Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the release of the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” on May 22, 1994. The following essay, titled “Gender and Priesthood: Examining the Teaching,” appeared in Origins (Vol. 25, No. 45, dated May 2, 1996), and is reprinted with permission.
In comparing the grounds for church teaching on the inadmissibility of women to the ministerial priesthood “with the evidence given for Catholic doctrines such as the immaculate conception, the assumption and papal infallibility, the biblical and traditional basis for the nonordination of women would seem to be firmer,” Jesuit Father Avery Dulles said in an April 10 lecture at Fordham University. The theologian, professor of religion and society at Fordham, examined 10 objections raised to the teaching, commenting that critics of the teaching “include theologians of acknowledged professional competence” and that “the objections they have raised ... cannot be written off as merely flippant.” Dulles concluded that “in view of the force of the convergent argument and the authority of the papal office, Catholics can and should give the full assent that the pope has called for.” But Dulles also said that “because the official teaching runs against the prevailing climate of opinion and because plausible objections have been widely publicized, it is inevitable that a significant number of Catholics ... will fail to assent.” He recommended that “the pastoral leadership of the church, recognizing the complexity of the theological issues and the inevitability of dissenting views, should be patient with Catholics who feel unable to accept the approved position. While assuring the integrity of Catholic doctrine, the bishops should show understanding for dissenters who exhibit good will and avoid disruptive behavior.” Dulles said that on this teaching “the pope and the cardinal have not called for an act of divine or theological faith but simply for a firm assent. But inasmuch as this assent is to be given to a teaching contained in the deposit of faith, it seems hardly distinguishable from an act of faith. The ‘de fide’ status of the doctrine, however, has not been so clearly taught that one may accuse those who fail to accept it of heresy.” The text of his address follows.
The most controversial statement that has come from the Holy See during the present pontificate is in all probability that which has to do with the priestly ordination of women. On Pentecost Sunday 1994, Pope John Paul II issued a brief letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which concluded with the words: “In order that all doubt may be removed regarding 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.” (See note 1 below.)
On Oct. 28, 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a document approved by the pope, responded to a question put to it about whether the teaching of “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” was to be understood as belonging to the deposit of the faith. After replying in the affirmative, the congregation added that the doctrine, founded on the written word of God, had been constantly held in the tradition of the church and has been infallibly set forth by the ordinary and universal magisterium. In his apostolic letter, therefore, the pope was not making the teaching infallible but confirming a teaching that was already infallible for the reasons stated.
Dulles: "The case against women’s ordination is made under four principal headings: Bible, tradition, theological reasoning and magisterial authority. These components are not to be taken in isolation but in convergence, since none of them is an independent authority."
“Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” is the culmination of a long series of documents issued under Paul VI and John Paul II since 1975. In these documents the case against women’s ordination is made under four principal headings: Bible, tradition, theological reasoning and magisterial authority. These components are not to be taken in isolation but in convergence, since none of them is an independent authority. According to Vatican II, “Sacred tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together, each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit, contribute effectively to the salvation of souls” (“Dei Verbum,” 10).
The biblical component in the argument is twofold: first, that Christ did not call women to the apostolic ministry, since he selected only men as members of the Twelve; and second, that the apostles themselves, faithful to the practice of Christ, chose only men for priestly offices, those of bishop, presbyter and their equivalents.
The argument from tradition is that the Catholic bishops have always observed the norm of conferring sacred orders only on men and that sects which ordained women to the priesthood or permitted them to perform priestly functions have been denounced as heretical. The fathers of the early centuries and the theologians of the Middle Ages regarded the question as settled. (See note 2 below.) Since the 16th century Catholic theologians have regularly characterized the church’s practice as grounded in divine law and have judged the opposed position as heretical or at least verging on heresy. (See note 3 below.)
The theological reasoning is to the effect that the ministerial priest shares in a representative way in the office of Christ as bridegroom of the church, and must therefore be, like Christ, of the male sex. A woman could not suitably represent Christ in this particular capacity.
