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Women's Ordination and Infallible Teaching, An Inquiry

Women’s Ordination and Infallible Teaching, An Inquiry

Was The Teaching Infallible?

by Peter Burns, S.J.

published in BASIC Newsletter, Supplement Feb.1997, pp. 1-12.

I want to raise some considerations regarding the question of whether the ban on women priests has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium — a claim (fallibly) put forward in the Responsum ad dubium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated October 28, 1995 and published November 18, 1995, which followed the publication of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (OS) by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

There are only 3 ways a doctrine can be infallibly taught in the Church:

  1. by a solemn ex cathedra teaching act of the pope’s infallible extraordinary magisterium, as defined at Vatican I and further explained at Vatican II;
  2. by a solemn dogmatic definition by a valid ecumenical council; and
  3. by a teaching of the ‘ordinary and universal magisterium’ (see Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, section 25, for an explanation of all three ‘modes’ of infallibility).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an explanatory: text, “Vatican Reflections on the Teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, accompanying its Responsum ad Dubium and the Cover Letter which was sent to the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences, and which was published in the November 19, 1995 issue of the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. This explanatory text, though itself unsigned, was almost certainly written by Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, since it bore a marked resemblance to an article written by Cardinal Ratzinger which appeared earlier in the theological journal Communio. Since it was issued along with the Responsum and the official Cover Letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, and published in the Vatican newspaper, we may suppose it states the official position. Let me now quote from it:

“In fact, as the reply [Responsum] explains, the definitive nature of this assent derives from the truth of the doctrine itself since....it has been set forth infallibly by the *ordinary universal magisterium* (cf. Lumen gentium, 25).... It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the church did *not* arise with the publication of the letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.... In this case, an act of the *ordinary papal magisterium*, in itself *not infallible*, witnesses to the infallibility of a teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the church.”

[Quoted in ORIGINS (Catholic News Service), November 30, 1995, page 405. Emphases added. See also L’Osservatore Romano, November 19, 1 1995]

The same judgement, viz. that OS was *not* an exercise of the infallible extraordinary papal magisterium is reiterated in the same issue of ORIGINS by Fr Gus DiNoia, O.P., Secretary for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices at the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The same point has been noted by Fr Avery Dulles S.J., a noted supporter of the Vatican’s teaching on women’s ordination, in an article in The Tablet in December 1995, and again by Fr Hermann Josef Pottmeyer (a member of the International Theological Commission at Rome), also writing in The Tablet (November 2, 1 996).

Thus, it has been authoritatively and explicitly *denied* that the pope had been exercizing his infallible extraordinary magisterium in OS. Instead, OS is described as a teaching act of the pope that was “itself not infallible”, but which simply (i.e. non-infallibly) reiterates a teaching that is claimed to be already infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. That is the official Vatican position.

(NB: in approving the acts of the CDF, the pope himself indicated his concurrence with the CDF’s opinion that the teaching has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium. But this indication by the pope of his approval of that view is not itself and logically cannot have been an exercise of papal infallibility. For if it was so intended, the pope would have involved himself in a logical contradiction, by (ex hypothesi) infallibly declaring, on the one hand, that the teaching was infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium - and thus teaching the doctrine by *his infallible magisterium*, while, on the other hand, and through the very same acts of the CDF, explicitly denying that he had exercized his extraordinary magisterium in the matter. Not even a pope can infallibly teach a contradiction!)

So there has been no ex cathedra infallible pronouncement by the pope on the issue of women’s ordination. Nor has there ever been a conciliar dogmatic definition ruling out the possibility of women’s ordination. So the only way this doctrine *could* have been infallibly taught was by an infallible exercise of the Church’s ordinary magisterium.

