Explainer: Why Pope Francis’ comments on women’s ordination are both business as usual and a big deal

Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Malmo, Sweden, to Rome Nov. 1. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)Pope Francis answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Malmo, Sweden, to Rome Nov. 1. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

On Tuesday, Pope Francis told the Vatican press corps on the papal plane that the Catholic Church’s ban on women priests would remain intact forever.

Or did he?

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At America we use the team communication app Slack, and two days ago it was abuzz with a discussion on how to headline the story accurately. We were running the Catholic News Service story, and had started from their headline, “Catholic Church Never Likely to Ordain Women, Pope Says,” promoting it on social media as “Pope Francis says Catholic Church unlikely to ever ordain women.”

But was it “never likely” or “unlikely to ever?” Or was it just “never?” Was the headline trying to soften a teaching some readers would be hurt by? Or was it adding nuance to something that was absolutely clear?

To recap, the exchange worth paying attention to was:

Reporter: “Really? Never?”

Pope Francis: “If one carefully reads the declaration of St. John Paul, it goes in that direction, yes.”

On the one hand, he said “never.” End of story, it seems.

On the other hand, he started his answer with a conditional clause, and then said that it “goes in that direction.” Goes in the direction of “never”? What does that mean?

Back to the first hand: Francis’ reference to the declaration of St. John Paul II was to the apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” which declared, confirming the “constant practice of the church,” that it was impossible to ordain women to the priesthood.

After going back and forth a bit more, we settled on a revised headline: “Pope Francis reaffirms John Paul II’s ban on women priests.”

Our conversation about the headline wasn’t a stylistic one: It actually gets to the core of the debate over the church’s authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Is the church refusing to ordain women, or unable to? The traditional teaching of the church is that it is unable to do so—but St. John Paul II further said that this teaching was to be “definitively held,” intending to close the matter for further discussion or debate. But what has happened, instead, is years of discussion and debate about what “definitively held” means, and whether or not the church is refusing to discuss this further, or unable to.

The full conclusion of “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which Pope Francis referenced as “the declaration of St. John Paul II,” reads:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.

Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) 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.

While this was supposed to settle the matter, it actually moved the debate onto a slightly different field. While “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” was speaking with a high level of authority, it was not the highest—St. John Paul II was not speaking ex cathedra, and an apostolic letter, while weighty, is not at the highest level of teaching authority, such as other papal documents including papal bulls, apostolic constitutions and encyclicals.

And what is the church to make of the phrase “definitively held,” which was not a traditional description of the authority of a teaching? Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a canon lawyer, said in the National Catholic Reporter shortly after the promulgation of “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”:

As far as we are to understand...definitive is used in understanding that the doctrine involved is not changeable. At the same time, it is not asserted with the same force as it would be in an infallible definition. Since the concept is somewhat new, we don’t have a long-standing tradition to understand it.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith then responded to concerns like those raised by Father Orsy with a “dubium,” a document intended to respond to doubts and questions.

“To this end, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with the approval of the Holy Father, has given an official Reply on the nature of this assent: it is a matter of full definitive assent, that is to say, irrevocable, to a doctrine taught infallibly by the Church.”

Thus, according to the C.D.F. it was indeed “infallible.”

In response to the C.D.F.’s answer, some theologians then questioned how “definitively held” could be considered “infallible” if the pope had not explicitly declared the original document as such. The C.D.F. had, according to some, overreached. Only the pope had the authority to declare infallibility.

So, whether or not Pope Francis meant to say that the church is never or unlikely to ever ordain women to the priesthood, as we were debating about with our headline, may not be easy to answer. And Pope Francis’ in-air press conference yesterday, which are not necessarily known for their clarity in teaching, didn’t advance any new teaching.

By focusing our revised headline on Pope Francis’ reaffirmation of St. John Paul II’s “ban” on women priests, we were trying to stick closer to what Pope Francis was doing: agreeing with St. John Paul II’s teaching about women’s ordination, which said it was impossible. “Never likely,” or “unlikely to ever,” both imply that there is something in the teaching which may be expected to change, even if it almost certainly will not.

The fact that a pope agrees with his predecessors, and continues teaching what they have taught before, is business as usual in the church, and to be expected. This is what it means for the pope and bishops to teach with apostolic authority, in continuity with the tradition and faith of the church as it has been transmitted to us.