The teaching of the magisterium, as the fourth component, has likewise been constant. In the early centuries many bishops and a few popes spoke to the question, and over the past 20 years or more, explicit statements from the Holy See have made it clear that the hierarchical magisterium is unwavering in holding that the ministerial priesthood cannot be exercised by women.
Dulles: "Although many of the faithful have been convinced by the official pronouncements of recent years, others have responded negatively. The critics include theologians of acknowledged professional competence."
Impressive though this convergent argument is, it has not dispelled all doubt. Since about 1970 a number of voices have been raised, even in the Catholic Church, favoring the admission of women to priestly orders. Although many of the faithful have been convinced by the official pronouncements of recent years, others have responded negatively. The critics include theologians of acknowledged professional competence. The objections they have raised to the standard arguments cannot be written off as merely flippant. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has itself acknowledged, in another context, that the difficulties raised against magisterial teaching can sometimes “contribute to real doctrinal progress and provide a stimulus to the magisterium to propose the teaching of the church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.” (See note 4 below.) With this thought in mind, I shall here explore 10 of the principal objections that are commonly raised.
1. With regard to the practice of Christ, a double objection is raised: first, that Jesus did not ordain anyone to the priesthood, and second, that there is no evidence that he intended his decision to call only men as members of the Twelve to be binding on all future generations.
To the first part of this objection it must be answered that according to Catholic teaching, Christ did confer the ministerial priesthood on his apostles. Although the exact moment when he did so is not important for our present question, it may be recalled that according to the Council of Trent he bestowed priestly powers on the Twelve at the Last Supper when he commissioned them to celebrate the eucharist. (See note 5 below.) This assertion of the Council of Trent, which represents a reading of Scripture in light of Catholic tradition, still remains the authoritative teaching of the church, as can be seen from many documents issued in recent years. In the Roman Missal of Paul VI (1970), the chrism Mass of Holy Thursday commemorates the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. John Paul II, in his letter to bishops on Holy Thursday 1980, “Dominicae Cenae,” asserts that the priesthood came into being together with the eucharist at the Last Supper. (See note 6 below.)
The question whether Christ’s choice of a male priesthood is permanently normative for the church raises issues about the very nature of sacraments. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith makes the point that sacraments “are principally meant to link the person of every period to the supreme event of the history of salvation.” (See note 7 below.) The present case is similar to that of the institution of the eucharist, in which Christ’s choice of bread and wine, although it may not have been the only possibility open to him, is viewed as establishing the elements to be used in celebrating Mass. In ordaining priests, as in celebrating the eucharist, the church is conscious of doing what Christ did and of having no power to alter this. The claim of abiding force for Christ’s own practice, supported as it is by the biblical data, is powerfully confirmed by the other three arguments—from tradition, theological reasoning and magisterial teaching—which are still to be considered in this paper.
2. The evidence concerning the practice of the apostolic church has also been contested. Many today call attention to the 1975 study of the Pontifical Biblical Commission which, it is sometimes alleged, found no difficulty against the ordination of women. Even if the biblical commission had so concluded, the objection would have little force, since this commission is not an organ of the magisterium, but a purely advisory body. In fact, however, the report of the commission clearly stated that Christ chose only men for apostolic leadership and that the first communities, as we know them from the Acts and the Pauline letters, “were always directed by men exercising the apostolic power.... The masculine character of the hierarchical order which has structured the church since its beginning thus seems attested in an undeniable way.” The commission added, however, that according to the majority of the members “it does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.” (See note 8 below.) This conclusion is fair enough. The recent documents do not claim that the question can be definitively settled by Scripture alone, but only that the New Testament supports the tradition of the church. All the biblical evidence we have about priestly office in the primitive church tends to confirm its exclusively masculine character. (See note 9 below.)
