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The Witness and Experience of Other Churches III. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH by The Reverend George H.Tavard from 'The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con'

The Witness and Experience of Other Churches

III. THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH

by The Reverend George H.Tavard (see biography)

from The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con, pp. 112-125,
edited by Michael P.Hamilton and Nancy S.Montgomery, Morehouse Barlow Co, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

The Roman Catholic Church's practice on the ordination of women to Holy Orders is embodied in the Code of Canon Law, canon 968, §1 : Sacram ordinationem valide recipit solus vir baptizatus (only a baptized man receives ordination validly). The term for man is not homo, which corresponds to “human person,” but vir which, although it does not mean male—the word for this being mas—designates exclusively the man as distinguished from the woman. The Code is undergoing revision at the moment. It will eventually be modified in keeping with the principles adopted by the Second Vatican Council, but its provisions remain in force until they are repealed. This can be done by a decree from the Holy See until the new Code is finished and adopted.

The canon in question should not be read alone. It belongs to a series of regulations banning women from direct involvement in liturgical functions even remotely related to Holy Orders. For instance, canon 813, §2: Minister missae inserviens ne sit mulier, nisi deficiente viro, justa de causa, eaque lege ut mulier ex longinquo respondeat nec ullo pacto ad altare accedat. (The servant at mass must not be a woman, unless, for a good reason, no man is available; but the woman must give the responses from a distance and must in no way come near the altar.) Or also, canon 742, §2, as regards the minister of baptism in the absence of a priest: Si tamen adsit sacerdos, diacono praeferatur, diaconus subdiacono, clericus laico, et vir feminae, nisi pudoris gratia deceat feminam potius quam. virum baptizare, vel nisi femina noverit malius formam et modum baptizandi (If a priest is present, he must be preferred to a deacon, a deacon must be preferred to a subdeacon, a cleric to a lay person, and a man to a woman, unless it is more decent for a woman to perform the baptism than for a man, or unless it is a woman who knows best the form and the mode of baptism.) Thus the trend of the legislation is to keep women away from sacred functions and sacred objects such as an altar.

Vatican Council II initiated drastic liturgical reform, but gave no evidence of wishing to change the principle of the nonordainability of women or the more general principle of keeping women at a distance from sacred functions. Nor are there any signs at this time that alterations of this discipline are being envisaged at the level of the church's legislative authority. In a communication of January 25, 1966 to the Episcopal Conference of North Africa (including Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), the President of the Council for liturgical reform, Cardinal Lercaro, stated:

It has happened that some—arguing from articles of the Constitution on the Liturgy that they interpreted arbitrarily—have believed it licit to admit little girls, girls or women to serve near the altar during sacred functions. The extension of the munus liturgicum (liturgical task) of women, which is their right and duty as a result of baptism (Const., n. 14), will have to be studied further. But it is certain that women have no ministerium (service) to fulfill near the altar in the present organization of the liturgy. For ministerium is dependent upon the will of the Church, and the Catholic Church has in fact never entrusted the liturgical ministerium to women.(1)

More recently, Pope Paul VI's motu proprio, Ministeria quaedam, of August 15, 1972 which effected a reform of the minor Orders, included the passage: “Institution into the office of lector and of acolyte is, according to the Church's venerable tradition, reserved to man.”(2)

These texts need not commit the church to continue the past and present discipline into the future. They state facts and, by so doing, they imply what is already self-evident, that canonical legislation remains binding until it has been changed. Yet evidence exists that no new legislation is being envisioned, at least as regards access of women to the sacrament of Orders, if not in the lesser matter of possible liturgical service in the proximity of the altar. In May 1973, a commission for the study of the function of woman in society and in the church was created by Pope Paul. On this occasion the Secretariat of State, which is one of the chief offices of the Roman Curia, issued a note on the scope of the commission's task. After listing several items that ought to be researched, the text added: “The possibility of the ordination of woman must be excluded from the start of this investigation.”(3)

That a question which is widely debated at the moment should have been excluded from a brief of the commission, is not without serious motivation. It indicates that the question regards primarily not the status of woman or man in the church, but the sacrament of orders. It is a matter of sacramental theology, for which the commission is not competent either in the terms of its mandate or by virtue of its membership. The question should be related primarily, not to the problem of the status of woman, but to the nature of the sacramental priesthood.

