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David Knight's Assessment of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

"I would want to be a priest"

David Knight's Assessment of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’

‘A pastoral response. Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith's announcement concerning the ordination of women’, by David Knight, U.S. Catholic, vol. 61, April 1996, pp. 11-13.

Reprinted on the Internet with permission from US Catholic. Address: 205 West Monroe Street, Chicago, Illinois 60606; subscription line: --1-800-328-6515.

Fr. David Knight is a pastoral theologian and pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Memphis, Tennessee. He is well known for his popular and practical books, among them:
* His Way (1981, 1997)
* Cloud by Day/ Fire by Night (1985)
* Confession Can Change Your Life (1985)
* His Word, Letting it Take Root and Bear Fruit in our Lives(1986, 1998)
* Best True Ghost Stories of the 20th Century (1986)
* Lift Up Your Eyes to the Mountains. A Guide to the Spiritual Life (1988)
* Make Me a Sabbath of Your Heart (1988)
* Mary in an Adult Church: from Devotion to Response(1988)
* Blessed are They: Call to Conversion (1988)
* Chastity Who Lives It? The Baptized Christian’s Call to Conversion (1990)
* Good News About Sex (1991)
* Armchair Retreat (1994)
* Reaching Jesus: Five Steps to a Fuller Life (1997)
* I Can Read about Alligators and Crocodiles (1999)
* Living God’s Word (1999)

The writer examines the meaning to Catholics of a Vatican teaching denying women ordination. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) appears to have stated that it has been infallibly taught that women cannot be ordained priests. The use of the word infallibly is misleading, however. Although Catholics associate the word with a solemn declaration by the pope on such matters as faith or morals, the CDF has only announced that it is their official opinion, which is not infallible, that women can never be ordained and that Catholics must accept this decision on faith that God has decreed it so. If Pope John Paul had wished to make his precise interpretations on the issue definitive, he would have had to use his extraordinary teaching authority to make an infallible clarifying definition. Everyone agrees that he did not do this, however.

Headlines around the country have said that it has been "infallibly taught" by the Catholic Church that women cannot be ordained priests.

At first glance, it would seem that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is saying just that. However, the use of the word infallibly is misleading here. Most Catholics immediately associate the word infallible with a special promise given by God to preserve the Bishop of Rome from error when, on extraordinary occasions, he chooses to speak ex cathedra--using his full authority as pope--to make a solemn declaration about faith or morals. This has only happened once, in 1950, and no one is claiming that it has happened again.

What has happened is that the CDF has notified all the bishops that it is their official opinion (which is not infallible) that women can never be ordained. They have also given it as their opinion (again, not infallible) that this teaching has been believed in the church so universally, and for so long, that it must be accepted as belonging to the "deposit of faith." This means that, in the opinion of the CDF, anyone who wants to be a full, orthodox Catholic has to accept it on faith that God has decreed women may never be ordained.

There is no question here of the Catholic Church's authority to teach infallibly. That is very clear, and it is important to keep it clear. The CDF's statement, however, is an official opinion that this particular issue is a matter of faith.

In an effort to give the statement more credibility in the eyes of the church, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger showed it to John Paul II in a private audience and reported in his cover letter to the bishops that the pope "approved this Reply ... and ordered it to be published."

Ratzinger knows perfectly well that the pope's non-infallible approval of an opinion does not make it any more infallible than it was before. But there is a tendency among Catholics to forget that papal infallibility is a power confined within very strict boundaries.

And when those boundaries are not clearly acknowledged by those whose job it is to speak for the pope, the aura of infallibility tends to seep out and spread a false light of certitude over everything that issues from a Vatican office. This is ultimately very harmful to the teaching authority of the church. When people are given the impression that everything is infallible, there comes a point when they conclude that nothing is infallible.


For pastoral reasons, it is important to make sure everyone understands this. The issue I am addressing here is not the question of women's ordination; it is the question of faith in the teaching of the church. This is a pastoral question, and it has nothing to do with whether women can be ordained. The question is only whether Catholics are required to accept as a matter of faith that women cannot be ordained.

Suppose that on historical grounds some particular Catholic does not agree that the church has always accepted as a revelation of God that women could not be ordained? Suppose someone interprets the church's practice of not ordaining women as being simply a matter of culture, not of theology? What if a loyal Catholic thinks it more likely that throughout the world the church did not ordain women for the same reason that for generations bishops in the South did not ordain black men to serve as diocesan priests--because it was simply unthinkable in the cultural climate of the times? Would such a Catholic have to leave the church?

