Sullivan is the leading theological authority on the magisterium. He wrote: Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church (Paulist, 1983) and Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Church Documents (Paulist, spring 1996).
On Nov. 18, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith issued a statement declaring that Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter of May 30, 1994, which declared that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, pertains to the deposit of faith and that it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. The writer comments on the infallibility issue, noting that he questions whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced about the exclusion of women from the priesthood as Pope John Paul II is, and whether the bishops have been unanimous in teaching that such exclusion is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith.
IN HIS APOSTOLIC LETTER on priestly ordination, issued on May 30, 1994, Pope John Paul II declared that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be held definitively by all the church's faithful. In order to resolve certain doubts that had been expressed about the doctrinal weight of this papal teaching, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement on Nov. 18, 1995, declaring two things: that the doctrine excluding the ordination of women to the priesthood pertains to the deposit of faith and that it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. To say that something "pertains to the deposit of faith" means that it is a truth revealed to us by God. Leaving it to Scripture scholars to discuss the grounds on which this doctrine is said to be "founded on the written Word of God," I shall comment on the congregation's statement that it has been infallibly taught.
It is the teaching of Vatican II that the whole body of Catholic bishops, in union with the bishop of Rome, speaks infallibly not only in an ecumenical council, when they solemnly define a doctrine, but also when, without being gathered in council, in their "ordinary" teaching they are in agreement in proposing a particular judgment to be held definitively. While Catholic theologians have commonly taught that there are some articles of faith that have never been solemnly defined but have nonetheless been infallibly taught by the "ordinary and universal magisterium," the recent declaration of the C.D.F. marks the first time, to my knowledge, that an authoritative document of the Holy See has specifically declared that a particular doctrine has been infallibly taught in this way.
CANON 749 of the Code of Canon Law declares that no doctrine is understood to have been defined infallibly unless this fact is clearly established. There are sound theological reasons for applying this same rule to the claim that a doctrine has been infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. Hence I take the C.D.F.'s statement to mean that it is a clearly established fact that the world-wide Catholic episcopate is in agreement with Pope John Paul II in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed doctrine that must be held definitively by all the faithful. I think it is a fair question to ask how they know that this is a clearly established fact. One thing, at least, is certain: The statement of the C.D.F. to this effect is not infallible, because, even published with papal approval, it remains a statement of the congregation, to which the Pope cannot communicate his prerogative of infallibility.
When a doctrine has been infallibly defined, or when it is absolutely certain that it has been infallibly taught, it is irreversible. Further development can clarify the meaning of such a doctrine and can lead to its being better expressed, but cannot reverse it. On the other hand, the history of Catholic doctrine provides some examples of propositions that, up to a certain point in time, seemed to be the unanimous teaching of the whole episcopate and yet, as a result of a further development of doctrine, are no longer the teaching of the church.
To give an example: The bishops gathered at the Council of Florence in 1442 no doubt expressed the common teaching of the whole episcopate at that time when they said that all pagans and Jews would certainly go to hell if they did not become Catholics before they died. This is certainly not the doctrine of the modern Catholic Church. Other examples of doctrines that had a long tradition but were subsequently reversed concerned the morality of owning slaves and exploiting their labor, and the obligation requiring rulers of Catholic nations to prevent the propagation of Protestantism in their territories.
Such examples suggest that appeal to a long-standing tradition of the past might not suffice as proof that a doctrine has been taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. 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. How can this be demonstrated? In his encyclical Evangelium vitae (March 1995) Pope John Paul II indicated one way this can be done--namely, by consulting all the bishops. When he declared that the doctrine condemning direct abortion "was taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium," he said that he was teaching this "in communion with the bishops--who on various occasions have condemned abortion and who in the aforementioned consultation, albeit dispersed throughout the world, have shown unanimous agreement concerning this doctrine" (Evangelium vitae, No. 62).
Another criterion was suggested by Pope Pius IX, who said that the response of faith must be given to "those things which are handed on by the ordinary magisterium of the whole church dispersed throughout the world as divinely revealed, and therefore are held by the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians to pertain to the faith" (Tuas libenter, 1863).
A third criterion is proposed in Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that when a doctrine is proposed as divinely revealed by the ordinary and universal magisterium, this is "manifested by the common adherence of Christ's faithful."
Official documents, then, have proposed three ways of establishing that a doctrine is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium: consultation with all the bishops, the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians and the common adherence of the faithful. The C.D.F. has not invoked any of these criteria in support of its assertion that the doctrine excluding women from the priesthood has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.
THE CHANGES IN CHURCH DOCTRINE that have actually taken place in the course of history show that a tradition could hold firm until advances in human knowledge or culture obliged the church to look at the question in a new light. Through honest reexamination of its tradition in this new light, the church has sometimes come to see that the reasons for holding to its previous position were not decisive after all. There is no denying the fact that many of the reasons given in the past to justify the exclusion of women from the priesthood are such as one would be embarrassed to offer today. No doubt, better reasons than those have been presented in the recent documents of the Holy See.
The question that remains in my mind is whether it is a clearly established fact that the bishops of the Catholic Church are as convinced by those reasons as Pope John Paul evidently is, and that, in exercising their proper role as judges and teachers of the faith, they have been unanimous in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed truth to which all Catholics are obliged to give a definitive assent of faith. Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium. .
Francis A. Sullivan SJ
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