs representative. Obviously it is the character, received by ordination, that enables the priest to consecrate the eucharist and reconcile penitents. But the character is spiritual and invisible (res et sacramentum). On the level of the sign (sacramentum tantum) the priest must both have received the laying on the hands and take the part of Christ. It is here that St Thomas and St Bonaventure require that the sign should have natural meaningfulness.
In various fairly recent publications attempts have been made to reduce the importance of the formula in persona Christi by insisting rather on the formula in persona Ecclesiae. For it is another great principle of the theology of the sacraments and liturgy that the priest presides over the liturgy in the name of the Church, and must have the intention of doing what the Church does.
Could one say that the priest does not represent Christ, because he first represents the Church by the fact of his ordination? The declarations reply to this objection is that, quite on the contrary, the priest represents the Church precisely because he first represents Christ himself, who is the head and shepherd of the Church. It indicates several texts of the Second Vatican Council that clearly express this teaching.
Here there may well be in fact one of the crucial points of the question, one of the important aspects of the theology of the Church and the priesthood underlying the debate on the ordination of women. When the priest presides over the assembly, it is not the assembly that has chosen or designated him for this role. The Church is not a spontaneous gathering. As its name of ecclesia indicates, it is an assembly that is convoked. It is Christ who calls it together. He is the head of the Church, and the priest presides in the person of Christ the head (in persona Christi capitis).
That is why the declaration rightly concludes that the controversies raised in our days over the ordination of women are for all Christians a pressing invitation to meditate on the mystery of the Church, to study in greater detail the meaning of the episcopate and the priesthood, and to rediscover the real and pre-eminent place of the priest in the community of the baptized of which he indeed forms part but from which he is distinguished because, in the actions that call for the character of ordination for the community he is-with all the effectiveness proper to the sacraments-the image and symbol of Christ himself who calls, forgives, and accomplishes the sacrifice of the covenant.
However, the objectors continue: it would indeed be important that Christ should be represented by a man if the maleness of Christ played an essential part in the economy of salvation. But, they say, one cannot accord gender a special place in the hypostatic union: what is essential is the human nature-no more assumed by the word, not the incidental characteristics such as the sex or even the race which he assumed. If the Church admits that men of all races can validly represent Christ, why should she deny women this ability to represent him?
We must first of all reply, in the words of the declaration, that ethnic differences do not affect the human person as intimately as the difference of sex. On this point biblical teaching agrees with modern psychology. The difference between the sexes however is something willed by God from the beginning, according to the account in Genesis (which is also quoted in the gospel), and is directed both to communion between persons and to the begetting of human beings. And it must be affirmed first and foremost that the fact that Christ is a man and not a woman is neither incidental nor unimportant in relation to the economy of salvation.
In what sense? Not of course in the material sense, as has sometimes been suggested in polemics in order to discredit it, but because the whole economy of salvation has been revealed to us through essential symbols from which it cannot be separated and without which we would be unable to understand Gods design. Christ is the new Adam. Gods covenant with men is presented in the Old Testament as a nuptial mystery, the definitive reality of which is Christs sacrifice on the cross.
The declaration briefly presents the stages marking the progressive development of this biblical theme, the subject of many exegetical and theological studies. Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, whom he won for himself with his blood, and the salvation brought by him is the new covenant: by using this language, revelation shows why the incarnation took place according to the male gender, and makes it impossible to ignore this historical reality. For this reason, only a man can take the part of Christ, be a sign of his presence, in a word represent him (that is, be an effective sign of his presence) in the essential acts of the covenant.
Could one do without this biblical symbolism when transmitting the message, in contemplating the mystery and in liturgical life? To ask this, as has been done in certain recent studies, is to call into question the whole structure of revelation and to reject the value of scripture. It will be said, for example, that in every period the ecclesial community appeals to the authority it has received from its founder in order to choose the images enabling it to receive Gods revelation. This is perhaps to fail even more profoundly to appreciate the human value of the nuptial theme m the revelation of Gods love.