3. Challenging the argument from tradition, some authors maintain that the question of women’s ordination is a new one for the church and that more time is needed for dialogue and reflection before the magisterium can properly decide the matter. As a matter of fact, however, the question is almost as old as Christianity itself. In the early centuries heretical sects, including Gnostics, Montanists, Priscillianists and Collyridians, introduced a female priesthood in various parts of the Christian world, but their initiatives were rejected by Catholic bishops and theologians such as Irenaeus, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom and Pope Gelasius I. (See note 10 below.)
The question arose again in the Middle Ages because of the practices of the Cathari and the Waldensians. Once again the Catholic authorities denied that the pastoral office or priesthood could be conferred on women. The great theologians of high Scholasticism, including Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Durandus, were unanimous in holding that the church had no power to ordain women. (See note 11 below.) In this opinion they were joined by an outstanding medieval feminist, Hildegard of Bingen, who was adamant in opposing a feminine priesthood. (See note 12 below.)
The issue of priesthood for women was again raised in Germany after the First World War, but leaders of the Catholic feminist movement themselves rejected the idea. Edith Stein, among others, considered carefully whether women could be priests, but on the basis of her study concluded in the negative. (See note 13 below.)
Admittedly the question has taken on new urgency since World War II, at which time many mainline Protestant and Anglican churches began ordaining women to pastoral office, including the episcopate. Partly for this reason a flurry of new studies began to appear in the early to middle ’70s. Pope Paul VI spoke frequently to the question. In an address of April 1975, occasioned by the International Women’s Year sponsored by the United Nations, he insisted that while the role of women should be vigorously promoted, the church had no power to change the behavior of Christ and his call to women, which did not include apostleship or ordained ministry. (See note 14 below.) In a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury of Nov. 30, 1975, Paul VI stated very clearly that the Catholic church “holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons.” He added: “These reasons include: the example recorded in the sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority, which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his church.” (See note 15 below.)
The most complete official study of our question remains to this day the declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “Inter Insigniores,” issued with the approval of Paul VI over the signature of Cardinal Franjo Seper Oct. 15, 1976, the feast of St. Teresa of Avila. This document proposed the various arguments I have mentioned and concluded that the practice of the church, based as it is on Christ’s example, conforms to God’s plan for his church.
Before issuing the brief declaration mentioned at the opening of this paper, John Paul II treated the question at greater length in several important documents such as his apostolic exhortation on the laity “Christifideles Laici” and his apostolic letter on women “Mulieris Dignitatem” (both issued in 1988). On the precise question of ordination he has strongly reaffirmed the positions of Paul VI, who stood in solidarity with the immemorial tradition of the church. These considerations should make it evident that we are not dealing with a new and unprecedented question.
Dulles: "On the precise question of ordination [Pope John Paul II] has strongly reaffirmed the positions of Paul VI, who stood in solidarity with the immemorial tradition of the church."
4. It is still objected in some quarters, however, that the tradition of the church and likewise the practice of Christ and the apostles have been socially and culturally conditioned. Some argue that women were in a position of social inferiority and were therefore not considered eligible for anything resembling priestly office. But the evidence does not support this objection. Whatever the social inferiority of women may or may not have been, priestesses were common in pagan religions throughout the Greco-Roman world. They were a familiar institution among the Babylonians and the Assyrians, the Egyptians and the Greeks. If Christ followed the practice of the Jews in this regard, that practice was itself shaped by divine revelation and stood in contrast with that practice of the surrounding peoples such as the Canaanites. Nor was the practice of Judaism by itself determinative for Christ. Where his mission required, he showed an astonishing independence from Jewish customs.
Notwithstanding their exclusion from priestly office, women played a prominent part in salvation history, both in the Old Testament and in the New. Figures such as Deborah and Esther were celebrated in the Hebrew Scriptures, as were the Blessed Virgin Mary, Elizabeth, Anna, Mary Magdalen, Martha and other holy women in the Gospels. In the Acts and the letters of Paul, mention is made of many women who were prominent in the early church. Some, such as the daughters of Philip the Evangelist, were prophetesses. But no women were members of the Twelve nor, it would seem, were they bishops or presbyters. (See note 16 below.) In excluding women from these offices but not from other ministries, the church was presumably guided by its understanding of the will of Christ in establishing the apostolic office.