Therefore, what must I as a priest and pastor say to a Catholic who comes to me in the sacrament of Reconciliation and says, "Father, I just cannot believe that Jesus Christ taught that women should never be ordained. Am I allowed to receive the Eucharist as a Catholic in full communion with the church?"

Do I answer by saying that this is indeed a matter of faith, and that all those who cannot accept it must accept as a consequence that they are no longer Catholics and should not receive the Body of Christ in Communion?

Or do I say that, regardless of whether or not this always was or is now the universal belief of the Catholic Church, the fact is that the church has done nothing to require anyone as a Catholic to accept this teaching as a matter of faith. So any Catholic who does not agree with the opinion of the Vatican Congregation is free to disagree--respectfully, and with humble self-questioning, but in good conscience.

There are, however, a few confusing details of language in the statement issued by the CDF.

First, their declaration is put in the form of a response to a doubt (dubium). Normally this would mean that someone had a doubt about something and sent a question in to the CDF. But the cover letter simply says that there have been so many "problematic and negative statements by certain theologians, organizations of priests and religious, as well as some associations of laypeople" calling into question the "definitive character" of John Paul's teaching about the ordination of women that "this Congregation has judged it necessary to dispel the doubts ... that have arisen."

The CDF is apparently giving an answer to a question no one has asked them. That is legitimate, of course, but in the light of Vatican II's explicit recognition that the general consensus of church members about matters of faith is important in determining what must be believed, it makes a difference who has a problem with what.

It would seem that the widespread nonacceptance of the Vatican's position is not a problem for the church, but it is a problem for the CDF. Unfortunately, by putting their declaration in the form of a response to a question, the CDF has given the impression that their own concern about disagreement is a concern being voiced by the church.

A second, and more serious, confusion arises from the use of the word infallibly. As we said above, most people associate infallibility with something that belongs to the pope. When they think about it, of course, they know that the church as a whole teaches infallibly whenever bishops from all over the world get together in council with the bishop of Rome and declare something to be a doctrine of faith. But "teaching infallibly" normally suggests an extraordinary declaration made with a clear and explicit use of the hierarchy's God-given authority to decide between truth and error in matters of revealed doctrine.

For example, if I as a priest and pastor stand up in the pulpit and say that Jesus Christ is God made flesh to save the world, I am speaking infallibly, because I am proclaiming truth revealed by God. However, no one would ever describe the ordinary preaching of an ordinary deacon or priest as "infallible teaching," even if every word of it comes straight out of scripture .

When the CDF states, then, that the teaching about women's ordination "requires definitive assent, since it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium," it gets people confused. Usually theologians make a distinction between what is the ordinary teaching of the church and what has been taught infallibly. The committee's declaration obscures this distinction.

The problem with the church's ordinary teaching is that it is frequently imprecise. For example, it used to be part of the ordinary and universal teaching in the church that no one could ever lend money at interest. Everyone assumed that this was an "infallible" teaching (to use the CDF's word) because it had always been taught that money was nothing but a nonproductive medium of exchange that could not morally be rented out like a farm or a mule could, because money did no work. So it was a common and universal belief that Christians must not be selfish in this way.

When, however, the teachers in the church finally caught on to what the bankers had already come to see but could not explain to them--namely, that money had become capital, and that it could be put to work very productively--then the teaching was not canceled out, but it was clarified. The principle about selfishly getting something for nothing still held, but its application to modern-day financing was modified. Now Catholics may legitimately lend money at interest because, as capital, the money they loan will be working for the borrower instead of for them.


It is conceivable that further reflection and research could bring the church to modify the age-old practice of not ordaining women. The principle will not be changed, of course. The basic argument or principle used to forbid the ordination of women was summed up by the United States bishops' Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices as "the example of Christ, and the constant witness of Church tradition to that example. The fundamental point upon which the Holy Father [John Paul II] insisted was that the Church has no authority to do in this area what Christ himself did not do, i.e. ordain women."

The church will certainly never deny that the example of Christ should be normative in all Christian decisions. John Paul himself has taught this with a radicalness so inspiring that it could actually revolutionize Catholic moral teaching if it were taken seriously. For instance, he specifically points to Christ's example of living in poverty as an example that should be normative for all Christian lifestyles. But there is certainly room for greater clarity about just how the church is to follow the example of Christ in particular instances.

In what areas does the church have the authority to do what Christ did not do? From the gospel account it would seem that Jesus did not call anyone who was wealthy, or who had not left all his possessions to follow him. In fact, Jesus specifically forbade his apostles, who are our models for bishops, to live in affluence or to be addressed by pretentious titles. But the church does not teach that she has "no authority whatsoever" to ordain as bishops anyone who is enamored of wealth and prestige.