It is important to assess whether the CDF’s opinion - itself fallible - that the doctrine has been infallibly taught in this third manner is correct, because Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law requires that infallibly taught doctrine should receive the assent of faith (it ‘must be believed with divine and catholic faith’ as belonging to the deposit of divine revelation); whereas non-infallible doctrine need only receive ‘religiosum intellectus et voluntatis obsequium’, which the official US English translation renders as ‘*religious respect* of intellect and will’ (Canon 752, emphasis added). It is possible to accord a doctrine such respect while withholding the assent of faith (for otherwise the distinction would not be drawn in this way in the Code). So is the CDF’s opinion correct?

First, what is meant by saying something has been taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium? At Vatican II the question was explained thus:

“Although individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, nevertheless, even though dispersed throughout the world, but maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, when in teaching authentically matters concerning faith and morals they agree about a judgment as one to be definitively held, they infallibly proclaim the teaching of Christ. This takes place even more clearly when they are gathered together in an ecumenical council and are the teachers and judges of faith and morals for the whole church. Their definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.

“This infallibility, however, with which the divine redeemer willed his church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals, extends just as far as the deposit of divine revelation that is to be guarded as sacred and faithfully expounded....But when the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him define a decision, they do so in accordance with revelation itself, by which all are obliged to abide and to which all must conform....The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in virtue of their office and the seriousness of the matter, work sedulously through the appropriate means duly to investigate this revelation and give it suitable expression. However, they do not accept any new public revelation as belonging to the divine deposit of faith.” (Lumen gentium 25).

The translation is that from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, edited by Norman Tanner S.J. - (I like using this translation because I was the translator for the documents of the Second Lateran Council which this work also includes.) The Abbot translation changes nothing of significance, the key part in that version reading as follows:

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively.”

So our question is, does the ban on women priests fall under the scope of the type of infallibility which these texts define? On the face of it, (my answer is that) it is dubious that it does. The requirement for infallibility here is quite strong. The College of Bishops as a whole in union with the pope must teach the matter as one which is to be ‘’held definitively" or “conclusively”.

Moreover, the scope of such a teaching cannot extend beyond what is already contained in the deposit of divine revelation. The bishops collectively are supposed to have engaged in sedulous investigation of the deposit of divine revelation beforehand, and the teaching cannot be anything new, or added on to the original deposit of faith. The bishops cannot just invent a new doctrine which previous generations of bishops had no way of knowing was contained in the deposit of faith.

Has the College of Bishops ever, then, as a moral whole, though dispersed around the world, but in communion with one another and with the successor of Peter, agreed on the judgment that women cannot be ordained, that this judgment is a doctrine belonging to the deposit of faith, and that it is to be held definitively or conclusively as such?

On the face of it, this has simply never happened. Remember, they have to teach this doctrine with moral unanimity. They have to teach it as belonging to divine revelation. They have to teach it as being a doctrine to be held definitively by all the faithful. Where and when has this happened? The CDF gives no answer to these questions - it merely asserts that it has happened. But this assertion is fallible (even though shared personally by the pope). It certainly does not itself command the assent of faith (indeed no statement by a Curial Congregation per se can command such assent, for only the College of Bishops in union with the pope, or the pope alone when he exercizes his special charism of infallibility can proclaim a doctrine in such a way that the proper Catholic response is that of assensus fide).

For a doctrine to be infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium, merely taking a practice for granted is not enough. Silence is not enough. Not even teaching something as such is enough.

Let me give some examples of ordinary (non-infallible) episcopal and papal teachings which were later modified. At one time it was officially taught that it was unlawful for married couples to take pleasure in the marital act; that taking interest on a loan was forbidden; that owning slaves was permissible; that discrimination against Jews and other non-Catholics was legitimate; that biblical scholars must not use historical critical methods on Scripture texts; that torturing suspected heretics was morally permissible, and that civil authorities in Catholic countries were required to take forcible measures to prevent the spread of non-Catholic religions; that the misuse of private property provides no justification for government expropriation and redistribution (compare on this point the teaching of Quadragesimo anno with that of Populorum progresssio). These teachings have been changed or at least extensively qualified and modified. So the mere fact that something was taught by the hierarchy at some time and place is not by itself enough to confirm that the teaching in question has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Fr Avery Dulles S.J. (a noted opponent of the ordination of women) observes in his book, "The Survival of Dogma", the following common sense assumption: “No doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.” For example, for centuries the bishops presupposed that the figures of Adam and Eve in Genesis were literal, historical human individuals. They didn’t question this because the modern scientific treatment of human origins had not arisen. Fr Dulles continues: “whenever the state of the evidence on any question materially changes, you have a new question that cannot be fully answered by appealing to old authorities.”