At the same time, the fact that Pope Francis is pointing to “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” and saying that it answers the question about women’s ordination with a “never” is significant news. It adds further weight to the call for this teaching to be “definitively held,” and offers less room for questions about how much authority “definitively held” is supposed to convey.

There’s a reason we were debating about the headline—as a Jesuit ministry, we are faithful to the pope and the magisterium, and that includes reporting accurately what the Vatican and the pope are saying to the faithful.

Yet church teaching is not necessarily something that is fixed and rigid. Within the church’s tradition there have always been a hierarchy of truths, some essential to the faith (think the Creed) and others, such as the meaning of particular passages from scripture, that admit of a range of interpretations. There are also levels of teaching authority, which differ depending on the type of document issued, and who is issuing it. Finally, there is the notion of development of doctrine. As the Second Vatican Council showed, the church’s understanding of its own consistent teaching is not static, as evidenced by changes in relations with other religious communities. After all, the press conference which occasioned these questions was on a flight returning from the pope commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation together with Lutherans, which would have been unimaginable before Vatican II.

Where does the church’s teaching on the ordination of women to the priesthood fall in that hierarchy? According to St. John Paul II, it is important enough as to be closed for discussion. A significant number of Catholics, however, will continue to ask the question. While their questions cannot simply be ordered closed, that does not mean that the church must answer them as they would prefer. The church is not a democracy. Because its authority is apostolic, the faithful cannot disregard the teachings of popes and bishops, even when they find them difficult. Instead of assuming that those who struggle to accept this teaching are disobedient, or that those who readily accept the teaching are happy to perpetuate sexism, we would be better off trying to understand why some people see women’s ordination as something the church cannot do, while others see it as something the church stubbornly refuses to do. 