Christians should exercise great care in invoking arguments from social conditioning. Such arguments can easily be used to evacuate the contents of revelation and call into question almost any moral teaching, including the Ten Commandments. While conceding the existence of certain socially conditioned customs, Christians are convinced that the Jews of old and the Christians under the guidance of Christ and the Holy Spirit were able to discern God’s will concerning the fundamental relations between the sexes, including institutions such as monogamous heterosexual marriage. As we shall see, the divine order regarding marital relations is intimately bound up with the symbolism surrounding priesthood.
5. Yet another objection arises because of the state of biological science in the early centuries. The church’s tradition regarding priesthood is held to have been shaped by the opinion of Aristotle and other ancient authors that women were genetically inferior. This opinion, which is now recognized to be false, was occasionally alluded to by theologians in their discussion of women’s position in the church. Thomas Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s faulty biology, but when he comes to an explicit consideration of the reasons why women cannot be ordained, he does not argue that women are weaker in mind or in body. In fact he acknowledges that some women have greater spiritual and intellectual qualities than men. He remarks that they can be rulers in civil society, that they can receive the charism of prophecy and they can serve as religious superiors and abbesses in the church. But he holds that a woman cannot be an apt subject for receiving the sacrament of orders for symbolic reasons, namely the lack of natural resemblance between them and what holy orders must signify. (See note 17 below.)
In medieval Catholicism Mary was generally regarded as the greatest of all the saints, but this eminence did not qualify her for ordination. In the words of Pope Innocent III, “Although the Blessed Virgin Mary was of higher dignity and excellence than all the apostles, it was to them, not her, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” (See note 18 below.)
Dulles: "Christians should exercise great care in invoking arguments from social conditioning. Such arguments can easily be used to evacuate the contents of revelation and call into question almost any moral teaching, including the Ten Commandments."
6. With respect to the theological reasoning, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the popes have appealed to the so-called “iconic” argument to suggest reasons why Christ chose to reserve the priesthood to men. The argument is that the ministerial priest has to represent Christ, especially in the eucharist, which is the sacrament that pre-eminently “expresses the redemptive act of Christ, the bridegroom, toward the church.” (See note 19 below.) The words of institution are no mere narrative about the past; they are performative speech acts whereby Christ himself, through the priest, accomplishes the sacramental sacrifice. The shift to the present tense and the first person singular are therefore essential. Uttering the words, “This is my body ... ; this is my blood,” the priest puts on the very person of Christ. In order for him to be identified with Christ as bridegroom, it is fitting for the priest to be of the male sex. This argument is much used in Eastern Orthodox theology and has been prominent in the West at least since the times of Hildegard and Bonaventure.
To this it is sometimes objected that representation, according to the biblical concept, is simply an authorization to speak in the name of another and that the messenger need not bear a natural resemblance to the person represented. The objection would hold if the priest were simply a messenger, passing on a verbal report, but in fact the priest is a symbolic figure, who serves as both a sign and an instrument in performing the very action of Christ as bridegroom. This symbolic argument does not prove that Christ could not have called women to the priesthood, but it helps us to see that his decision in the matter was not arbitrary. In order for Christ himself to be the bridegroom of the church, as God had been bridegroom of Israel, he had to be a man. For similar reasons it was highly suitable that those who were called to put on the person of Christ in sacramental actions such as presiding at the Lord’s Supper should also be of the male sex.
7. An additional line of attack on the rationale for the existing order is that it is an injustice toward women to exclude them as a class. Some compare this exclusion to racial discrimination, which has at times been practiced even in the church. But the church cannot be guilty of discrimination in this matter because it is unconditionally bound to follow what it understands to be Christ’s will in the matter. In providing for distinct roles for men and women in the church, Christ did not violate the order of justice any more than God was unjust in giving women alone the power to bear children.
