Waiting for Vatican III

Waiting for Vatican III

Women's Ordination and Infallibility: 3

By Hans Küng
in The Tablet, 16th December 1995.

Published on our Website with the permission of The Tablet

Infallibility is a defined doctrine of the Catholic Church, but the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Tübingen University, believes there is something wrong with it. The present controversy seems to him to prove his point, and in this article he returns to the charge (see leader).

However much Catholic theologians may wriggle and whatever contortions the reinterpreters of dogmas may indulge in, the impossibility of women being ordained priests is now an “irrevocable” and “infallible” doctrine which requires the “definitive assent” of all Catholics. This is because it is founded on Scripture (“The written Word of God”), has been “from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the tradition of the Church”, and has therefore “been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium” (or teaching authority). That is what is brusquely stated without any further explanation and with a happy lack of ambiguity in the latest doctrinal statement from the Roman doctrinal congregation.

It is to be hoped that people will not now start bombarding poor harassed Cardinal Ratzinger once again, as if he were personally responsible for all that is wrong with the Church. It was not he on his own authority who proclaimed this infallible rejection of the ordination of women as priests (or even as deacons) which most Catholics find incomprehensible and most non-Catholics hair-raisingly incredible. It was rather the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office of the Most Sacred Inquisition), to which belong the heads of the Roman Curia, 16 cardinals begining with the Cardinal Secretary of State about 25 people in all. And this congregation decides collegially the brief its prefect has to follow and to put before the Pope for approval

So on this occasion everything took place completely in accordance with the rules. On such an explosive matter the 25 or so “consultors” - curial bishops and theologians will surely have first prepared the doctrinal decision at a meeting that normally takes place on a Monday. Then (normally on a Wednesday) the cardinals and other members of the congregation will have considered the same matter in a conventus ordinarius and drawn up a decree. To come into force this would need the Popes approval. And so this particular document would have been put before the Pope for approval by the prefect of the congregation in a personal audience which formerly took place regularly every Thursday.

Let us not harbour any illusions about this. It is the Pope personally who ordered the publication of this decree against women priests, dated Saturday 28 October 1995. Since the time of Pope Siricius at the end of the fourth century these laconic Roman decrees have followed the official style of the imperial chancellery. It is as if what were involved were queries (“dubia”) from the Roman provincial governors. The Roman Pontiff answers with an imperial reply (“responsum”), and this basically consists of the single word “Affirmative” (“yes”): the impossibility of ordaining women belongs to “the deposit of the faith”. For experts this means that what is involved is not in any way a matter of discipline or canon law, which could be changed quite freely, but a genuine truth of the faith which is unalterable, irreformable, and irrevocable.

No doubt there was intense debate both cardinals before this decree, with all its serious consequences, was passed: not however about the reasons for or against the ordination of women (something no one in the Roman Curia has dared seriously to defend), but about the question whether one should intervene yet again in this delicate issue. Paul VI had already decided this question with an unambiguous “no” in a statement by the doctrinal congregation of 15 October 1976. John Paul II then personally labelled this decision “definitive” in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of Whitsun 1994 and called a halt to any further debate. The same teaching is to be found in the Roman Catechism of the Catholic Church (§ 1577)

But all these Roman judgements and prohibitions have had absolutely no effect. Instead, opposition has increased:

  • Debate continues undiminished among theologians and lay people alike and has even been intensified by indignation at the arrogance of male power in the Church.
  • Catholic women’s and young-people’s organisations are in open rebellion on this issue.
  • Even some bishops (in the German speaking world the courageous Bishop Stecher of Innsbruck) want the question to be reopened in Rome.
  • In what was formerly Czechoslovakia sensational news has been confirmed by the Czech bishops’ conference that Catholic women priests exist. During the period of Communist domination they were ordained by the Roman Bishop Felix Davidek for the underground Church, admittedly without Rome's agreement, but following the pattern of many Reformed Churches.

All this has now been followed by the church referendum in Austria (with half a million signatures) and Germany (with a million and a half). These are numbers that the hierarchy could never have been able to summon up in support of the positions they defend. And in both cases the people of God, supported by many non-signatories and by the media, have unequivocally demanded the ordination of women and the abolition of compulsory celibacy - and have thus been a cause of deep embarrassment for both the Austrian and the German episcopates. There is even trouble brewing all of a sudden in the Central Committee of German Catholics (most of whom hardly saw themselves as represented by it), thanks to courageous Catholics intent on reform who are not prepared to be intimidated. At last people are rebelling against the German bishops’ conference and its policy of obedience to Rome. The view now is that the bishops should be concerned not to muffle but to amplify the concerns of the people of God in Rome, and the conference's president, Bishop Lehmann, weak towards Rome and arrogant towards his flock, has been reprimanded. This is something new and gives rise to the hope that the committee's president, Frau Rita Waschbüsch, who has been notoriously reluctant to embrace reform and who thought she could dismiss the referendum as rubbish, will soon be on her way out.

