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Why continue the debate?

In 1977 the Holy Father issued a statement to the effect that women cannot be ordained priests. He said the Church could never change her mind on this point as it is part of Catholic doctrine and taught by Scripture. Obviously, the Pope does not want to discriminate against women but is speaking from a sense of duty. If such is the case, why should we continue the discussion on the ministry of women and so prolong the agony?

What I mean is this: nowadays theologians are never satisfied. They will continue stirring up things regardless of what the Church may say. Surely the Holy Father knows his theology and would not make such a statement without abundant proof. The common good would be much better served if theologians would be prepared to defend rather than dispute the directives from the Holy See. What is the use of theological debate if, instead of building up the Church, it makes people disgruntled and dissatisfied?

An opinion like the above is rather off-putting. Even well intentioned theologians - and there are some - will feel that a rug is jerked from under their feet. What is being questioned here is not the topic as such but the work of the theologian himself. He is virtually being told that there is no room for research, and that he must only defend the views forwarded by the Holy See. It is like reminding a doctor that it is his duty to cure not to aggravate disease.

Yet I think the opinion should be taken seriously, and that is why I am prepared to examine the fundamental question it raises.

Some theologians have caused confusion. A number of theological publications have indeed done more harm than good. People have a right to be annoyed at this. A theologian fulfills a public function in the Church. As such, he can be called upon to justify his actions like any other public servant.

The main question seems to be: should theologians fall in line once a statement has been issued by Rome? More specifically: are there sufficient grounds to continue the discussion on the ministry of women in spite of the Roman document of the 27th of January? In answering these questions, a lot depends on the function one ascribes to theology. If theology is supposed to do no more than give an intellectual boost to the party line, then the answer will be easy. If, however, theology is credited with the task of searching for truth, then the matter is not quite so easily decided.

Theology is indeed in the service of truth. It is, by definition, a reflection on revealed truth. It owes its highest allegiance to truth in whatever form this may present itself. The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) emphatically endorsed this search for truth and stated confidently that there could not be a clash between revealed truth and truth known through other channels. The reason is sound enough: God is the author of all truth and cannot contradict himself. If theology is faithful to truth, it cannot fail to be loyal to God and to his revelation.1

In theory this sounds fine; in practice it often leads to conflict. Or rather, in practice truth is often realised only after a fair amount of hard theological discussion. The teaching authority in the Church gives guidance in matters of doctrine and morals, but if and when this guidance does not seem to be in harmony with the truth as the theologian sees it then there is a conflict. The theologian will then be forced in conscience to continue the search for the truth and at times he may disagree or even raise his voice in protest. This is part of the function of the theologian within the Church.

Conflict with the Holy Father?

It is unfortunate that theological discussion within the Church confuses people or gives them the impression that we are losing our unity of faith and fellowship. After the publication of a document such as has now appeared regarding the ministry of women, many people will look on further developments as a conflict with the Holy Father on the one side and rebellious theologians on the other. Continuing the debate may also be made to look like defiance and a refusal to submit to the official teaching authority. A book like the present one might be branded by some as a revolt against the supremacy of the Holy Father.

Such a misunderstanding must be avoided. I should like therefore to spell out in detail my role as a Catholic theologian.

The correct attitude towards statements by the Pope has been described in these words by Vatican II:

'This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and sincere assent be given to decisions made by him, conformably with his manifest mind and intention, which is made known principally by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency by which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.' (The Church, No 25.)2

To tackle the question first from a strictly legal point of view, it should be noted that the document concerning the ministry of women was a declaration published and signed by the Sacred Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith. It received papal approval in an audience granted on 15 October, 1976. According to generally accepted ecclesiastical interpretation such doctrinal declarations by the Congregation do not impede further discussion. In at least two official interpretations given, it was authoritatively stated that such documents 'have not in the least the aim to forbid that Catholic writers should study the question further and, after carefully weighing the arguments on both sides, adhere to the contrary opinion...' (2 June 1927); and that 'such decisions do in no way oppose the further and really scientific study of such questions' (16 January 1948). It was generally agreed, even before Vatican II, that this interpretation should be extended to all documents of the same kind and that by their very nature, these documents do not exclude further discussion.3

