>How Binding is "Ordinatio sacerdotalis"

How Binding?

by Klaus Nientiedt

“Ordinatio sacerdotalis” unleashes debate on the Magisterium

From Herder Korrespondenz 9 (1996) pp. 461-466; translated by Mary Dittrich and here re-published on www.womenpriests.org with permission of the publisher.

Discussion of the most recent Roman pronouncements on the question of ordaining women has expanded into discussion of the exercise of the Magisterium, and of how to deal with its degrees of compulsion. there is widespread fear that the path embarked on could do lasting damage to the teaching authority.

A year and a half after publication of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis of 22 May 1994 on the question of ordaining women (Text: Herders Korrespondenz July 1994, 355 ff), in the autumn of last year the Holy See again pronounced on the subject, this time in the form of a Response by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the question of whether the doctrine proclaimed in Ordinatio sacerdotalis “is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.” ( Herders Korresponenz, Dec 1995 680). The Response signed on 28 October by Cardinal Ratzinger and published on 18 November was “yes”. The reasoning was: "This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.".

At the latest with the so-called Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, debate on a single point of dogma, the ordination of women, gave place to a matter of magisterial hermeneutics, on the dogma of infallibility. The French theologian Bernard Sesboüé put into words a widespread disquiet by remarking that “The call for infallibility for a new question is to some extent the ‘atom bomb’ in the dogmatic armoury of the Church. This fearful weapon threatens to turn boomerang.” (La Croix, 30.11.95).

Since then, numerous theologians, male and female, have taken up this matter. However, even if many of them are clearly giving a wide berth to the Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there is no unanimity. The critical patterns often diverge considerably. Here and there past differences of opinion again break out, for instance over handling the dogma of infallibility.

The controversies of recent months were sparked off by the core pronouncement of the Pope in Ordinatio sacerdotalis: In virtue of my ministry of strengthening the brethren (....) (I declare) that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." Whereupon the claimed definitive nature of this decision turned out to be no less controversial than the material decision itself. What was within the definitive nature of this document? What degree of formal compulsion attaches to it? Just what form of magisterial pronouncement was involved?

An infallible certainty fallibly affirmed

In an (unpublished) interpretative commentary on Ordinatio Sacredotalis the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Karl Lehmann stressed the differences from an infallible statement of doctrine: the Pope was not citing formally the apostolic power, but was “exercising fully his official mission while citing Holy Writ.” Evidently there was reluctance to establish this doctrinal decision “within the innermost sphere of divine revelation”, however it was viewed as being “within a closely related sphere”. The decision should not be viewed as an infallible doctrinal pronouncement, “but surely a form of expression was chosen within the ordinary magisterium of the Pope which excludes materially divergent opinions” (cited from: Hans Waldenfels Unfehlbar in: Stimmender Zeit, Mar 1996, pp 147-159, here: 147).

Bishop Lehmann’s interpretation evidently failed to satisfy all members of the German Bishops’ Conference. At any rate, the commentary of the Cardinal of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, last December on the Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith would seem like that of someone who gets backing from higher up for a view for which he had at first found little support ( cf.Rheinishe Merkur, 1.12.95). So once the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had pronounced, for the Archbishop of Cologne it was decided: “That the Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood is thus a doctrine of the ordinary magisterium of the whole Church and in consequence infallible”. The Pope was confirming ecclesial doctrine “by virtue of his equally infallible extraordinary teaching function.....”

A week later and in the same place the fundamental theologian Herman Josef Pottmeyer of Bochum responded to the statements by the Cardinal of Cologne, not expressly but de facto. Contrary to Meisner, Pottmeyer postulates that in Ordinatio sacerdotalis the Pope was testifying by means of “an act of the ordinary papal magisterium, in itself not infallible, to the infallible nature ”of ecclesial tradition in the matter of ordaining women, as declared in a semi-official Vatican commentary on the Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Osservatore Romano, German weekly ed., 24.11.95).

Almost in the same terms as the Vatican commentary, Cardinal Ratzinger had stated prior to the appearance of the Response to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that: “The Pope is (laying down) no new dogmatic formula . . but is (affirming) a certainty . . which has constantly been lived and adhered to in the Church . . It is an act of the Pope’s ordinary magisterium, not a solemn ‘ex cathedra’ definition, even if in its essence a doctrine to be held as definitive is set forth. In other words: a certainty already existing in the Church but now queried is explicitly confirmed to be so with the authority of the Pope . .” (in: Communio. 24th year 1995, pp 337-345, here 343).

To Pottmeyer, this in no way means that because of the papal objection in Ordinatio sacerdotis the weight of Tradition, by which the Church declares itself to be bound, may not “be theologically examined or discussed”. Further, one might pursue the question of whether the ecclesial teaching authority “may be always factually maintained” its now reiterated doctrine on ordaining women, but has not yet expressly and formally pronounced it as "to be held as definitive".

