Crisis Editors on the Male Priesthood

On November 20, the Congregation for the Sacred Doctrine of the Faith declared that Sacerdatio ordinatio, restricting priestly ordination to men, represents a confirmation of the infallible teaching of the ordinary magisterium. The meager coverage afforded by the secular media has been at once shrill and unsure. Crisis asked our contributing editors for their brief, initial responses to the pronouncement. Some spoke to the issue of women’s ordination itself. Others defended the exercise of the ordinary magisterium against the barrage of criticism and dissent.

Robert Royal

It is good to have the Roma Locuto on the question of women’s ordination. Many will dissect what it really means for years to come. But what worries me most about this pronouncement is the sad postmodern situation that makes it necessary. Advocates for women’s ordination and other progressives may blame Rome for harsh action. Perhaps they have a point. But what of the climate they have created in which every settled matter of faith and morals, settled that is by the ordinary magisterium, has been placed in radical doubt? Past beliefs have all been historicized and contextualized to deprive them of any binding nature while current shibboleths have the force of absolute truth. This goes far beyond the women’s ordination question because it’s getting to the point where there will be no ordinary magisterium. Since everything not already explicitly declared de fide has been put up for grabs, the Church may find itself in the strange position of needing extraordinary pronouncements to settle what is ordinary. Anyone with a love for Christ and his Church must recognize that if it comes to that we will be in for difficult times indeed.

Mary F. Rousseau

The inability of the Church to ordain women is not due to anyone’s decree—not the pope’s, not Cardinal Ratzinger’s, not anyone else’s. It is a fact of the world, of the way things are.

Priests are sacraments, standing in the place of Jesus Christ in the representing of his death in each mass. His death was not primarily the physical act of separating his body and blood in the crucifixion. That separation was essential, and is symbolized in the mass by the separate offering and then consecration of bread and wine. Jesus’ dying was a human event, His own choice. It was not, in its essence, the awful thing done to him by others. He died actively, out of love for his Father. As we say in every mass, it was “a death he freely accepted.” He died because his love for his Father led him to love us sinners, and to love us “to the end.”

That love was not episodic, occurring only once in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It continues forever in the heart of the Risen Christ. The priest in the mass provides his heart as the locus, in a given time and place, of the timeless love of the Risen Christ. Christ’s love is masculine, even as his human nature is masculine. It cannot exist sacramentally in a feminine heart. Sacraments have to have their proper matter. And so, a bishop might say the words of ordination over a woman, and she might then say the words of mass. But in both cases, nothing real would happen. The language, as we say, would not be performative.

Those who believe that reserving ordination to men denigrates women seem not to understand the role of gender in our personal identities. Being masculine or feminine is not peripheral, like eye color or musical talent. Jesus’ male gender is central to who he is. It is central to the identities of those who stand in his place as sacraments of his love. But gender isn’t what saves us, nor does it determine our dignity. Only holiness does that. And the Church has, from the beginning, canonized women. Women thus recognized for their holiness are held up as role models for men—including those men who have the awesome call to offer their male hearts as sacraments of Jesus’ love for his Father, and for us sinners whom the Father loves.

John Hass

Frankly, I do not think the Responsum ad dubium will make much difference in the life of the Church. Reactions to it were thoroughly predictable. I fear it will simply engender more of the same—an ongoing undermining of the teaching authority of the magisterium—because no action is taken against those who publicly disagree with the teaching. The term “magisterium” refers to the teaching office of the bishops and the pope, not to their ruling office. But bishops are to govern as well as to teach, and this requires occasionally disciplining those who would publicly teach what is clearly contrary to Catholic faith and practice. To do so is to manifest charity for the members of the Church who can be scandalized or led into error by the bishops’ apparent toleration of a false teaching.

