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Some Observations Concerning the Catholic Theological Society of America Report on Tradition and the Ordination of Women

by NCCB Doctrine Committee

Descriptive Title

NCCB Doctrine Committee Response to CTSA on Women's Ordination


This is the response by the National Council of Catholic Bishops' Doctrine Committee to the Catholic Theological Association of America's challenge to the Church's teaching on women's ordination.

Larger Work

Origins Vol. 27, No. 16



Publisher & Date

Catholic News Service, September 19, 1997

By the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, released by committee chairman Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnatti, September 19, 1997.

In June 1996, the Catholic Theological Society of America received the first draft of a report titled "Tradition and the Ordination of Women" (cf. Origins 26, No. 6, June 27, 1996, pp. 90-94), which raised serious questions with regard to the Responsum ad dubium of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Oct. 28, 1995) on the reservation of holy orders to men. During the business meeting of the June 1997 CTSA convention in Minneapolis, the membership present voted to endorse the conclusion of the report, which was subsequently published (cf. Origins 27, No. 5, June 19, 1997, pp. 75-79). The conclusion reads as follows:

"There are serious doubts regarding the nature of the authority of this teaching [namely the teaching that the church's lack of authority to ordain women to the priesthood is a truth that has been infallibly taught and requires the definitive assent of the faithful] and its grounds in tradition. There is serious, widespread disagreement on this question not only among theologians, but also within the larger community of the church.... [flurther study, discussion and prayer regarding this question by all the members of the church in accord with their particular gifts and vocations are necessary if the church is to be guided by the Spirit in remaining faithful to the authentic tradition of the Gospel in our day."

On June 11, 1997, the president of the CTSA sent copies of the report and the resolution endorsing its conclusion to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, who in turn asked the Committee on Doctrine to review these materials and develop an appropriate response to them. The following observations were prepared in response to the CTSA's initiative in sending a copy of the report to the national conference of bishops. In addition to transmitting this response to the president and board of the CTSA, the Committee on Doctrine has also determined that, given the public nature of the report, it would be helpful to provide the text of these observations to the bishops and the Catholic community at large. The following observations were prepared by the staff of the Committee on Doctrine and are made public now with the authorization of the committee.

These observations respect the limitations of the CTSA report itself The report was intentionally limited in scope, presenting not "arguments for or against the ordination of women" but rather questioning "whether the reasons given by the congregation justify the assertion that the definitive assent of the faithful must be given to the teaching that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women" (p. 77).

The scope of the following observations is similarly limited. No attempt has been made here to advance a comprehensive theological argument for the church's teaching on the reservation of priestly orders to men. Rather, these observations address: the scriptural basis for this teaching; the appeal to tradition; and the authority with which the teaching is proposed and the assent it requires.

1. Scriptural Basis

According to the CTSA report, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was in error in claiming in the responsum that the teaching that the church has no authority to ordain women is "founded on the word of God." In support of this objection, the report appeals both to the work of biblical scholars and in particular to the conclusion of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1976 that "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" (cf. Origins 6, No. 6, July 1, 1976, pp. 92-96; in CTSA, 77).

But in presenting the conclusion of the Pontifical Biblical Commission in this way, the CTSA report appears to misconstrue it. The commission states not that there is no evidence in the New Testament that women are not to be ordained, but that this evidence "by itself alone" is inconclusive as a determinant of the church's practice concerning the sacrament of orders. Furthermore, when read in a Catholic perspective, the commission's work can be seen as confirming the church's teaching that priestly ordination is reserved to men.

The appeal to Scripture is an essential element in the Catholic understanding of the faith. But in a properly Catholic understanding of the matter, the church is recognized as the divinely guided interpreter of the revelation contained in Scripture. In the Catholic approach, the Bible must be read within the broad context of biblical scholarship, the history of exegesis, the tradition of theological reflection and interpretation, its liturgical use in the Lectionary and sacramental settings, and pertinent magisterial interpretations, whether papal or conciliar. In such a communally and doctrinally guided reading, the church expounds the teaching contained in the Scripture through evangelization, catechesis, preaching and official teaching within the framework of a tradition of interpretation. This is the proper context within which to assess the results of the work of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Read in this perspective, the commission's conclusion can be interpreted to be in harmony with the teaching of the magisterium.

