Women's Ordination and Infallible Teaching, An Inquiry

Was The Teaching Infallible?

[The First Essay On the Women's Ordination Ban]

In this, the first of three essays, I want to raise some considerations regarding the question of whether the ban on women priests has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium -- a claim (fallibly) put forward in the 'Responsum ad dubium' of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith dated October 28, 1995 and published November 18, 1995, which followed the publication of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (OS) by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

There are only 3 ways a doctrine can be infallibly taught in the Church:

  1. by a solemn 'ex cathedra' teaching act of the pope's infallible extaordinary magisterium, as defined at Vatican I and further explained at Vatican II;
  2. by a solemn dogmatic definition by a valid ecumenical council; and
  3. by a teaching of the 'ordinary and universal magisterium' (see Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 'Lumen gentium', section 25, for an explanation of all three 'modes' of infallibility).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued an explanatory text, "Vatican Reflections on the Teaching of 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis'", accompanying its 'Responsum ad Dubium' and the Cover Letter which was sent to the Presidents of the Bishops' Conferences, and which was published in the November 19, 1995 issue of the official Vatican newspaper "L'Osservatore Romano". This explanatory text, though itself unsigned, was almost certainly written by Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF, since it bore a marked resemblance to an article written by Cardinal Ratzinger which appeared earlier in the theological journal Communio. Since it was issued along with the Responsum and the official Cover Letter signed by Cardinal Ratzinger, and published in the Vatican newspaper, we may suppose it states the official position. Let me now quote from it:

"In fact, as the reply [Responsum] explains, the definitive nature of this assent derives from the truth of the doctrine itself since....it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary universal magisterium (cf. Lumen gentium, 25).... It should be emphasized that the definitive and infallible nature of this teaching of the church did not arise with the publication of the letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.... In this case, an act of the ordinary papal magisterium, in itself not infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of a teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the church."

[Quoted in "ORIGINS" (Catholic News Service), November 30, 1995, page 405. Emphases added. See also "L'Osservatore Romano", November 19, 1995]

The same judgement, viz. that OS was not an exercize of the infallible extraordinary papal magisterium is reiterated in the same issue of "ORIGINS" by Fr Gus DiNoia, O.P., Secretary for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices at the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The same point has been noted by Fr Avery Dulles S.J., a noted supporter of the Vatican's teaching on women's ordination, in an article in "The Tablet" in December 1995, and again by Fr Hermann Josef Pottmeyer (a member of the International Theological Commission at Rome), also writing in "The Tablet" (November 2, 1996).

Thus, it has been authoritatively and explicitly denied that the pope had been exercizing his infallible extraordinary magisterium in OS. Instead, OS is described as a teaching act of the pope that was "itself not infallible", but which simply (i.e. non-infallibly) reiterates a teaching that is claimed to be already infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium. That is the official Vatican position.

(NB: in approving the acts of the CDF, the pope himself indicated his concurrence with the CDF's opinion that the teaching has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium. But this indication by the pope of his approval of that view is not itself and logically cannot have been an exercize of papal infallibility. For if it was so intended, the pope would have involved himself in a logical contradiction, by (ex hypothesi) infallibly declaring, on the one hand, that the teaching was infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium--and thus teaching the doctrine by his infallible magisterium, while, on the other hand, and through the very same acts of the CDF, explicitly denying that he had exercized his extraordinary magisterium in the matter. Not even a pope can infallibly teach a contradiction!)

So there has been no 'ex cathedra' infallible pronouncement by the pope on the issue of women's ordination. Nor has there ever been a conciliar dogmatic definition ruling out the possibility of women's ordination. So the only way this doctrine could have been infallibly taught was by an infallible exercize of the Church's ordinary magisterium.

It is important to assess whether the CDF's opinion - itself fallible - that the doctrine has been infallibly taught in this third manner is correct, because Canon 750 of the Code of Canon Law requires that infallibly taught doctrine should receive the assent of faith (it 'must be believed with divine and catholic faith' as belonging to the deposit of divine revelation); whereas non-infallible doctrine need only receive 'religiosum intellectus et voluntatis obsequium', which the official US English translation renders as 'religious respect of intellect and will' (Canon 752, emphasis added). It is possible to accord a doctrine such respect while witholding the assent of faith (for otherwise the distinction would not be drawn in this way in the Code). So is the CDF's opinion correct?

First, what is meant by saying something has been taught infallibly by the ordinary magisterium? At Vatican II the question was explained thus:

"Although individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, nevertheless, even though dispersed throughout the world, but maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, when in teaching authentically matters concerning faith and morals they agree about a judgment as one to be definitively held, they infallibly proclaim the teaching of Christ. This takes place even more clearly when they are gathered together in an ecumenical council and are the teachers and judges of faith and morals for the whole church. Their definitions must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.

