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Ann O'Hara Graff's Assessment of "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis"

"I would want to be a priest"

Ann O'Hara Graff’s Assessment of ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis


‘Infallibility complex: Have we heard the final word on women's ordination?’ by Ann Elizabeth O'Hara Graff, U.S. Catholic, vol.61, April 1996, pp. 6-11.

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

A November 1995 statement issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated the teaching that the Church has no authority to bestow priestly ordination on women, stating that this teaching is set infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. The issues around women's ordination have been very much in discussion since Vatican II, but an infallible decision on women's ordination shifts the issue decisively to become a matter of church authority. The writer discusses the fact that a proclamation of papal infallibility is not arbitrary and is consistent with a particular cultural understanding of hierarchy that was once the accepted norm.


On November 18, 1995 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) sent a statement to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, just after their meeting in Washington, D.C. had adjourned. The bishops say it took them completely by surprise. The statement was on women's ordination.

First, it repeated the teaching that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women." This was the teaching of Ordinatio sacredotalis in May 1994, and was first put in those terms in the now famous Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter insigniores) in January 1977. What is new here is that the CDF has said that this teaching "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium."

The issues around women's ordination have been very much in discussion, among scholars and Catholics in general, since Vatican II. Polls have indicated growing acceptance of this possibility, especially as other churches have begun to ordain women over the past 20 years. There has been research into the practice of Jesus, the record of the New Testament and early church, the development of ordination in the church, and similar matters. However, an infallible decision on women's ordination shifts the issue decisively. It becomes a matter of church authority.

The additional weight given to this teaching has taken not only the bishops but many Catholics by surprise, and has caused real confusion. I cannot hide the fact that the teaching troubles me deeply, because I, like many other Catholic theologians, love the church and its rich tradition .

I am troubled not only because of my personal persuasions about the struggle for the practice of truth and justice in and through this church, but even more because, as a parent, I know that more people may choose to leave the church, together with their children, in response to this teaching.

It would be convenient for all of us if infallibility were a very simple notion that could readily be cited and explained, but it is not. It is more complex, and the use of it now puts us smack in the middle of its complexity.

The term infallible applied to a teaching minimally means "free from error." Understood more positively, it means that we trust in the truth of our teaching. If we turn our attention first to the issue of trust, we can see that our church, as well as other Christian churches, has a core of apparently infallible teachings that none of us would relinquish.

A Catholic example would be our assurance that God is love, that this one God has created us and calls us all to Godself now and for eternity. Beliefs such as these--many of which are in the Creed--are the heart of our faith. None of these teachings has been proclaimed infallible, but their roots are deep in scripture and the tradition of the church.

It is fundamental to our faith that the church teaches as a faithful witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, from ancient times through the present, guided by the Holy Spirit. This is the root of the notion of infallibility--that the church will remain faithful to Christ throughout the ages as Christ, through the Spirit, remains faithful to the church.


There is a consistent concern in the history of the church that we remain in the truth. However, there is no specific New Testament or early church language about infallibility. The term only makes an appearance in theology in the later Middle Ages. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas asserted the wider medieval understanding that the universal church cannot err, because it is guided by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, when errors arise in matters of faith, Aquinas is clear that the pope has the authority to decide these in order to preserve the unity of the common faith, so that all Christians might speak with one voice.

It was later, however, when the church had to deal with the period of schism in the 15th century--when there were two and sometimes three popes--that the issue of the authority of church councils became important. Later, with the challenges of the reformers--notably Martin Luther in the 16th century--specific questions of the error of popes and councils were raised, setting the stage for the teaching of Vatican I.

Placing the ultimate authority to teach (the magisterium) in the office of the pope is consistent with medieval notions of hierarchy that recognize the head of the hierarchy as the summation of the members (clearly a different idea than participants in a democracy would hold).

Vatican I, which occurred during a time of crisis for the papacy (1869-70)--namely the drive to unify Italy, which meant the loss of the papal states and temporal power--produced the constitution Pastor aeternus, which defines the pope as governor of the church (the primacy) and as teacher of the church (infallibility). According to this document, when the pope teaches from the chair of Peter--that is, in his official capacity as teacher of the universal church on matters of faith and morals, and given the divine assistance in which we trust--such teaching is infallible.