Instead, the CTSA report implies that the Pontifical Biblical Commission found no good reason in the New Testament to support the reservation of priestly ordination to men. It is not clear how such an implication can be drawn from what the Pontifical Biblical Commission actually asserted in the following passages, for example:

  • "The apostolic group thus established by the Lord appears thus, by the testimony of the New Testament, as the basis of a community which has continued the work of Christ" (i.e., the New Testament associates the institution of the church with the clearly defined apostolic group established by Christ) (p. 95).
  • "We see in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles that the first communities were always directed by men exercising the apostolic power" (ibid.).
  • "The masculine character of the hierarchical order which has structured the church since its beginning thus seems attested to by Scripture in an undeniable way" (ibid.).

The biblical evidence thus can be construed as supplying at least a partial warrant for the reservation of priestly orders to men, especially, as shall be noted in the next section, when the relevant scriptural passages are read within the context of the church's living tradition of interpretation.

In addition to citing the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the CTSA report claims that "many reputable Catholic biblical scholars have not found" the argument from Scripture for the reservation of priestly ordination to men to be "convincing" (p. 77). In a particularly significant passage, the CTSA report reads as follows:

"Since Jesus left the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to make many decisions on its own regarding the organization of its ministry, scholars judge it very doubtful that he intended to lay down such a particular prescription regarding the sex of future candidates for ordination. The majority of exegetes hold, instead, that Jesus' choice of only men for the Twelve was determined by the nature of their symbolic role as 'patriarchs' of restored Israel" (p. 77).

The reasoning of this passage is unclear. If being male was necessary for the Twelve to symbolize the patriarchs of restored Israel and if the priestly ministry in the church derives from the apostolic ministry of the Twelve, then it seems natural to conclude, not that the gender of the priest is irrelevant, but that it has precisely the relevance that it did for the Twelve. It follows that to construe Christ's choice in this matter as a provisional one is gratuitous.

In summary, the CTSA report advances the misleading conclusion that the church's practice of reserving priestly ordination to men is without biblical basis. Yet even the brief analysis presented here indicates that the reasoning behind this conclusion reflects neither a careful reading of the actual evidence nor a sound methodological approach to the interpretation of Scripture in the Catholic tradition. While the church has not claimed that the question of the reservation of priestly orders to men can be settled by appeal to Scripture alone, the biblical record nonetheless confirms the exclusively masculine character of pastoral office in the New Testament and in the early church.

2. Appeal to Tradition

The CTSA report admits that "it has been the unbroken tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern churches to ordain only men to the priesthood. Furthermore, when the question has been raised about the suitability of women for such ordination, a negative answer has been given consistently by early Christian writers, by medieval theologians and by recent popes" (p. 7/7). But this tradition must be challenged, according to the report, since the principal reason proposed for the exclusion of women from ordination was their being in a "state of subjection."

It must be stated at the outset that the force of this challenge is unclear. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, while he holds that, according to Scripture women are in "state of subjection," recognizes that women can have civil authority over men, that abbesses have a kind of authority in the church and that there are many women who are morally and spiritually superior to many men (IV Sent. d. 25, q. 2, a. 1). Again, it is true that, although some of the church fathers (see the citations in Inter Insigniores) speak of a natural weakness in women, they also speak in glowing terms of the holiness of many women (pre-eminently, of course, the Blessed Virgin Mary).

An interpretation of the historical record that holds as its first principle that a differentiation between women and men reflects a prejudice that can and must be rooted out does not do justice to this record. It is a proper task of theologians, philosophers and historians to investigate more thoroughly what the Christian understanding of the nature of women and men, and their relations, was at various times in history. But it is clear that earlier ages attributed a fundamental significance to holiness that has tended to be displaced in our day by an ideology of power.

