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Authentic Theology in Service of the Church by Anne Carr from 'Women Priests'

Authentic Theology in Service of the Church

by Anne Carr

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 221-225.
republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(Anne Carr, BVM, was at the time Assistant Dean and Assistant Professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where she received the Ph.D. Author of The Theological Method of Karl Rahner, she presented a paper at the Ordination Conference in 1975 ('The Church in Process,’ published in Women and Catholic Priesthood, ed. by A.M. Gardiner) and was a member of the Task Force on the Status of Women of the Catholic Theoligical Society of America.)

This essay briefly examines the grounds on which the magisterium of the Church determines what can change and what must remain unchanged in the Church’s doctrine and practice. The argument is that in the task of distinguishing and deciding, the Church is dependent on theology, and that theology, in the present historical context, is adequate insofar as it successfully draws on four major sources of reflection: Scripture, tradition, the human sciences, and contemporary experience. The theology of the Declaration is judged to be methodologically inadequate in relation to these sources, thus rendering the substance of its argumentation and its conclusions doubtful.

Discussing the limits of the Church’s power over the sacraments and its need to distinguish the substance of the sacraments (over which the Church has “no power”) from matters of mere historical practice or discipline, the Declaration asserts, “In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her Magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable.”(1) It has been said that this is the really decisive argument of the Declaration, since “the argument attempted from Scripture, historical and systematic theology is not convincing.”(2) Yet it is important to analyze as well the limits surrounding this recognized power of the magisterium itself. Such an analysis will enable us to answer the question of the ways in which the Church decides what can change and what must remain immutable. For the Declaration claims to have decided that the exclusion of women from pastoral office in the Church must not be changed. Are the grounds for such a decision present in the Declaration itself?’

First it must be noted that this Declaration is not framed in an infallible form, even though the Pope''approved this Declaration, confirmed it and ordered its publication" (par. 41). Since its authority, as part of the ordinary magisterium, is fallible, it is clear that the matter of the ordination of women is not settled once for all. Appeal to the Holy Spirit, or the authority of God, in claiming that exclusion of women from the pastoral office is the mind of Christ or of divine revelation (to which in Scripture and tradition the magisterium is bound) in such a statement is not yet sufficient reason for eliciting the assent of the Church. For the very choice of a non-infallible form by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith indicates that the statement’s claim to truth is only as convincing as the reasons that are adduced in support of its conclusions.(3) ''Logic and honesty suggest that statements of the (ordinary) magisterium are ultimately invitations to a dialogue in which the pros and cons can be sorted out."(4) Thus it is important to consider thc grounds upon which the Church can decide for or against a change in its teaching or practice.

In its decision-making, the Church in its teaching office is, in fact, dependent on theology. While it is true that the magisterium ultimately decides or refrains from rendering a decision on the various positions offered by theology, nevertheless the teaching office of the Church depends on exegetes, historians of tradition and theologians to lay before the Church the results of their study and research.(5) Such dependence is clear in the Declaration, which offers several convergent arguments from Scripture and tradition, and a set of reasons from the analogy of faith, in support of its position. Theology in the Church, it has recently been suggested, can be understood as a “second magisterium” in the present postjuridical, post-authoritarian age. Pointing out that the pope and bishops today generally follow a model of authority developed by the Roman school theologians as recently as the latter part of the nineteenth century, Avery Dulles finds that an older tradition used the term “magisterium” primarily for licensed teachers of theology. Thomas Aquinas “make a sharp distinction between the officium praelationis, possessed by the bishop, and the officium magisterii, which belongs to the professional theologian.(6) Dulles argues for recognition of the proper competencc of these two ”complementary and mutually corrective" magisteria in order to insure that theology’s goal as the pursuit of truth, in distinction from the pastoral role of the hierarchy, be clear.(7) The role of theology in its service to the Church is thus not an arm of the Church’s pastoral authority but fidelity to truth in its reflection on revelation. Dulles’ position is consonant with the long tradition of theology in the Church, with the spirit and letter of the Second Vatican Council,(8) and with the current self-understanding of theologians. Its general outlines of the intellectual integrity and independence of authentic theology are nexceptionable in a Church bound to the truth of God’s revelation. “Theology must pursue the truth for its own sake, no matter who may be inconvenienced by the discovery.”(9)

Given some such contemporary understanding of the relative indcpendence of theology in its scholarly and truth-seeking role, and of the relative dependence of the Church’s authoritative teaching function on theology, it is apparent why any theological position maintained by the ordinary magisterium is as authoritative as the power of the theological argumentation which supports it. How, then, can the Church decide what, in its doctrine and practice, must remain immutable? Clearly, it does so in dialogue with the findings and consensus of independent scholarship of contemporary theology in the Church.