The following description of the office of the priest, which is to be found in the Vatican Council's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum ordinis), sums up the Roman Catholic conception of the priesthood:

Because it is joined with the episcopal order, the office of priests shares in the authority by which Christ himself builds up and sanctifies and rules his body. Hence the priesthood of priests, while presupposing the sacraments of initiation, is nevertheless conferred through its own particular sacrament. Through that sacrament priests are signed by the anointing of the Holy Spirit with a special character and so are configured to Christ the priest in such a way that they are able to act in the person of Christ the head.(4)

Thus the priesthood is seen as being radically connected with the function of Christ as “the head” of his body the Church. The priest acts “in the person” of Christ. In this context, the word person has kept some of the etymological connotations of the Latin term, persona: the priest, like an actor in a Greek theatre, “plays the part,” “wears the mask” of Christ.

These official documents presuppose a definite theological perspective. While many arguments have been formulated against the ordination of women, the canonical legislation is independent of individual theological opinions, but rests on a broad basis of common theology. The documents indicate several points as being related to this theology.

First, there is a clear position on the general priesthood of the laity. In the terms of Vatican II, “all the faithful are made a holy and kingly priesthood. They offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ and they proclaim the virtues of him who has called them out of darkness into his admirable light. Therefore, there is no such thing as a member that has not a share in the mission of the whole body. Rather, every single member ought to sanctify Jesus in his heart and by the spirit of prophecy give testimony to Jesus.”(5) This notion of the general priesthood is explained at length in numerous texts. One finds it in Pius XII, in a noted pastoral letter issued during the Council by the Bishop of Bruges, Joseph De Smedt, in the Conciliar Constitution Lumen Gentium; and it is part of the Canterbury Statement on Ministry issued by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Conversation.(6) There is an essential difference between the common priesthood of the Christian people conferred in baptism, and the special priesthood of the minister given through ordination. Baptism confers no right to the further reception of the sacrament of orders. Accordingly, no argument for the ordination of women can be heard by the Catholic magisterium if it is based on supposed rights accruing to the faithful from baptism or confirmation.

Second, the statement that priests in their ministry, and especially in the presidency of the Eucharistic celebration, act “in the person of Christ” and thus represent “Christ the head” in the eyes of the church, occurs too frequently to be without special significance. Recent discussions about the functional versus the ontological aspects of the priesthood have confused rather than clarified the point at issue here. Even when it is seen as a function and not as a state of being or as a caste, the priesthood implies a representativeness which relates priests to Christ, the high priest. It is Christ's unique high-priesthood which is at work in the ministerial sacerdotal functions. Thus the theological and pastoral tradition has associated the priest with Christ as caput, head of the body which is the church. But the scriptural and theological tradition has also associated, in marriage, the husband to representativeness of Christ as caput and the wife to representativeness of the ecclesia (cf Ephesians, 5:21-33, a text which has had considerable influence on the sacramental theology of marriage). Hence the question: Is there an analogy between the representativeness of the priest in the community at large and that of the father in the family? Both are referred by the sources to Christ as “the head.” From this conjunction of two trends in the tradition it is possible to reach the conclusion that there is an unwritten, but effectively underlying, tradition about manhood itself. One may wonder if there is not an unclear, but nonetheless basic, anthropological principle at work here. Is there an undefined ontological structure which would make it at least inappropriate, perhaps even impossible, for women called to symbolic representativeness of the ecclesia, to be also entrusted with symbolic representativeness of the caput ecclesiae? An unbiased reading of the official Catholic documents suggests that they rest upon such an assumption. If this is so, the policy is not likely to change unless it is clearly shown, either that these symbolic functions need not be exclusive of each other, or that they do not have in fact the importance that theological reflection can read into them and that canonical legislation has taken for granted.