“Where shall we end up if everything is allowed to go on like this?”, they must have been asking themselves in the Vatican. “Must we not now have recourse to the ultimate weapon that so far has always worked with Catholics - infallibility? In other words, that appeal to the Holy Spirit who in certain quite specific cases through his special assistance a priori prevents the pope and bishops from error, so that one can demand the ‘definitive assert’ of Catholics?” I can imagine Joseph Ratzinger, whose intelligence no one should doubt, speaking out against the seductive term “infallible”. Who if not he will remember the “enquiry” which I, then his colleague at Tübingen, launched under the title Infallible? in 1970 and which has not yet been completed - and the furore which followed?

It was not, however, Ratzinger but a member of the Roman Curia who is well known to me who persuaded Paul VI in 1968 at the last moment to remove the term “infallible” from the condemnation of any form of “artificial” birth control in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Although this was done, it was completely clear to the then prefect of the doctrinal congregation, Cardinal Ottaviani, and all advocates of Roman theology, that according to the Roman criteria what was involved here was an “infallible” doctrine (as can be seen from my book Infallible? and has been confirmed by Fr Ermengildo Lio OFM, a consultor of the doctrinal congregation in his 926-page study “Humanae Vitae” e infallibilità, Libreria Vaticana 1986).

Even in John Paul II’s first encyclical on moral issues, Veritatis Splendor (1993), the passages about infallibility were omitted at the last moment and the term “infallible” was carefully avoided throughout the encyclical. The same is the case with his second encyclical on moral issues, Evangelium Vitae (1995). Following the disgrace of Vatican diplomacy at the world conference on population in Cairo, that encyclical dismissed the sinfulness of any form of contraception relatively briefly with reference to Humanae Vitae, though the authority of Jesus Christ and the “ordinary and general teaching authority of the Church” were invoked to reject and condemn abortion even in extreme emergencies and, with an equal lack of compassion, any form of “direct” euthanasia. There was no question about it: contraception, abortion without any exception, euthanasia even in cases of intolerable human suffering, all were forbidden and condemned, with the highest divine authority being invoked. But, and this was the decisive point, there was no use of that sundering term “infallible” - which is probably to be attributed to the moderating influence of Cardinal Ratzinger.

The result was that Catholic theologians, even the more progressive among them, who since my own licence to teach was withdrawn on 18 December 1979 no longer dared question and analyse infallibility, for fear that their licence be withdrawn also, had a convenient loophole to enable them to avoid “definitive assent” to papal teaching demanded of them: it was, thank God, not an infallible doctrine. The Pope himself had not used the term “infallible”. So we could happily go on debating the question . . .

This could only infuriate Rome. And when theologians said quite openly that Rome would never again dare use the taboo word “infallible” (what had one been fighting about in 1870 and why had one accepted the Old Catholic schism?), then Rome’s patience gave out. Something had to be done. And it was.

The responsum now published by Cardinal Ratzinger on the instructions of the Pope makes it quite clear: it is forbidden, indeed impossible, ever to ordain women as priests or deacons. Why? Because this belongs to the deposit of faith of the Catholic Church which can be never relinquished: Jesus Christ himself ruled it out once and for all. The fact that women played an extremely significant role for Jesus himself and were responsible for looking after him and his disciples, that they were the first witnesses of the resurrection, that in Paul’s sphere of influence individual women were in fact leaders of Christian communities and that in his list of greetings in Romans 16 Junia is described as “outstanding among the apostles” (though in many translations she becomes a man called Junias), and finally that there is biblical witness for women deacons: there was no need to go into all this in the response. For, according to the Roman view, it is not the Bible that it all depends on but the Church’s teaching authority, which has always understood the Bible correctly and interpreted it infallibly on decisive issues.

But how and why should this doctrine be infallible? Are there not certain formal steps laid down that have to be taken? Is it not only when the Pope has solemnly declared it to be so ex cathedra that a teaching of the Catholic Church is infallible? Most Catholics continue to believe this. They have not yet realised that since Vatican II’s constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (§ 25), two kinds of magisterial infallibility have been officially recognised.

First, there is the infallibility of the extraordinary teaching office (magisterium extraordinarium) when the pope as supreme teacher of the Church speaks ex cathedra or an ecumenical council makes a solemn definition.

Secondly, however, there is also the infallibility of the ordinary teaching office (magisterium ordinarium), i.e. that exercised everywhere and all the time, when the pope and bishops are quite obviously in agreement on a certain doctrine of faith or morals which is to be held definitively. In these cases too the Church’s teaching authority is incapable of error thanks to the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

It is precisely this second kind of infallibility, according to the view of the Pope and the doctrinal congregation, that is involved in the question of the ordination of women: the infallibility of the “ordinary and universal magisterium”. And that is why it is not by accident that the congregation’s response quotes the sinister passage from Lumen Gentium (§ 25): “Although the bishops, taken individually, do not enjoy the privilege of infallibility, they do, however, proclaim infallibly the doctrine of Christ on the following conditions: namely when, even though dispersed throughout the world but preserving for all that amongst themselves and with Peter’s successor the bond of communion, in their authoritative teaching concerning matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.”