Aquinas taught that women were intrinsically inferior to men, Is this a tenable view now? Is the state of the question and the evidence relevant to answering it correctly the same now as in Aquinas’s time? No, of course not. As Elizabeth Johnson writes, “let it be plainly stated that women are icons of Christ, imago Christi, in every essential way. There is a natural resemblance of a common humanity and participation in divine grace. To teach otherwise is a pernicious error that vitiates the power of baptism. The naive physicalism that reduces resembling Christ to being male is so deviant from Scripture and so theologically distorted as to be dangerous to the faith itself.” (Commonweal, 26 January 1996).

In the next two essays of this series, I will take up the following issues:

  1. the behavior of Jesus
  2. the teachings of Saint Paul
  3. some patristic interventions
  4. the distinction between discipline, law and custom on the one hand, and faith on the other.
  5. the officially documented criteria for establishing that a doctrine has been infallibly taught.

This essay continues discussion of the question: are there good grounds for believing that the ban on women priests has been taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium? On the face of it, the history of the Church provides little reason to believe that the ban has been infallibly taught in this mode, as it is defined in Lumen gentium 25 at Vatican II. But let us continue our inquiry.

1) The behavior of Jesus: Let me state the obvious at the outset. Nowhere do the Gospels record Jesus as teaching that women cannot be ordained priests. The gospels are silent on whether Jesus ever said anything at all about this issue. What the Gospels do record is Jesus’ selection of only men as the Twelve. Among his other disciples and closest followers women were quite prominent. Is there any normative theological significance in the fact that the Twelve were all men? Jesus doesn’t say anything about why the Twelve were all men. (Note: many contemporary commentators reason that the selection of men only was dictated by the fact that Jesus wished to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, descending from the sons of Jacob, as a prophetic metaphor for the people of the New Covenant he was inaugurating).

The Twelve were also all Jews, and as far as we know there were no gentiles present at the last Supper. Is there any normative significance in these facts? Has the Church erred in ordaining gentiles? Presumably not. How would one establish that only choosing men was theologically significant, but only choosing Jews was not? (And let’s not pretend that no gentiles were around for Jesus to select - there were Roman centurions and other foreigners, lots of gentiles in fact that Jesus could have chosen had he wanted to.) Further, let us suppose, following tradition, that the Twelve were the precursors of the bishops of the Church. Can the other disciples Jesus called (and Scripture records that there were many, including women, whom Jesus called to be his disciples) not be presumed to be in a parallel manner precursors of the presbyteral order? We are told of the 72 who were sent out to preach - we are not told that they were all men, or if this were the case, that it was of normative theological significance. In any case a clear threefold distinction of sacred orders was some time in being firmly established and universally recognized, and we do not know how detailed were Jesus’s instructions and intentions with regard to the ordained ministry. Let us also be clear that there are many things which the Church has done with the subsequent guidance of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus did not himself do. Likewise there were many things Jesus did which the Church has not done.