Third, if indeed such an ontological structure exists, or at least if the magisterium, with the common theological opinion of past ages, thinks or suspects that there is one, the Catholic magisterium finds itself in a bind over the question of the ordination of women. For, whatever authority it does claim with its doctrines of papal and conciliar infallibility and of immediate and universal papal jurisdiction, the Catholic magisterium disclaims any authority and power to bypass ontological laws. Wherever one touches on the possibility that a “natural law” has already settled a question, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church considers its own power to be radically limited. Whereas it does encourage studies, reflections, suggestions, hypotheses in wide areas of theological research, the magisterium does not favor speculations that may lead to actions which could be, in the classical theology of the matter, abuses of power. In this question of ordaining women to the priesthood, the authorities have their hands tied by the fear that, whatever cultural or practical reasons one may advance for such ordinations, the problem is not cultural or practical and in the realm of discipline, but natural and ontological and therefore outside the sphere where the magisterium has traditionally exercised authority. The pro and the con do not seem to be on the same level. Therefore, no argument for the ordainability of women can be persuasive, unless the authorities of the Catholic Church have been persuaded that they have indeed the power to proceed to such ordinations.

Fourth, the reservation of the sacrament of orders to males is not regarded in the official documents as a restriction imposed on women's ambitions, scope and abilities, or as an injustice, or as a condemnation to a lower ecclesial status, or as a consequence of a supposedly inferior status in nature, or as an imitation or prolongation of the waning inferior status of woman in society. Neither the church, nor its magisterium nor its legislation is bound to or by the opinions which medieval theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, borrowed from their Aristotelian sources concerning the inferior biology of women. Indeed, in the theological literature with which I am acquainted, only one major theologian, the Franciscan John Duns Scot at the end of the 13th century, regarded the legislation as being fundamentally unjust.(7) On October 30, 1971 the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and Reformed Consultation in the United States issued a statement on “Women in the Church,” which said, concerning the “accepted status of women in society and the church:” “We judge this status quo to be sinful and immoral.”(8) Insofar as this judgment refers to the principle of the nonordination of women, it is certainly at variance with the sense of the church's legislation on the matter. The principle of nonordination is not intended to be, and is not understood as, an infringement on legitimate freedom. True Christian freedom is not to be assessed by secular standards or achievements. The franchise being finally obtained by women in contemporary society has no relevance for the question whether the sacrament of order ought to be open to women. Christian freedom regards not the achievements of personal desires, even in holy and religious matters, but the fulfillment of the will of God as experienced not only in one's sense of calling, but primarily in the Scriptures, in the tradition and in the consensus of the People of God. If libertas is equated with the right to choose between alternatives, the Christian concept of human freedom implies libertas used according to what the Council's Constitution Gaudium et Spes calls dignitas:

God willed that man should “be left in the hand of his own counsel” so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man's dignity therefore requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulses in himself or by mere external constraint. Man gains such dignity when, freeing himself from all slavery to his passions, he presses forward toward his goal by freely choosing what is good and uses his diligence and skill effectively to secure for himself the means suited to this end....(9)

This passage refers of course universally to all men and all women (the Latin term is homo), as they are defined by the natural order of the world. The concept of Christian freedom goes further still: It adds to libertas and dignitas the properly revealed elements of divine salvation by Christ and divine guidance through the Holy Spirit in grace. Accordingly, when the Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom asserted: “The human person has a right (jus) to religious freedom,”(10) it did not set down a principle that can now be used against the church's policy of nonordination of women. For this is not a matter of jus. The freedom in question is the libertas necessary to live according to dignitas. To dignitas, the Christian order adds the undeserved gifts of revelation and grace. And this places the sacraments, including the sacrament of orders, outside the realm of human demands for equality and freedom. No argument in favor of ordination of women has therefore any chance of succeeding in Catholic thought, if it argues only from secular concepts of freedom. It ought to show that a change of discipline in the matter is required by what is properly constitutive of Christian freedom, namely the elevation and transformation of human dignitas through divine grace.

The Roman Catholic practice of not ordaining women to the priesthood ought, therefore, to be seen within a broader horizon than the contemporary emancipation of woman in secular society. It rests, if not upon an elaborate anthropology, at best on a certain type of humanism. In this domain, as in most others, it is misleading to argue from secular realities especially secular politics, to the church. Whereas the recent developed ideas concerning the status and the rights of woman in society see her essentially as an individual human person who enjoys the right to define herself in freedom and to choose her own way of life, the recent Catholic documents always envision woman in a context. The Catholic approach to humanity makes a sharp distinction between the notion of the “individual” and that of the “person.” Woman, like man always seen, in Catholic official writings, as a person, not as an individual. An individual stands by herself. A person stands at the center of a web of interrelationships with other persons. In Catholic ethics, a human being defines herself or himself by realizing and accepting a certain context of life as a natural datum which is destined to become, through free personal options and actions, a context for livirig. Thus, in one's own life as in humankind nature is transformed into culture.