John Paul II’s Ordinatio sacerdotalis which stated that women could not be ordained to the priesthood was, admittedly, a hard teaching for many Catholics of our day. The Church is no stranger to hard sayings, thanks to the influence of its Divine Founder! Acknowledging that Humanae vitae’s teaching on the immortality of contraception would be difficult to accept, Paul VI said: “To diminish in no way the saving teaching of Christ constitutes an eminent form of charity for souls.” In other words, it is out of her love for souls, out of her love for married couples, that the Church insistently reminds the faithful that contraception is immoral. Likewise, it is unloving, uncharitable, to allow people to think that the day might come when women will be ordained priests or bishops. The practice of a male priesthood must remain ever so because we believe it reflects the mind of the divine Redeemer. The priesthood will always be male so that the Bride of Christ, the Church, will always be able to perceive in the priest a faithful icon of her Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Anne Husted Burleigh

The recent definitive pronouncement that the church has authority to ordain only men as priests is a blessing to all the faithful. We know now that the dissident argument for women’s ordination is put to rest. The Church shows once again that although she responds to questions that arise at a particular time in history, she transcends time and the world, and her mission is to lift us beyond our narrow vision to the Lord’s vision for us. The Church protects us from reducing God and ourselves to the misshapen conceptions of this or that century. The Church, in transcending political questions, continually enlarges our understanding of who we are, so that we may conform to the Lord’s grand and exciting plan for us. A male priesthood is part of that revealed plan. Far from denigrating women, the plan of revelation puts the priesthood in service to women and to all the faithful.

Daniel J. Mahoney

It is necessary to reflect more widely and deeply than is usually done on the social and political context within which the debate over women’s ordination unfolds. Such a reflection can help us appreciate the reasons why Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation of the Faith felt compelled to take the extraordinary step of pronouncing as infallible the teaching on priestly ordination of women presented in John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis.

It is precisely the radical weakening of the ordinary teaching authority of the Church that made such an unusual step necessary in the eyes of Rome. The objections that are typically raised to the Church’s authoritative teaching on the ordination of women are rarely genuinely theological in character. Instead, they reflect a profoundly “democratic” prejudice that identifies the core of Christianity with an all-inclusive egalitarianism and humanitarianism. The Church’s age-old position, grounded in Scripture and tradition, in the teaching of Christ, and in a rational reflection on the natural and supernatural destiny of man and woman, challenges the dogma of the democratic world, an ideology of humanitarian egalitarianism that rejects any affirmation of human differences rooted in a natural and divine order. The challenge to the magisterial authority of the Church from within and the widespread dismissal of her teaching as antidemocratic by the secular world are not accidental. The Church is the one spiritual body in the modern world that dares to proclaim the reality of a natural order and hence the relevance of that order for the governance of the Church and even for the governance of a democratic political order (which she freely if cautiously and prudentially welcomes and embraces.)

Today our “dissenting” theologians never speak about the order of nature and grace but instead trumpet the ideals of late modernity: equality, human “autonomy,” the “liberation” of the individual from ecclesiastical and political restraints. In response, the Vatican feels compelled to remind the modern world that the teaching of the Church on priesthood and the complementary roles of man and woman in the economy of salvation is neither a sexist prejudice nor a holdover from medieval patriarchalism but rather a central and eternal affirmation of “the truth about man.” Meanwhile the crisis continues: American bishops, ignorant of the theological implications of their accommodation to militant feminism and the radical democratic spirit, promote “inclusive” translations of Scripture that owe their inspiration exclusively to democratic dogma rather than to the transpolitical truth about man.

Tim Bethel

All that talk of a few old men in Rome—then comes a sign of testosterone. Not so old after all! What rage in response. The pope is “out of step,” says the perennial dissenter from Notre Dame, Richard McBrien. (Did he say the Supreme Court was out of step when it outlawed the abortion laws of fifty states?)

Schism talk. Well, Rome needn’t worry too much about that. Not in the U.S. at least. If what the feminists want is to set up shop as priestesses they are free to leave at any time. No law or church-state entanglement prevents them from doing so. But of course that is not what they want. Their real goal is to subvert the Church. And that can only be done from within. Outside it, they lose all traction with the media. They are deprived of their all important “dissenter” status. It is at times like this that we can appreciate the wisdom of the disestablishment of the Church (and of all denominations). More than a hundred years ago, this way condemned—by old men in Rome!—as “Americanism.” Today, I dare say, it is looked upon more favorably.

George Sim Johntson

“Can the Pope be Wrong?” runs an op-ed headline in The New York Times, which has the usual welcome mat out for Catholic dissenters. The author of the piece is scandalized that the Vatican has declared the ban on female ordination “infallible.” But Rome was only confirming the obvious: any teaching of the ordinary magisterium regarding such doctrinal questions demands from Catholics a “loyal submission of the will and intellect.” The words are from Lumen gentium #25, a key Vatican II text about which dissenters do not wish to be reminded. The battle between Catholic orthodoxy and heterodoxy really comes down to what the Council Fathers had to say about papal authority. The left rejects the Council’s teachings about the authority of the ordinary magisterium; but faithful Catholics can be grateful that Christ left a teaching office that need not define every doctrine ex cathedra in order for it to be held as objectively true.