Even more important, the CTSA report admits (pp. 78, 79) that, while the alleged "natural inferiority" of women was often cited in the past as a reason why they could not receive ordination, this argument is explicitly rejected in both Inter Insigniores and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: "The nonadmission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity nor can it be construed as discrimination against them" (Inter Insigniores, 35-39; Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 3).

The CTSA report fails to acknowledge the significance of the rejection of such a "natural inferiority" argument in the overall logic of the case the magisterium has advanced in these documents. In effect, what these documents can be understood to affirm is that, while appeal to the natural inferiority of women played a significant role in theological reflection on the issue in the past, the explicit rejection of this appeal by the magisterium now means that other factors, already present in the tradition, should be accorded greater weight in our current recovery of the doctrinal and theological tradition on ordination and its reservation to men. Prominent among these factors is the iconic or representational character of the priestly office.

What is more, the magisterium has been careful to stress that the finally decisive considerations in determining the reservation of priestly orders to men are the example of Christ and the Spirit-guided recognition that his action in choosing only men for pastoral leadership was normative for the apostles and for the church. Whatever theological arguments may have been advanced in the past, the appeal to tradition on the part of the magisterium is an appeal to the church's faithful adherence to Christ's example and will in this matter.

When the CTSA report considers theological explanations of the reservation of ordination to men on the basis of "iconic appropriateness" or "beliefs in a natural gender complementarity," it admits that these are not inconsistent with a belief in the equal personal dignity of men and women (p. 79). But the report then asserts that such explanations should be contested because "the 'effective history' of the practices supported by these appeals can be shown to involve consistent patterns of superiority and inferiority, domination and subordination rather than of equality" (p. 79). In other words, the CTSA claims that arguments that are not objectionable in themselves may be objectionable in the way they are applied.

To say that arguments of iconic appropriateness and beliefs about a natural gender complementarity have been misused is not to show that they are invalid. Furthermore, it is surely wrong to be suspicious of someone's endeavor to speak and explain a truth in charity because the same truth has at other times been used to support an injustice. Thus, to cite a pertinent example, Pope John Paul 11 has spoken again and again of the dignity of women, and he, along with his recent predecessors, has reckoned the emancipation of women as one of the "signs of the times" through which God continues to speak to the church today. The Holy Father has authored profound reflections on the dignity of the human person and has displayed a rich understanding of the nature of man and woman. Contrary to what the CTSA report implies, there is no reason to suppose that his declaration that the reservation of priestly orders to men as part of the deposit of faith contradicts his teaching on the dignity and equality of women.

Theologians, guided by the magisterium, will continue to explore the reasons for the reservation of priestly orders to men. As noted already, some scholars have explored the iconic or representative nature of the ordained priesthood; others have suggested that there is a connection between the sacrificial act of the priest and the kind of sacrificial act that is appropriate to men. More work, historical and systematic, needs to be done in this area. We will never come to a clear and certain proof of the appropriateness of reserving ordination to men, any more than we will reach such a proof of the appropriateness of water for baptism or bread and wine for the eucharist. Nevertheless, reasons have already been adduced that allow us, employing a properly Catholic theological method ' to discover the intelligibility or fittingness of the reservation of holy orders to men.

A basic weakness in the CTSA report's analysis of the appeal to tradition as demonstrative of the intention of Christ for the church lies in the report's failure adequately to distinguish between ecclesial ministries and sacramental ordination. In claiming that the teaching belongs to the deposit of faith, the magisterium affirms that it belongs to God's plan for the sevenfold sacramental economy which is his gift to the church. This is a major point of contention for it is not clear what the CTSA report would allow as evidence for the determination of God's will in any matter on the part of the church. Skeptical fundamental theology regards with suspicion any imputation of a direct intention to the Christ concerning the church. But this skepticism runs counter to the church's teaching that, together with her ministry in its current form, she was instituted and willed by Christ.