The ministerial priesthood is not a mark of personal superiority, but a humble service to be used for the sake of the whole people of God. Although they cannot exercise this particular calling, women are not excluded from the full benefits of the redemption and from other forms of ministry. They can rise to the highest degree of sanctity, as is clear in the case of Mary. As religious superiors they can govern large communities. They can exercise the charisms of prophecy, knowledge and wisdom; they can be teachers, spiritual directors and the like. Two woman saints, Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, have been designated as doctors of the church. In the church as in civil society, the role of women has been rapidly advancing in recent years. John Paul II has branded the marginalization of women as an evil, due in part to cultural conditioning, and has repeatedly called for the elimination of all discrimination against women in the church and in society. (See note 20 below.) He does not condone injustice toward women.
Dulles: "If the Catholic Church were to ordain women, a new barrier would be created between it and the ancient churches of the East."
8. Some object that the reservation of ordination to men in the Catholic Church is unecumenical, since it puts a barrier between Catholics and most other Christians, at least in the Western world. The recent popes have been acutely conscious of this obstacle, as attested by the pleas of Paul VI to Archbishop Coggan (See note 21 below.) and of John Paul II to Archbishop Runcie (See note 22 below.) not to authorize female ordinations in the Church of England. But ecumenism must surely include the churches of the East, which do not ordain women, as well as conservative Protestant groups, which adhere strictly to the biblical practice. The ecumenical argument therefore cuts both ways. If the Catholic Church were to ordain women, a new barrier would be created between it and the ancient churches of the East. The Orthodox would be convinced that Rome had capitulated to the liberal Protestant view of ministry. Besides, it must be said that authentic ecumenism does not permit the churches to depart from the order prescribed by Christ in their effort to promote external unity. As Cardinal Ratzinger points out, one of the fundamental issues between the Catholic Church and those sprung from the Reformation has always been “what priesthood is, whether a sacrament or ultimately a service to be regulated in its ordering by the community itself.” (See note 23 below.)
9. Regarding the argument from magisterial teaching, some maintain that in spite of the recent emphatic statements of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, the question remains an open one for Catholics. To this it must be answered that the highest doctrinal authorities in the church, the pope and the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have made it clear that in their judgment the question is irrevocably settled. As I have mentioned, the pope, invoking his authority as successor of Peter, declared 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 faithful. The term “definitively held,” as used in the documents of Vatican II and in several official statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is reserved to the kind of assent to be given to infallible teaching. (See note 24 below.) Any doubt about the equivalence of the two terms is removed by the response of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which explained the pope’s term “definitively held” as implying infallibility.
10. A final objection, somewhat technical in character, has to do with Cardinal Ratzinger’s appeal to the ordinary and universal magisterium as the basis for infallibility. According to Vatican II, the college of bishops is not infallible in its day-to-day teaching except when the bishops unanimously hold that the faithful are obliged to give definitive assent to a particular doctrine. Has this unanimity been established in the present case? So far as appears, the bishops have not been polled by questionnaires such as those circulated by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII respectively preceding their definitions of the dogmas of the immaculate conception and the assumption.
In answer we may say, first of all, that the consensus of the present-day episcopate is not adduced as the sole ground for infallibility in the present case. The certainty and irreversibility derive from the biblical, traditional and theological data in combination with the consensus of the contemporary magisterium. Regarding this last component, we must recognize that the Holy See has taken soundings and is better positioned to know the mind of the worldwide episcopate than are the theologians who have raised critical questions. Finally, it should be noted that the teaching of the pope is a decisive ingredient in the universal and ordinary magisterium. Speaking for the episcopal college as its head, the successor of Peter can solidify the consensus by his own authoritative interpretation of it, somewhat as Peter gave conceptual and verbal solidity to the faith of the Twelve when he spoke for them in his confession at Caesarea Philippi.
