‘That all doubt may be removed’
Pope John II’s letter concerning ordination of women
John H. Wright SJ
published in America 171 (July 30-Aug. 6, 1994) pp. 16-19; here reproduced with permission of the author
Pope John Paul II’s letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (“Priestly Ordination”) was intended to resolve the extended debate within the church regarding women priests, but the letter has not immediately quieted discussion or removed doubt. The Pope declared that the judgment that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women” is to be “definitively held by all the church’s faithful.” If the Pope wants to bring peace and certainty to the church, however, he should let followers know how he sought out the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the church. He should also reveal how his interpretation of the historical fact of the nonordination of women up to this time is actually the meaning held in faith by the community of the faithful.
Pope John Paul II, perceiving the harm that doubt about the possibility of ordaining women was working in the church, took action last May 22, Pentecost Sunday, by signing his letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (“Priestly Ordination”), in which he writes: “Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk. 22:32) I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.” With these words the Pope clearly intends to resolve the extended debate within the church concerning the priestly ordination of women. He intends “that all doubt may be removed.”
The immediate effect of this letter, as we may judge from various reports in the press, has not been to quiet discussion and to remove doubt. We may ask whether in the long run it is likely to do so. What way of proceeding could guarantee the removal of all doubt?
Earlier attempts to resolve the doubt
The church, as a society of human beings called together by God, exists through the good will and faith of its members responding to the action of divine grace. Their internal attitudes and responses cannot be compelled, but can be elicited through the persuasive mediation of divine truth. Doubt may be a condition within the church when the purpose and will of God for the church is not entirely clear. Frequently, time is required to get beyond this condition. Such a doubt has developed in the church during the last several decades concerning the possibility of the priestly ordination of women.
An earlier attempt at resolving this doubt in the 1970’s involved the work of the Biblical Commission, discussing and debating the issue. Their conclusion, as was unofficially made known, held that this doubt could not be resolved from the Scriptures. Pope Paul VI nevertheless approved a Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insigniores, dated Oct. 15, 1976, which affirmed that the church “does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” This document offered arguments from Scripture , tradition and theological reasoning. Many, however, found these arguments insufficient and continued to ask whether in fact the church lacks the authority to ordain women priests.
Pope John Paul has not adduced any new arguments, but he has invoked his authority as one charged “to confirm the brethren” in order to settle the matter and to resolve the doubt.
The ‘sense of the faith’
The Second Vatican Council observed that the Holy Spirit pervades the church to produce a harmonious unity of faith throughout the body of Christ. When the First Vatican Council spoke of the infallibility of the pope, it was in terms of the infallibility of the whole church: In special circumstances the pope has that infallibility with which Christ wished his church to be endowed. (Even though Pope John Paul’s declaration is not technically an infallible pronouncement, these historical remarks are relevant since the Pope has invoked his special authority as supreme pontiff.)
Vatican II spelled out more fully this infallibility of the whole church: “The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing that comes from the holy one (cf. 1 Jn. 2:20, 27) cannot err in matters of belief. This characteristic is shown in the supernatural appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) of the whole people, when, ‘from the bishops to the last of the faithful’ they manifest a universal consent in matters of faith and morals. By this appreciation of the faith, aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth, the people of God, guided by the sacred teaching authority (magisterium) and obeying it, receives not a merely human word but truly the word of God (cf. 1 Th. 2:13), the faith once for all delivered to the saints (cf. Jude 3). The people unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment and applies it more fully in daily life” (“Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” No. 12).
The Magisterium and the faith
There is an interrelationship between the faith of all the people of God and the teaching authority within this people. This relationship becomes clearer from the description Vatican II gave of the process by which the pope and bishops preserve and expound the teaching of revelation:
“Through the light of the Spirit of truth, [revelation] is scrupulously preserved in the church and unerringly explained. The Roman pontiff and the bishops, by reason of their office and the seriousness of the matter apply themselves with zeal to the work of inquiring by every suitable means into this revelation and of giving apt expression to its contents; they do not, however, admit any new public revelation as pertaining to the divine deposit of faith” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 25).
What must be noted here: The pope and bishops do not originate the teaching they express. Rather, they bear authentic witness to the faith of the whole church, as they guide the church toward the fullness of truth. They do not appeal to some special, unique revelation unavailable to the rest of the faithful. Rather, they are charged to take serious pains to search out the faith of the church and to express it in a fitting way. It is this process that the Holy Spirit guides and sustains and preserves from error. A simple act of papal or episcopal authority, apart from this process, would be calculated to produce, not certainty, but further misgiving and doubt.
The point, therefore, is that although the pope and bishops do not have sources of information that no one else has, they do have the right to speak for the whole church and to the whole church. Scholars and others can investigate the faith of the church accurately and carefully. They can report their results to anyone willing to listen; but no one is obliged to listen to them. Their report does not constitute an authentic expression of the faith of the church, and they cannot speak for the church. This is the responsibility of the pope and bishops, and the rest of the church must listen to them.
