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A theologian's dilemma on women priests

"I would want to be a priest"

A theologian’s dilemma on women priests

Article by Peter Hebblethwaite reflecting on a lecture by Peter Hünermann

From The Tablet, 3rd September 1994, pp. 1113-1115.

Reprinted on the Internet with permission from The Tablet. Address: 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ UK. Tel: 44-20-8748 8484; fax: 44-20-8748 1550; email: thetablet@the tablet.co.uk.

These books are among Peter Hünermann's publications:
* Streitgespräch um Theologie und Lehramt (1991)
* Wissenschaft, kulturelle Praxis, Evangelisierung (1993)
* Das neue Europa (1993)
* Demokratie (1993)
* Armut (1993)
* Jesus Christus, Gotteswort in der Zeit. Eine systematische Christologie (1994)
* Ekklesiologie im Präsens. Perspektiven (1995)
* Gott, ein Fremder in unserm Haus? Die Zukunft des Glaubens in Europa (1996)
* Diakonat. Ein Ambt für Frauen in der Kirche (with others, 1997)
* Papstamt und Ökumene. Zum Petrusdienst an der Einheit aller Getauften (1997)
* Und dennoch . . . (1998)
* Das Zeite Vatikanum. Christlicher Glaube im Horizont globaler Modernisierung (1998)

Theologians who question the arguments of the Pope’s letter ruling out the priestly ordination of women face an almost intolerable contradiction. Below, Peter Hebblethwaite reflects on a lecture given by Professor Hünermann on 5 June. It appeared in the August issue of Herder Korrespondenz.

Professor Peter Hünermann’s view is that the Pope’s apostolic letter Sacerdotalis Ordinatio depends on two premises for its conclusion that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”. But neither of these premises, Hünermann argues, is defensible.

Hünermann has no track record as a dissident. He is professor of dogmatic theology in the Catholic faculty of the University of Tübingen, and founder and president of the European Association of Catholic Theologians. He is known as a scrupulously careful scholar trusted by the German bishops.

The first assumption of the apostolic letter is that the group of the “Twelve”, to which Jesus calls only men, is identical with “the Apostles”. Although the New Testament does speak of "the Twelve” (see Apoc. 21:14), Scripture and tradition bear witness to the fact that they are not the only ones called to be "apostles” and recognised as such.

Alongside the calling of the eleven and the replacement of Judas by Matthias, there are other church-founding witnesses to the resurrection. Among them are Paul himself, Barnabas, James “the brother of the Lord”, but also Andronicus and Junia (Rom. 16:7).

In the earliest Western liturgies Paul, Barnabas and James are celebrated as apostles, as are Andronicus and Junia in the Oriental tradition. That the call to be an apostle extended beyond the call to belong to the “Twelve” is made clear in a number of texts. In Acts 10:41 Peter says that Jesus appeared “not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses . . . after he rose from the dead”.

In 1 Cor. 15 Paul says explicitly that after appearing to “Cephas, and then to the Twelve”, Jesus appeared “to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep". He adds: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:7). Thus the category of “witnesses to the resurrection” which defines the apostle is much broader than the group of the “Twelve”. Paul speaks explicitly of “those who were apostles before me” (Gal. 1:17) and says that he “saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (v.19).

It follows that conclusions about the ministry of the apostles cannot be based on the practice of the “Twelve”. Therefore women cannot be excluded from ministry on these grounds.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Hünermann points out, was fully aware of this objection. He tried to counter it with the remark that “such interpretations are of their nature hypothetical, and can only claim a very modest degree of probability”.

No purely historical certainty exists, Ratzinger claims, independently of the historically lived faith of the Church and its teaching authority. It alone is empowered to provide “the interpretation of Scripture which has emerged from the listening to tradition by believers”.

But, says Hünermann, this reply is based on the view that exegesis is a purely historical rather than theological discipline. Moreover, Ratzinger’s position is rejected in the recent document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission on “The Interpretation of Scripture in the Church” (see The Tablet, 2/9 April). Ironically, Ratzinger is prefect of this commission.