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Henry George
1 year 8 months ago
The essence of Protestantism is the right of the person to worship God as they see fit. Luther thought it was the right of persons to interpret the Scriptures as they see fit - albeit as Luther thought they should be - but as he soon found out - what was good for the Goose was good for the Gander. There are those who think Jesus was confined by the Social/Religious Norms of His day. Thus, they argue that Jesus would have "ordained" female Apostles and thus we would have Women Bishops/Priests/Deacons - had Jesus lived in the 21st Century. But then you can wonder why Jesus just did not come in the 21st Century so we could have digital video of all He did and said and of His death and resurrection... Perhaps God is not as impressed of Modern Times and Thinking as some hold He should be. If the Roman Catholic Church ever decides to ordain Women Deacons/Priests/Bishops and, yes, Popes, it should confer with the Orthodox Church and make sure the Holy Spirit is moving both Churches in the same direction. Meanwhile, the Theologians will parse and quibble and America will continue its ' Post-Modern Fandango ' of perpetually trying to please those readers who feel that they, and not the Magisterium, have the right, duty and wisdom to guide the Roman Catholic Church.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 8 months ago
Keeping the Church frozen in the patriarchal era, and preaching patriarchal gender theory, is no longer an option.
L J
1 year 8 months ago
That is not what Henry George wrote. Your lack of charity is not helpful. Mr. George had excellent points. Care to address those?
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 8 months ago
Yes, I have addressed them all, please see the following: Appeal to Pope Francis ~ English http://pelicanweb.org/CCC.TOB.120.html#english Apelación al Papa Francisco ~ Español http://pelicanweb.org/CCC.TOB.120.html#spanish Please let me know if you find any dogmatic error.
Henry George
1 year 8 months ago
Luis, I read your "Letter to Pope Francis" and in my estimation there is a dogmatic error at the foundational level. You deny our Creator the power to enter into and control Human History. There either was or was not a necessity in the Economy of Salvation for there to be 12 Patriarchs of Israel. There either was or was not a necessity in the Economy of Salvation for there to be 12 Male Apostles. There either was or was not a necessity in the Economy of Salvation for Jesus to be born of Mary. Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. God, not man, created us Male and Female. Jesus was not bound by any social conventions. Is God in charge of the Economy of Salvation or not - or must He pass Post-Modern scrutiny ?
Henry George
1 year 8 months ago
Guillermo, Thank You. I hope and pray the Holy Spirit guides and leads our Church.
Henry George
1 year 8 months ago
Luis, Thank you for your reply. I don't know if the Church - Roman/Orthodox are "stuck in the Patriarchal era" or not. Suppose the Church changed in all the ways you wish, would someone 200 years from now who wished to see the Church change in ways you would not approve of be justified in saying the Church is stuck in a Postmodern era...? When you say it is no longer an option - why/how is that ? As far as I can tell the Episcopal Church of America has carried out everything you have asked and they are a dying Church. Why should the Catholic Church follow down that path ?
Crystal Watson
1 year 8 months ago
Francis' reasons given - that women being priests breeds clericalism and that JPII has the final word on the subject - are both highly questionable. And up to this point, the many negative things the pope has said about women and their place in society and the church have been pretty awful and lead me to believe the pope's actual reason for denying women equality in the church is sexism, especially given the arguments made by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on women's ordination and the arguments made by people like Sandra M. Schneiders IHM, Robert Egan SJ, and William Barry SJ for women's ordination. *** the faithful cannot disregard the teachings of popes and bishops, even when they find them difficult *** They can and they do - think contraception. The same bishops who want to teach us that women can't be priests are those who taught us that they can enable the sex abuse of children and never get even a harsh word from the Vatican (Cardinal Law, Cardinal Mahony, Cardinal Brady, etc.). How are we supposed to respect their opinions? Most Catholics and perhaps even most clerics believe that women are just as likely as men to be called by God to be priests. When will those people who run the church have the courage to say so and change the policy? I assume people are afraid of losing their jobs ... Fr. Roy Bourgeois did have that courage and he was dumped from his order, laicized and excommunicated ... but surely people who have decided to be priests must care more about what's right than what side their bread is buttered on.
L J
1 year 8 months ago
"A significant number of Catholics, however, will continue to ask the question." The problem is that the "questioners" have been demanding change in their select pet projects for decades ("right to choose" abortion & female ordination), while having a deaf ear and blind eye to the hundreds of more important issues. If these "questioners" rallied as passionately for the work of the Lord in the mission fields, they might have more credibility. Given that they cherish only abortion "rights" and "female ordination", it is imperative to ignore given that the people standing right behind them are dying of neglect, hunger, loneliness, lack of love, abuse, medical illnesses, etc, etc, etc.
Joseph Guiltinan
1 year 8 months ago
I am sure many who labor in the mission fields of the church take umbrage (as I do) at your confounding of female ordination and abortion rights issues. Indeed my experience is that support for an increased role for women is highest among those who do such labor -- perhaps because they are predominantly women (as opposed to an unresponsive hierarchy hiding in nice brick residences).
Lisa Weber
1 year 8 months ago