This type of humanism is manifest in Vatican Council II. The Council reserves no separate section of its many decrees to the specific tasks of woman or man. Yet it devotes a considerable amount of space—in fact, most of its decrees—to the institutional and cultural contexts in which men and women live and are called to live. The decrees or constitutions on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), on the Church (Lumen gentium), on the Church in the Modern World, (Gaudium et spes), on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam actuositatem), on the Missionary Activity of the Church (Ad gentes), on the Means of Social Communication (Inter mirifica) deal precisely with various contexts of Christian life in the modern world. The human person envisioned is homo (the Latin term which includes man and woman), except when the Council refers to the specific functions of motherhood in the context of the family.(11) The Council was of course aware of the current emancipation of woman. It even argued from this emancipation to urge women to involve themselves in the church's apostolate: “Since in our days women more and more play active roles in the entire life of society, their participation also in the various fields of the church's apostolate is of great importance.(12) Far from frowning on this emancipation, the Council rejoiced in it. For, despite the claim of some recent feminist literature that “sisterhood” is “antichurch,”(13) the Catholic Church knows itself to have been the single most important spiritual force behind the progressive emancipation of woman. Thus the Council's final Message to Women said:

The Church is proud, as you know, to have magnified and liberated woman, to have made her radical equality with man shine through the centuries in the diversity of their temperaments. But the hour comes, the hour has come, when the vocation of woman reaches fulfillment, the hour when woman acquires an influence, a radiation, a power in the city never achieved before.

And if one thinks that the Roman Catholic Church is somehow afraid of the power of sisterhood, one ought to read the end of this message, where the Council, despairing of the men who have led humankind to the brink of destruction, entrusts the peace of the world to woman-power: “Women of the whole universe, Christian or unbelieving, you to whom life is entrusted, it belongs to you, at so dangerous a period of history, to save the peace of the world!”(14)

Indeed, the theme of the liberation of woman is prominent in the speeches and writings of Paul VI. On November 17, 1973, the pope said:

The conception that has been developed by the Christian faith (concerning woman and the feminine values) remains more than ever valuable, modern, fruitful and on some points permanent. It is no less certain that this conception, in keeping with a widespread trend of our day, calls for a progressive equalization of the basic rights of man and of woman and for a greater conscientiation of their respective duties. This access to equality touches also the social functions which man and woman assume. To guarantee woman's access to these functions and her participation in them, a progress foreseeable, possible and desirable; and it will bring along a certain newness. This presupposes trust in woman's capabilities and a serious educational effort that will allow her to play her part fully, especially in the moral and humane domain.(15)

On November 6, 1974, on the occasion of the International Women's Year, Pope Paul alluded to the Study Commission created by himself, “to study, by confronting the aspirations of the modern world and the radiant doctrine of the Church, the full participation of woman in the community life of the Church and of society.” He added:

Equality can be found only in its essential foundation: the dignity of the human person, man and woman, in a filial relation to God, whose visible image it is. But this does not exclude the distinction in unity and the specific contribution of woman to the full development of society according to her own personal vocation. Thus modern woman will be able to reach greater consciousness of her rights and duties, and to contribute not only to her own uplifting but also to the qualitative progress of humankind in development and in peace.(16)

On December 7, 1974, speaking to the Congress of Italian Catholic Lawyers, the Pope spoke also on the woman question, which was on the program of the congress. He related the current evolution of woman's role in society to the passage from an agricultural to an industrial economy and said:

It is clear that not everything in this new state of things should be deemed to be negative. Perhaps it will be easier in this context for the woman of today and of tomorrow to unfold all her energies in their fulness.... The true problem consists precisely in acknowledging, respecting and, where this is necessary, recovering principles which are irreplaceable values in the culture of an evolved people. Let us recall these briefly: first the difference of the functions and of the nature of woman over against those of man, from which there follows the originality of her being, of her psychology, of her human and Christian vocation; her dignity, which must not be diminished, as too often happens in connection with behavior, work, promiscuity without distinction, publicity, entertainment. And we will add the primacy which belongs to women in all the human realm where the problems of life, of pain, of assistance, and especially of motherhood, are more directly raised.(17)