Whether the decision of “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” is to be accepted on a motive of faith can still be legitimately discussed. The pope and the cardinal have not called for an act of divine or theological faith, but simply for a firm assent. But inasmuch as this assent is to be given to a teaching contained in the deposit of faith, it seems hardly distinguishable from an act of faith. The de fide status of the doctrine, however, has not been so clearly taught that one may accuse those who fail to accept it of heresy. As yet no canonical penalties have been applied against dissenters, but if they “pertinaciously reject” the teaching, they would no doubt make themselves liable to a “just penalty” by virtue of canon law (Canon 1371.1).
Dulles: "According to the first and second Vatican Councils, Christ equipped the church with a Petrine office precisely in order to prevent the people of God or the episcopate from falling into discord."
If one compares the grounds for this teaching with the evidence given for Catholic doctrines such as the immaculate conception, the assumption and papal infallibility, the biblical and traditional basis for the nonordination of women would seem to be firmer. This doctrine is solidly grounded in Scripture. From the earliest centuries it has been in peaceful possession throughout Catholic Christianity; it has been constantly observed in the practice of the church, confirmed by canon law and by the virtually unanimous agreement of the fathers and doctors who have dealt with the question.
Whether one accepts the recent pronouncements of the Holy See on this question depends in great measure on the extent to which one trusts the authoritative teaching office. It is my judgment that in matters such as this, where plausible arguments can be made for contrary views, it is imperative to have a doctrinal authority capable of settling the matter. According to the first and second Vatican Councils, Christ equipped the church with a Petrine office precisely in order to prevent the people of God or the episcopate from falling into discord.
The decision of certain Anglican churches to admit women to the priesthood functioned as a catalyst, giving new urgency to the question within Roman Catholicism. Many Catholics and non-Catholics were beginning to ask whether the Catholic Church might not follow suit. If the magisterium had remained silent, some bishop might have ventured to ordain a woman, claiming that the ordination was valid by divine law, as occurred in the Episcopal Church some 25 years ago. The issue had to be clarified, and no one but the pope, speaking in communion with the college of bishops, was in a position to speak with full authority.
Some Catholics are of the opinion that the authorities should not have spoken until a consensus emerged through free discussion in the church. The evidence does not, however, suggest that a longer period of unfettered debate would have brought about a consensus or furthered the interests of truth. Public opinion in the church can easily be swayed by secular trends and ideologies that are alien to the authentic Catholic heritage. As in matters of sexual ethics, so in the question of gender and priesthood, the contemporary climate of opinion is predominantly hostile to the biblical and Catholic heritage. If the church were to yield to the pressures of public opinion and political correctness, it would betray its mission and forfeit its capacity to speak prophetically to the world. Continuing to uphold the revelation given to it in Christ and the Scriptures, as handed down in sacred tradition, the church must be prepared to risk unpopularity and to become, if necessary, a “sign of contradiction.”
I do not mean to suggest that the church should embark on a course of anti-feminism. The recent popes, beginning with John XXIII, have reckoned the emancipation of women as one of the “signs of the times” through which God continues to speak to the church today. (See note 25 below.) But the signs of the times are to be discerned, according to Vatican II, in the light of the Gospel, as interpreted by the living church. (See note 26 below.)
Dulles: "While the equal dignity of men and women is clearly established in official teaching, it remains to be shown how the true worth and talents of women can be adequately respected and utilized if women are not eligible for priestly and episcopal orders. The question whether women can be ordained to the diaconate requires further exploration."
