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Letter to Women

Chapter 22.

The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church,

Unmasking a Cuckoo's Egg Tradition.

By John Wijngaards

Published by Darton Longman and Todd, London 2001.

© John Wijngaards. Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

The way forward

The present Holy Father and the Congregation for Doctrine in Rome have decided to root out any support for women’s ordination in the Catholic Church. They see it as their task to defend what they perceive as orthodoxy. They are under pressure from vocal conservative groups in the Church. They fear disruption and confusion ‘if ever the idea of women priests would gain wider acceptance in Church circles’. I have no reason to doubt that they are sincerely trying to protect the Church by enforcing the ban on women priests with ever stricter measures. But, while their motives may be entirely honourable, will their actions really benefit the Church?


The truth of the matter is that, as we have seen, the traditional arguments they rely upon do not hold water. No valid reasons can be found in Scripture to keep women from the ordained ministry. On the contrary, Jesus’ full embrace of women in an equal baptism demands openness to the ministerial priesthood for all. Paul asserts this explicitly.[390] Neither can valid objections against the ordination of women be found in Tradition. The practice of not-ordaining women can clearly be shown to derive from pagan and cultural prejudice, not from a genuinely Christian source of inspiration. In fact, women did receive sacramental ordination as deacons so that ordaining them priests follows on naturally. Moreover, an appeal to Bridegroom imagery fails to convince. But Rome has raised the stakes by appealing to authority.

The ordinary universal magisterium?

In their anxiety to ‘keep the lid on’, the Pope and the Congregation for Doctrine recently declared that the matter “has already been infallibly decided by the ordinary universal magisterium”.[391]

The term ‘universal ordinary magisterium’ refers to the concordant teaching of all Catholic bishops together with the Pope, outside the rather rare occasions when the bishops are gathered in an ecumenical council. The First Vatican Council described it in these terms:

“All those things are to be believed with Catholic and divine faith which are contained in the Word of God, written or handed on, and are proposed by the Church either by a solemn judgment or by its ordinary and universal magisterium as divinely revealed and to be believed as such.”[392]

The Second Vatican Council defined the universal ordinary magisterium more precisely and expressed the conditions under which it operates:

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.”[393]

The Congregation for Doctrine seems to believe that the collective bishops of the world have spoken out on the issue of women priests. How? Rome has not explained, but we can guess. It is a well-known fact that for the past two decades or more, as a condition for acceptance candidates for the episcopal dignity have been asked by Rome whether they support the ordination of women. Only those who said they did not, have been promoted to become bishops. So the majority of bishops today are probably those who indicated opposition to women’s ordination.[394] Rome may be convinced that this proves that the ‘universal ordinary magisterium’ supports their view. Hence their claim that it has been infallibly decided. Could they be right?


From the Vatican II text and other texts on which it depends, five conditions can be recognised as being required for infallible teaching by the ordinary universal magisterium:

1.    Collegial action. The bishops must be involved in a collegial exercise of teaching authority.

2.     As ‘judges’. The bishops must be free to express their own considered opinion.

3.     In the service of the faith of the whole Church. The bishops must listen to the Word of God and the ‘sensus fidelium’.

4.     Regarding faith and morals. The teaching must concern matters relating to the object of faith.

5.     In a teaching consciously imposed as ‘definitive’. The bishops must want to impose the doctrine as definitely to be held.[395]


These conditions have not been met in the case of the ban on the ordination of women. Were the bishops really free, when they were asked for their support? Did they consider the evidence carefully? Did they listen to the sensus fidelium? Did they consciously act as a collegial teaching body? Did they want to impose their view as binding on the world Church? None of these conditions seem fulfilled. Canon 749 of the Code of Canon Law declares that no doctrine is understood to have been defined infallibly unless this fact has been clearly established.


Consequently, prominent theologians all over the world have rejected the Congregation’s claim that the matter has been decided by the universal magisterium. Fr. Francis Sullivan, who taught me at the Gregorian University in Rome and who is an acknowledged expert on the teaching authority, voiced unambiguous disagreement.

