Revised: Non-ordination of women: Not a dogma?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 04, 2019

[October 4, 2019: In response to many questions from those who had trouble with the argument, I have revised this essay from earlier in the week. If you found it confusing, I hope you will read it again.]

One of the key drafters of the working document for the Amazon Synod, Bishop Erwin Kräutler, has solemnly declared that John Paul II’s statement that the Church cannot ordain women is not a dogma (see this story). What burns me about this is that it is a deliberate attempt to confuse people. It is the standard line of Modernists when they want to cast one of the Church’s teachings into doubt.

But can you spell Red Herring?

In logical argument, a “red herring” is the introduction of a point which appears to undermine an argument, but in reality is completely off the topic or irrelevant to the argument. In this case, the argument would be that the Church has determined definitively that she cannot ordain women. This is what Pope St. John Paul II concluded, and very precisely stated, in his 1994 Apostolic Letter, On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone. Here, in fact, is that precise conclusion:

4. Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.

So the question is settled definitively by the Magisterium of the Church. But along comes Bishop Erwin to proclaim that this decision is not a dogma, and we see at once that, in the lead-up to the Amazon Synod—which includes in its working document a question about the possibility of ordaining women for the priest-starved region—this statement is designed to cast into doubt the absolute certainty that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood.

It is all a trick, you see. Yes, it really is true that John Paul II’s teaching is not a dogma. But welcome to Red Herrings 101: The Church teaches with absolute certainty many things that are not dogmas.

A “dogma” is something very specific: It is a truth of the Faith (a) central to God and His work of redemption, (b) that we know from Divine Revelation; or (c) a related truth so closely linked to such a truth as to be essential to its preservation; and (d) a truth that has been proposed as such by the Magisterium of the Church. Therefore, we must eliminate from our minds the false idea that a dogma is any truth whatsoever that we know from the Magisterium of the Church to be absolutely true.

The largest area in which we can find absolute certainty without any dogmatic definitions is the whole field of morality. Remember that the content of the faith is revealed through Jesus Christ in Scripture and Tradition but that, for the most part at least, moral truths are revealed through the “book of nature”, which we call the Natural Law. The Church has equal authority to teach infallibly on faith and morals, whether known from the “Book of Revelation” or from the “Book of Nature” (as St. Augustine put it). But what the Church teaches in morals does not meet the definition of dogma, because it is not identified as part of Divine Revelation which can be known only through Faith; therefore, a moral teaching is not generally even regarded as a “truth of the Faith”.

Instead, a teaching drawn from the Natural Law is, rather, a moral principle, which all can know through reason. But it is still encompassed by the Church’s teaching authority, and her power to bind and loose. For that authority applies to all matters of faith and morals that God has revealed, both in Revelation and in Nature.

Now, it so happens that Pope St. John Paul II’s determination of the impossibility of the ordination of women is an instance of a third type of truth. It pertains not to a truth drawn from Divine Revelation but to the absence of a truth that is necessary to the case. In fact, John Paul II’s whole point is that the ordination of women is not included in Revelation. The sacraments of the Church are all instituted by Christ, and are carried out in the manner he revealed. The Church can no more make up a new sacrament, or a new way of conferring a sacrament, or a new subject of a sacrament than she can decide to make up her own ways of transmitting grace apart from the ways that Christ Himself established. The economy of grace depends absolutely on the institutions of Jesus Christ. Period.

So note again John Paul II’s conclusion: “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.”

This is not a statement about a truth of the Faith that has been revealed—that is, it is in no sense a definition of some positive reality known only through Revelation; this is why the Pope refers to it as a judgment. It is a statement that the Church cannot sacramentalize some practice precisely because her authority to do that has not been revealed.

Let me clarify the case further by indulging in a little speculation. If God had revealed that men alone are capable of ordination because they correspond to Christ in a particular way not shared by women—or any other highly significant Revelation of this type—I suppose that, if precisely formulated and deemed by the Church to be a central feature of the work of Redemption, this point of Divine Revelation might rise to the level of a dogma. But we do not have anything of this kind.

We do not know why the Church was not given the authority to ordain women. Many ideas have been suggested as to why the decision to ordain only males is particularly fitting, but fittingness is always speculative and, indeed, the weakest form of theological argument. No, the whole point is that we are left in the dark. We can only guess. Putting the matter as simply as possible, there is no dogmatic material here.

Therefore, as a matter of the definition of words, the Church’s inability to ordain women is not a dogma. It is just a fact. The Church cannot do it because she does not have the authority from Christ to do it.

That is something well within the competence of the Magisterium to determine and declare. Finally, in making this definitive judgment, Pope John Paul II simply confirmed the constant understanding, belief and practice of the Church since its founding.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 07, 2019 11:23 AM ET USA

    Jim.K: Thanks for your clarification, Jim. Yes, Magisterial statements can be infallible without being dogmas. A good modern example is Pope St. Paul VI's teaching that contraception is intrinsically immoral within marriage. This moral teaching is infallible, but it is not a dogma of the Catholic Faith. This could be so for a variety of reasons, but the most obvious one is that it is not known through Revelation (which is always the origin of a dogma) but through the Natural Law. The Pope is infallible when he (a) uses his supreme Petrine authority (b) to teach (c) on a matter of faith or morals (d) to the whole Church--as Pope St. John Paul II did (expressly and explicitly, to leave no room for doubt) when issuing his judgment on the reservation of the priesthood to males.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Oct. 05, 2019 6:08 PM ET USA