This has come to be called the "extraordinary magisterium" (teaching authority) of the church, as distinct from the "ordinary magisterium"--the ordinary teaching of pope and bishops. Only one doctrine has been defined this way since Vatican I, and that is the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary in 1950. However, due to the process by which it was formulated, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (1854) is also named infallible. It is noteworthy that both of these decisions were promulgated only after widespread consultation with the world's bishops.

In sum, we can see a movement from the trust in the church's witness to Christ through the Holy Spirit to a focus on the hierarchical role of the pope and an affirmation of his role as teacher of the faith of the whole church.

This last point is important. The pope is understood to speak the faith of the whole church and never to speak against the faith of the church. While the pope is not required to hire pollsters to find out what people believe (and this could be grace), a pope who tried to deny something major, like the Incarnation of Jesus, could be called to account.

Whether or not one likes the proclamation of papal infallibility, it is not arbitrary, and it is consistent with a particular cultural understanding of hierarchy that was once the accepted norm. That this role was underscored at a time when hierarchy across Europe was finally collapsing is certainly one of the paradoxes of history.

Then came Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) reincorporates the teaching of infallibility, first in the context of the living witness of the whole body of the faithful to Christ.

The council goes on to repeat Vatican I on the distinct way that the infallibility of the whole church belongs to the pope when he teaches ex cathedra. The document says that infallibility extends to the bishops as a college teaching together with the pope, whether gathered in council or scattered in their dioceses, when on a "matter of faith or morals they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively." I cite this because here Vatican II refers to a use of the ordinary magisterium that is pertinent to the November 18 statement.


How are we to understand the weight of the November 18 statement in these terms? Two noted Jesuit theologians who are experts in matters of magisterium have responded. In the Dec. 9, 1995 issue of America, Father Ladilaus Orsy, S.J. has indicated that this statement, as a response from a Roman Congregation to a papal question, does not carry the explicit canonical language that would indicate that it has any authority other than that of the congregation itself.

He goes on to note that this authority does not include infallibility and that papal infallibility cannot be delegated. Therefore, while the papal documents on the issue of women's ordination remain definitive papal teaching, Orsy finds the use of the notion of infallibility here an interpretation of the CDF and not a new weighting of the papal teaching itself.

Father Francis Sullivan, S.J., long-time professor at the Gregorian University in Rome and now at Boston College, says in the New York Times on Nov. 19, 1995 that he was "dumbfounded" by the CDF statement. His own research has indicated that the 1994 teaching on the inability of the church to ordain women did not appear to have the concurrence of bishops around the world, at least since the debate has arisen in the past 20 years. Moreover, in 1976 a Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded that there was nothing in scripture that prohibited the ordination of women.

In an essay alongside Orsy's in America, Sullivan returns to the matter of the use of the ordinary magisterium. He notes Vatican II's description of the ordinary magisterium and its infallibility and comments that this statement of the CDF is probably the first time Rome has named a doctrine infallible in this way.

Sullivan asks how we might recognize the infallibility of a doctrine taught by the ordinary magisterium. He names three criteria drawn from canon law and from recent papal teachings. These are:
* consultation with all the bishops,
* the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians,
* the common adherence of the faithful.
He writes that none of these has been invoked by the CDF, and therefore it is difficult to know how this teaching can be named infallible.

He also cites doctrines that were held authoritatively in the past, and are positively embarrassing today, but thankfully have changed -- for example, the teachings that all pagans and Jews were bound for hell if they did not become Catholics or that it was morally justified to own slaves. Thus authoritative teaching that represented consensus at one time can change as history and culture reshape our consciences.

A number of further issues will probably be raised by similar experts around all this. One, there is debate about whether the ordinary magisterium is adequately understood as the college of the pope and bishops. Father Avery Dulles, S.J., among other theologians, has raised the question of the status of the teaching authority of theologians, especially when, as Sullivan's research indicates, there is a consensus on an issue. Does the community of Catholic (or Christian) theologians have a magisterium in conversation with the bishops and pope? What account should be made of the research of theologians on this issue of women's ordination?

Another interesting voice on magisterium is that of Father Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the Jesuits murdered by a Salvadoran death squad in 1989. He said that the church's preferential option for the poor, which is the basis of Christian hope in Catholic grassroots communities of Latin America, calls us all to attend to the poor as a "third magisterium" in the church. Can we ask, with Ellacuria, how attention to the marginalized, including women who are marginalized in the church, might reshape our sense of magisterium?