The word “contemporary” here is crucial. Karl Rahner has shown that the historical character of the Church’s theology as ongoing reflection on an historical revelation means that theology cannot be a closed system. “The spiritual, religious and secular situation in which thc history of the revelation event takes place functions as a stimulus to [its] growth.''(10) Genuine theology must be in close contact with its historical situation and engage in continual dialogue with it in an open and critical way. It must also bc recognized, Rahner adds, that theology can be sinful in failing to be rational enough, remaining complacent in the fortress of “ecclesiastical orthodoxy,” believing it has an answer before it has really understood a genuinely new question.(11) Hence it can be argued further that the grounds and manner of the Church’s decision-making in matters of doctrine and practice lies in the quality and fullness of its theological dialogue within its particular historical situation.

A brief indication of the components of adequate contemporary theological dialogue will indicate in a formal sense why the Declaration’s theological argumentation fails to satisfy the requirements for an authentic and compelling decision of the ordinary magisterium in the case of the ordination of women.


According to the Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council II, the Church and its theology are bound to the norm of Scripture, interpreted according to modern historical-critical methods of exegesis.(12) The failure of the Declaration to take into account the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s recent report on the question of the ordination of women in relation to Scripture is well known. That report(13) indicates that the seventeen members present unanimously agreed that the New Testament alone does not settle the question of women’s ordination, and a majority of members voted that the scriptural evidence alone is not enough to exclude the possibility of ordaining women. That the Declaration places such heavy weight on the attitude and practice of Jesus in its argumentation, and does not consider the findings of the Biblical Commission nor of recent scholarly publications on this complex question renders its scriptural argumentation and conclusions at least dubious.


The same Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican 11 maintains that Scripture is to be interpreted within the context of thc Church’s tradition. While the Declaration affirms the importance of tradition, scholars have already noted a selective and partial reading of tradition and no reference to the findings of recent historical studies on the question of the exclusion of women from pastoral office. Such studies demonstrate that the reason for the traditional practice of excluding women from pastoral office rested not so much on an interpretation of the intention of Jesus with regard to the ordained ministry as on the belief in women’s naturally inferior state in the order of creation, subordinate to the “headship” of the male.(14) Thc Declaration presents evidence of a tradition which rests on notions about the nature of woman which are false and which have been explicitly rejected by the human sciences, by common experience, by theology and by the magisterium itself.(15)

The Human Sciences

While no one disputes the central importance of Scripture and tradition in theology, there is certainly not full agreement about the relevance of the human sciences as dialogical partners in its contemporary reflection. For the Declaration asserts, “The human sciences, however valuable their contribution in their own domain, cannot suffice here, for they cannot grasp the realities of faith: the properly supernatural character of these realities is beyond their competence.(16) Following on this statement is an assertion of the radical distinction of thc Church from other societies. While it is true that the human sciences cannot directly judge the realities of faith (or the structures of the Church as a society), the implications of the Declaration’s assertion seem to be that the sciences are irrelevant to theological discussion. And the Declaration itself makes no use of the findings of contemporary biology, psychology, sociology, history and anthropology relevant to the question of the relation of the sexes or the nature of women, in its determination of ”the respective roles of men and women," “a difference of fact on the levels of [their] functions and service,” a difference which “is the effect of God’s will from the beginning.”(17)

This failure is contrary to the consonance and analogy between faith and reason affirmed in the Constitution on Faith of Vatican Council (18) and implies a kind of “double truth” in which there can be a contradiction between human knowledge and revealed truth. It further appears to contradict the important statements of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World of Vatican Council 11 about thc appropriate use of the “findings of the secular sciences, especially psychology and sociology,” and the blending of “modern science and its theories . . . with Christian morality and doctrine . . .(in order that) religious practice and morality can keep pace with. . . scientific knowledge and with an ever-advancing technology.(19) There is a large body of theological literature on the question of the ordination of women which makes use of the findings of the human sciences in its reflections but which does not appear to have been considered in the Declaration.(20)

Contemporary Experience

This final element in theological dialogue is difficult to define, but it is clearly implied by the historical character of theology. While much of contemporary experience is reflected in the human sciences and in current theological literature, the concern here is not simply with scholarship but with the everyday experience of people in thc Church. It is to be noted that recent changes in the discipline of sacramental life (e.g., Confirmation, Penance, the permanent diaconate) have been made in relationship to contemporary pastoral and secular experience of Christians. In the Declaration, one finds little reference to any real understanding,of the contemporary experience of lay people, and particularly of women. Added to the lack of open consultation with the broader theological community noted above is the striking lack of consultation with lay people, and especially with women, in a matter of direct concern to both.(21) The Declaration presents women, who are assured by the Church of their equality and the desirability of their increased share in the Church’s decision-making, (22) with the inequality of having their roles in the Church entirely determined by a male clergy.