This document states clearly that Catholic exegesis regards the Older and Newer Testaments as inspired scripture which contain divine revelation for human salvation. It uses historical-critical methods to discuss questions which concern and throw light on the understanding of faith. And that is the properly theological task. Exegesis is already theology. It does more than provide the “raw materials” for theology.

The second premise of Sacerdotalis Ordinatio is that the “Twelve” formally chose only men as “fellow workers who would succeed them in the ministry” and called them bishops. This direct continuity is also asserted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Hünermann finds this very problematical. In the early Church there was much greater fluidity in the idea of ministry and the titles by which it was characterised. From early on the place of the “apostles” understood in the wider sense was recognised. The evangelists, shepherds and teachers (Eph. 4:11) take care to “build on the foundations of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20) for the edification of the Church, which is the body of Christ. This is what realises the continuity with the apostolic origin of the Church and guarantees its unity.

In this period of “fluidity” women certainly had a place in the Church’s ministry. Paul writes: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae . . . for she has been a helper of many, and of myself as well.” This title— deacon — indicates a permanent and recognised ministry (see Phil. 1:2 and 1 Cor. 16:15).

Such a view of ministry is today the common property of exegetes whether Catholic or Protestant. This was why, Hünermann suggests, a majority of the Biblical Commission in 1974 declared that no objection to women’s ordination could be based on New Testament evidence alone.

Thus, according to Hünermann, Sacerdotalis Ordinatio is based on two premises neither of which can stand up to scholarly examination. It does not follow that its conclusion is false, but it is certainly questionable and hardly likely to prove in the long run as “definitive” as the document claims.

What are we to do in this situation? For Catholic theologians determined to remain loyal to the Church, this poses a grave difficulty. Not that any Catholic theologian has imagined the ordination of women to be imminent, being well aware that “the Church’s clocks mark a different time in different continents”.

Catholic theologians feel a responsibility to do everything imaginable in order to avoid schism, and know that at the present time women’s ordination would be more likely to produce schism than would holding the line against it. The majority of the episcopate is opposed, and the “Orthodox factor” must be taken into account, although bishops also know that they must take seriously the concerns of women. But none of that constitutes the real difficulty.

The difficulty is that the teaching authority has pronounced on this question in a manner which, although not strictly infallible, comes very close to it. For consolation Hünermann looks to other examples in recent theological history of the teaching authority committing itself to positions from which it found itself soon obliged to retreat.

In the nineteenth century the teaching authority responded negatively to questions about human rights, religious freedom, the authorship of the Bible, the relationship between the christology of the early Councils and the New Testament. But most of these positions were reversed by the Second Vatican Council. It is not a matter of embarrassing the teaching authority. At issue is the tricky question of how to deal with “modernity” in a period of immense cultural change. New cultural horizons bring new questions to which the Church’s first response tends to be negative.

Hünermann takes as symbolic of this general problem what Pius XII said about original sin in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. It condemned the theory of "polygenism”—that is, the view that there could have been any truly human beings who were not literally descended from Adam and Eve. This position was formally described as “theologically certain”, and presented as the necessary presupposition for the doctrine of original sin. To deny it was to deny original sin. It was thereby removed from permissible theological discussion. Yet in little more than a decade the condemnation of polygenism came to be regarded as theologically obsolete, and it was quietly set aside. Before that could happen, however, many theologians had fallen victim to the overriding concern for unity.

So, concludes Hünermann, there is a dialectic between a legitimate need for unity and an equally legitimate need for the development of the intellectus fidei (the understanding of faith) in which theologians engage. Says Hünermann: “Both are indispensable if the Church is to remain in the truth. Without the preservation of unity the Church would be untrue to its divine vocation. Without the intellectus fidei it would decline into superstitious residual forms.”

He does not underestimate the difficulties. Not everyone is theologically contemporary in the Church today. Those clocks mark different times. If true unity is to be maintained, then there must be a readiness to listen to each other, a willingness to learn, and respect for the other side. This holds, Hünermann says, “for all believers, theologians as much as for bishops and cardinals”. Anything less will do immense harm to the Catholic Church and to papal authority and eventually to the papal office itself.

Hünermann concludes by asking how one truly serves the Church. He answers: Only by an on-going discernment of spirits.

Go to Peter Hünermann's Assessment of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’?

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