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Letter to Women

Chapter 3.

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

A Time for Speaking

Some of my friends tell me that the ordination of women is an issue that can wait. “Rome has decisively turned against it”, they say. “Change may come, but only in the future -- under another Pope, when the heat has died down.” They point to a vast majority of bishops and theologians who have decided to keep their mouths shut, even though they realise Rome is wrong. Tact is needed, they argue. There is a time for speaking and a time for silence  .  .  .  .


I disagree. Yes, for years I too thought that wisdom would slowly prevail in the Church and that the issue of women priests would ripen in the course of time. That is why, until three years ago, I too had adopted a strategy of wait-and-see. But now I have changed my mind. For the Roman authorities force us to take sides. They impose their own view so strongly as the truth, that by keeping silent now, we would compromise our own consciences.


I am writing this book because I believe that for me, and for the Church, truth is more important than diplomacy. 


The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have in recent years moved their rejection of priestly ordination for women into the realm of faith. They have declared:

¨      that the ban on women’s ordination is to be held definitively as a doctrine belonging to the deposit of faith;

¨      that, though the Holy Father’s interventions are not infallible declarations of doctrine in this instance, he bases his stand on what he perceives to be the infallible universal magisterium, that is: the collective teaching exercised by the international body of bishops;

¨      that anyone who disagrees with the Holy Father is no longer in full communion with the Church.[27]

This Roman view is, moreover, imposed on bishops, theologians and parish priests by its incorporation in routine oaths of loyalty. It causes great anxiety to theologians who cannot admit the validity of Rome’s arguments. “I use mental restriction”, one lecturer at a theological faculty told me. But are we allowed to compromise with truth? What if we know Rome is wrong? Does complicity with non-truth not undermine everything we are trying to do, as the community of Christ, as priests, as theologians? I believe it does.


I will argue my case for fearlessly speaking out on two grounds. The first one, for diplomatic reasons, looks at what the official Church itself has said about the duty of defending truth rather than toeing the party-line. The message is clear: even within the establishment there is room for loyal public dissent. My second ground rests on even deeper pillars. It touches on personal integrity, on the Church’s credibility, on not bartering away our most valuable assets.

The ministry of truth


By definition, it is our task as theologians to apply our human intelligence to revealed truth. Theologians stand in the service of truth. They owe their highest allegiance to truth in whatever form this may present itself. The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) emphatically endorsed this search for truth and stated confidently that there could not be a clash between revealed truth and truth known through other channels. The reason is sound enough: God is the author of all truth and cannot contradict himself. If theologians are faithful to truth, they cannot fail to be loyal to God and to God's revelation.[28]


At the same time theologians also owe obedience to the Holy Father and the Bishops to whom Christ entrusted his teaching authority. The correct attitude towards statements by the Holy Father has been described in these words by Vatican II:


“This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra [= infallibly], in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency by which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.”[29]

On the other hand, the possibility of conflict between a theologian’s judgement and that of the magisterium [= the teaching authority] has been acknowledged by those in charge. I quote from Donum Veritatis, a statement in 1990 by the Congregation of Doctrine on the vocation of a theologian.

“It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions . . . It could happen that some magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.”

“Even when collaboration takes place under the best conditions, the possibility cannot be excluded that tensions may arise between the theologian and the magisterium. The meaning attributed to such tensions and the spirit with which they are faced are not matters of indifference. If tensions do not spring from hostile and contrary feelings, they can become a dynamic factor, a stimulus to both the magisterium and theologians to fulfill their respective roles while practicing dialogue.”

 “If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented. He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties. His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.” (no 30). [30]

‘Public Opinion’ in the Church


We should be grateful that in our time the ancient practice of handing over dissenting theologians to the Inquisition has been discontinued. Today Church authorities have more subtle forms of silencing opposition at their disposal. These include: putting pressure on bishops and religious superiors to subjugate priests or religious  in their charge; sacking theologians from teaching posts at Church institutions; withdrawing financial support from centres that stand for freedom of expression; screening unwanted topics out of teaching schedules or congress programmes; blocking the publication of disgreeable books; selecting bishops only from candidates who subscribe to Rome’s views. The ideology of the thumbscrew is not altogether dead.


During the Second Vatican Council the question of free theological discussion was incorporated into the Council statements.

“All the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.”[31]

The Second Vatican Council also recognised the crucial role played by public opinion in today’s society.

“Public opinion exercises enormous influence nowadays over the lives, private or public, of all citizens, no matter what their walk in life. It is therefore necessary that all members of society meet the demands of justice and charity in this domain. They should help, through the means of social communication, in the formation and diffusion of sound public opinion.”[32]

Public opinion, with freedom of expression as a necessary constituent, also plays a crucial part in the Church, as Pope Pius XII reminded Catholic journalists in an address on 17 February 1950.

 “Freedom of speech is a normal factor in the growth of public opinion which expresses the ideas and reactions of the more influential circles in a society.” [33]

The same point is made in a follow-up document to Vatican II.