At the heart of the arguments of Pottmeyer - and several other theologians - are the conditions which must be met if the universal ordinary magisterium is to pronounce infallibly in matter of faith, or decide such pronouncements have already been made: “It must be based on a lasting and stable consensus (diachronic consensus), which in every case must in addition be universal and not merely embrace individual partial churches (synchronic consensus).” As a third criterion he points to the already cited ruling from Lumen gentium 25, which he calls a “criterion of formality”: such a doctrine must “have been pronounced as having to be held definitively (tamquam definitive tenenda)”. Pottmeyer met with opposition from the Munich dogmatic theologian Leo Scheffczyk (Forum Katholische Theologie, 2/1996 pp 127-133), chiefly with his comments on how far Jesus was dependent on general cultural and social mores when assembling the all-male group of twelve apostles. Pottmeyer had on the one hand agreed with Ordinatio sacerdotalis that Jesus had called only men into the twelve “entirely freely and independently”, but nevertheless wished not to lose sight of the communicative aspects of a symbol: “Without disloyalty to Jesus Christ, one can certainly wonder whether a change in the social role of woman . . according to God’s will also throws fresh light on her vocation to ecclesial tasks.”

Scheffczyk sees in this reference to changing symbolic thinking and changed role of women “all that which Ordinatio sacerdotalis and the Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wanted finally to exclude being given a new lease of life: possibility of free discussion of the matter, doubt concerning the infallible nature of the doctrine propounded and reservation about final consent as a matter of faith. Pottmeyer, he suggests, by employing "quite some theological subtlety" was “getting around” the matter of the two doctrinal decisions.

Was the rejection of women’s ordination definitively binding?

The demand for formal explicitness of Tradition, central as it is to theological criticism of the two Roman doctrinal decisions, is felt by Scheffczyk to be “unrealistic”. “It cannot be understood in an absolute and explicit sense, as if Tradition could have experienced no development in the degree of it explicitness . . Otherwise it would be impossible to develop dogmas . .”

The Freiburg dogmatic theologian Gisbert Greshake reproaches the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with inaccuracy in its recourse to the relative statements of the Constitution of the Church (2nd Vatican Council) in Lumen Gentium 25 (cf Pastoralblatt Feb 1996 P 50): the bishops and the Pope would be proclaiming “the teachings of Christ infallibly” “when . . .they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. . .” [Official English text.] {The German one says: when they proclaim a certain doctrine unanimously to be definitively binding.} Thus the Council in the Response by the Congregation it is maintained that the doctrine in Ordinatio sacredotalis requires final consent “because it was pronounced infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium . .”

Greshake’s objection: he states that a crucial word has been deleted from Lumen Gentium 25 - the tiny word as. For doctrine to be deemed an infallible part of the deposit of faith, (it is) not enough to state that a certain doctrine has from the beginning been preserved, applied, and binding; it must be proved that it was presented as definitively binding. He states that he knows of no magisterial documents from which one derives “that the possibility of ordaining a woman was rejected as definitively binding, and that throughout the continuity of history”.

In Greshake’s opinion the stance of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith thus lacks “the decisive argumentative strength”. As long as the Congregation disregards this angle, its arguments, he feels “are built on sand”. As for the question itself of ordaining women, this means in fact that “nothing has been decided for or against”. Greshake is above suspicion as regards judging the Congregation’s document, since as he writes of himself in the same place,"unlike many German-speaking dogmatic colleagues, I tend to be wary of ordaining women."

The Tubinger moral theologian Peter Hünermann (cf. his analysis of Ordinatio sacredotalis in Herder Korrespondenz August 1994 pp 406-410) would rather not lay such stress on the wording of the Congregation’s Response in this last-mentioned point. For him the reference to Lumen Gentium 25 “only makes sense if in the Congregation’s Response it is assumed or implied that the ordinary and universal magisterium has presented this doctrine as definitively binding." (in: Walter Gross (Ed) Frauenordination. Stand der Discussion in der Katholischen Kirche. Munich 1996 pp 129-146, here 132).

However, Hünermann draws attention to the question of to what extent “rejection of the ordination of women as pertaining to the deposit of faith and this formally as a doctrine which must be adhered to in faith has been presented in Church Tradition”. (pp 133). His reply: Appeal to Tradition as something handed down which is compulsory and in faith binding is not possible when it comes to the representation of Jesus Christ as head of the Church solely as a man: “As has frequently happened in history a process of differentiation has occurred”.