The ministerial priesthood in the mystery of the Church
It is also striking to note the extent to which the questions raised in the controversy over the ordination of women are bound up with a certain theology of the Church. We do not of course mean to dwell on the excessive formulas which nonetheless sometimes find a place in theological reviews. An example is the supposition that the primitive Church was based on the charisma possessed by both women and men.(51) Another is the claim that the gospels also present women as ministers of unction.(52) On the other hand, we have already come across the question of the pluralism that can be admitted in unity and seen what its limits are.
The proposal that women should be admitted to the priesthood because they have gained leadership in many fields of modern life today seems to ignore the fact that the Church is not a society like the rest. In the Church, authority or power is of a very different nature, linked as it normally is with the sacrament, as is underlined in the declaration. Disregard of this fact is indeed a temptation that has threatened ecclesiological research at all periods: every time that an attempt is made to solve the Churchs problems by comparison with those of states, or to define the Churchs structure by political categories, the inevitable result is an impasse.
The declaration also points out the defect in the argument that seeks to base the demand that the priesthood be conferred on women on the text Galatians 3:28, which states that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between man and woman. For St Paul this is the effect of baptism. The baptismal catechesis of the fathers often stressed it. But absolute equality in baptismal life is quite a different thing from the structure of the ordained ministry. This latter is the object of a vocation within the Church not a right inherent in the person.
A vocation within the Church does not consist solely or primarily in the fact that one manifests the desire for a mission or feels attracted by an inner compulsion. Even if this spontaneous step is made and even if one believes one has heard as it were a call in the depths of ones soul, the vocation is authentic only from the moment that it is authenticated by the external call of the Church. The Holv Office recalled this truth in its 1912 letter to the bishop of Aire to put an end to the Lahitton controversy.(53) Christ chose those he wanted (Mk 3:13).
Since the ministerial priesthood is something to which the Lord calls expressly and gratuitously, it cannot be claimed as a right, any more by men than by women. Archbishop Bernardins declaration of October 1975 contained the sound judgment: It would be a mistake . . . to reduce the question of the ordination of women to one of injustice, as is done at times. It would be correct to do this only if ordination were a God-given right of every individual; only if somehow ones human potential could not be fulfilied without it. In fact, however, no one, male or female, can claim a right to ordination. And, since the episcopal and priestly office is basically a ministry of service, ordination in no way completes ones humanity.(54)
The declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ends by suggesting that efforts in two directions should be fostered, efforts from which the pastors and faithful of the Church would perhaps be distracted if this controversy over womens ordination were prolonged.
One direction is in the doctrinal and spiritual order: awareness of the diversity of roles in the Church, in which equality is not identity, should lead us-as St Paul exhorts us-to strive after the one gift that can and should be striven after, namely love (1 Cor. 12-13). The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are not the ministers but the saints, says the declaration. This expression deserves to be taken as a motto.
The other direction for our efforts is in the apostolic and social order. We have a long way to go before people become fully aware of the greatness of womens mission in the Church and society, both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true countenance of the Church. Unfortunately we also still have a long way to go before all the inequalities of which women are still the victims are eliminated, not only in the field of public professional and intellectual life, but even within the family.
Note 1. Note especially: J. E. Havel, La question du pastoral feminin en Suede, in Archives de sociologic des religions, 4, 1959, pp.207-249; F. R. Refoule, Le probleme des femmes-pretres en Suede, in Lumiere et Vie, 43, 1959, pp.65-99.
Note 2 No. 22 (W. Nisel, Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen . . ., Munchen 1939, p.l11): quod...foeminis, quae Spiritus sanctus ne docere quidem in Ecclesia patitur, ilk (papistae) permittunt ut etiam Baptismum administrarent.
Note 3. The position of the Catholic Church on this point was made clear by Leo XIII in the Letter Apostolicae Curae of 13 September 1896 (CTS H 311).
Note 4. Earlier, in 1944, his predecessor Bishop Hall called a woman to the priesthood, but she had to refrain from exercising the ministry because of the energetic intervention of the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, who for ecumemcal motives repudiated the action of the Bishop of Hong Kong.
Note 5. Letter of 9 July 1975 to the Pope. See ch. 3 below.
