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On a closed debate on women priests

On a closed debate

EDITORIAL by Joseph Moingt

Recherches de Science Religieuse 82 (July-September 1994) No 3, pp. 321 -333. See French original here.

In a letter dated 22nd May 1994, Pope John Paul II indicated his wish to end the debate on the admission of women to priestly ordination, a debate in which Paul VI had participated in 1975 followed by a Declaration from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which he requested and approved in 1976. His successor essentially repeated the main lines of argument of this document. I myself was not involved in this discussion, considering at that time that there were more urgent questions to address as regards the organisation of the church. When I was questioned at the time on the subject, I replied that the New Testament had nothing to say on the subject, nor was the tradition of the church concerned with it, and that there were no decisive theological arguments opposed to the entry of women to the priesthood. The only real obstacle lay in the constant practice of the Church but this was only a matter of discipline and left the field open to a free discussion of ideas. Having said this, I felt the need to voice the most generally held views of theologians involved in this debate. A few years ago, a well-known ecclesiologist published an in-depth study on this matter: after careful study of the 1976 Declaration, its origin and its legal form, he considered that it did not constitute a matter of doctrine in the precise sense of the word ("It does not involve the magisterium", according to the commentary that accompanied it). Since he found no contrary argument in Scripture (a view confirmed in a response from the Biblical Commission of 1976), nor in tradition, he concluded that the question remains open and that the pastoral judgement of the church must be left to find a practical solution to it, a conclusion that I considered wise and generally shared by those around me.

For this reason John Paul II’s letter upset many theologians, who wondered how they could give "full and unconditional assent" to a doctrine which until now has commonly been considered a matter for open discussion. I noted this anxiety during meetings with academic colleagues, and particularly during a conference organised by the Review (on another subject altogether) at the beginning of the summer attended by about 100 theologians, mostly French and Catholic, as well as a fair number of foreigners and Protestants. They all wanted to express their concerns publicly and asked for clarification.

Is this permitted, since the debate is closed? Without reopening the debate as such, that is without arguing in favour of admission of women to the priesthood, I would like to try to raise these questions. This is all the more important since I continue to think that this question cannot be dealt with in isolation, but forms part of a total re-examination of the social structures of the Catholic Church itself. In this I am inspired by a recent initiative by the Belgian bishops who, faithfully passing on the teaching of the Pope to their flock, considered it their pastoral duty to "give an honest account to the central authorities of the church of the confusion felt among some sections of the faithful". Similarly, but without calling on any authority, without being instructed by anyone, responsible to no-one but myself, in my modest capacity as the editor of a research journal, a post I have held for some 25 years, I consider it is part of the ethical responsibility of my position to voice the confusion felt by many theologians, and to put a single question: how can a debate which was generally considered to be a subject for study suddenly be held in faith as "definitively" closed, as stated by the Pope?

Is this really so? According to the same declaration from the Belgian bishops, this "definitive" statement should not be understood "as a ban on thinking or speaking, or as an effort to impose silence": can we therefore still discuss it? The "Introductory Note to the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis", in stating its doctrinal application — what is technically known as the "theological note"—, writes that it is simply "a doctrine taught definitively by the ordinary pontifical magisterium, that is proposed (...) as certainly true". What does this expression mean? Any affirmative judgement is stated as true without this having to be made explicit, still less certified. Or are they saying that it is a doctrine which is "theologically certain", a qualification which normally relates to conclusions drawn from one or more premises taken from revelation? Such propositions however, "certainly true" or "theologically certain" have never been considered as requiring the assent of faith, because of the reasoning which prevents them being taken as part of the "word of God" alone. How many of these proposals, at once the glory and the challenge of scholastic battles of previous years, have completely disappeared from theological teaching! But if this is not the issue, why does the Introductory note state that this doctrine "not being an issue open for discussion therefore requires the full and unconditional assent of the faithful", which should only be said of truths of faith as such? This seems to be what the Note wants us to understand when it adds that "this declaration from the Sovereign Pontiff is an act of listening to the word of God and obedience to the Lord". It is even more likely it is what the Pope means when he states solemnly his intention to "confirm" the faith of his brothers (referring to Luke 22:32). If this is what we are meant to understand, why do neither the letter nor the note state clearly and simply that this is a "truth of faith"? This qualification, firmly stated and well-known to all, would have definitively ended the debate. It is everywhere implied, a single word would have been enough to clarify the issue, but the word was not spoken. Words are important for theologians, especially that one which must not be overused: they will not be prevented from speculating as to the reasons for its absence, and what chain of logic would stop them from re-entering a debate whose very closure is the subject for discussion?