With regard to the teaching competence of the Pope and the bishops, Hünermann makes reference to the known criteria for the authority and obligatory nature of doctrinal decisions. He goes into greater detail on the fact that even in the past two centuries, and even in relatively weighty decisions there have been repeated errors in judgment (freedom of religion, various biblical facts) or corrections (Humani generis by Pius XII in 1950). (For further, earlier examples of this same content, cf Waldenfels op cit, p 1527.)

The Washington theologian John Ford (Commonweal 26.1.96 p 8ff) examined the connection with the debate on infallibility since Vatican I. He views the Congregation’s Response against the background of the dogmatice-hermeneutic distinction between doctrines which must be believed (“credenda”) and those which are to be held (“tenenda”) which is also contained in the Constitution Pastor aeternus of the First Vatican Council.

Whereas Vatican I claimed infallibility for doctrinal proclamations too which do not come within the actual body of Revelation, Vatican II, he states, has - at least partially - restricted the maximum degree of certainty to “credenda” in its narrower sense. In his interpretation of “Ordinatio sacerdotalis” Bishop Lehmann had pointed out that therein the Pope had avoided the word “credere” and instead used “tenere” in the sense of Lumen gentium 25.

In this connection Ford makes reference, too, to the third type of faith truths, newly introduced with the 1989 oath of loyalty. These are components of faith which do not form part of the core of those held to be Revelation (“credenda”), nor do they count among those matters on which the Pope and the bishops pronounce when exercising their authentic magisterium even though not claiming to speak “with finality” or definitively (“tenenda”). Ford allocates the Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated Autumn 1995 to the third category, the second in the order of the oath of loyalty, somehow one of two alternatives in playing the “tenenda”.

To Ford, this measure opens up a “new chapter in the history of infallibility”. Many people would have difficulties with it. Those who wished to keep the scope of the dogma of infallibility fairly restricted would have to face the fact that for the first time the claim to infallibility had been extended to “tenenda”. And theologians who had always accepted the claim to infallibility in the sphere of “tenenda” would be confronting the problem of how to distinguish between the two new “tenenda” categories.

Is Rome behaving “according to the system”?

A number of theologians have been analysing the criteria requiring fulfilment before a teaching can be deemed infallible - and with this in the background, criticising the most recent development concerning the ordination of women. They include the American dogmatic theologian Francis A Sullivan: “What has to be clearly established is that the tradition has remained constant, and that even today the universal body of Catholic Bishops is teaching the same doctrine as definitively to be held.” Interrogation of the bishops, the universal and lasting consensus of Catholic theologians, and general acceptance by the faithful - none of these three criteria as laid down in official documents, he says, has been taken seriously by the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith (in: America, 9.12.95)

The Jesuit and former Gregorian theologian Sullivan was also a member of a working party of the “Catholic Theological Society of America” (CTSA), which at this year’s congress of the organisation in San Diego early in June presented a draft for a document on this subject (cf Origins, 27.6.96 pp 90ff). Here, too, centrality is accorded to the criteria with the aid of which the Church is enabled to ascertain “with certainty” that “a traditional conception of a doctrine is part of the depositum fidei”: criteria showing that a traditional doctrine “was infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium”: finally, criteria to demonstrate that a specific praxis formed part of the “divine constitution of the Church”.

The CTSA draft suggests that the age of some specific praxis or tradition does not make it a norm. No matter that an old tradition deserves respect: that does not exclude the possibility of change. If the Church abolishes a former praxis, or relinquishes a former belief, this merely means that “it no longer shares in the faith on which the former praxis was based.” It was felt that the theological foundations on which the matter of ordaining women have been judged have not so far been accorded the examination of which Catholic theology should be, and indeed is, capable. Scriptural proof, whether appertaining to the depositum fidei, or the question of the extent to which consensus on the matter exists up to the present - none of these conditions have been met when excluding women from ordained ministry.

Old trenches from the infallibility debate of the 70s are opened up again if one contrasts Hans Küng’s position with those just outlined. Reacting to the Response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (cf Süddeutsche Zeitung 2/3.12.95) Küng does not ask whether and to what extent Rome claims infallibility rightly or reasonably in connection with the ordination of women. Even though he comes to different conclusions - his position resembles in passages that of defenders of the magisterial line.

Küng: The impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood is now an “irrevocable” and “infallible” doctrine, demanding “final assent” from all Catholics. The Response of the Congregation is not just about a “disciplinary or canonical matter - - (which can be altered at will)”, but “a real faith truth, which is unalterable, irreformable, irrevocable”.

For Hans Küng, Rome is acting “according to the system” - “no matter how much Catholic theologians may wriggle and interpreters of dogma twist and turn”. The American feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether also reacted to last autumn’s letter from the Congregation with a broadside against the dogma of infallibility as a whole (“Infallibility: untenable on every ground” in: National Catholic Reporter 29.12.95/5.1.96).