During the Vatican Council the question of free theological discussion was incorporated into the Council statements. Public opinion, with freedom of expression as a necessary constituent, plays a part in the Church: it fosters dialogue within the Church.4 The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World speaks of such theological opinion when it states: 'All the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, tempered by humility and courage in whatever branch of study they have specialised.'5 In other words the ordinary teaching authority does not rule out the freedom of expression. That this was recognised in the council itself can be illustrated by the changes in the draft (10 November 1962) which contained the following phrase, borrowed from the encyclical Humani Generis: 'If the Supreme Pontiffs (in the ordinary magisterium) deliberately pass judgement on a matter hitherto controversial, it should be clear to all that according to the mind and will of the Popes, the matter may not be further discussed publicly by theologians.' This sentence, however, was dropped from the final text.6 The implication is obvious.

In their pastoral letter of 22 September 1967 the German Bishops speak at length about this problem posed by difficult statements of the ordinary magisterium. After admitting that in this ordinary magisterium 'the Church can be subject to error and has in fact erred', the Bishops affirm that, on certain conditions, individuals can disagree with the ordinary magisterium and that 'in certain circumstances the faithful should have the nature and limited scope of such provisional pronouncements (of the magisterium) explained to them'. The 'certain conditions' which they stipulate were the gravity of the question, the competence to judge, and a prudent pastoral application.7

Having discussed some of the legal aspects (much too long, but necessary, I am afraid), I should like to dwell especially on the spirit of theological obedience. When the Church demands 'a loyal submission of the will and intellect' she does not ask for a renunciation of one's own power to think. The Church demands a much more valuable service, namely the honest attempt to serve the faith with all one's intellectual powers. When speaking of obedience, Vatican II envisages such a total commitment: 'They should bring their powers of intellect and will and their gifts of nature and grace to bear on the execution of commands and on the fulfilment of the tasks laid upon them.'8 True loyalty to the truth, but also to the magisterium, requires willingness to question rather than readiness to conform. What may seem opposition at first, will eventually prove to be an active cooperation between the magisterium and the theologians towards one aim of a better formulated doctrine. Theologians play an important role in the continual reformation 'of which the Church has always a need', a reformation that also concerns 'deficiencies in the way that Church teaching has been formulated.'9 Rather than speaking of a conflict between the magisterium and dissenting theological opinion, one should think of both as elements in a living dialogue, both equally necessary for the Church's reformation.

The Pope himself sees the interplay between the teaching authority and theological study in this way. In his address to a congress of theologians on l October 1966 he stated: 'The magisterium draws great benefit from fervid and industrious theological study and from the cordial collaboration of the theologians... Without the help of theology the magisterium could undoubtedly preserve and teach the faith, but it would arrive only with difficulty at the lofty and full knowledge it needs to perform its task, since it is aware that it is not endowed with revelation or the charism of inspiration but only with the assistance of the Holy Spirit.' 10 An interesting incident of how theology and the magisterium influence one another is recorded and reflected on by G. Baum:

'On 11 July 1966, Pope Paul VI addressed a theological symposium meeting in Rome, on the subject of original sin. In the course of his talk, the Pope insisted that the Catholic theologian must hold that the universal sin into which man is born is a consequence of the disobedience of the single man Adam. The Catholic theologian must defend the position that all men are descendants of a single ancestor. According to press reports, the theologians present at Rome explained to Pope Paul that their meeting had studied this very question and that the available evidence hardly permitted, at this time, a categorical statement about the single ancestor Adam. When Pope Paul's talk was printed in L'Osservatore Romano of 15 July, significant changes had been made in the text. Instead of speaking of the single man Adam, the text simply referred to Adam, leaving room for wider interpretations of what the man Adam stands for.