The Pope, however, wrote this letter "so that there should be no doubt remaining on a matter of such great importance". But simply stating that this is the truth is not sufficient to eliminate all doubts, it is also necessary to point out the locus of this truth, since faith can only rely on the revealed authority of God. We also need to see "fundamental reasons" for this doctrine the doctrine thus expounded. According to the text from Paul VI mentioned by John Paul II, there are three of these: "the example of Christ (...) the constant practice of the church (...) and the living, enduring magisterium". The Introductory note lists them in a slightly different form: "the example of Christ, the practice of the Apostles and the constant teaching authority of the church (...) as well as recent magisterium documents". Is the constant or enduring magisterium numbered with the constant practice of the church and its tradition with which it is identified? This is not clear from a reading of the two texts mentioned above. There are no formal documents issued by the authentic magisterium on this subject, no conciliar or pontifical definitions apart from the recent documents mentioned above, which themselves do not quote other authorities and without which there would have been no discussion on this matter. John Paul II’s statement on this seems clearer: "the doctrine that priestly ordination is exclusively reserved to men has been held by the constant and universal tradition of the church and is firmly taught by the magisterium in the latest documents". The "magisterium" is therefore only represented in this matter by recent documents from the so-called "ordinary" pontifical magisterium. The Introductory note moreover, acknowledges this: the Pope's letter, it says, only "confirms a certainty constantly acknowledged and lived by the church. It is therefore not a new dogmatic formulation, etc.".

This "therefore" is strange. It is no dogmatic definition, whether it comes from a council or from a Pope, if it does not repeat and confirm an earlier certainty of faith; no new dogmatic definition is, in principle, a new truth of faith, according to the adage: we must only believe what has been always and everywhere believed and taught as a revealed truth. A new definition therefore only formulates, specifies and explains a truth previously believed and taught, confirming that it does actually belong to the "deposit" of revelation and faith: this is why it normally accompanies a formula of this kind: "thus the Church has always believed and taught": this is also why a believer assents to all the truths of faith equally, whether clad with a particular definitive authority, or simply proposed by what is known as the ordinary preaching of the church.

The same may be said for the documents of the ordinary pontifical magisterium (I will not discuss the appropriateness of this term, which could cause confusion with the previous usage). We readily note that the letter from John Paul II is not a definition of faith despite its solemn tone that could give the illusion of this. For a Catholic, this would not be a reason to haggle over assenting to the doctrine it supports, as long as it belonged to the existing faith of the Church and this could be clearly shown. There is an abundance of varied documents from the teaching authority these days, difficult to define and discern. Curia officials and theologians are used to being deliberately vague about them (our Note is a good example of this), claiming the assent of faith to these documents – often giving them the status of "truths relating to revelation" – without however imposing this formally, either because they are not suitable for this, or because there are insufficient "unquestionable" arguments. In the end all these subtleties are not important. It is not the Pope’s authority which makes the truth he affirms into a certainty, nor the certainty of its belonging to the deposit of faith, even less that of the faith which is given to it. The word of the Pope cannot replace the voice of the church over the centuries, it can only repeat it. It may be invaluable in demonstrating and confirming that a truth actually does belong to the faith of the church, where this is poorly perceived or discussed, and this is certainly the case here. When this has been done and seen to be done, with no room for doubt, the obedience of faith is then possible and is fitting; but it does not stop at the Pope's word, it goes straight to the revealed truth where this is seen to have been held and believed for all time through the tradition of the ordinary preaching of the church expounding the Scriptures to the faithful. Let's see where we are now.

According to the Introductory note, the teaching of John Paul II is "based on the constant and universal tradition which since the beginning has reserved priestly ordination to men". This is unquestionable, and the Pope is within his rights to conclude from this that it must always be so since it has always been so (although he is not certain that his decision has the power to bind his successors "definitively")". But this would never be anything but a matter of sacramental discipline. Now if this practice is to have the status of doctrinal teaching: how do we know, how can we achieve this?

The Pope quotes another allocution of Paul VI, who said in 1977 that "Christ has given the church its fundamental constitution and the theological anthropology which has then always been observed by the tradition of this church". Where and in what form is this anthropology taught? It is true that the 1976 declaration, as John Paul II has noted, develops "other theological reasons" that may be called anthropological, "that shed light on the appropriateness of this divinely-ordained arrangement"; but "reasons of appropriateness", do not by definition intrinsically belong to the teaching of the faith. Is it enough that excluding women from the priesthood is "observed" to make it a truth to be taught? Where can we find this incorporated in the preaching of salvation that forms the very essence of the teaching of faith? Theological schools have discussed the suitability of women for priestly ordination just as they have discussed the qualities required to receive any other sacrament, but there has never been a real debate in the church on this issue; it cannot therefore be said that the matter has been settled, since it has never been discussed precisely in terms of exclusion. The most obvious explanation is that the church is naturally inspired, and does not concern itself with customs applying to the subject of women in contemporary societies.