And if the racial prejudice that kept African Americans from being ordained in the southern United States had been worldwide, and if this practice of the southern bishops had been universal throughout church history, would we be saying today that the church "has no authority whatsoever" to ordain black men because Jesus never did?

In light of the church's refusal to be rigid in following these examples of Jesus, further study of what John Paul calls the "constant witness of Church tradition " might lead to clarifications about the church's belief (and therefore about the teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium) concerning the ordination of women.

Whatever has been taught by the ordinary magisterium from the beginning of the church's existence as a doctrine of faith certainly is one. But the difference between the ordinary teaching of the church and the extraordinary or infallible teaching is that the church uses her infallible teaching authority to be precise.

The fact that John Paul and the CDF felt it necessary to be more precise about what the ordinary teaching of the church has been concerning women's ordination indicates that the ordinary teaching is not precise in this area--about why women cannot be ordained, and about what the church's historical practice was actually based on (whether it was based on theology, for example, or cultural prejudice).

If the pope wanted to make his precise interpretations on this point truly definitive, he would have had to use his extraordinary teaching authority to make an infallible clarifying definition. Everyone agrees he did not do this.

Catholics also must agree that whatever the universal belief of the church has been, it is certainly infallible. But no one has to believe in John Paul's interpretation of that belief that it definitively excludes the ordination of women. The pope's interpretation has not been taught as an infallible clarification and, therefore, does not have to be accepted by Catholics as a doctrine of faith.

The CDF hopes, of course, that everyone in the church will agree with their opinion. In their cover letter to the bishops they expressed confidence that the bishops "will do everything possible to ensure its distribution and favorable reception, taking particular care that, above all on the part of theologians, pastors of souls, and religious, ambiguous and contrary positions will not again be proposed."

In compliance with this request, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States, has published his response: "The Congregation's answer is unequivocal. This teaching belongs to the deposit of faith and is 'to be held always, everywhere, and by all.' I ask all in the Church in the United States, especially theologians and pastors who instruct and form our Catholic people in the faith, reverently to receive this teaching as definitive."

Pilla is apparently convinced that the Vatican position is true. But he knows that it isn't in fact definitive, so he "asks" everyone to "reverently receive this teaching as definitive." When something really is definitive, the church doesn't ask priests and theologians to receive it; she proclaims it as true and leaves them no choice.


So what choice does a priest have today? Now that the CDF has taken such a strong position, what, if anything, should a priest say about this teaching from the pulpit?

The clergy have by ordination a special association with their bishops that makes them public spokesmen for the church. For this reason it is inappropriate for priests or deacons, when speaking from the pulpit at Mass, to contradict official church teaching or pronouncements.

So I would like to make it very clear that neither in this article nor from the pulpit would I say that the pope's teaching about women's ordination is not definitive. It may well be that the pope and the CDF have, in fact, hit upon a true doctrine of the deposit of faith. Who am I to say whether women can or cannot be ordained?

On the other hand, I cannot go as far as Pilla asks and positively say that this teaching is definitive. It has not been declared definitive infallibly, and no convincing reasons have been offered to prove that this ever has been, in fact, a doctrine taught in the church as a revealed truth of faith. So I cannot personally accept the teaching as definitive, but I would not discourage anyone who can.

What I do insist on--and believe every pastor, teacher, and preacher has a serious obligation to insist on publicly--is that no Catholic is obliged to accept this teaching as definitive, and no Catholic may be denied the sacraments or accused of not being in full communion with the church because he or she does not accept the opinion of the pope and of his doctrinal committee about this issue.

Suppose we leave Catholics with the impression--which they are being given now, intentionally or not--that this doctrine has been declared true by an exercise of the church's infallible teaching authority. And suppose that the next pope decides to ordain women after all--which could very easily happen if in fact the opinion of the present pope and of his committee on doctrine is wrong.

If people then began to leave the church in droves, saying that the church had contradicted her own infallible teaching, we would be in a very weak position trying to explain, after the fact, that the teaching of John Paul and his doctrinal committee never was really infallible, and that we really knew it all the time but just never said anything.

There is error in excessive affirmation as well as in denial. It is as much an error to say there are four divine Persons in the Blessed Trinity as to say there are only two. And it is as wrong to make the pope more infallible as it is to make him less. On the practical plane, to give the impression, intentionally or not, that something is being taught infallibly when it is not is pastorally irresponsible and dangerous.

Children who cry "Wolf!" just to get attention make the ears of the village deaf to their cries. And teachers who cry "Infallible!" just to get acceptance for their opinions destroy the credibility of the church's teaching authority. That is precisely what we need to be concerned about.

David M. Knight

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