“The question that remains is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons [against women priests] as Pope John Paul evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.”[396]

Professor Nicolas Lash of Cambridge University spoke plain language:

“Neither the Pope nor Cardinal Ratzinger can make a teaching to be ‘founded on the written Word of God’ simply by asserting that it is so founded. Nor can they by assertion, make it a matter that has been ‘constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church’. The attempt to use the doctrine of infallibility, a doctrine intended to indicate the grounds and character of Catholic confidence in official teaching, as a blunt instrument to prevent the ripening of a question in the Catholic mind, is a scandalous abuse of power, the most serious consequence of which will be further to undermine the future authority which the Pope seeks to sustain.”[397]

The Catholic Theological Association of America appointed a task force to study the question. On June 6 1997, the general assembly received the report and endorsed its  rejection of Rome’s claims:

“There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of the teaching that the Church’s lack of authority to ordain women to the priesthood is a truth that has been infallibly taught and requires the definitive assent of the faithful, and its grounds in Tradition. There is serious, widespread disagreement on this question, not only among theologians, but also within the larger community of the Church . . . It seems clear that further study, discussion and prayer regarding this question by all the members of the Church in accord with their particular gifts and vocations are necessary if the Church is to be guided by the Spirit in remaining faithful to the authentic Tradition.”

The resolution was adopted in a secret ballot; with 216 theologians voting ‘YES’, 22 ‘NO’ and 10 abstaining.[398]  Arguments are not won by tightening thumbscrews.

What next?

 I believe that the time has come for those with responsibility to speak out. Because the justification for it fails, the ban against women priests will have to be lifted one day or other, and the longer the Church waits, the more damage will have been done. Even now credibility in the official Church’s leadership is fading with large sections of the membership. Women experience the exclusion from ministry ever more as deeply hurtful and discriminatory.[399] Church leadership is wasting valuable time and resources in suppressing a legitimate development that will immeasurable enrich its pastoral ministry. But is retreat from the entrenched position possible?


When I was six years old I was interned, with the rest of my family, in a Japanese prisoner of war camp (1942 - 1945). Having experienced its horrors so closely, I am still fascinated by the war. And the older I become, the more I ponder its lessons. Recently I read again a detailed account of the battle of Stalingrad in 1942. It interested me all the more because one of my missionary colleagues in India, Fr. Othmar Reusch, had fought at Stalingrad. He owed his survival to the fact that a bullet had lodged in his spine and he was sent back to Germany on a supply plane. Most other German soldiers were not so lucky.


On the 22nd of November 1942 the 260,000 German troops in Stalingrad were surrounded by overwhelming Russian forces. They lacked food, ammunition and equipment. Their only salvation lay in breaking out from the encirclement, and retreat. But Hitler strictly forbade it, sending a radio message that “everyone should fight till the last man”. General Friedrich Paulus, the overall German commander at Stalingrad, knew it was a lost cause. What about the people under his command? The famous General Erich von Manstein, who was leading a neighbouring army, advised Paulus to ignore Hitler and break out. Paulus did not. He could not bring himself to oppose authority. Six weeks later, on 30 January 1943, only 90,000 Germans had survived the carnage. Hitler repeated his orders, but Paulus surrendered. All the remaining German troops went into Siberian captivity from which few returned.


This was not an isolated case. It was the general picture of the end of the war for Germany. German military leaders by that time realised they were fighting for a lost cause, and most probably disagreed with Hitler. But with few exceptions they allowed Hitler to fight on till 3 million of their soldiers were killed, till German towns and cities had been totally destroyed by arial bombardments involving 800,000 civilian casualties and till half their country was brutally colonised by Soviet Russia. And I am not even talking of all the victims of German aggression in occupied countries! 


I have many German friends and I esteem them highly. I do not believe this was a typically German phenomenon. I think that we see, in a living parable, what happens when systems with powerful authority structures take over. The Japanese were in a similar predicament, but they were eventually saved when Emperor Hirohito personally intervened on the 10th of August 1945, ordering his  Supreme War Council to accept unconditional surrender. It saved the mainland of Japan from devastation, and, incidentally also saved my own life. I was seriously ill and our camp doctor told me later that I would certainly have died if the war had lasted another month.