In the course of history, new and valid insights into social realities have frequently spawned radical movements that would subvert the values of Christian civilization. For example, the doctrine of human rights that surfaced in the 18th century gave rise to excesses such as the Jacobinism of the French Revolution. Such excesses, however, do not negate the truths that lie at the basis of the movements themselves. In the American Constitution and its Bill of Rights, we have a moderate assertion of human rights that can be reconciled with the Christian heritage. The present-day movement for an alteration of church teaching on women’s ordination is not necessarily a sign of radical feminism, since some radical feminists reject the whole idea of ordained priesthood, while others maintain that a church of women can ordain its own priests without regard for official doctrine. Moderate feminism, avoiding such extremes, can be a healthy and promising movement in the church. It can promote the dignity and status of women in fidelity to the Catholic tradition, with due regard to Scripture and due respect for the living magisterium, which speaks with the authority of Christ. In faith we may be confident that such a course will be the most fruitful in enabling both men and women to realize their highest potentialities.
Legitimate questions can still be raised. Because the biblical and historical evidence is complex and at some points obscure, doubts can arise about the meaning and force of certain texts from Scripture and the church fathers. The so-called “iconic” or “symbolic” argument, in the forms hitherto proposed, may be in need of refinement in order to increase its persuasive force. As for the teaching of the magisterium, it remains to be clarified whether the doctrine is to be believed by an act of divine and Catholic faith. It would be desirable if further information were offered regarding the thinking of the bishops throughout the world and the binding character that they attribute to the doctrine. While the equal dignity of men and women is clearly established in official teaching, it remains to be shown how the true worth and talents of women can be adequately respected and utilized if women are not eligible for priestly and episcopal orders. The question whether women can be ordained to the diaconate requires further exploration. Further study may be needed to determine whether women can hold jurisdiction, and if so, under what conditions. In my opinion a calm and open discussion of issues such as these is not only legitimate but, if conducted without acrimony, could clarify and advance the doctrine of the church.
The conclusions of this paper can be summarized in four brief statements:
1. In view of the force of the convergent argument and the authority of the papal office, Catholics can and should give the full assent that the pope has called for.
2. Because the official teaching runs against the prevailing climate of opinion and because plausible objections have been widely publicized, it is inevitable that a significant number of Catholics in a country such as our own will fail to assent.
3. Those who disagree with the approved teaching, while they are entitled to propose their difficulties, should refrain from treating the question as doctrinally undecided and should abstain from strident advocacy. Pressures for doctrinal change at this point would be futile and even detrimental since they would provoke countermeasures on the part of church authorities. The net result would be to divide the church against itself.
4. The pastoral leadership of the church, recognizing the complexity of the theological issues and the inevitability of dissenting views, should be patient with Catholics who feel unable to accept the approved position. While assuring the integrity of Catholic doctrine, the bishops should show understanding for dissenters who exhibit good will and avoid disruptive behavior. Such pastoral consideration, however, should not be taken as a license to contest or call into doubt the tradition of the church, confirmed as it is by recent pronouncements of exceptional weight.
Dulles: "The pastoral leadership of the church, recognizing the complexity of the theological issues and the inevitability of dissenting views, should be patient with Catholics who feel unable to accept the approved position."
(1) John Paul II, “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”: Apostolic Letter on Ordination of Women, Origins 24 (June 9, 1994): 49-52; quotation from 51.
(2) See Emmanuel Doronzo, Tractatus Dogmaticus de Ordine 3 (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1962), 406-16; Haye van der Meer, Women Priests in the Catholic Church? (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1973), 46-99; Manfred Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986), 404-68.
(3) The period since the Reformation has not been extensively studied, but some indications are given in Ludwig Ott, Handbuch der Dogmengeschichte Vol. 4, Part 5, “Das Weihesakrament” (Freiburg: Herder, 1969), 165-66. See also Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? 468.
(4) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Donum Veritatis”: Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, 30, Origins 20 (July 5, 1990): 117-26, at 123.
(5) Council of Trent, Sess. XXII, Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass, Canon 2 (DS 1752); Sess. XXIII, Doctrine on the Sacrament of Order, Chap. 1 (DS 1764).
(6) John Paul II, “Dominicae Cenae”: Mystery and Worship of the Holy Eucharist, 2, Origins 9 (March 27, 1980): 653-66, at 655.