The question of ordaining women to the priesthood is an easy way to derail the discussion of what the church needs for women to do, and what they can be allowed to do. Women do not need to be ordained to the priesthood, but they do need to be able to preach at Mass, to have a say in church decisions, and to have a leadership structure that allows women the rights of adults in the church community. It would be refreshing to have a discussion of women's role and women's leadership without making an immediate turn into the dead-end street of women's ordination to the priesthood.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 8 months ago
The ordination of women to the priesthood is NOT a dead-end. On the contrary, it is the most critical issue that must be dogmatically resolved by the Church in the post-patriarchal era.
Joan Clancy
1 year 8 months ago
I'm hoping the male clerics have chiropractic coverage in their medical insurance plans as they contort themselves into ever more ridiculous positions to defend their traditional grasp on power. I agree with their claim that Jesus didn't ordain women - thing is, He didn't ordain men either! Jesus didn't ordain ANYBODY so let's move on folks...
Justin Sands
1 year 8 months ago
I completely agree, Lisa. The ordination case dominates the discussion, and it also obfuscates any other possible changes. Our Church has a long history of gradual, not immediate, change and going directly to the issue of ordination doesn't follow our Tradition. Let's discuss the diaconate, who can preach at mass, even whether women can serve as cardinals. None of these things are on the table if one immediately goes to ordination.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 8 months ago
Excellent article, balanced and very instructive, thanks! One quick comment: "never likely" is not the same as "never." What is likely to happen is not certain to happen, let alone when certainty of faith is implied; and "going in that direction" confirms that we have not yet reached the destination, so there is the possibility of having to make turns left and right as we keep going, and even the possibility of having to make a legal u-turn. Personally, as one who understands that the hierarchical church is not willing to do it (which is not the same as refusing to do it), my impression is that there are some legitimate ecumenical and pastoral concerns... 1. With the Orthodox churches, where doctrinal development basically stopped in the 13th century or so. 2. With the Anglican and Protestant churches, where the issue is how Petrine authority is to be exercised. 3. Within the Catholic Church, where some traditionalists are going to have tantrums if women are ordained. That said, it is lamentable (actually, it is pathetic) that Pope Francis has to keep using simplistic rationalizations to buy time before the inevitable happens. The bottom line is that the Church is a communion, not a patriarchy. He knows, and St John Paul II surely knew, that "apostolic" is not necessarily the same as "patriarchal." That ecclesiastical patriarchy is incidental to the hierarchical constitution of the Church is evident from, among other things, the Creed (the Church is "apostolic," not "male apostolic"), the dogmatic definition on the institution of the priesthood by the Council of Trent (no masculinity requirement is mentioned for ordination, let alone apostolic succession), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (except for literalist, and not dogmatic, #1577), and, above all, by St John Paul II's Theology of the Body, which effectively dismantles ancient/modern gender theories via a revolutionary exegesis of the Book of Genesis, albeit applied to the sacramentality of marriage and not extended to all the sacraments, for obvious reasons (like 1, 2, and 3 above). By the way, there is no inconsistency between the Theology of the Body and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. The Theology of the Body is a theological anthropology and its application to one of the sacraments. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is about upholding apostolic authority (cf. CCC 1598), an edict to stop further official discussion of the issue by bishops; and is definitive in past and present tense, says nothing about what the Church can or cannot do in the future. The entire document is written in past and present tense, not a single verb is conjugated in future tense. Would this be the first time in history that a Pope speaks with both sides of his mouth, for the good of the Church?
L J
1 year 8 months ago
"Personally, as one who understands that the hierarchical church is not willing to do it (which is not the same as refusing to do it" source please? Magisterial reference would be nice but something other than Utne Reader would be appreciated "Would this be the first time in history that a Pope speaks with both sides of his mouth, for the good of the Church?" It wouldn't be a first for the people to use pitchforks and torches to burn down the house and throw people onto the fire, as they cheer. It's hard to see comments like yours as having importance while the nation sinks in despair, our culture is determined to annihilate its members, all the while fear, anxiety, depression, chronic medical conditions, dysfunctional families, violent crimes, etc are higher than ever. All these while you complain about the Church being x, y and z, because you know better. Sorry, I just can't take your gripe seriously. Join me in the mission field and put your angst to practical use. America is stricken with an entitlement attitude and we need more laborers, not pitchforks and torches.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 8 months ago
Surely, I am not to be taken seriously, since my personal opinion is by no means authoritative. But it is my honest opinion, which I share with no pretension of infallibility. With regard to the difference between refusing and willing, please consult your dictionary. With regard to the embarrassing state of our American democracy, I agree that the current presidential campaign is a disgrace, but it pales by comparison with the successor of Peter struggling to answer a question by a reporter, and utterly failing to say anything that makes sense. Elections come and go. Defective doctrines also come and go, but very slowly and eventually cause harm to the entire body of Christ, which is much more important than any passing political concern.
Tom Fields
1 year 8 months ago
He said, "No"!---no matter how much you obfuscate.
Luis Gutierrez
1 year 8 months ago