"This infallibility, however, with which the divine redeemer willed his church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals, extends just as far as the deposit of divine revelation that is to be guarded as sacred and faithfully expounded....But when the Roman Pontiff or the body of bishops together with him define a decision, they do so in accordance with revelation itself, by which all are obliged to abide and to which all must conform....The Roman Pontiff and the bishops, in virtue of their office and the seriousness of the matter, work sedulously through the appropriate means duly to investigate this revelation and give it suitable expression. However, they do not accept any new public revelation as belonging to the divine deposit of faith." (Lumen gentium 25).

The translation is that from Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, edited by Norman Tanner S.J. - (I like using this translation because I was the translator for the documents of the Second Lateran Council which this work also includes.) The Abbot translation changes nothing of significance, the key part in that version reading as follows:
"Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly. This is so, when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter's successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively."
So our question is, does the ban on women priests fall under the scope of the type of infallibility which these texts define? On the face of it, (my answer is that) it is dubious that it does. The requirement for infallibility here is quite strong. The College of Bishops as a whole in union with the pope must teach the matter as one which is to be "held definitively" or "conclusively". Moreover, the scope of such a teaching cannot extend beyond what is already contained in the deposit of divine revelation. The bishops collectively are supposed to have engaged in sedulous investigation of the deposit of divine revelation beforehand, and the teaching cannot be anything new, or added on to the original deposit of faith. The bishops cannot just invent a new doctrine which previous generations of bishops had no way of knowing was contained in the deposit of faith.

Has the College of Bishops ever, then, as a moral whole, though dispersed around the world, but in communion with one another and with the successor of Peter, agreed on the judgment that women cannot be ordained, that this judgment is a doctrine belonging to the deposit of faith, and that it is to be held definitively or conclusively as such?

On the face of it, this has simply never happened. Remember, they have to teach this doctrine with moral unanimity. They have to teach it as belonging to divine revelation. They have to teach it as being a doctrine to be held definitively by all the faithful. Where and when has this happened? The CDF gives no answer to these questions--it merely asserts that it has happened. But this assertion is fallible (even though shared personally by the pope). It certainly does not itself command the assent of faith (indeed no statement by a Curial Congregation per se can command such assent, for only the College of Bishops in union with the pope, or the pope alone when he exercizes his special charism of infallibility can proclaim a doctrine in such a way that the proper Catholic response is that of "assensus fidei".)

For a doctrine to be infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium, merely taking a practice for granted is not enough. Silence is not enough. Not even teaching something as such is enough.

Let me give some examples of ordinary (non-infallible) episcopal and papal teachings which were later modified. At one time it was officially taught

(compare on this point the teaching of 'Quadragesimo anno' with that of 'Populorum progresssio'). These teachings have been changed or at least extensively qualified and modified. So the mere fact that something was taught by the hierarchy at some time and place is not by itself enough to confirm that the teaching in question has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium.

Fr Avery Dulles S.J. (a noted opponent of the ordination of women) observes in his book, The Survival of Dogma, the following common sense assumption: "No doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time." For example, for centuries the bishops presupposed that the figures of Adam and Eve in Genesis were literal, historical human individuals. They didn't question this because the modern scientific treatment of human origins had not arisen. Fr Dulles continues:

"whenever the state of the evidence on any question materially changes, you have a new question that cannot be fully answered by appealing to old authorities."

Aquinas taught that women were intrinsically inferior to men, Is this a tenable view now? Is the state of the question and the evidence relevant to answering it correctly the same now as in Aquinas's time? No, of course not. As Elizabeth Johnson writes, "let it be plainly stated that women are icons of Christ, 'imago Christi', in every essential way. There is a natural resemblance of a common humanity and participation in divine grace. To teach otherwise is a pernicious error that vitiates the power of baptism. The naive physicalism that reduces resembling Christ to being male is so deviant from Scripture and so theologically distorted as to be dangerous to the faith itself." (Commonweal, 26 January 1996).

In the next two essays of this series, I will take up the following issues:

  1. the behavior of Jesus
  2. the teachings of Saint Paul
  3. some patristic interventions
  4. the distinction between discipline, law and custom on the one hand, and faith on the other.
  5. the officially documented criteria for establishing that a doctrine has been infallibly taught.
Peter Burns, S.J.

-End of Part 1 of 3-

Correspondence to Soline Vatinel and Colm Holmes / basic@indigo.ie
Maintained by Diarmuid UaConaill / duacon@iol.ie - Last update 6-Mar-1999

[Home Page] [Essay 2] [Essay 3]