This is a remarkable incident for which I know no parallel. We must be grateful to the watchful theologians, the faithful servants; and we must be grateful to Pope Paul for revising his judgement after having committed himself in public. We have here the introduction of a dialogue into the exercise of magisterium. What is a little frightening about the event is its incidental character. What would have happened if they had been timid men? Theological and doctrinal issues have become so complex in our day that a single person can no longer survey the material that must be studied ...'.11

The declaration on the ministry of women is basically a document drawn up by theologians who were requested by the Holy Father to study the question. The Holy Father has lent support to their study and ordered it to be published with his approval. It merits all the respect due to such a document. If however I feel it my duty to disagree with the scriptural and theological arguments put forward in the document - and such is my conviction -, it is not with the intention of opposing the Holy father or minimising his authority. Considering the importance of the subject matter and its great pastoral implications for the Church, I believe that a student of Scripture may not remain silent. The theological conclusions of the document seem to me totally unacceptable, and therefore harmful to the Church. I offer my view of the question in the spirit of intellectual loyalty described above.

Storm about a Scripture verse

What I have said so far will seem rather abstract and general. Those not directly familiar with theology may wonder how these principles work in practice. For such persons I thought it might be useful to relate two typical examples of how theology can be a laborious process, involving tears and blood, and dissent with prevailing theological opinion. The first example may seem trivial - it concerns only one verse from Scripture - but in fact it became a test case of theological warfare.

In 1897, the Holy Office decreed that Catholics should hold that a certain verse in the first letter of St John (the so-called comma ioannaeum, I Jn 5,7) was an authentic and inspired part of Scripture. This decree, approved by the Pope, was based on a passage in the Council of Trent which stated that 'all parts of Scripture as found in the Latin Vulgate are canonical and inspired'. The verse in question was found in the Vulgate. A doctrine proposed by a Church Council cannot be disputed. Therefore, the Holy Office argued, this verse too must be authentic and inspired.12

The decree was taken seriously by many 'loyal' Catholics. E. MANGENOT wrote: 'Every Catholic should submit to this disciplinary decree.' M. HETZENAUER maintained that the decree had doctrinal value; that it concerned the integrity of faith; that to doubt the authenticity of the verse in question would be the same as to 'deny that the Catholic Church is the infallible custodian and judge of the sacred books.'13

Scripture scholars were horrified. The disputed verse was not found in the old Greek manuscripts. It was even absent from the Latin translations until about the sixth century. One did not need to be a scholar to understand that the verse was a later addition, added to the inspired text more than five hundred years after John wrote his letter.14 Typical of the reaction of most scholars is what A. LOISY recorded in his memoirs:

'To tell the truth, this most recent decision of the Holy Office (regarding the comma joannaeum) was the most ridiculous blunder one could imagine... Our scholars in France, even the anti-clerical ones among them, refrained from poking a lot of fun at the expense of the Holy Office. But people in Germany enjoyed the joke immensely and even more so in England... After the blow of the bull (declaring Anglican Orders invalid) which the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had just parried by their learned reply, this next move of the Holy Office proved a beautiful chance to the Anglican theologians for taking revenge, and they did not lose time in enjoying their triumph.'15

Scripture scholars today are agreed that the text cannot be called authentic by any stretch of the imagination. When speaking about 'all parts of Scripture to be found in the Vulgate,' the Council of Trent did obviously not want to include such dubious later additions that could be proved to have crept into the text at a later date.

The Pope had expressed the wish that public support and mental assent should be given to such guidance of the Holy Office. Yet it is not difficult to see that no Catholic theologian worth his salt could possibly accept a decree such as that of 1897. In fact, he would fall short in his loyalty to the Church if he would not strive to point out the incongruity of the decision and to make his protest heard. Cardinal Vaughan, who happened to be in Rome at the time, was much distressed at the incident. He wrote some reassuring words to England: 'I have ascertained from an excellent source that the decree of the Holy Office on the passage of the Three Witnesses which you refer to, is not intended to close the discussion on the authenticity of that text.'16 But this was rather meagre solace in the light of the uncompromising text of the decree itself. For many years scholars - those who had the courage to think and speak out - risked their reputation and office in an effort to point out the mistake.17 It was only thirty years later, in 1927, that the Holy Office, with bad grace, admitted that it had been wrong.18 No apologies were offered. No praise was given to the theologians who had contributed, at so much personal cost, to a vindication of the truth.19

Popes, Bishops and Councils have waged an age-long battle against many forms of heresy that threatened to deform doctrine or weaken faith. On the whole they have done a good job, witness the way in which the Church has been preserved throughout the twenty centuries of her existence. But in their anxiety to preserve, to protect, to shield and to shelter, the teachers in the Church have often been tempted to be guided by a theology that defended the status quo, rather than by a new creative theological quest. On the other hand the Church placed before new situations has usually been helped most by the creative insight of theologies sensitive to new demands. Hence the frequent conflict between an over-cautious, conservative theology favoured by those in authority, and a daring, dynamic theology put forward by those in the front line of pastoral involvement.