Now all this seems dramatic language and the comparison to the Nazi war machine or Japanese Banzai militarism may seem totally inappropriate. I highly respect the Holy Father and his assistants. I do not want for a minute to imply that, as persons, they resemble Hitler and his staff. I am just following the example of Jesus himself who drew valuable lessons from observing ‘the children of this world’.[400]  And while the Pope is no doubt utterly sincere in pursuing what he believes to be the right course, he does resemble Hitler in the absoluteness of power. Hitler claimed the right over life and death of his citizens. The Pope has an even greater power for he holds spiritual authority over the faithful. “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul”, Jesus said.[401]  Where there is authority, even if it is spiritual authority, the dangers of suppressing legitimate dissent, promoting a culture of misplaced docile acquiescence among subordinates, ruling by decree rather than by consultation, defending mistaken decisions for the sake of not seeming to lose face, in short: ‘of stifling the Spirit’ are real.[402] 


The need of reform in the Catholic Church does not limit itself to the question of women’s ordination. Other important issues are outstanding, such as the ban on artificial contraception; the maintenance of obligatory celibacy for clergy in the Latin rite; the role of the laity in Church administration and in the pastoral apostolate; the legitimate authority of bishops’ conferences; ecumenism; dialogue with other religions, recognition for homosexuals, to mention just a few. In all these areas Roman leadership is trying to hold the Church back from fresh approaches. This has led to a crisis about papal authority itself, about its justification as well as about the way it is being exercised.[403] 


The Church will need to redress the balance, as I am sure it will in due course. We do need a strong Pope as spiritual leader in an increasingly secular world. But we also need a more democratic way of governing the Church, an openness to the  Spirit in the ordinary faithful. It is my hope that the discussion around the ordination of women will be a catalyst that will also usher in other reforms.


Yes, in the past the Church did not ordinarily admit women to the priesthood. This was the unfortunate consequence of the Church’s adopting Roman law. On the other hand, public pronouncements by Popes have been rare. They only date from 1976 and cover two papacies. The decision can easily be revoked. It is not a big deal, in spite of the mention of ‘infallibility’ in some documents.


The ban against women priests inflicts serious damage on the Catholic community. It wounds all women in their dignity as daughters of God and members of Christ. It spurns God’s call in women who have a vocation to the priestly ministry and deprives the Church of their valuable gifts. By devaluing one half of God’s people, it bruises the Church as the sacrament of  ‘commnion with God and union among all people’.[404] It destroys the credibility of the Catholic community and its leaders. All those with responsibility in the Church should now speak up to save the Church from further devastation.


Sources of  Official Texts quoted in this book

1. Fathers of the Church

The translations of texts from Church Fathers in this book are all from the standard Early Church Fathers Collection (1 - 800 AD), in 38 volumes, originally published by T. &. T. Clark in Edinburgh, then re-published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This collection is now in the public domain and can be accessed at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (www.ccel.org).

2. Medieval Theologians

Texts of some of the most prominent theologians have been translated by me from the original Latin, as indicated in the footnotes.

For texts of Thomas Aquinas I have followed the translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province in 1947, published by Benzinger Brothers Inc. An electronic version can be found for the Summa Theologica at the New Advent website (www.newadvent.org/summa) and for the Summa Contra Gentiles at the Jacques Maritain Center (www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/gc.htm).

As indicated in the footnotes, for excerpts of writings of medieval canonists I relied on I.Raming, Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterlichen Amt, Cologne 1973. The translations from Latin and German into English are my own.

3. Documents of Vatican II

For these I follow the translation of The Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter Abbott, America Press, New York 1966.

4. Recent Roman Documents

Inter Insigniores (15 October 1976)

‘Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood’, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 55 (1963) pp. 267-268; Briefing 7 (1977) no 5 & 6.

Commentary on ‘Inter Insigniores’ (27 January 1977)

Commentary by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,  Acta Apostolicae Sedis 69 (1977) pp. 98-116; L’Osservatore Romano, Thursday 27 January 1977.

Mulieris Dignitatem  (15 August 1988)

Apostolic Letter of  Pope John Paul II on the Dignity and Vocation of Women, no 26; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 80 (1988) p. 1715; Pauline Books, Boston 1999.

Donum Veritatis (24 May 1990)

Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 82 (1990) pp. 1550-1570; Origins 20 (1990) 5 July.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (22 May 1994)

Apostolic Letter by Pope John Paul II on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, Origins 24 (1994) June 9; L’Osservatore Romano 24 November 1994.

Ad Tuendam Fidem (May 28 1998)

 Motu Proprio by Pope John-Paul II by which certain norms are inserted into the Code of Canon Law, L’Osservatore Romano 15 July 1998; Origins 28 (1998) 16 July.

Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem (29 June 1998)

Commentary by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, L’Osservatore Romano 15 July 1998.

[390]  Galatians 3,28.

[391]  Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 22 May 1994; Responsum ad Dubium, 28 October 1995.

[392]  Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, Denzinger-Schönmetz no 3011.

[393]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium § 25.

[394] Catholics who are not academically trained may fear that bishops who have promised not to promote the ordination of women as a condition of their admission to the episcopacy, will not be able to change their position once they realise that the ban against women priests is based on faulty evidence. Bishops, however, know from their study of moral theology that a promise, even if made under oath, ceases to be valid if (a) a substantial error affected their knowledge regarding the object of the promise, or (b) if  an error affected the purpose of the promise (e.g. what is good for the Church), or (c) if the promise was made under fear, or (d) if the object of the promise has become impossible or harmful. The promise ceases ab intrinseco, as Thomas Aquinas taught: “Whatever would have been an impediment to the making of a promise if it had been present, also lifts the obligation from a promise that has been made.” Scriptum super IV libros Sententiarum dist. 38, q.1, sol. 1 ad 1; D. M. Prümmer, Manuale Theologiae Moralis, Freiburg 1936, vol. II, ‘De Voto’, pp. 326-348.

[395] The various conditions are explained more fully in: K. Rahner, Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, New York 1965, pp. 210-211; ‘Magisterium’, Sacramentum Mundi, Herder and Herder, New York, vol. III, p. 356-357; F. A. Sullivan, Magisterium. Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, Gill & MacMillan, Dublin 1983, p. 101-104; R. R. Gaillardetz, Teaching with Authority, A Theology of the Magisterium in the Church, Liturgical Press, Collegeville 1997, p. 167-176, 219.

[396] F. Sullivan, ‘Infallibility doctrine invoked in statement against ordination by Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’, The Tablet 23/30 December 1995, p. 1646. Among his other books see: Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, New York 1983; Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Church Documents, New York 1996).

[397] N. Lash, ‘On Not Inventing Doctrine’, The Tablet, 2 December 1995, p. 1544.

[398]  Report ‘Tradition and the Ordination of Women’. See also E. A. Johnson, ‘Disputed questions: authority, priesthood, women.’, Commonweal, vol..123, January 26 1996, pp. 8-10; G. Greshake, ‘Response to the Declaration of the Congregation for Doctrine regarding the doctrine proposed in the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, Pastoralblatt 48 (1996) 56-57; A. E. O’Hara Graff, ‘Infallibility complex: Have we heard the final word on women’s ordination?’, U.S. Catholic, vol.61, April 1996, pp. 6-11; S. C. Callahan, ‘Is black white? Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger concerning infallible teaching and ordination of women’, Commonweal, vol. 123, February 9 1996, pp. 6-7; R. R. Gaillardetz, ‘Infallibility and the Ordination of Women. A Note on the CDF Responsum ad Dubium regarding the Authoritative Status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’, Louvain Studies 21 (1996) pp. 3-24.

[399]  See J. Manning, Is the Pope Catholic? A Woman confronts her Church, Toronto 1999.

[400]  Luke 16,8.

[401]  Matthew 10,28.

[402]  1 Thessalonians 4,19.

[403]  H.Küng, Infallible? An Inquiry, Collins, London 1971; SCM, London 1994; B. Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, Brill, Leiden 1972; P. Chirico, Infallibility: The Cross roads of Doctrine, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1983; J.M.R.Tillard, The Bishop of Rome, Michael Glazier, Wilmington 1983; P. Granfield, The Papacy in Transition, Gill, Dublin 1981; P. Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy: Authority and Autonomy in the Church, Crossroad, New York 1990; L.M.Bermejo, Infallibility on Trial: Church, Conciliarity and Communion, Christian Classics, Westminster 1992; P. Dentin, Les privilèges des papes devant l’écriture et l’histoire, Cerf, Paris 1995; P. Collins, Papal Power, Harper Collins, Australia 1997; M. Fiedler & L. Rabben (eds.), Rome has Spoken  .  .  ., Crossroad, New York 1998; E. Stourton, Absolute Truth, London 1998; J.Manning, Is the Pope Catholic?, Toronto 1999.

[404]  Vatican II, Lumen Gentium § 1.

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