As these quotations indicate, there is no conscious wish at the highest instance of Roman Catholic authority to keep women in subjection, either in society or in the church. And this confirms my analysis of the traditional legislation on the nonordination of woman: By and large, Catholic views assume that there is something transcendent, unique, inalienable, about the be-ing of woman. The implicit assumption has been that this entails an inherent incompatibility with the reception of the exercise of the sacrament of orders. The movement in favor of a change in the Roman Catholic practice ought to show that the being of a woman implies no such consequence. The opinion in favor of retention of the present law—which, I believe, is still the prevailing opinion— ought to show the cogency of such a consequence.

If Catholic women have not had access to the sacrament of orders, they have been closely associated with various aspects of ministerial service. I need not draw attention to the many women who have been canonized, to the influence, for good and for bad, of women on the medieval papacy, to the spiritual jurisdiction of abbesses in exempt monasteries, which lasted from the early Middle Ages to the 19th century, to the coronation and consecration of reigning queens, according to the Roman Pontifical, as sharers in the episcopal ministry (particeps ministerii nostri), to the ministry of women in the works of mercy. The progressive access of women to ministerial service has moved nuns from the cloistered monasteries of the Middle Ages to the active life of modern sisters and to the temporal activities of secular institutes. Recently, both sisters and laywomen have assumed responsibility in the pastoral ministry as directors of religious education and spiritual counselors. Under special license, women may administer the reserved sacrament. The invaluable services of women missionaries in the last two centuries have now spread to settled parishes in both rural and urban areas of the western world. Thus a wealth of ministerial experience by women has been accumulating. And it has been unavoidable that the farther question should be raised: Could not these ministerial services include also the strictly sacerdotal functions and the various levels of ecclesiastical government? Thus a number of organizations which advocate, or at least discuss, the ordainability of women are now in existence;(18) and a number of theologians have gone on record as seeing no ultimate theological objection to the ordination of women.(19) In the United States, some official or semiofficial groups have discussed the matter. I have already mentioned the statement Women in the Church, issued by the Catholic— Presbyterian and Reformed Consultation(20) One can also refer to an unpublished theological study of the priesthood commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Somewhat hastily, this report states: “The question is basically a pastoral one. The Church is free to ordain women, if it so desires, and that decision rests upon a determination of what form of ministry is most conducive to the mission of the Church in our time.”(21) The American Bishops' Committee on Pastoral Research and Practice has published a report entitled, Theological Reflections on the Ordination of Women: “The question of ordaining women is an old one in the Church, but it has not yet been thoroughly researched for Catholic theology. There is no explicit authoritative teaching concerning the ordination of women which settles the question.” The text goes on, however, examining seven arguments against the ordainability of women. It judges that more reflection is needed, for several of these arguments are “of ponderous theological import,” and the “question is extraordinarily complex.” It concludes: “The well-founded present discipline will continue to have and to hold the entire field unless and until a contrary theological development takes place, leading ultimately to a clarifying statement from the magisterium."(22)

As I have shown, the Roman Catholic tradition approaches the question of the ordination of women, not as a problem of rights, of human equality, or of catching up with the world, but as a problem of ordainability which touches on the nature of the sacramental order and on the ontology of human persons. An eventual reform of the practice would be of a totally other order than the various adjustments and reforms that have so far followed Vatican Council II. These have been matters of updating (of aggiornamento, as John XXIII called it). But a new policy on the ordainability of women would not only imply a new style of church government. It would also have to reflect a theological anthropology which would differ considerably from the underlying theology of the traditional principle of the nonordination of woman to Holy Orders. As such a development would require the elaboration of a new synthesis of theological humanism, I do not expect the practice to change in the foreseeable future.

Notes

1. Documentation Catholique (Paris), 1966, May 1, n.1470, col.807 (Henceforth quoted as D.C.)

2. ibid, 1972, Oct. 1, n. 18, p. 864.