The church affirms that it is in the divinely instituted, sacramental character of the priesthood that the reason for its reservation to men is to be found. Many things besides bread and wine feed our bodies, but it was Christ himself who chose to allow the natural signification of bread and wine as food and drink to supply the appropriate basis for the sacrament of the eucharist. While his selection of bread and wine should not be seen as arbitrary-for bread and wine are food and drink, after all-it could have been otherwise. The same can be said of his institution of the sacrament of holy orders where the complex natural significations associated with maleness and paternity are taken up into the sacramental sign which Christ established.

Thus, the distinction between sacramental priesthood and ecclesial ministry (forms of service established by the church) is critical if the reservation of priestly ordination to men is not in our time to appear to be a violation of justice. Because it neglects this distinction, the CTSA report fails to take proper account of the recent affirmations of Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and other church authorities of the "equal personal dignity of men and women." Moreover, experience shows that there are very few inherent limitations in a woman's ability to do any job as well or better than a man. If the priestly office were an ecclesial ministry only, one founded simply on baptism and not on a sacrament of holy orders, there would be little reason to reserve it to men and withhold it from women, who would seem to be just as able to carry it out.

However, while the range and structure of ecclesial ministries are, broadly speaking, subject to institution and development by the appropriate ecclesiastical authority, the sacraments are not. The sacraments are not the creation of the church. By definition, they could not be since, though their celebration depends on human agents, they produce effects that are beyond what human agents can accomplish on their own power: initiation and strengthening of communion with the blessed Trinity in baptism and confirmation; transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist; the forgiveness of sins in penance and reconciliation; the imaging of Christ's union with the church in matrimony; conferral of a participation in the saving work of Christ in holy orders; enhancement of physical and spiritual well-being in anointing of the sick.

Only God can establish a sacramental order in which such effects can be counted upon to be produced regularly through created signs and human activities. The seven sacraments have been entrusted to the church by Christ as part of the economy of salvation and, as part of the deposit of faith, their nature, number and structure constitute a given that the church guards and administers but is not authorized to alter in any substantial way.

It has been the constant conviction of the Catholic Church that women cannot validly receive priestly ordination. Given the absolutely vital place of valid episcopal and priestly orders in the entire sacramental economy and liturgical practice of the church, it would be doctrinally and theologically unthinkable, as well as pastorally irresponsible, for her to depart from the way pointed out by Christ and the apostles in this matter. In the end, the issue turns, not on a decision of the church, but on her obedience to Christ and the apostles.

3. Level of Authority of the Teaching

Finally, the CTSA report challenges the claim of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responsum that the reservation of ordination to men "has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium." The gist of the report's argument is this: Since the pope did not specifically say that his teaching on this point is infallible and since it cannot be proved that the bishops or the faithful throughout the world are united in the belief that this teaching should be held definitively, it is not clear that it has been infallibly defined. Canon 749.3 of the Code of Canon Law says that "no doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this fact is clearly established."

It should be noted in the first place that by understating the degree of episcopal consensus on this issue, the CTSA report gives the misleading impression that the burden of proof for the definitive character of the teaching set forth in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and identified as such in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responsum falls on the magisterium, the appeal to Lumen Gentium 25.2 being allegedly unsustainable in this case. But only in the past few decades, and then only because of the initially unauthorized ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in the United States, have any serious questions about the reservation of priestly orders to men been raised in the Catholic Church. The magisterium's appeal to Lumen Gentium is legitimate and well-founded, and the burden of proof-were there any to be had -surely falls on those who oppose the traditional teaching or question its centrality within the deposit of faith. The CTSA report falls to acknowledge this point and focuses on the narrower question of whether the teaching about the reservation of priestly ordination to men has been infallibly taught.