    Jeff, I agree with everything you wrote, I think I always did. But let me clarify my question. Is there a difference between a “dogma” and an “infallible statement?” JPII’s statement seems to qualify as an infallible statement. Pope, Faith and Morals, binding the entire Church” etc. Can it be “infallible” and yet, not a “dogma?” I’m not smart enough to argue the “must be in revelations” thing. Can a Pope make an infallible statement re: something not in revelation? That’s all I wanted to know.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 04, 2019 5:54 PM ET USA

    john.aerts6220: This quotation from Cardinal Müller certainly gives me pause, making me wonder if I've missed something. But this is not an official statement of any kind, and it differs with the way in which Cardinal Ratzinger analyzed it when writing officially, with papal approval, as head of the CDF. In response to a dubium, the CDF under Ratzinger ruled in 1995 that John Paul II's teaching on the male priesthood in Ordinatio sacerdotalis is to "be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith". Later, in his commentary on the same Pope's 1998 Apostolic Letter (motu proprio) Ad tuendam fidem, which inserted certain norms into Canon Law which distinguished two categories of doctrine, Ratzinger (again, officially as head of the CDF) explained that these two categories were (1) Doctrines that are revealed irreformably as such, and (2) Doctrines which, while not revealed as such, are either defined ex cathedra or taught "infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church". Theologians commonly locate the doctrine on the male priesthood in the second category. But the point for my purposes is that, in the aftermath of Pope John Paul II's judgment, nobody, despite innumerable opportunities, chose to characterize it as a dogma. Again, this does not make it any less true. It's just a different kind of a thing.

  • Posted by: john.aerts6220 - Oct. 04, 2019 12:16 PM ET USA

    I was wondering how what Cardinal Muller as once chief doctrinal head, witnessed, fits in: Cardinal Müller: “It is certainly without doubt, however, that this definitive decision from Pope John Paul II is indeed a dogma of the Faith of the Catholic Church and that this was of course the case already before this Pope defined this truth as contained in Revelation in the year 1994.”

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 03, 2019 7:40 PM ET USA

    Just a note about semantics. Dogmatic theology can go by different names; among these are speculative theology and theoretical theology. Moral theology can also go by a different name: practical theology. When considering whether a given divine or Catholic truth can be described as a dogma or not, it is good to recall the semantic that summarizes your excellent explanations. One may profitably take the shorter versions (e.g., "speculative," "theoretical," "practical") as efficient summaries.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 02, 2019 5:36 PM ET USA

    Jim.K: I'm sorry if this was not clear. There are many things in the Catholic faith that are solemnly taught and therefore absolutely certain but do not fit the definition of a dogma. Examples I used were moral teaching (moral truths are not dogmas) and, in this case, a declaration that something is absent from Revelation that the Church would need if it were to ordain women. The lack of a particular authority is never going to be defined as a dogma. It is not the right type of truth. It is, if you will, an absence of a truth necessary to the case in question.

    Dogmas are essentially statements which describe positive realities known only through Divine Revelation in Jesus Christ, central to this Revelation, and declared as such by the Church. The first examples are the propositions in the Apostles' Creed. The FACT that Christ did not give some authority to His Church is not a dogma of the Faith because it does not meet the definition of a dogma. Neither is the immorality of murder.

    Catholics often have the idea that a dogma is a dogma because it is something true as formulated beyond any shadow of a doubt. Dogmas are certainly formulated beyond any shadow of a doubt, but they are more than that: They are a certain kind or category or class of truth. It is correct that the Catholic understanding of some doctrine of faith can be crystallized precisely by the Magisterium into a dogmatic formulation. But that cannot happen, no matter what the precision and certainty, unless we are dealing with a doctrine of revealed Faith. A truth will never be called a dogma unless it is some centrally important positive statement about God or His work known through Revelation.

    I suppose it is possible that Our Lord could have revealed something doctrinal about ordination that would enable us to know exactly why He did not confer the authority to ordain women, such that we would know as an article of faith the precise role of maleness in the Sacrament of Orders. Maybe that could have been developed into a dogma. But in fact we have nothing like this, and we are left to speculate. Instead, what the Church has determined with certainty is that she does not have the authority to confer the sacrament on women. There is, shall we say, no positive dogmatic content in that lack of authority.

    Again, a truth won't be called a dogma if it is, for example, a statement about something God did not do or a statement about something known from God through the Natural Law. Indeed, the whole point of this discussion is that saying something is not a dogma does not say anything about its certainty when we are not dealing with a matter capable, by definition, of dogmatic formulation. Saying something IS a dogma does, of course, establish its precision and its certainty, but by definition it has to be a certain kind of truth to be classified as a dogma.

    Since this is the case, it is impossible to dismiss other kinds of truths because they are "not dogmas". A great many things are certain without being in the category of "dogma". And it is parlor trick to suggest that something that cannot be classified as dogma must be considered uncertain because it is not a dogma. That is not a problem if we are dealing with a different type of truth.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Oct. 02, 2019 12:56 AM ET USA

    Jeff, Although I know better than to argue with you, consider this; “...a matter of faith and morals...” in virtue of my ministry”...”I,declare...”defiantly held by all the Church’s faithful...” That sounds like Pope, and magisterium, on faith or morals, to the entire Church. I don’t recall anything about “divine revelations being a condition. Immaculate Conception, yes, Assumption, maybe. I’m not arguing or challenging, but could you please develop your argument about “revelation” more fully?