We have outlined the dependence of the teaching function of the Church on the work of theology, considered as a relatively independent work of scholarship seeking the meaning and truth of Christian revelation in the contemporary situation. Thc adequacy of theology in turn is dependent on the quality and depth of its use of the sources of revelation in Scripture and tradition, in light of the present knowledge of thc human sciences and thc contemporary experience of all classes of persons in the Church. The Declaration has fallen far short of adequacy in its consideration of the results of contemporary theological studies of Scripture and tradition, and the relation of these to the human sciences and to contemporary experience. The result is a document which appears to have pre-determined conclusions, and which bears little evidence of open consultation with the wider theological and pastoral communities in the Church. As a fallible statement of the ordinary magisterium, its decision about what can change and what must remain immutable on the issue of the ordination of women to pastoral office in the Church is neither persuasive nor compelling, since the arguments are not sufficient evidence to support its conclusion. Only in the fullness of dialogue can an authentic decision about doctrine or practice occur in the Church.


I. Declaration, par. 23.

2. Edward Kilmartin, S.J., “Letters,” America, Vol. 136, No. 9 (March 5, 1977), p. 178. Cf. also John R. Donahue, S.J. “Women, Priesthood and the Vatican,” America, Vol. 136, No. 13 (April 2, 1977), pp. 285-289.

3. Englebert Gutwenger, S.J., “The Role of the Magisterium,” Dogma and Pluralism, Concilium, Vol. 51, ed. Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), p. 53.

4. Ibid., p. 52.

5. Karl Rahner, S.J., “Considerations on the Development of Dogma,” Theological Investigations, Vol. IV, trans. Kevin Smyth (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1966 pp. 15-16.)

6. Avery Dulles, S.J., “The Theologian and the Magisterium,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Vol. 31, 1976, p. 242.

7. Ibid., p. 243.

8. Ibid., pp. 240-241.

9. Ibid., p. 246.

10. Karl Rahner, “The Historicity of Theology,” Theological Investigations, Vol. IX, trans. Graham Harrison (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 68.

11. Ibid., p. 76. Cf. also Anglican/Roman Catholic Consultation, “Statement on the Ordination of Women,” Origins, Vol. 5, No. 22 (November 20, 1975), pp. 349-352.

12. The Documents of Vatican II, ed. by Walter Abbott, S.J. (New York: Guild Press, 1966), pp. 118-122.

13. Biblical Commission Report. Cf. also the bibliography in Anne E. Patrick, “Women and Religion,” Theological Studies, Vol. 36, No. 4 (December, 1975), pp. 744-747.

14. Cf., e.g., Haye van der Meer, S.J., Women Priests in the Catholic Church?, trans. Arlene and Leonard Swidler (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973); Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church, trans. Jean Laporte and Mary Louise Hall (Collegeville: The Liturgical Prcss, 1976).

15. Cf., e.g., ''Pastoral Constitution on the church in the Modern World,'' The Documents of Vatican 11, pp. 227-228; John XXI11, Pacem in Terris (New York: The America Press, 1963), No. 14, p. 14; Paul Vl, “Address to the Committee for the International Women’s Year,” Origins, Vol. 4, No. 45 (May 1, 1975), pp. 718-719.

16. Declaration, par. 34.

17. Ibid., pars. 5, 30, 31.

18. Denzinger #1797.

19. The Documents of Vatican 11, p. 269.

20. Cf. the bibliographies in Anne E. Patrick, S.N.J.M., “Women and Religion,” pp. 737-765; and Women and Catholic Priesthood: An Expanded Vision, ed. Anne Marie Gardiner, S.S.N.D. (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), pp. 199-208.

21. Cf. Third Synod of Bishops, The Ministerial Priesthood and Justice in the World (Washington: USCC, 1972), p. 44.

22. Cf. n. 15 above Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin, “Statement on Behalf of the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,” Origins, Vol. 5, No. 17 (October 16, 1975), pp. 257-260; Vatican Study Commission on Women in Society and in the Church, International Women’ s Year 1975: Study Kit (Washington: USCC, 1975), pp. 28-29; Vatican Study Commission on Women in Society and in the Church, “Recommendations on Women in Church and Society,” Crux Special (September 20, 1976); cf. also L’Osservatore Romano, English ed. (August 12, 1976), pp. 4-5.

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