The introductory note strongly rejects this explanation: "since it is a sacrament and not a matter of social organisation, it (the ministerial priesthood) can only be understood in the light of the revelation of Christ, transmitted through Scripture and interpreted by tradition". The meaning of this warning is clear: the historical and sociological sciences have nothing to contribute to the subject, the exclusion of women from responsibility in the church bears no relation to their exclusion from public responsibility in society. What critical spirit would be prepared to admit this? This practice of the church is a social and historical fact that necessarily shares in the same phenomenon of exclusion that is seen at the same time in the same society, it is subject to the same kind of anthropological explanation. When the movement for human rights and the freedom of the individual began, or more recently that for emancipation of women and equal rights with man, was the church so outstanding in its generosity and liberalism to the extent that it can claim never to have been impregnated with a culture of inequality? Using this language, staying rigidly aloof from the analyses made by the human sciences, prevents it from communicating with the thinking of its own time and gives rise to accusations of being locked into a rigid, sectarian reasoning with little credibility.

Even strictly within revealed theology, there is no reason to consider the exclusion of women from the priesthood as being a revealed truth. This point actually relates to the discipline of administration of the sacraments, and it is never been seen as an integral part of their essence, as demonstrated by the fact that it has varied considerably throughout history for each sacrament. Even if this were the case, it has to be understood within the definition of this essential nature since there would be many changes in the description of the rites considered to belong to it.

A cultural explanation, however, does not mean that this practice, so ancient and so constant, does not also arise from a supernatural principle and an attitude of faith: the wish of the church to imitate Christ and obey him. The Letter argues as follows: since Christ chose his apostles only from among men, and the apostles in turn chose only men for their successors, and reflecting that "included in this choice are those who, throughout the time of the church will continue the mission entrusted to the apostles to represent Christ", the church has understood that she does not have the power to ordain women as priests, and it is this that she teaches through her practice. What can we make of this argument?

That it moves too quickly and too far, that it goes without logical justification from a solely to an exclusively, from a feeling to a permanent condition, in only two steps. The church sees Christ calling only men, and the apostles doing the same: it does not see him choosing between men and women and excluding the latter deliberately and forever. Where does this come from, since no text in the New Testament specifies such a ban? We see the Church ordain only men, and we say that this practice expresses the intention to exclude women forever from priestly ordination. How do we know this, since the church does not proclaim it in its spoken preaching? This practice of ordination is witness to a previous event: it repeats what was done initially; any instituted fact bears within itself the law of repetition in the present and the near future, but does not prejudge it for perpetuity: no sacramental practice prevents its being done otherwise in the future, if this is considered necessary to deal with changing needs. The history of the sacraments themselves is full of significant changes, just as important as those faced by the popes in modern times; for example the changes that took place over several centuries from a once for all, public confession to multiple and private acts of confession. For ordination, when the church sees Christ call his apostles and those apostles choose their successors, what it considers first and foremost is not the sex of the people who were called but the will of Christ that there should always be labourers sent out to work for the harvest. This is the fundamental and absolute law which the church obeys and which it teaches as a revealed truth by the unbroken practice of priestly ordination. If it finds itself in the position of having to ordain women in order to fulfil its mission, either because there are not sufficient men coming forward, or because the faithful are earnestly asking for a ministry of women, what is there to stop the church from changing her practice as she has done so often in the past for other sacraments? The obligation to pursue her mission is the only absolute imposed on her.

Now, does it not seem that it is the confusion in which the faithful appear to be struggling that has given rise to the prompting felt by the Belgian bishops as their pastoral duty to pass on to Rome? The history of the church is rich with teaching that enables us to find a response to this call, as long as we are attentive to history and patient in our research. Are not theologians also extremely confused when they see authority rewriting history as dogma and the case hastily closed. Nonetheless, this action does not prove that the historical practice of ordaining men teaches as a revealed truth that there is a ban on ordaining women. It would be better to assume that the church has supposed that this was the intention shown by the apostles’ choice. But such suppositions, however truthful they seem to be, cannot be revealed truth nor provide the certainty required by faith.

An even deeper study of the New Testament may provide us with the evidence that Christ's choice really had the value of exclusion. In that case we must accept that the same evidence was imposed on the church of the past and is expressed in its practice of ordination. It is to this that we will now turn.