(7) Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Inter Insigniores”: On the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, 4, Origins 6 (Feb. 3, 1977): 519-24, at 521. Cardinal Ratzinger emphatically makes the same point in his commentary on “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” “Grenzen Kirchlicher Vollmacht,” “Internationale Katholische Zeitshrift: Communio” 23 (1994): 337-45, esp. 340-41.
(8) Pontifical Biblical Commission, “Can Women Be Priests?” Origins 6 (July 1, 1976): 92-96; quotations from 95 and 96. According to an editor’s note, the members at the plenary session of the commission voted 12-5 that biblical grounds alone are not enough to preclude the possibility of ordaining women.
(9) In recent exegetical literature some argue that a woman named Junia is listed among the apostles in Romans 16:7. According to the Revised Standard Version the text reads: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” Although the best Greek manuscripts give the name Junias in masculine form, it is possible to follow a minority reading, in which case Andronicus and Junia would probably be a husband-and-wife team. It is debatable whether they are being named as apostles or simply designated as enjoying a high reputation among the apostles. If they are themselves named as “apostles,” the term “apostle” is here being used not in the sense of those who had seen the Lord and been officially commissioned as witnesses of the Gospel, but in a broad sense of the term as itinerant missionaries. See Francis Martin, The Feminist Question (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 100, and Manfred Hauke, Forum Katholische Theologie 11 (1995): 270-98, at 287-88.
(10) The letter of Pope Gelasius does not deal directly with the ordination of women, but in the reasons it gives for rejecting the service of women at the altar it implicitly teaches that women cannot be priests. See van der Meer, Women Priests, 93; Hauke, Women in the Priesthood? 423.
(11) See Hauke, Women in the Priesthood?, 445-68; Joseph A. Wahl, “The Exclusion of Woman From Holy Orders,” STD dissertation abstract (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1959), 45-58.
(12) See Augustine Thompson, “Hildegard of Bingen on Gender and the Priesthood,” Church History 63 (1994): 349-64.
(13) Edith Stein, Collected Works, Vol. 2, “Essays on Women” (Washington, D.C.: ICS Studies, 1987), esp. pp. 82-85. The historical context is well explained in Hilda C. Graef, The Scholar and the Cross: The Life and Work of Edith Stein (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1955).
(14) Paul VI, “Women—Disciples and Co-Workers,” Origins 4 (May 1, 1975): 718-19.
(15) Paul VI, Letter to Archbishop Donald Coggan, Nov. 30, 1975; Origins 6 (Aug. 12, 1976): 131.
(16) Nor, would it seem, are women to be numbered among the “proistamenoi” (1 Thes. 5:12) and “hegoumenoi” (Heb. 13:7, 24). See Martin, Feminist Question, 111.
(17) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol., Suppl. 39.1.
(18) Innocent III, Letter of Dec. 11, 1210 to the bishops of Palencia and Burgos, included in “Corpus Iuris, Decret.” Lib. 5, Tit. 38, De Paenit., Ch. 10 Nova; ed. A. Friedberg, Vol. 2, Col. 886-87; quoted in “Inter Insigniores,” Note 11.
(19) John Paul II, “Mulieris Dignitatem”: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, 26; Origins 18 (Oct. 6, 1988): 261-83, at 279.
(20) See especially his “Letter to Women” written in preparation for the U.N. World Conference on Women in September 1995; text in Origins 25 (July 27, 1995): 137-43.
(21) See Note 14 above.
(22) Text in Origins 19 (June 8, 1989): 64.
(23) Ratzinger, “Grenzen Kirchlicher Vollmacht,” 344-45.
(24) Vatican II, “Lumen Gentium” 25; profession of faith of 1989 (Origins 18 [March 16, 1989] 661, 663, at 663); “Donum Veritatis,” 16, p. 121.
(25) John XXIII, “Pacem in Terris,” 41; text in Joseph Gremillion, ed., The Gospel of Peace and Justice (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1976), 209-10.
(26) Vatican II, “Gaudium et Spes,” 4.