So one descries two camps within the group of theologian critics of the path Rome has engaged on in the matter of ordaining women. One lot objects to how Church officialdom treats the relevant degrees of magisterial compulsion aiming at and hoping to demonstrate that with regard to the real subject, the ordination of women, theologically the last word has not yet been spoken, acting out of fear that because of the questionable handling of the dogma of infallibility, the authority of the magisterium could be further impaired. Others feel that Rome’s pushing of the dogma of infallibility to its limits just confirms their known wariness of it. For these, women’s ordination is not really the subject any more, but papal infallibility.

Reception and acceptance are neglected

Defenders of the Roman position, however, stand up for Rome when it is reproached with making questionable use of infallibility. With regard to the complaint that Rome had not ascertained sufficiently the opinions current among the bishops, the American theologian Avery Dulles (Origins, 2.5.96 pp 778 ff; cf also: The Tablet, 9.12.95) opined that the Holy See had “instigated enquiries and knows the views of the worldwide episcopate better than theologians who have posted critical questions”. ( He felt that lengthy public debate might not necessarily have led to a consensus or served the “interests of truth”: Public opinion in the Church can easily be influenced by secular trends and ideologies alien to authentic Catholic heritage". Avery Dulles in the meantime was able to put his position to the bishops of the United States at their plenary meeting in Portland (Oregon): (cf National Catholic Reporter, 12.7.96; 26.7.96).

The French theologian Jean-Miguel Garrigues (cf La Croix.12.12.95) countered the reproach that the Magisterium was using infallibility as a “solo act”. The Church, he wrote had laid down its doctrine regarding the ordination of women in two important documents, in 1983 Code of Canon Law (Can 1024) and in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church (No 1577). In both cases the entire episcopate had been consulted. He rejected efforts to tie down to consensus within the Church the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

Even if infallibility itself is not up for discussion - as is shown precisely by the pronouncements of Rome’s defenders - the concrete integration of an ordinary and universal Magisterium, not exercised to its maximum, is. In spring, Hermann Josef Pottmeyer (cf Herders Korrespondenz April 1996, 216) distanced himself in this connection from “agitators on both sides”, and stressed that “neither Papal infallibility, nor the Pope’s good reasons for his beliefs” are being debated. What is being debated is what a Church of dialogue is and means - “a church which tries to solve its questions in a process of spiritual and personal dialogue. It is not the refusal of instant change that injures the subjective and Church-related feeling of many Catholics, but the lack of dialogue.”

Waldenfels drew attention to the factors of reception and acceptance when exercising ecclesial teaching authority. Apart from the level of magisterial and theological reflection, they ought to be accorded greater attention at the third level. Even if papal definitions had substance by their very nature (“ex sese”) and required no assent by the Church, this does not mean that the bearers of the Magisterium could be indifferent to the process of reception. Furthermore, anyone regularly acting within the space of the “ultimate compulsoriness”, would “soon be laying open the wide area of provisional compulsoriness to picking and choosing.” The “hasty application of final formal authority” would result in “lesser degrees to authority sink into insignificance while at the same time authority itself wears out”. In addition, Waldenfels pleads for a different attitude to theological criticism: not everything which at first glance looks like dissent runs counter to service in the proclamation of the word.

No matter how one assesses the degree of compulsion of the doctrine contained in Ordinatio sacredotalis and reinforced in the Response of the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, the current magisterial-hermeneutical discussion places the Magisterium and theology at the limit of what can be conveyed even to people of good will and comparatively well-informed.

In this respect how apposite the comment of a Protestant Catholic-watcher seems: he expressed astonishment at so much dogmatic-hermeneutic acumen in many a Catholic theologian, and felt himself safer on the basis of “average evangelical hermeneutics, happy to follow the literal sense” (Jöng Hanstein in: Materialdienst des Konfessionskundlichen Instituts Bensheim, 2/96, p 21). He could not fathom what remained to be argued over in this matter in spite of and after Ordinatio sacerdotalis and the Response. “Or could it really be possible that a papal pronouncement with explicit claim to infallibility could one day be quashed or even formally invalidated?”

The verdict of a recent canonical analysis of this same theme points in a similar direction. After 50 pages of canonical wrestling with the material the author, like Mainz canon lawyer Norbert Lüdecke (in: Trierer Theologische Zeitschrift, vol 3/1996, pp 161-209) asks whether there might not be “another alternative to either approving the exclusion of women from ordained priesthood, or contesting the infallibility of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the college of bishops in this matter?” The author had the impression “that - for understandable reasons - an understanding of the magisterial pronouncements was being sought which would allow the Magisterium, while retaining the definitive sounding formulation, to keep open a revision. Does this endeavour spring (only) from personal hope, or are there solid indications that the Magisterium itself is seeking such paths?”

Klaus Nienstedt
translated July 2000 by Mary Dittrich


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