I will first make two comments about method, which explain the anxiety of theologians in this matter. In the normal process through which dogma is developed, it is doctrinal tradition which enlightens the truths of faith disseminated in Scriptures, and the Magisterium then confirms the teaching of the church. Here on the other hand Scripture is required to show that a practice of the church carries a truth of faith and confirms the statement made about it by the teaching authority (let us remember this is the "ordinary" and recent papal magisterium). The definitive reason used by Paul VI and John Paul II is the example set us by Christ in choosing his apostles: this was not a word, this was a deed. The Introductory note justifies it: "not only words, but deeds are sources of revelation and become word in the living remembrance of the church". I will not dispute this, but I stress the problem with it: the facts do not speak for themselves, they can contain their meaning and their raison d'etre within themselves, but they do not express it, they have to be made to speak, their meaning must be interpreted, while taking care not to make them say what we want them to say but they did not intend to say. We have just met this problem with regard to the practice of ordination, we will find it again with the apostles’ choice. We are therefore right to demand complete clarity in interpreting this action, all the more so because it is responsible for upholding the dogmatic assertion concerned. Let us see what John Paul II's argument is.

It may be faithfully presented as follows: Jesus offers the image of a man free of the prejudice and ostracisms shared by the people of his time and his society; he talks to women, even foreign women, he shows them respect, he makes friends with them, he even allows himself to be approached by women considered impure or sinners, as he travels around he is accompanied by a group of women who are among his disciples; when he chooses his apostles therefore "after having passed the night in prayer" (cf. Luke 6: 12), and only chooses men. We do not have the right to believe that he did it "in obedience to sociological or cultural motivations proper to his time" but he must have done this in full knowledge of what he was doing, and with the deliberate intention to exclude women in order to obey God's will.

This argument is persuasive, it shows Jesus as a free and critical spirit, against all sexual discrimination, pioneer of an open and egalitarian society; it must be welcomed by Christians. However does the conclusion have the same force as the premises? It does not seem so. In a society and at a time when men concerned themselves with public matters, with teaching and ruling, while women attended to domestic matters, to educating children, keeping the house, family relationships, Jesus could be inspired by these practices and customs without seeing them in any other light than that of a healthy distribution of tasks established by the tradition of his people, posing no threats to the dignity of women, with no taint of discrimination, and without even thinking to comment on them since he found nothing in them contrary to the spirit of his gospel. It is therefore likely that he chose men without thinking that he could also call women to the same tasks. And would he have dreamt that he could reject this in order not to upset social practices or disturb public order, and not to obey the expressed will of his father nor establish a law that would be observed to the end of time. This fact does not therefore provide evidence of a divine revealed commandment, it can too easily be explained by other reasons, perhaps sociological, but altogether foreign to any kind of discrimination, above all religious, against which Jesus reacted

The Pope’s interpretation would be more persuasive if it showed what the motivation was for the Father’s will to which Jesus was obedient, in other words, what would be the divine reason for excluding women from apostolic and priestly responsibilities, but he said nothing of this, except that it concerned "a disposition to be attributed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe". Does this allusion to the creative wisdom and to the order of the universe mean that the man Jesus could only be "represented" by someone of the same sex? This is not impossible, since theologians have developed arguments of this kind that were used by the declaration of 1976. However John Paul II discounted these, no doubt because they do not constitute "fundamental reasons". He appears aware on the other hand of a different fact, the non-election of Mary to apostolic and priestly responsibility: he comments that this is the proof that women are not excluded because of their lesser dignity, nor because of discrimination. This means that Jesus would have called his mother first, if he had not decided that women must be excluded from this responsibility. Always assuming that he had considered it possible they could be accepted.

Once again and in other words, the allocation of tasks according to sex, in view of the nature of the society, remains patriarchal, and does not mean of itself an ignominious discrimination against the female sex, and is surely not felt as such when it is the fruit of a long tradition and the subject of almost unanimous consensus. Jesus was therefore able to see in this a wise "disposition" consistent with the order of creation and he himself spontaneously conformed to it when he chose his apostles, without making an explicit statement relating to choice by sex. Thinking as a human being, it was "natural" in the Chalcedonian meaning of the word, that he should think in all things according to the customs and mentality of the people of his own country, insofar as this did not carry the mark of sin. From this viewpoint, this preferential choice can in no way be accused of sexual discrimination, but neither is it the bearer of a redemptory condition - the only type which could arise from revelation itself – that excludes women forever from the responsibilities to which men were called.