Note 6. Cardinal Willebrands stated this to some United States Episcopal Bishops in September 1974, according to the account published m Origins-NC Documentary Service, 9 October 1975.
Note 7. Italian translation published in LOsservarore Romano, 16-17 June 1975.
Note 8. Letters of Paul VI to Dr Coggan, 30 November 1975 and 10 February 1976. See . ch. 3 below.
Note 9. At the WCCs Assembly in New Delhi in 1961, the Department on Faith and Order was asked to prepare, in collaboration with the Department on Cooperation of Men and Women in Church, Family and Society, a study on the theological questions raised by the problem of womens ordination (cf NouvelleDelhi 1961, Neuchatel, 1962, pp.166, 169). On the discussion of the problem at the Nairobi Assembly, see E. Lanne, Points chauds de la VAssemblee mondiale du Conseil oecumenique des Eglises a Nairobi..., in Revue theologique de Louvain, 7, 1976, pp.197-199: Les Femmes dans lEglise.
Note 10. Second Vatican Council Decree Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 9.
Note 11. This intrusion of sociology into hermeneutics and theology is perhaps one of the most important elements in the controversy. This has been rightly stressed by B. Lambert, LEglise catholique peut-elle admettre des femmes a lordination sacerdotale? in Documentation Catholique 73, 1976, p.774: en corrigeant dans Iinterpretation de la Tradition et de lEcriture ce qui etait lie a des formes socio-culturelles, historiquement necessaires et conditionnees, mais aujourdhui depassees, a la lumiere de [evolution de la societe et de lEglise.
Note 12. The very phrase (reported in Le Monde of 19-20 September 1965) used by J. Danielou during the Council at a meeting of the Alliance Internationale Jeanne dArc. He returned to the subject, introducing perhaps more shades of meamng, in the interview he gave at the time of his promotion to Cardmal, LExpress, 936, 16-22 June 1969, pp. 122, 124: 11 faudrait examiner ou vent les vraies raisons qui font que lEglise na jamais envisage le sacerdoce des femmes.
Note 13. Origins - NC Documentary Service, 16 October 1975: Honesty and concern for the Catholic community . . . require that Church leaders not seem to encourage unreasonable hopes and expectations, even by their silence. Therefore I am obliged to restate the Churchs teaching that women are not to be ordained to the priesthood.
Note 14. AAS 67 (1975), p.265.
Note 15. Letter of 30 November 1975: See ch. 3 below
Note 16. Cf., for example. the theological conversations between Catholics and Russian Orthodox at Trent, 23-28 June 1975: LOsservatore Romano, 7-8 July 1975; Documentation Catholique, 71, 1975, p.707.
Note 17. 1, 13, 2: PG 7, colt 58()-581; Harvey edition 1, 144-122.
Note 18. 41, 5: CCL 1 p.221.
Note 19. In the Letters of Saint Cyprian, 75: CSEL 3, pp.817-818.
Note 20. Fragments published in Journal of Theological Studies, 10 (1909), pp.41-42 (No. 74).
Note 21. Panarion, 49, 2-3: GCS 31, pp.243-244: 78, 23 and 79, 2-4; GSC 37, pp.473, 477-479.
Note 22. St Thomas, Summa Theol., 2a 2ac, q. 10, a.12; 3a pars, q. 66, a. 10; q. 72. a.4 anda.l2;q.73.a.4;q.78,a.3 and a.6;q.80,a.12:q.82,a.2:q.83,a.3 and a.5: -cf. In IV Sent Dist 20, q I,a 4,qa I ff ; Dist 23, q I,a 4,q a I, etc
Note 23. St Thomas, In IV Sent. Dist. 19, q. 1, a.1, qa 3 ad 4-um; Dist, 25, q. 2, a. I, qa 1; cf. q. 2, a. 2, qa 1, ad 4; Summa Theol., 2a 2ac, q. 177, a. 2.
Note 24. Dictum Gratiani in Caus. 34; q. 5, c. 11, ed. Friedberg, t. 1, co. 1254; cf. R. Metz, La femme en droit canonique medieval, in Recueil de la societe Jean Bodin, 12, 1962, pp. 59-113.
