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Sidney Callahan's Assessment of ;Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
"I would want to be a priest"

Sidney Callahan’s Assessment of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’

‘Is black white? Letter to Cardinal Ratzinger concerning infallible teaching and ordination of women’, by Sidney Cornelia Callahan, Commonweal, vol. 123, February 9 1996, pp. 6-7.

Sidney Cornelia Callahan has written various pastoral books, including:
* The Magnificat: The Prayer of Mary
* Parenting: Principles and Politics of Parenthood
* The Working Mother.

In an open letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, the writer disputes the "infallible" teaching of the Catholic Church that women cannot be ordained priests. As the 1976 Papal Biblical Commission unanimously decided, Scripture alone supplies no basis for decreeing that women should not be ordained. In the work of eminent theologians and mainstream scholars, there are many more advocates of women's ordination than defenders of the ban. When presented, the few arguments for the ban seem unconvincing, resting mainly on past precedents and adverting to vague ideas about gender imagery and complementarity that imply women and men must have different vocations for service in the church. It may be time to rethink the troubling and divisive issue of infallible church authority; no individual can know Christ's will with exact certitude.

Dear Cardinal Ratzinger,

If you instruct us as loyal Catholics to submit in mind and will to the "infallible" teaching that women cannot be ordained priests, you must also tell us how to accomplish this feat. What exactly do you mean for dissenters to do?

I remember how affronted I was by the words of Saint Ignatius in his Exercises, "If we wish to proceed securely in all things we must hold fast to the following principle: What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical church so defines."

But this is not the sixteenth century, and you are a brilliant theologian living in a post-Vatican II church, serving a pope who regularly proclaims the sanctity of conscience and the dignity of the human person. So what do you envision as the mental and spiritual processes that we, the dissenting faithful, are supposed to follow?

If we look to Scripture , we can only agree with the 1976 Papal Biblical Commission that unanimously decided that Scripture alone supplies no basis for decreeing that women should not be ordained. If we look to the work of eminent theologians and mainstream scholars, we find many more advocates of women's ordination than instances of those who defend the ban. When the few arguments on your side are presented, they seem unconvincing. They rest mainly on past precedents. Even worse, they advert to vague ideas about gender imagery and complementarity that imply men and women must have different vocations for service in the church.

Surely you admit that the argument from tradition , or negative evidence from silence seem strange in a church that has always heralded revolutionary good news and proceeded to change the world. "Behold I make all things new," says the Lord. The "different natures" and gender-complementary arguments seem even odder and more contradictory under a pope who constantly preaches the equality of men and women in both church and world. The pope even apologizes to women for past church abuses. So you both apologize for a dreadful past and yet appeal to this "unbroken tradition " for support in the present.

The contradictions and inconsistencies in your position explain why most Catholic theologians, and even some bishops, have judged that it would be most faithful to the Holy Spirit to ordain women now. The American laity agree. Because of forty years of prayer, study, worship, and meditation upon the question, I am convinced in conscience that it is God's will that women should be ordained.

In this impasse, your instruction that I submit my conscience and believe what you define to be true becomes psychologically impossible, in effect a moral suicide. I can do no other than wholeheartedly believe what faith, reason, heart, expert counsel, and the experience of a lifetime tell me to be true and in accordance with Christ's desires for the church.

Do you think there is some separate faculty or piece of me that could stand outside of my deepest self and somehow force or will the rest of me into self-deception? Admittedly, I'm a coward, and faced with the rack I might pretend, or lie. But I could never really believe that this instruction is an infallible teaching, a part of the deposit of faith equal to the creed and other central truths.

You may well reply, "Since you admit weakness, be truly humble and grant that by our office and authority, we in the Vatican are divinely guaranteed to be infallible in what we define to be the Roman Catholic faith. And, by the bye, you are always free to join some other Christian church."

True, but the same wholehearted conscience that makes me challenge this instruction also compels me to firmly adhere to the Roman Catholic church and believe in the crucial importance of the Petrine ministry. In my chauvinistic Catholic way (well, I am a convert) I am convinced that Christians need to be in communion with the pope and rock of Peter in order to be in the fullest communion with the whole gospel tradition . When one separates or leaves in protest, I'm afraid there is a tendency to become lopsided, puritanical, fixated, or fly off in lightweight, New Age directions. I believe in the weight and breadth of our Roman Catholic unity and communion, but not in your current interpretation of what this unity entails.

So I have a counter-proposal for you. Let's quickly exercise our prudential Catholic gift for selective amnesia and overlook your instruction. We can discern it to be one of those null proposals which fail to be received or confirmed by the church as effective teaching, and certainly not as infallible.

In fact, let's take this occasion to collectively become more humble and rethink our disagreements over this troubling and divisive question of infallible church authority. Why should any of us, in office or not, be so absolutely sure that we know Christ's will with such exact certitude? Why not only virtual certitude or high probabilities, which demand risk and personal commitment? How can faith be faith if it claims epistemological certainty?

Honesty forces us to admit that the church has changed its definitive teachings over and over again--in regard to liberty of conscience, the Jews, crusades, slavery, usury, torture, the papal states, and hundreds of other petty and embarrassing blunders made in misbegotten claims of certitude. I know, some apologists try to wriggle and squirm heroically in order to show that these errors either didn't happen or can be reinterpreted in ever more convoluted and subtle ways; or they retreat to the truth that our problem is only (!) that the church is made up of sinful humans.

If we take a developmental view seriously, maybe an exaggerated claim of infallibility and an excessive need for certitude will go the way of baby teeth--to be discarded in the maturing process. They will not be seen as necessary since the church no longer believes that God damns to hellfire pagans, unbaptized babies (Augustine), or those sincerely holding erroneous beliefs. Neither will exaggerated concentrations in a centralized authority be required when local subsidiarity matures in the church.

So, dear Cardinal Ratzinger, I heartily agree with you and the pope in your affirmations of the wondrous reality of God's Truth and the belief that eternal moral truths exist within the good news of the gospel. But we disagree over how we should proceed to seek Truth or what claims we can make for certitude. Baron von Hugel, in the midst of the bitter modernist controversy, said that "he accepted whatever the church had finally committed herself to." Well said, but then there is no known "finally," in an ongoing human journey to God. We follow the One who is the Alpha and the Omega. And the One who forever says, "Come!"

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Sidney Callahan


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