He said "no," so now four Popes have said "no," but none has dogmatically said "no forever." Prayers...
Michael Olson
1 year 8 months ago
For those interested in exploring the issue of Roman Catholic Women Priests further there is a site easily accessible on the internet simply by writing Roman Catholic Women Priests on Google. There is another similar organization called Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. It is obvious that things have, for quite some time, moved far beyond whether or not this issue can be discussed or believed in. About fifteen years ago I was involved in a summer learning experience sponsored by a local Episcopal church which offered a week long experience in several areas of study and the arts. Toward the end of the week there was a con-celebrated Eucharistic Service with seven celebrants. Five of the celebrants were women priests in the Episcopal Church who referred to themselves as "recovering Catholics." So, many Roman Catholic women have received a call or inspiration to become priests. They are not angry or hostile toward the Church, but have taken steps to follow their call or inspiration and are peacefully at work. Along with their photographs and short biographies, they have left their email addresses in case you wish to contact them.
Joshua DeCuir
1 year 8 months ago
I seem to recall much criticism pointed at more "conservative" Catholics who take to parsing the meaning of Pope Francis's statements to discern what he "really" means when they feel piqued by some statements of his; the famous "Who am I to judge?" comment springs to mind. So I find it a bit strange that suddenly, when Pope Francis says something piquing to more "liberal" Catholics, such parsing is acceptable to justify concluding what the Pope "really" means to say. Yes, Church teaching "develops," but it seems clear that the direction of the development in this regard is in a direction that challenges more liberal Catholics. If resistance to that development is fine for some Catholics, then it seems fine for others to resist the development of teaching in directions they find challenging without the stringent criticism they have faced from some quarters.
Mark Gotvald
1 year 8 months ago
To paraphrase Pope Peter, he probably said something like, “The reservation of the priesthood to Jewish males…is not a question open to discussion,” as Jesus only chose Jewish males to be the Apostles. He maybe followed up with, "The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on Gentile men and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” However, when challenged by Paul at the Council of Jerusalem, the Apostles decided Gentile men were as worthy as Jewish men to be Apostles and future popes. How easy was that to change the rule? Did it not directly contradict Jesus’ teaching? The same teaching that’s used to say because Jesus didn’t choose any women to be apostles, they cannot be ordained? How did the Church have that authority, but doesn’t have it to allow women priests? Does it not contradict the current hierarchy’s argument against women’s ordination? Is it not limiting the authority of the church in light of this history? In the same way, a future Council could also decide women are as worthy as Gentile men to not only be ordained but to be popes.
James Sullivan
1 year 8 months ago
Great piece- great discussion. The Trads are driving Francis nuts so he threw them a big bone- NO wormen priests. I believe he will okay women deacons and leave the issue of women priests to the next pope. My spiritual director has said many people can't handle the truth( they may not even be conscious of this) . In my opinion the TRUTH is that misogyny is rampant in our culture, in our Church. Pete Hamill has written about his Irish Catholic neighborhood in Brooklyn when he heard more than once in bars , " never marry a woman you can't knock out in one punch" . Yes, this is part our very sick and violent history. The truth.
Tim O'Leary
1 year 8 months ago
James - your spiritual director might have been right when he said "many people can't handle the truth (they may not even be conscious of this." However, since the Catechism (#1577, 1578, 1598) and Canon Law (#1024), Scripture (actions of Jesus), Church Fathers & Church Councils (http://www.catholic.com/tracts/women-and-the-priesthood), and the CDF all say the Church has no authority to confer ordination on women, and the CDF says the issue has been infallibly declared, it seems much more likely that proponents of women priests fall into the "can't handle the truth" category, conscious or not.
James MacGregor
1 year 8 months ago
Can somebody help me with researching this? I know that the Catholic Church and at least one Lutheran denomination prohibit the ordination of women, but I cannot remember the Bible passages that support the position. (I believe that at least one of them comes form the Epistles.)
Tim O'Leary
1 year 8 months ago
This brouhaha over long settled doctrine and the parsing of when "never means never" makes me think Pope Francis should give up these off-the-cuff interviews. It has completely derailed his initial ecumenical purpose, confused some of his ardent supporters (like this Jesuit journal), and sown more division than he could have imagined. It sadly reminds me of our prolonged presidential catastrophe (Obama and whoever succeeds him) or the crisis in Europe (terrorism, refugees, Brexit, etc.) - the world that needs to be on fire for Christ is sadly on fire with bloodshed and discord. He went to Sweden to evangelize members of a post-Christian nation (and a dying Lutheran Church - 6M official members of which 2% practice, and they are losing 1M a decade) and tried to be as diplomatic as possible about their highly flawed founder who wouldn't recognize their doctrines in any case. The Church of Luther is now doctrinally much further away from the True Church than it was a century ago, even when Catholicism was outlawed. Maybe there is someone like a faithful St. Catherine of Siena out there who can rise up and preach some sense to the juvenile world. With so much terrorism, war, atheism, abortion, euthanasia, gender confusion, family breakdown, sex trafficking, child abuse, and general discord, the last thing we need to focus on is on useless imaginations like women priests. Rome has spoken, the issue has been settled.

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