It is precisely this that is involved in the rejection of the ordination of women, but also in the rejection of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia (and of course also divorce and similar things). All the Pope is doing, as is stated in the response, is to propound the traditional teaching “by a formal declaration” in order explicitly -to state “what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of faith”, and in doing so he is “exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren (cf.Lk.22-32)”. “In this case”, states the official commentary in L’Osservatore Romano (19 November 1995), “an act of the ordinary papal teaching authority that is not in itself infallible confirms the infallible character of the proclamation of a teaching that is already in the possession of the Church.”

The idea that this kind of doctrine of infallibility really has its foundation in Scripture and the great Catholic tradition is something many Catholics would dispute today. As a peritus (expert) at Vatican II, I spent weeks in Rome pondering whether a Council speech should be written about the statement on infallibility that without any debate was simply taken into Lumen Gentium from the Roman doctrinal manuals. I ended up by letting it be, since there was no way of clarifying this fundamental problem in the ten minutes allowed (and that in Latin), nor had I been able to find an episcopal spokesman (periti were not allowed to address the Council on their own behalf). Nor was I able to succeed in convincing Paul VI in a fairly’ lengthy private audience at the end of the Council in 1965 that no infallible doctrine was involved in the idea that all forms of contraception were sinful. I hoped that this problem could be dealt with after the Council and in its spirit through the papal commission on population, family and birth.

But I was deceiving myself. After the Council the teaching authority continued to be exercised in Rome in the old preconciliar style with regard to contraception (against the advice of the Pope’s own commission), celibacy, and many other things. In 1970 this was the occasion of the book I have already mentioned, Infallible? An enquiry. After Catholic theologians kept silent following the withdrawal of my licence to teach on 18 December 1979, for understandable fear of similar disciplinary measures, they now see themselves faced by the latest Roman decree. It presents them with a dilemma that they can only avoid against their better judgement. Either they accept the “infallible” doctrine of the ordinary and universal magisterium, in which case they must advocate the impossibility of the ordination of women and much else with “full, definitive, and thus irrevocable assent”, and must join with the Pope in saying that women are excluded from the priesthood now and for ever; or they advocate the possibility of women being ordained, with good theological reasons for doing so - but in this case they are obliged with all due decorum to call the infallibility of the Church’s teaching authority into question.

In doing so, would they find themselves in bad company? Not at all. This recent peculiar Roman doctrine, only taught officially from Vatican I onwards, has never been accepted by the Orthodox Churches of the East nor by the Churches of the Reformation, let alone the majority of Catholics. And I cannot help asking what people may have thought in Geneva or Canterbury (let alone among Old Catholics) when the Pope now infallibly condemns a practice that has long since been tried and tested in the Churches of the Reformation. It is hardly possible to kick our ecumenical brothers and sisters in the teeth more roughly than this Pope has done.

In this one thing needs to be made clear. In the case of the latest Roman doctrinal decisions with regard to the ordination of women, contraception and abortion (oddly enough it is always women who are affected), what is involved is not some more or less arbitrary action on the part of Cardinal Ratzinger. What is involved is the statement that in practice cannot be ignored of a teaching authority which, as in the Galileo case or the condemnation of religious freedom, human rights or modern biblical exegesis, turns its own tradition into an idol and which in its blindness still claims to have God’s Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ on its side. In other words Rome is not behaving arbitrarily but in keeping with a pattern. And for reasons of sheer self-respect, Catholic theology can no longer avoid examining this patter and the problem of the infallibility of the magisterium. It is an either-or choice.

As one who on many different occasions has been urged by Rome and the bishops to re-examine his own theological views and has undertaken the labour of analysing the five major paradigms of Christianity in some thousand pages, I may be allowed to reach this judgement: the medieval, Counter-Reformation, antimodernist pattern of the Church which even after the Council holds the Roman curia in thrall has had its day. Since Vatican II, which tried belatedly to integrate the Reformation and modern paradigms but in doing so made compromises, as in the question of infallibility, that have serious consequences, the expectation of many Catholics is that the reform of the Church for the third millennium must be carried on at a third Vatican Council

This would release Catholic theology now so intimidated, from the dilemma in which it finds itself at present. And after the black week suffered by the present Pope, whose compassionless rigorism has notoriously done more to divide than unite the Church, a week that will be recorded in the history of this pontificate (defeat in the Polish presidential elections, the church referendum in Germany, defeat in the divorce referendum in Ireland), even many people in the Roman Curia will be asking themselves if they should continue with this inflexible policy now that it no longer has the support even of the Poles and the Irish, the Germans and the Austrians. As always, the question is: if the Catholic Church is to have a future in the third millennium after Christ, it must renounce this medieval Roman system in favour of genuine catholicity and this is not just my conviction. The last absolute monarchy of God’s grace in Europe, this spiritual dictatorship, must be replaced by a genuine pastoral papal primacy in the spirit of Gregory the Great and John XXIII. What we must be able to hear from Rome once again is the voice of the good shepherd.


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