The theology of slavery

It is interesting to study the development of theology in a question such as slavery. In the feudal society of the middle ages slavery was an accepted fact. Even bishops and superiors of monasteries possessed thousands of male and female slaves employed in skilled work or in cultivating the land. In some countries the Church was the richest landowner with the greatest number of slaves. With the colonisation of the New World, the slave trade was extended to the newly-conquered lands. In his bull of 1454, Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V gave his blessing to the practice of enslaving conquered peoples. Slavery existed in the Papal States until the end of the 18th century and in some ecclesiastical institutions still existed as late as 1864.20

Slavery was a phenomenon of its own time and should be understood in its social context. But it is instructive to read how the theology of the time justified the practice with arguments taken from Scripture and Tradition. The wish to be free was interpreted as a lack of humility, as unwillingness to accept the way God had created the world. Slaves were told not to worry about their human freedom, as they should be concerned more about their spiritual life. 'We measure all human things, not with the yardstick of the body, but with that of the spirit.' It was pointed out that Jesus accepted slavery as he refers to slaves in his parables (eg Lk 12, 42 ff; 17, 7 ff), and that Paul instructed slaves to 'submit voluntarily to their masters in a spirit of humble obedience' (1 Tim 6, 1; Eph 6, 6-7; etc).

Even great theologians like Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great and Duns Scotus, defended slavery on theological grounds. In the seventeenth century some moralists went as far as teaching that the right of slave-ownership was a part of Catholic doctrine:

'It is certainly a matter of faith (de fide) that this sort of slavery in which a man serves his master as his slave, is altogether lawful. This is proved from Holy Scripture, Lev 25, 39-55; 1 Pet 2, 18; 1 Cor 7, 20-24; Col 3, 11.22; 1 Tim 6, 1-10... It is also proved from reason for it is not unreasonable that just as things which are captured in a just war pass into the power and ownership of the victors, so persons captured in war pass into the ownership of the captors... All theologians are unanimous on this '21

A courageous theologian such as the Dominican missionary Bartholomew de las Casas who opposed the trend of thought of his days - 'No one may be deprived of his liberty nor may any person be enslaved'22 - was ridiculed and silenced. It was only when abolitionists had won their hardest battles for a truly egalitarian society that theology, too, came to its senses and re-examined the implications of 'the breaking down of all walls' accomplished by Christ.23 Full ecclesiastical recognition of this came only through the Second Vatican Council, which vindicated the basic equality of all human persons and called on all 'to spare no effort to banish every vestige of social and political slavery and to safeguard basic human rights under every political system' (Church in the Modern World, 29).24 Our breasts may swell at hearing this noble clarion call. It is a good thing to have it in our documents, yet I feel it is hardly a great achievement in our own day and age. Shouldn't we rather, as a Church, be proud of those rare thinkers and pastors who decried slavery on theological grounds when the common opinion and ecclesiastical thought still supported slavery? Is our best theology the one that runs after the facts and condones existing situations or the one which dares to confront established opinion with the objective demands of the Gospel?

The acceptance of slavery and the discrimination against women are closely related. In the same passage already quoted above, the Second Vatican Council states, 'Forms of social and cultural discrimination in basic personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, colour, social conditions, language or religion, must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God's design. It is regrettable that these basic personal rights are not yet being respected everywhere, as is the case with women who are denied the chance freely to choose a husband, or state of life, or to have access to the same educational and cultural benefits as are available to men.' Excluding women from the ministry of the Church is, prima facie, a clear form of ecclesiastical discrimination. It is my view, shared by other Scripture scholars and theologians, that the theological reasons adduced to support the exclusion of women from the priesthood are basically an attempt to justify the status quo and rest on a mistaken interpretation of the New Testament message. However disconcerting it may be to some, the discussion must therefore be continued until the truth in its totality is recognised and accepted.


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© Copyright 1986 by J.N.M.Wijngaards
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