Among the latter, the most significant for our purpose here is Jesus’s observance of many Jewish rites, customs, festivals and laws. Now some people very early on in the Church were firmly of the opinion - including many of those close to James, ‘brother of the Lord’ - that all followers of Jesus should therefore imitate at least the main features of Jesus’s Jewish observances. These people presumably thought that doing so was intended by the Lord himself. Paul after much effort and controversy finally convinced the other Apostles that this was not so. Here is a clear case of drawing a false inference from the practice and behavior of Jesus. And since we have no specific teaching of Jesus on the role of women in the structure of the Church, it is safer not to see a ban where none is strictly deducible from his behavior or practice. For how indeed are we to conclude that Jesus’s choice of males only for membership in the Twelve *was* of normative theological significance, but that his choice of Jews only and his observance of Jewish laws and customs was not? On the basis of the principle that where nothing is expressly forbidden, there is no essential bar to permitting it, I conclude that we can conclude nothing definitively negative from the behavior of Jesus with respect to the ordination of women. This conclusion was shared by the Pontifical Biblical Commission when it investigated the matter.

2) The teachings of Saint Paul. In 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy Paul states that women should be silent in church, that they should not attend church services with their hair uncovered or wearing jewelry or expensive clothing, and that they should not wield authority over men. Which of these statements are disciplinary norms reflecting the limitations of his cultural conditioning and can be dispensed with, and which are of normative and permanent theological significance?

“It is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly” (1 Cor 14:35). When John Paul II was in England a woman read at the Westminster Cathedral Mass in his presence, nor was she wearing a veil if I recall. I think she had a nice suit and earrings on too. I didn’t know that the pope found this shameful. Perhaps only speaking that constitutes religious instruction is meant by Paul. Well, this hasn’t stopped thousands of nuns and other laywomen from catechizing and instructing men in theology. Women are now allowed to preach under certain circumstances. Women can baptize. Women can distribute the eucharist. Charismatic gatherings are full of women speaking in tongues, prophesying, and interpreting prophecies. A little further on in 1 Corinthians Paul speaks of a “command of the Lord”. Some authors have tried to interpret this as pertaining specifically to the previous remark about women. But this is an unpersuasive exegesis. The context of Paul’s remark about a “command from the Lord” is the whole of his teaching on the proper use of prophetic and other spiritual gifts, for he addresses his remark about the Lord’s command to “anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have any spiritual powers” (1 Cor 14:37) - i.e. it is not addressed specifically to women. Note also that in 1 Cor 14:34 Paul attributes the subordination of women explicitly not to a command of the Lord, but to the Law (i.e. the Jewish Law). It is fair to say that Paul is not particularly consistent in his teachings on the relevance for Christians of the Jewish Law - it’s an issue he struggles and wrestles with time and time again. He rails against Judaizing practices in some places, and appeals to them in others. He praises the Jewish Law in some places and proclaims that it has been superseded in Christ in others.

1 Tim 2:12 makes no appeal to a command of the Lord - instead it is Paul himself who claims to deny permission to women to teach or have authority over men. But generations of nuns have taught men, and Mrs Thatcher had authority over men - has either fact been condemned by the Church? In 1 Tim 2 Paul appeals to the supposedly subordinate and morally inferior position of Eve relative to Adam. His exegesis here as in other places where he comments on the Old Testament is hardly definitive for later commentators. Paul simply reflects his own Rabbinic training and culture. Even if we accept the legitimacy of Paul’s prohibition, it doesn’t follow that we should interpret this as any more than a matter of changeable discipline and law, just as it was no more than changeable discipline and law which forbade women to handle the sacred species until recently.