Note 25. Canon 44 of the collection called after the Council of Laodicea: H. T. Bruns, Canones Apostolorum et Conciliorum . . . t. 1, Bertolini, 1839, p.78; St Gelasius, Epist. 14, ad universos episcopos per Lucaniam, Brutios et Siciliam constitutos, 11 March 494, No. 26: A. Thiel, Epistolae Romanorum pontificum..., t. 1, Brunsbergae. 1868. p.376.
Note 26. Chap. 15: ed. R. H. Connolly, pp.133 and 142.
Note 27. Lib.3, c.6,nn. 1-2;c.9,3-4;ed. F.X. Funk, p.191.
Note 28. Can. 24-28;-Greek text in F. X. Funk, Doctrina Duodecim Apostolorum, Tubingen, 1887, p.71; T. Schermann, Die allegemeine Kirchenordnung. . ., t.1, Paderborn, 1914, pp.31-33;-Syriac text in Octateuque de Clement, Lib. 3, c. 19-20, Latin text in the Verona ms., Bibl., capit, LV, ed. E. Tidner, Didascaliae Apostolorum, Canonum Ecclesiasticorum. Traditionis Apostolicae Versiones Latinae, Berlin, 1965 (TU 75), pp.111-113. The Coptic, Ethiopian and Arabic versions of the Synodos have been translated and published chiefly by G. Homer, The Statutes of the Apostles or Canones Ecclesiastici, Oxford University Press, 1915 (=1904).
Note 29. De Sacerdotio 2, 2: PC 48, 663.
Note 30. Decrelal. Lib. V. tit. 38, De paenit., can. 10 Nova A. Friedberg, t. 2, colt 886-887: Quia licet beatissima Virgo Maria dignior et excellentiorfuerit Apostolis universis, non tamen ilk, sed istis Dominus craves regni caelorum commisit.
Note 31. e.g., Glossa in Decretal. Lib. 1, tit. 33, c. 12 Dilecta, Vo lurisdicuani.
Note 32. In IV Sent., Dist. 25, art. 2, q. 1: ed. Quaracchi, t. 4, p.649: Dicendum est quad hoc non venit tam ex institutione Ecclesiae, quam ex hoc quod eis non competit Ordinis sacramentum. In hoc sacramento persona quae ordinatur significat Christum mediatorem.
Note 33. In IVSent., Dist. 25, a. 4, n. 1; ed. Bocatelli, Venice, 1499 (Pellechet-Polain, 10132/9920), f 177-R: Ratio est quod sacramenta vim habent ex sua institutione: Christus autem hoc sacramentum instituit conferri masculis tantum, non mulieribus.
Note 34. In IV Sent., Dist. 25, Opus Oxoniense, ed. Vives, t. 19, p.140; cf. Reportata Parisiensia, ed. Vives, t. 24, pp.369-371. Quod non est tenendum tamquam praecise per Ecclesiam determinatum, sed habetur a Christo: non enim Ecclesia praesumpsisset sexam muliebrem privasse sine culpa sua actu qui posses sibi licite competere.
Note 35. In IV Sent., Dist. 25, p.2; ed. Venice, 1571, f 364-v: . . .sexus virilis est de necessitate sacrament, cuius causa principalis est institutio Christi. . . Christus non ordinavit nisi viros. . . nec matrem suam. . . Tenendum est igitur quod mulieres non possum ordinari ex institutione Chrisu.