This responsibility and the seriousness of the matter require that the pope and bishops use “every suitable means” to discover the revelation affirmed in the faith of the believing community, as this community is extended throughout the world and throughout the centuries. This faith is embodied in the Scriptures, the writings of the church fathers, the prayers of the liturgy, the teachings of councils and the living convictions of the baptized, reborn of the Spirit. It is not enough for church leaders to pray, to reason, to reflect and to remember. It is necessary to inquire.
Pope Pius IX, prior to proclaiming the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and Pius XII, prior to proclaiming the Assumption of Mary, consulted with the bishops of the world to find out, not their personal opinions, but their faith and the faith of their churches. It was not a matter of how they felt about a disputed question, but what they believed to be the truth communicated to the church by God.
The process used by Pope John Paul II.
What we do not know is whether Pope John Paul proceeded in some way similar to that in this case. We may presume that he did. But it would truly remove all doubt if he were to inform us about how he consulted the bishops of the world, asking them if they and their faithful believed that the church does not have the power to ordain women. The reply of the bishops should be, and should be seen to be, unconstrained by fear of disagreeing with the Pope’s own view–an honest, free, open expression of their faith and that of their churches.
Conceivably, there are three possible answers the bishops could give to such a papal inquiry. They could say that after inquiring into the faith of their people, their local church agrees that the church does not have this power. They might say that their church believes that the church has this power. Or they might say that the matter is still not clear. It is only in the first and second cases that a truly definitive answer could be given. So long as throughout the church the sources of revelation have not brought forth faith, a simple act of papal authority cannot generate it.
Pius XII’s attempt to end debate
Pius XII at one time proposed to end all debate on an issue troubling the church in the 1940’s. It concerned the membership of non-Catholic Christians in the church. In 1943 he wrote in Mystici Corporis: “Those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the one body such as this, and cannot be living the life of its one divine Spirit” (No. 202). Theologians, however, persisted in looking for ways to assert a kind of membership in the church for Protestant and Orthodox Christians.
In 1950 Pius XII reacted to these efforts in Humani Generis: “If the supreme pointiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a hitherto controverted matter, it is clear to all that that matter according to the mind and will of those same pontiffs can no longer be regarded as a question freely debated among theologians” (No. 20). A few paragraphs further on (No. 27), he explicitly refers to the discussion on membership in the church and reproves the theologians who regarded it as still an open question. Although this declaration of Pius XII did not have the same solemnity as John Paul II’s, Pius was clearly invoking his authority as supreme pontiff. He did not, however, succeed in stopping debate.
Vatican II resolved the matter in the “Decree on Ecumenism” against the teaching of Pius XII, though no mention was made of this:
“The brethren divided from us also carry out many of the sacred actions of the Christian religion. Undoubtedly, in ways that vary according to the conditions of each church or community, these actions can truly engender a life of grace, and can rightly be described as providing access to the community of salvation. It follows that these separated churches and communities, though we believe they suffer from defects already mentioned, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic church” (No. 3).
The “sense of the faithful” maintained a conviction contrary to the mind of the pope, and it was confirmed by the ecumenical council and approved by Pope Paul VI in 1964. This was not a defect in the church or in Pope Pius XII, but reflects what Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, wrote in The Acting Person: “The structure of a human community is correct only if it admits not just the presence of a justified opposition, but also the effectiveness of the opposition which is required by the common good and the right of participation” (Boston: D. Reidel, 1979, p. 343).
Office within the Church
In this connection it is important to note that the hierarchical magisterium in general, and the papacy in particular, is a function of the church, not the other way round. Christ does not first constitute the papacy and through it the church. Rather, he constitutes the church, and within the church the Petrine office for the upbuilding of the church. When we see the pope exercising his position from within the church, we are assured and follow confidently. When the impression is given, erroneously as it may be, that the pope is expressing, however vigorously and sincerely, a personal point of view rather than the faith of the whole church, then doubt is not removed and uneasiness persists.
St. Paul cast light on the relationship between the faithful and church leaders when he wrote to the Corinthians to caution them against splintering into rival groups because of various loyalties to human leaders in the church:
“So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
Removing all doubt
Pope John Paul, then, could remove all doubt and bring peace and certainty to the church, if he were to let us know how he has sought out the movement of the Holy Spirit throughout the church. He should let us know how the interpretation he gives of the historical fact of the nonordination of women up to this time is actually the meaning held in faith by the community of the faithful. No one questions that the church from the beginning up to the present has not ordained women priests. But what today is the sensus fidei, the sense or instinct of faith, concerning the meaning of this fact? Does that sense regard it as a sociological bias (as appears in some of the patristic writings) or as the guidance of the Holy Spirit, leading us into the serene possession of the truth?
John H. Wright
See also by John H. Wright: ‘Patristic Testimony on Women’s 0rdination in INTER INSIGNIORES’, Theological Studies 58 (1997) 516-526.
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