John Hittinger

John Paul has spoken against sexism, he has allowed girl servers, he has accentuated the vital and multifaceted contributions that women make to the Church and to society; he also says that the Church cannot ordain women as priests. Certain factions of the Church will continue to agitate, to rob people of their peace of heart, and to stir up resentment based upon a lie—that this practice means that women are of lesser dignity and constitutes discrimination against them. It is in fact the “faithful observance of a plan ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe.” Ordinatio sacerdotalis makes very reasonable arguments and exposes the flawed assumptions of the case for female ordination. Not fully persuaded? Welcome to the domain of faith, and to the faith of the Catholic Church. As Newman said: “Ecclesiastial authority, not argument, is the supreme rule and the guide for Catholics in matters of religion.” He further states that “such a decision not only demands our submission, but has a claim upon our trust.” The pope, in accord with Lumen gentium, 25.2 and Luke 22:32, must confirm the brethren in their faith. This is fully appropriate and timely. Will Catholics respond in faith, the faith of Newman, the faith of the conciliar fathers, the Catholic faith?

Christopher Wolfe

During his pontificate, John Paul II has presented the Church’s teaching to the world with a sober and confident optimism that it is the only way out of the problems of modernity that are increasingly difficult to ignore. Nonetheless, it is difficult for many even of his own flock to trascend the Zeitgeist, especially when religious education for so long has been reluctant to preach unpopular truths, and when some of these truths (e.g., those regarding sexual morality) are at times difficult to live, particularly in an affluent and materialistic society.

Often, the excuse that soothes consciences that balk at accepting the teachings of the Church is that these truths have not been declared infallibly. The pope has accurately recognized that the Church’s time-immemorial teaching restricting the priesthood to me is a sign of contradiction in our egalitarian times. Compelled by his duty to maintain the deposit of faith, he is offering the faithful the unambiguous guidance they need so very much. Without such guidance for the faithful, the Church’s teaching would be subject to modification according to the intellectual fashions of each age.

Many Catholics, unfortunately, will simply persist in their own self-devised, rationalized magisteria. But many will be crucially influenced by the examples of loyalty or disloyalty that they see around them. It is imperative, then, that all Catholics come to a deeper understanding of their own responsibilities to pass on the faith to the next generation in all its fullness, undiluted by the prejudices of the age in which we live. And all this, of course, with charity.

Evelyn Birge Vitz

I am grateful for the pronouncement on priestly ordination—indeed, I had long hoped for it. So, that is that. The permanent resolution of theological debates is one of the major purposes of infallible promulgations. Will Catholics submit? Many (perhaps especially journalists) hope that all hell will break loose; that outraged Catholics will press for further debate on—and a different resolution to—this question, or that there will be schism.

Will this happen? I think not. Those who strongly favor the ordination of women now know that the Church will not do it; infallible promulgations are irreversible. Dissidents can vote with their feet and become (for example) Anglicans. Why establish a schismatic Church? It’s been done; there are several around already. Moreover, no bishop or seminary-rector who desires to appear loyal can continue to give institutional support to dissidents—and schism is expensive. Loyal Catholics will, I believe, accept that this issue is now history.

Scott Walter

Every advocate of ordaining women I have met has said, essentially, “But it’s the ’90s!” Although theologians in prominent Catholic universities can produce more elaborate justifications for ordaining women (or for any other imaginable change in the Church’s unchanging tradition) one wonders if even they take their abstruse words seriously. I suspect that they, too, simply feel that the Church is behind the times.

And yet, judging the Church by the world’s standards is wrong, for the Body of Christ does not give truths as the world gives truths. Culpability perhaps lies not only with those who repeat the world’s truths, but also with those members of the Body charged with teaching all nations. If a disturbingly high proportion of persons have no idea what the Church actually teaches about men, women, and priests, fault must lay not only in the untaught but in the teachers, and not only in how we teach but in how we live as men, women, and priests.


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