“If public opinion is to emerge in the proper manner, it is absolutely essential that there be freedom to express ideas and attitudes. In accordance with the express teaching of the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary unequivocally to declare that freedom of speech for individuals and groups must be permitted so long as the common good and public morality not be endangered.” [34]


Freedom of speech is, indeed, essential and does not contradict the spirit of theological obedience. When the Church demands ‘a loyal submission of the will and intellect’ she does not ask for a renunciation of one’s own power to think. The Church demands a much more valuable service, namely the honest attempt to serve the faith with all one’s intellectual powers.


When Vatican II speaks of obedience, it envisages such a total commitment: “They should bring their powers of intellect and will and their gifts of nature and grace to bear on the execution of commands and on the fulfilment of the tasks laid upon them.”[35]  True loyalty to the Church implies loyalty to the truth. It requires willingness to question rather than readiness to conform. What may seem opposition and dissent at first, will eventually prove to be an active cooperation between the teaching authorities and the theologians, towards the one aim of a better formulated doctrine.


Theologians play an important role in the continual reformation “of which the Church has always a need”, a reformation that also concerns “deficiencies in the way that Church teaching has been formulated”.[36] Rather than speaking of a conflict between the magisterium and dissenting theological opinion, one should think of them as complementary pieces in an ongoing search, both equally necessary for the Church’s reformation.

Pope Paul VI described the interplay between the teaching authority and theological study in such a positive way. In his address to a congress of theologians on l October 1966 he stated:

“The magisterium draws great benefit from fervid and industrious theological study and from the cordial collaboration of the theologians  .  .  .  Without the help of theology the magisterium could undoubtedly preserve and teach the faith, but it would arrive only with difficulty at the lofty and full knowledge it needs to perform its task, since it is aware that it is not endowed with revelation or the charism of inspiration but only with the assistance of the Holy Spirit”.[37]

Church documents, especially those of the present Congregation for Doctrine, are ‘not entirely foreign to sanctimonious double-speak that smacks of self-promoting indoctrination’, to quote a friend of mine. Yet even these documents urge theologians to speak out when they believe the magisterium is making a mistake. For me though, there are more essential reasons for crying out my anguish in public and for revealing what I know to be true. These reasons live in my heart and my bones. I would die without them, and so would the Church.

If salt loses its saltiness  .  .  .

To see my point of view, I would like you to take a step back and look at the world and the Church from a wider perspective. “As soon as we lose our moral foundation, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality. We cannot be untruthful and claim to have God on our side.” The author of these words was not a Christian, but  Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a modern prophet popularly voted the most influential person of the 20th century.


When I departed from Antwerp to take up my seminary post in India, missionaries still travelled the old-fashioned way: by boat. On Christmas Eve 1964 I boarded a German freighter that slowly made its way to Bombay, crisscrossing the Mediterranean, then the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, picking up or discharging cargo in various ports.  A journey which now takes ten hours took six long weeks then. But the leisurely pace also had its rewards. I saw the world.


At Porbandar in Gujarat our ship dropped anchor,  to take on board loads of jute brought by barges. Porbandar, I knew, was the birth place of Mahatma Gandhi. I managed to go ashore and eventually found the quarter of the town where Gandhi had lived as a boy. I had read his auto-biography and remembered Gandhi’s search. “Morality is the basis of things and truth is the basis of morality.” India offers a bewildering palette of religious traditions, many weird and over-the-top, but as I was to find out from my friendship with Hindus, Muslims, Jains and Parsis, underlying the outgrowths there exists a healthy respect for the fundamental values. Sincerity, honesty and truth are highly regarded by all.


A few years later, when giving a scriptural course to priests and sisters in Ahmedabad, I visited the house where Gandhi had lived during the last part of his life. In my mind’s eye I can still clearly see that simple Indian-style mansion. Four sparsely furnitured rooms and a  kitchen that encircled a courtyard. Here he had chosen to live the life of an ordinary peasant, wearing the loincloth and shawl of the rural Indian and subsisting on vegetables, fruit juices, and goat’s milk.  Outside, a verandah that spanned the front of the house. It overlooked the banks of a river.  Gandhi’s mat was shown here and his spinning wheel. It was the spot where he had sat cross-legged, hand spinning cotton and weaving yards of cloth. The scene was breathtakingly plain and commonplace. And yet this had been the home of one of the most powerful politicians of India and of a religious leader of international fame.


It was from this place that Gandhi started his famous salt march in 1930, a widely publicised walk to the coast of the Arabian sea where he began to manufacture salt in defiance of the British monopoly on salt. Gandhi himself and 60,000 of his followers were arrested on that occasion and during the peaceful protests that followed.