Another issue related to this is the meaning of the "sense of the faithful." Since Vatican I indicated that the pope speaks for the faith of the church, and that such teaching is received by us, theologians have asked how we know this sense of the faithful. Cardinal John Henry Newman was among the first to write about that in response to Vatican I. The problem of understanding the sense of the faithful both as a source of teaching and as receivers of what is taught reappeared in the 1960s with the promulgation of Humanae vitae, with its prohibition of artificial forms of contraception.

New ways of communicating our sense of the faith (not merely our fads) are emerging, probably in response to Vatican II's urging us to conciliar forms of participation in the church, as well as to our democratic sympathies. Many people from base communities of Latin America have been able to speak directly to and with the bishops of those countries, and that has shaped teaching there. The processes of undertaking the pastoral letters on peace and on the economy in this country also involved many faithful other than our bishops. Groundswell movements of laypeople here and elsewhere are claiming attention from our bishops.

We do not have formal ways of really speaking together yet, but experiments are underway. The CDF suggests that its statement on women's ordination should end the discussion, but is this appropriate to either the expression or the reception of something that is said to be an element of our common faith?

Their claim is that "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." "Founded on the written Word of God"--we need the scripture scholars; "constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition "--we need the historians and theologians.

We also need to look at common faith itself. Infallible teaching is pertinent to either faith or morals, and the CDF has said this is a matter of faith. One of the most prominent living theologians, Father Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., has said in the National Catholic Reporter on Dec. 8, 1995 that the infallibility of this statement is dogmatically impossible because it is a matter of church order, not the core of our faith.

On the other side of this argument, if the gender of who can be ordained is a matter of faith, then we have to examine that matter in terms of the "hierarchy of truths." Matters of faith have to do with the great truths I indicated earlier--the doctrines of God, Trinity, Incarnation, redemption, and sacraments. In this scheme, teaching about church and sacraments would take a second position to teachings about Christ, since they stem from Christ. Further away from the center are Marian dogmas, and even further is the teaching about infallibility itself, since that is teaching about teaching.

Where does the question of who can be a priest fall in this? At most it is a rather peripheral matter. What may be more pertinent today is whether our ordination practices will enable us to continue to celebrate the Eucharist, and whether they adequately reflect the love of God in the church.


In the minutiae of these arguments we are likely to lose sight of the central issue--ordination. We need to notice that the teaching that Rome is unable to ordain women is given no further support from scripture or tradition.

For Catholics, revelation is contained in scripture and in the tradition of the church, so this is where the debate needs to take place. The CDF has said that the church is unable to ordain women because revelation--as it is contained in scripture and especially the New Testament--indicates that no women were ordained as priests. This is true, but no men were ordained either. The best of New Testament scholarship indicates that Jesus did not ordain anyone, although he did call apostles and disciples.

At issue among scholars is whether Jesus had any intention of founding a church at all. The consensus is that he did not, nor did he design any institutional structures to create a church. The church is a response to Jesus, the Risen Christ, and the emerging institutional concerns we see in the gospels reflect the period in which they were written, after the Resurrection.

Scholars have studied the varieties of ministries in the early churches and the diverse forms of leadership they had. There is evidence in the New Testament of women who were named apostle (Junia), deacon (Phoebe), prophet (daughters of Philip), and founders and leaders of churches (Junia, Prisca, Lydia, Chloe).

As leadership roles became more formal in the first three centuries, however, there was a steady movement to conform to the norms of patriarchal culture, and so a loss of female leadership roles.

The same three centuries saw the slow movement from church as the assembly of believers to church as the cult of the Roman Empire; from emphasis on table fellowship in the eucharistic meal to the liturgy recalling the sacrifice of Christ; from presbyters whom the local community elected and prayed over (together with their neighbors) to priests representing the local bishop. Over that time, the laying on of hands and the prayer of the community for its leaders (chosen on the basis of their ability to speak the common faith) became the rite of ordination.

A remarkable and radical religious movement began with Jesus. It gradually became institutionalized, and the radical edge was modified as the church has adapted to various cultural forms. Yet the story of the tradition indicates that it has not been entirely possible to lose that critical edge. It is often in tension within itself and in society as the religious renewal movements within Christianity testify (think of Francis and Clare, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, or Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin).

Women's leadership was part of that radical early Christian movement; it has never been entirely lost. As the practice of other Christian churches indicates, the time for the full exercise of that leadership in the community has come again.

Ann Elizbeth O’Hara Graff

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