Finally, the Pauline writings themselves give us quite a bit of evidence that women occupied prominent leadership roles in the early Christian communities. We find several references to Priscilla (Rom 16: 3 , Cor 16:19, Acts 18:26), who is described as Paul’s ‘co-worker in Christ Jesus’ (not a subordinate, but a co-worker with Paul, who was very insistent that *he* was an *apostle*); to Phoebe, a ‘deacon’ at Cenchreae (Rom 16:1-2); to Chloe, a leading woman in the church at Corinth (1 Cor 1:11); to Mary ‘who worked so hard for you’, and to Tryphaena and Tryphosa ‘who work hard in the Lord’ (Rom 16: 6, 12). We also find a reference at Romans 16:7 to ‘Junias’ who is described bv Paul as an ‘apostle’. In fact the only reason the name is rendered in the masculine form as ‘Junias’ rather than in the feminine form as 'Junia’ is a presupposition by the translators that since the person so named is called an apostle, it must have been a man. This is known as ‘begging the question’. Research by:Bernadette Brooten (unfortunately only a summary of which has been published (in Leonard and Arlene Swidler’s Women Priests.?) finds that in all the literature and inscriptions from the first four centuries of our era and several previous centuries there is found not a single male with the name ‘Junias’, but many women named ‘Junia’. As Linda Maloney (an Episcopalian) comments: “To insist that Paul must be referring to a man named ‘Junias’ because only a male can be an apostle (in the Pauline sense) is as if I were to introduce my friend Elizabeth, who is a parish priest, and you were to take it for granted that, despite her appearance, Elizabeth is a man because she is a priest.”

I don’t claim that these verses prove the case for ordained ministry by women in the early Church. But we must remember that a precise structure of ordained ministry was probably not settled until several decades after the time Paul was writing. And although Paul himself, with his strong Rabbinical background seems to have disapproved of women having any prominent liturgical function, many of the ministerial roles these women (and presumably others too) performed for early Christian communities may well have prefigured the system of sacramental orders which later became settled and universal within the Church - by which time sexist attitudes had done their exclusionary and revisionistic work.

3) Patristic interventions: First off, no individual Church Father should be read as infallible—some of them (e.g. Origen and Tertullian) were guilty of heresy at times and later condemned as such. Secondly, while respectful attention must always be paid to patristic writings, they are not the same thing as the ordinary magisterium. It is the College of Bishops as a whole in union with the pope that possesses the ordinary magisterium, not this or that Church Father.

Now a number of Church Fathers did condemn not only the idea of women priests, but also women performing any liturgical function including even handling altar cloths and vessels. In 494 Pope Gelasius said this: “Contempt for divine truths has reached such a level that even women, it is reported, serve at holy altars.” What is meant here is not priesthood but the functions of altar servers and perhaps those of rectors and eucharistic ministers. Obviously, this was not an irreformable judgment! Yet note that Gelasius characterizes what are now legitimate forms of participation by women in the liturgy as “contempt for divine truths”. So even where a pope appeals to divine revelation to condemn some idea, it is not automatically the case that he is free from error. Neither Pope Gelasius nor Pope John Paul II were speaking infallibly. If Gelasius was mistaken - and he clearly was - then it is possible that John Paul II is also.

Some further examples of clearly reformable teachings: In the 4th century the Council of Laodicea (in the East) forbade women from even entering the sanctuary; and in the Middle Ages several bishops complained that “in some provinces, contrary to divine law and canonical directive, women enter into the sanctuary, handle consecrated vessels without fear, pass clerical vestments to the priests, and - something even more monstrous, improper and unseemly than all that - distribute the Body and Blood of our Lord to the people and other inherently indecent things... we have attempted to prevent it so that such liberties do not continue to be taken....lt is most astonishing that this practice, which is forbidden in the Christian religion, could have crept in from somewhere...undoubtedly, it took hold through the carelessness and negligence of some bishops.” Anybody still claim that these things are inherently indecent and contrary to divine law? Obviously, the general bans on women’s active participation in the liturgy were not infallibly taught. The fact is that misogyny was rife in the Church for a long, long time along with extremely dubious anthropological assumptions. Examples from Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (4th century): “For the female sex is easily misled, weak, and without much sense”, “Every heresy is a bad woman”, etc.