It was also in this house  that Gandhi gave shelter to a number of pariah children. He shared his food with them and sent them to local schools. Though he belonged to the Vaishya [merchant] caste himself, Gandhi broke with age-old Hindu custom by treating the ‘untouchables’ as equals. Hindu prejudice considered the pariahs defiled persons, people born out of the accumulated sins of a previous life. Gandhi gave them a new name: harijans, which means: ‘people born of God’ and took some of their children into his home to ensure their education.[38]  It was for this courageous act that attempts were made on his life. Eventually he was shot by a Hindu fanatic while visiting Bombay in 1948.


It is impossible to exaggerate the esteem in which Gandhi is held by fellow Indians. And it is not first and foremost because he championed Indian independence, as foreigners often think. People honour Gandhi’s character, mainly his love of non-violence and passion for truth. I realised quite early during my 14 years in India that, if people are to accept Christianity, it will not be because of our superior institutions, but because Jesus Christ is seen to contribute to primary values: authentic love, selfless service, ruthless honesty. “Truth is my God”, Gandhi had said. Gandhi had not been a saint. He had had many imperfections and shortcomings. But he had been a man of integrity. He had also shown courage. He had stood up against colonial powers, but no less against patriots who favoured a path of violence. While he denounced Christian pretensions, he had not spared the bigotry of his fellow Hindus. It was this loyalty to conviction and truth that had made Gandhi invincible.

“There are times when you have to obey a call that is the highest of all, that is: the voice of conscience, even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more, separation from friends, from family, from the condition to which you may belong, from all that you have held as dear as life itself. For this obedience is the law of our being.”[39]

Christianity had no hope in India I knew, nor elsewhere in the world, if we were to lose those qualities. Did not Jesus himself tell us not to corrupt values:

“You are the salt of the earth.

But if salt loses its saltiness, what can make it salty again?

It has become useless.

It will be thrown out for people to trample on.”[40]


For Jesus’ contemporaries the value of salt lay not so much in its taste as in its perceived quality of preserving food.  Salt was hard to come by. It was expensive. Salt was traded as a luxury good. On occasion, lumps of salt were used to pay soldiers: our word ‘salary’ [= portion of salt] derives from this. Salt losing its saltiness was a terrible thing.


Across the centuries Jesus is warning us not to sell out our Christian values for money, or for power, convenience, harmony or anything else. If we tamper with truth, our testimony becomes useless, both inside and outside the Church. “All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on truth. Any compromise on truth is a surrender” (Mahatma Gandhi).


As the followers of Jesus Christ, we will lose all credibility if we sell out on truth. Nor need we be ashamed in the Church itself of challenging authority on behalf of truth. When the first Pope, Simon Peter, reintroduced Jewish laws in Antioch even though the Council of Jerusalem had abrogated them, Paul challenged him in public. “When Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face since he stood manifestly condemned”.[41]   Paul purposely calls Peter ‘Cephas’, referring to the fact that Jesus himself had given him that name which means ‘rock’. Even apostles can make mistakes and “God has appointed in the Church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers  .  .  .  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?”[42]


          Regarding women priests Church authorities have allowed a cuckoo’s egg to hatch in its nest. It is this intruder I am now going to expose.



Main Roman Documents on the Ordination of women:
Inter Insigniores  (15 October 1976)
Commentary on Inter Insigniores (27 January 1977)
Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (22 May 1994)
At times theologians have the duty to speak out

René van Eyden
“Women priests: keeping mum or speaking out?”

Mary McAleese, President of Ireland
‘It Won’t Wash With Women’
Coping with a Christ who does not want women priests almost as much as He wants Ulster to remain British’

Bernard Häring
‘Letter to the Pope'

[27] Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Apostolic Letter by Pope John-Paul II on Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,  22 May 1994; Ad Tuendam Fidem, Motu Proprio by Pope John-Paul II, May 28 1998; Commentary on Ad Tuendam Fidem,  by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 29 June 1998.

[28] First Vatican Council, Constitutio de Fide Catholica, ch. 4, in Enchiridion Symbolorum, ed. H. DENZINGER, Freibourg, Herder, 1955 (30 ed.), no. 1795-1800.

[29] Second Vatican Council, The Church, no 25.


[30]  Donum Veritatis, § 24, 25, 30.

[31] Gaudium et Spes, no 62.

[32] Inter Mirifica, no 8.

[33]  Acta Apostolicae Sedis 42 (1950) p. 251.

[34] Communio et Progressio, Pastoral Instruction on the Means of Social Communication, § 26, 29 January 1971, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 63 (1971) pgs. 593-656.

[35] Perfectae Caritatis, no 14.

[36]  Unitatis Redintegratio, no 6.

[37] L’Osservatore Romano, 2 October 1966.

[38]  Because the term harijan has also been applied to prostitutes, it is no longer favoured today.

[39]  M.K.Ghandi, An Autobiography. On the Story of My Experiments with Truth, Navajivan 1927, passim.

[40]   Matthew 5,13; Luke 14,34-35.

[41]   Galatians 2,11.

[42]   1 Corinthians 12,27.29.

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