Note 36. Details of these theological notes can be found in E. Doronzo, Tractatus Dogmaticus de Ordine, t. 3, Milwaukee, Bruce, 1962, pp.395-396; Cf. also F. Haller, De Sacris Electionibus, 1636, quoted in J. P. Migne, Theologiae Cursus Completus, t. 24, colt 821-854; many present-day objections are surprisingly anticipated in this work, which goes so far as to qualify as periculosa in fide the opinion that would admit womens ordination in general, and as haeretica that which would admit them to the priesthood, colt 824; cf. also H. Tournely, Praelectiones Theologicae de Sacramento Ordinis, Parisiis, 1729, p.185, notes as an error contra fidem this assertion with regard to episcopate, priesthood and diaconate. Among canonists: X. Wemz, lus Decret., t. 2, Romae, 1906, p.124: Iure diving (he quotes several writers); P. Gasparri, Tractatus Canonicus de Sacra Ord inatione, t. 1, Parisiis, 1893, p.75; Et quidem prohibentur sub poena nullitatis: ita enim traditio et communis doctorum catholicorum doctrina interpretata est legem Apostoli: ed id eo Patres inter haereses recensent doctrinam qua sacerdotalis d ignitas et of ficium mulieribus tribuitur.
Note 37. St Bonaventure, In IVSent., Dist. 25, art. 2, q. 1, ed. Quaracchi, t. 4, p.650: Omnes consentiant quod promoveri non debent, sed utrum possint, dubium est (the doubt arises from the case of the deaconesses); he concludes: secundum saniorem opinionem et prudentiorum doctorum non solum non debent vel non possum de lure, verum etiam non possum defacto.
Note 38. This canon deals with deaconesses. At the word ordinari, Johannes Teutonicus states: respondeo quod mulieres non recipient characterem, impediente sexu et constitutione Ecclesiae: uncle nec officium ordinum exercere possum . . . nec ord inatur haec: sed fund ebatur super eam forte aliqua bened ictio, ex qua consequebatur aliquod officium speciale, forte legend) homilias vel evangelium ad matutinas quod non licebat aliis. Alii dicunt quod si monialis ordinetur, bene recipit characterem, quia ordinari facti est et post baptismum quilibet potest ordinare.
Note 39. Cf. J. Dupont, Le Logion des douze bones, in Biblica, 4s, 1964, pp.35s-392.
Note 40. The documents cited in notes 26-28 above. Note also the curious Mariale falsely attributed to Albert the Great, quaest. 42, ed. Borgnet. t. 37, pp.80-81.
Note 41. I. De La Potterie, Titres missionnaires du chretien dans le Nouveau Testament (Rapports de la XXXIeme semaine de Missiologie, Louvain, 1966). Paris, Desclee de Brouwer, 1966, p.29-46, cf. pp.44-45.
Note 42. Council of Trent, sess. 21, c. 2 and Pius Xll Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, 30 November 1947, quoted in the Declaration.
Note 43. Cf. Ph. Delhaye, Retrospective et prospective des ministeres femininsdans lEglise, in Revue theologique de Louvain 3, 1972, pp.74-75.
Note 44. Epist. 63, 14: ed. Hartel, CSEL t. 3, p.713: sacerdos vice Christi vere fungitur.
Note 45. St Theodore the Studite, Adversus Iconomachos cap. 4; PG 99, 593; Epist.
Note 46. Summa Theol., 111 q. 83, a. I, ad 3-um
Note 47. Above, note 32: persona quae ordinatur significat Christum mediatorem.
Note 48. In IV Sent., Dist. 25, q. 2, a. 2, qa 1, ad 4-um: signa sacramentalia ex naturali similitudine repraesenten t.
Note 49. Ibid. in corp. quaestiunculae: Quia cum sacramentum sit signum, in eis -quae in sacramento aguntur requiritur non solum res, sed significatio rei.
Note 50. II Vatican Council, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Liturgy no. 7 (CTS Do 386); Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei. 20 November 1947.
Note 51. Cf. Concilium iii, 1976, La femme dans lEglise, French edition, pp. 19, 20, especially 23: Au temps de Paul, les fonctions de direction etaient reparties et reposaient sur lautorite charismatique.
Note 52. Theological Studies 36, 1975, p.667.
Note 53. AAS 4, 1912, p.485.
Note 54. In Origins-NC Documentary Service, 16 0ctober 1975.
- Fr. Herve-Marie Legrand,OP, Views on the Ordination of Women reviewing the state of the question of the ordination of women (Origins, Jan. 6, 1977).
- Inter Insigniores, Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood.
- The Question of Admitting Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, Louis Ligier. SJ., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published in L'Osservatore Romano, March 2, 1978.
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