Epiphanius condemned the Collyridian women who were celebrating a blasphemous Mariolatrous “eucharist”. This was typical of patristic condemnations of women acting as priests - the condemnations were directed at women who were engaged in various heretical sects and performing rites which were not sanctioned by the then current *discipline and law* of the Church. Various Gnostic, Montanist, and Valentinian liturgical practices involving women were condemned in this way. But it is important to note that with only some exceptions, the denunciations of women playing priestly roles in these heretical sects were based on the fact that they were acting in a way that was in violation of established Church law and liturgical discipline. Ecclesiastical law and discipline, as we know, and as can be gathered from the quotes above, are not as such irreformable and do not in general pertain to the deposit of faith or divine revelation. Even law concerning what is required for sacramental validity can change, a good example being the irreconcilable teachings of the Council of Florence and of Pius XII (‘Sacramentum ordinis’) on the requirements for valid form and matter in the sacrament of orders!

I mentioned some exceptions where the basis of a Patristic denunciation was not simply contemporary legal and liturgical norms. In a few cases, and Epiphanius is one of them, an appeal is made to the example of Jesus. But note: in a previous point, I observed that the import of the example of Jesus is far from obvious. It should be noted too that Epiphanius claims that Jesus did not allow women to baptize, whereas of course there is no absolute prohibition on women baptizing now in canon law. If Epiphanius thought that the example of Jesus in this regard was absolutely normative for the Church, then he was certainly in error, since women can in certain circumstances baptize. This error - a false inference from the practice of Jesus, allied with his obviously misogynistic anthropology, makes Epiphanius, in short, not a safe source. He is cited by Augustine and by John Damascene but again, the problem is the fact that they were talking about the liturgical practices of heretical sects. They give no new reason for thinking that orthodox women couldn’t be ordained in principle, though of course they presuppose the contemporary canonical ban.

In the West, Ambrosiaster’s commentaries on Paul were influential. Here again the text cited is 1 Cor:14:34-35 about women keeping silent in church. But see my previous remarks on the Pauline texts for why this can hardly be construed as normatively definitive (to say nothing about the fact that it hardly concurs with current canon law which plainly allows women to speak in church). Ambrosiaster also denounces the practice of ordaining deaconesses. What he didn’t know was that in parts of the Eastern Church deaconesses were already ordained for service and were numbered among the clergy or ordo. (Note two things here: canon law does not restrict the notion of being a cleric to people who have received sacramental orders; and I am not claiming that deaconesses received the sacramental diaconate, merely that there existed a rite of ordaining them for service in the Church in parts of the East). Ambrosiaster’s commentaries are also packed full of the most shocking misogynistic and erroneous assumptions about women.

Again, not a particularly good source. Unfortunately a good deal of this found its way into the writings of the Medieval canonists and theologians. St Thomas Aquinas’s reasons for holding that women cannot be ordained are so embarrassingly bad that I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that he bases his case on the idea that “With respect to particular nature, woman is something defective and contingent...” (STq. 92 a. 1 ad 1), and “Now, as an eminence of position cannot be signified in the female sex, since the state of subjection is inherent in that sex, it cannot, therefore, receive the sacrament of ordination” (ST Suppl q. 39 a. 1.)

So what do we have -denunciations of heretical sects engaging in liturgical rites at variance with current ecclesiastical law; faulty interpretations of the example of Jesus (e.g. women *can* baptize, act as altar servers, handle sacred vessels, distribute communion, etc); facile repetitions of the Pauline injunctions on women not to teach and to be silent; rampant misogyny, and untenable anthropological assumptions. All of this is incorporated for centuries into canon law, passively received by the great majority of bishops who simply take it for granted, and - the key point - who make no further effort as a moral whole to teach that the canonical ban on women priests derives from a doctrine which is to be definitively held as belonging to the deposit of faith. But it is this kind of teaching act which is required by Lumen gentium for anything to qualify as infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium.