3. ibid, 1973, June 3, n. 11 p. 609

4. Frank Norris, tr. and ed.: Decree on Priestly Training (Glen Rock, N.J. Paulist Press: 1966) and Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests of Vatican Council II (New York: P.J. Kenedy, 1966), n. 2, p. 103-104.

5. Op. cit., p. 102.

6. Pius XII: Encyclical Letter (Mediator Dei, Nov. 20, 1947), (Washington: 1947), p. 31-39; Emile Joseph de Smedt: The Priesthood of the Faithful (New York: Paulist Press: 1962)

Pius XII: Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei, Nov 20, 1947, (Washington: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1947), p. 31-39;

Vatican II: Lumen gentium, (Buenos Aires: Editorial Guadalupe, 1966), n.10;

See George H. Tavard, ed: The Pilgrim Church, (New York: Herder; London: Burns & Oates, 1967), p. 64-82.

7. See George H. Tavard: Woman in Christian Tradition, (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1973), p. 214-215.

8. Women in the Church, (Richmond, Va), Oct. 30, 1971, p. iii.

9. Vatican II: Gaudium et spes, (Paris: Spess, 1966), n. 17. Translation from Vatican Council: De Ecclesia in Mundo huius temporis: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican Council II, Gregory Baum and Donald Campion, eds., (Glen Rock, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1968), p. 102.

10. Dignitatis humanae, n. 10. Translation my own. I have checked the Latin text of the documents of Vatican II in: Concile Oecumenique, Vatican II, (Paris, 1967).

11. Gaudium et spes, n. 47-52.

12. Apostolicam actuositatem, n. 9.

13. Mary Daly: Beyond God the Father, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), p. 132.

14. Message to Women, in Concile Oecumenique, Vatican II, p. 730-731.

15. D.C., 1973, Dec. 16, n. 22, p. 1057.

16. D. C., 1974, Dec. 1, n. 21, p. 1007.

17. D.C., 1975, Jan. 19, n. 2, p. 55.

18. Such as, St. Joan's Alliance, The Association of Women Aspiring to the Presbyteral Ministry.

19. See the examples cited in my Women in the Christian Tradition,. p. 216-217. The most famous example is that of Jean Danielou (later, Cardinal) asking for the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate and seeing no theological objection to their ordination also to the priesthood. Since Catholic theology does not conceive of the diaconate either as a separate order or as a step to the priesthood, but as a part of the one sacrament of orders, which also include the priesthood and the episcopate, admission of women to the diaconate would by the same token admit them, in principle, to the priesthood. The remaining objections might then be sociological and psychological, but no longer theological.

20. See footnote 8.

21. Report of the Subcommittee on the Systematic Theology of the Priesthood (mimeographed Washington, 1971), p. 36.

22. Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 1973, n.4, p.695-699. Strangely enough, the report carries no date. One may mention here that, in the spring of 1971, the bishops of the Canadian Catholic Conference asked that “qualified women” be ordained for the ministry. This request was carried by Cardinal Flahiff, archbishop of Winnipeg, to the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome in the fall of 1971. The Synod's Report on the Ministerial Priesthood, however, carries no trace of this request. See Haye van der Meer: Women Priests in the Cotholic Church? (Philadelphia: 1973), p. 171, note 22, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' edition of: Synod of Bishops, The Ministerial Priesthood, (Washington, D.C., 1972).

Biography

The Reverend George H. Tavard was born in Nancy, France and studied at the Grand Seminaire de Nancy and the Catholic Faculties of Lyons in France. He was ordained to the order of the Augustinians of the Assumption in Metz, France in 1947 and holds the Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Lyons. From 1949 -1951, he was a lecturer in theology at Capenor House in Surrey, England, and has since taught at Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts, Mount Mercy College, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (where he chaired the theology department), and Pennsylvania State University. He has been visiting professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. From 1951 to 1952 he was assistant editor of Documentation Catholique in Paris. He was a peritus of Vatican Council II and is currently professor of theology at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Father Tavard has worked extensively in the field of ecumenism, being a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Conversations, the Anglican-Roman Catholic Conversations in the United States and the Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue in the United States. He is the author of works in French and in English, including The Catholic Approach to Protestantism, Holy Writ or Holy Church, The Quest for Catholicity, Paul Tillich and the Christian Message, The Church Tomorrow and Woman in Christian Tradition.

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