This is why it is difficult to believe with true faith that Christ wanted to exclude women from the priesthood. Can faith be commanded where there is no evidence of an act of revelation? It cannot in any case be given with intelligent assent, while this evidence is not available. No doubt the Pope sees this, if it is true that he considers this point on the "divine constitution" of the church as being revelation. We can try to share his feelings, but no one can base their faith on the presumed evidence of the Pope, if it depends on his word instead of being granted by the sole authority of God in his revelation of himself.

This explains the confusion of many theologians to which I considered it my duty to bear witness. This confusion would be less if they felt only that they were asked to exercise greater patience and prudence within a global context of feminist claims that could threaten ecclesial order. Can we believe that the Pope only wanted to "calm things down", considering that public opinion among clergy or among the faithful was not yet ready to accept women being ordained as priests, that we have to take account of the great diversity of local churches, that theological solutions themselves needed to mature in silence with the slow work of historical and exegetical study? All level-headed people would applaud this wise language. The Introductory Note, unfortunately, rejects this approach, reprimanding in advance those who only want to keep the "cautious teaching" from this letter.

Are we therefore on the brink of accepting this papal exegesis of the choice of the Twelve as the "authentic" interpretation of Scripture? What shocks the theologians most is that the work of biblical hermeneutics has been given so little consideration up to now and has been dismissed for the future - this remark that was made lately by a German bishop. Our Protestant friends, less used to intervention from the teaching authority in theological studies than are Catholics, feel this solution from authority to be a painful lack of respect, if not to the scriptures themselves, then at least towards generally accepted interpretative practices. The "Reflection from the rational Protestant church council of Geneva", last June, stated its objections to this exegesis and gave arguments tending to the opposite conclusion. Without wishing to "plead" for or against the cause of female ministry, I will confine myself to the Pope's argument without getting involved in the exegetical discussion itself. But all those people aware of its problems and procedures know what reservations to make when trying to discover the views of Jesus himself - can the source ever be reached? - on the "twelve", on the "priesthood" or on the future "constitution of the church". Biblical hermeneutics also distrusts the dogmatic assurance that hastens to find "definitive" solutions to such complex and controversial problems: in this respect patient research is a mark of respect owed to the word of God.

We should also recognise, when analysing ancient texts, the meaning discovered by the modern reader when asking new questions of these texts and through the different sensitivity that his or her reading introduces. In the present context of claims for women's rights, in what sense can the story of the choice of the Twelve be read by women today, whether or not they are Christians, when it is explained to them that this call leaves them forever out in the cold? How can we stop them understanding this in terms of sexual discrimination? What I have heard from female theologians or exegetes leaves their response in no doubt. It must be recognised that John Paul II’s thinking on the subject of women, like that of Paul VI, is sincerely noble and warm, full of an esteem which is certainly not assumed. However, when the vocation of women in the church is praised, when they are invited to take on responsibilities, when they are thanked for the services they provide - services without which we know all too well so many Christian communities would crumble—, and when it happens that they offer to fulfil even greater responsibilities, because there are not enough men to do them, and the sad reply is given that despite the crying need, the Church has not received the power to call them: how do we think such words will be perceived, except as the refusal by men to share with women the privileges they hold from the Lord? The more laudatory and compassionate is the language used towards women, the less it hides the refusal to pass from word to deed, and the more it reveals the challenges to power sheltering behind the silences of Jesus.

Theologians feel responsible to the faithful and the world for the church’s thinking: it is to these they must answer, to these they must give reasons. They are also deeply worried when they cannot comply in conscience as believers. Hence the confusion echoed in these pages. The magisterium also readily holds them responsible, but in another sense: because they display their disputes and disagreement before the faithful and public opinion - they opened up matters that should remain closed. There is the language of teaching, and therefore of tradition and authority, on one hand and the language of research, and therefore of critical intelligence, on the other. This explains why they argue with each other, and this should not be considered dramatic. But they need to continue listening to one another so that together they form the thinking of the church, both rooted in tradition and opened to the spirit of modern times. It is the language of theologians, in so far as it remains free and critical, which enables the thinking of the church to be communicated to that of the world today, in which the faithful also share. If it is extinguished or becomes scarce, because the space for freedom in the church has shrunk, there would be a great danger of the church becoming a sect: a closed and stifling society. This is the risk run by closing debate prematurely. It is against this risk alone that I want to plead, for the honour of theology.

J. Moingt sj

Translated from the French by Joanna Waller (see credits).

Translator’s note: The French text has the word "officieux" here, which means "non-official" strictly speaking, but is often confused, by French-speakers, with "official" which has the same meaning as the English word. We derive the word "officious" from "officieux", i.e. aping authority while not actually having any. I am not sure what is meant, official or non-official, I suspect the former, but by tying it in with "Curial" hopefully the authority will rub off!


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