This brings me to my next topic’ the distinction between what is of faith, and what belongs only to custom, law, and discipline:

Here we should repeat what I have already pointed out above. The patristic interventions on women priests occur in a context in which within the Catholic Church of the time, contemporary disciplinary and canonical norms dictated that women cannot be ordained. Now compare this to the period of the Reformation. Catholic theologians and bishops condemned the Reformers for such practices as allowing priests to marry, use of the vernacular in the liturgy, distribution of Holy Communion under both species, free access to Scripture for the laity, etc. Of course these were not the only things the Reformers were condemned for - they also denied some of the sacraments, held erroneous doctrines of grace, rejected the episcopacy and papacy, and other things of that sort. In other words, some of the condemnations were based on law and discipline, some were based on considerations of divine revelation. Only in recent years has the Church accepted some of the Reformers’ practices as its own, and in the case of others such as dispensing with compulsory clerical celibacy, it could do so in future. So it is important to realize that when we find various patristic sources condemning women priests, we must not automatically assume that in every case this condemnation is based on divine revelation. In a few cases, (e.g Epiphanius) appeal is made to Scripture, but often no such appeal is made, and so it is not clear whether the condemnation is based on grounds of law and discipline, or on grounds of faith. But we cannot rely on the mere existence of canonical norms as conclusive evidence of an irreformable doctrinal basis, because there are too many cases where a canonical norm has been changed. We must, in other words, have grounds which are independent of the canonical norms to ascertain which norms are based on infallible, unchangeable doctrine.

The early bishops also often did not communicate much with each other and didn’t know that different liturgical practices existed in different localities. But what is required for infallibility in the ordinary magisterium? Moral unanimity of teaching among the College of Bishops in union with the pope by which they concur on a judgment of faith to be held conclusively as the authentic teaching of the Church founded in the deposit of faith. The patristic and later evidence gives us nothing of the sort. Instead, a few highly fallible and in some cases plain erroneous statements are made by bishops who are not reliable guides in any case on what women can and cannot do in principle e.g. baptize, handle altar vessels, enter the sanctuary. Where we do have uniformity it is in the areas of untenable anthropology, and a reactive defense of existing discipline, custom and law. This is not unanimous teaching about what is definitively to be held regarding the deposit of faith.

Finally, and I do mean finally, what have the official documents of the Church said about the criteria for *establishing* that some teaching has been infallibly promulgated by the ordinary magisterium? I know of 3 such statements:

i) Canon 749 of the Code of Canon Law says that no doctrine is to be understood as having been infallibly defined unless this fact is clearly established. This is far from being a simple matter. For example, the Council of Florence in 1442 probably spoke for all the bishops at the time when it declared that all pagans and Jews would be damned if they did not convert to Catholicism before they died. This is not the doctrine of the Catholic Church nowadays, is it? Later development clarified this to mean something like, assuming their failure to convert was due to mortal sin - which is not normally a safe assumption to make. But would this have been thought about explicitly by the bishops at the Council of Florence in 1442? Unlikely then, or for a long time before or after 1442. I.e. they did not address the question in its modern framework. Hence a simple repetition of that doctrine could hardly be said to have been infallibly taught - and this has only been clearly established in relatively modern times. A long-standing tradition per se is not therefore proof that a doctrine has been infallibly taught.

ii) Consulting with all the bishops to see if they regard a doctrine as having been infallibly taught—this Pope John Paul indicated was a suitable means of establishing a doctrine as being infallibly taught in a passage of Evangelium vitae (EV 62). The context was a discussion of the teaching prohibiting abortion.

iii) Pius IX suggested another criterion - the common response of the faithful to the magisterium’s teaching (Tuas libenter 1863), a suggestion which finds an echo in Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law. This canon states that when a teaching has been infallibly proposed, this is “manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful”.

Do we have common adherence of Christ’s faithful to the ban on women priests? Has the College of Bishops as a whole been consulted? Has the ban been clearly established as being infallible? No. No. No. None of these official criteria of infallibility mark the ban on women priests. In conjunction with all my previous reasoning on this issue, I conclude that it is very doubtful that the doctrine stating that women intrinsically and in virtue of divine revelation cannot receive the sacrament of orders has been infallibly taught. Of course, the doctrine might still be true - I don’t know. But I see no reason in orthodox Catholic theology that requires me to believe that it has been infallibly taught and thus commands the assent of faith.


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