It is the understanding of the church that Christ's promise that the Holy Spirit would guide her into all truth means that he will not leave his people in doubt about matters pertaining to the deposit of the faith. Hence, an important question in determining whether something has been infallibly taught is whether it is the sort of thing that can be known infallibly by the church-that is, whether it belongs to the deposit of faith. Many Catholics who assent to the doctrine of the immaculate conception without hesitation, for example, might not be able to show its connection with the central truths of the faith. Their faith, as a truly "theological act," rests in the truthfulness of God revealing and in his promise to guide the church in teaching his revelation in an authentic and complete manner. The doctrine of the immaculate conception is part of the object of faith which is revealed by God and proposed by the church. In teaching this and other doctrines, the church strives to show how the matter in question bears on the deposit of faith that can be known infallibly as part of divine revelation.

With regard to the reservation of ordination to men-while, unlike the dogma of the immaculate conception, it has not been the object of an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium-it is important that teachers in the church explain how the doctrine concerns something that can be known infallibly. Only a matter proposed as formally revealed or as certainly true can be known infallibly and thus can be the object of infallible teaching, whether extraordinary or ordinary, requiring full and definitive assent on the part of the faithful. The crucial issue then is that, as we have seen, because the origin of the sevenfold sacramental economy lies in the will of Christ, the matter of the proper recipient of ordination is a teaching that pertains to the deposit of faith. Hence, the issue is doctrinal, as the church has repeatedly insisted, rather than purely disciplinary. The CTSA report neglects this crucial point.

There is, of course, the further question about the level of authority with which the church has taught on the subject under discussion. The Holy Father has not exercised his extraordinary infallible magisterium in affirming the teaching of the reservation of priestly ordination to men; nor, of course, has any council done so. It therefore belongs to the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary, magisterium, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explicitly affiri-ns in its responsum. The CTSA report questions how it can be clearly shown that a teaching belongs to the ordinary universal infallible magisterium.

One might well ask what could avail as evidence that "the whole body of Catholic bishcps is teaching the same doctrine and obliging the faithful to give it their definitive assent" (p. 79) if the long-standing and undisturbed possession of the teaching concerning the reservation of priestly ordination to men does not constitute an instance of universal ordinary magisterium. The consensus of the pope and bishops, upon which the ordinary magisterium rests, implies not only a contemporary unanimity but a historic one as well, one that encompasses the church throughout the ages.

As we have already noted above, the CTSA report profoundly understates and undervalues the significance of the consensus already in place in the church and overrates the doctrinal significance of the dissent from that consensus at the present time and in certain quarters. But the existence of such dissent does not in itself constitute grounds for underestimating the force of the consensus that in fact has prevailed in the church in the past and that continues to prevail now. Scripture provides the basis for the teaching, and the tradition presents a constant witness to it. The magisterium of the popes and bishops throughout the centuries has adhered to the teaching. In our day Pope John Paul 11, in communion with the bishops, has explicitly judged it to be part of the deposit of faith.

The Holy Father did not make this judgment an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium. In effect, he vouched for the infallibility of the constant teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium on this matter and thus confirmed, with his own authority as successor of Peter, a teaching that is already part of the faith of the church.

The very point of affirming that something is taught by the universal ordinary magisterium of the church, which is the normal form of her infallibility, is to indicate that not everything that the church teaches requires dogmatic definition in order for it to command full and complete assent on the part of the faithful. The proper action of the pope with respect to the universal ordinary magisteriurn is not to supplant it with an ex cathedra definition, but to confirm its own infallibility. The infallibility of the universal ordinary magisterium does not derive from the extraordinary magisterium. Rather, it comes from the ordinary magisteriurn itself, in particular from the magisterium of the pope as head of the episcopal college who gives voice to the entire episcopal body.

Contrary to the complaint of the CTSA report, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appropriately indicated that it is the definitive assent of the faithful to the universal ordinary magisteriurn that is required with regar to the teaching of the reservation of priestly ordi ation to men in its responsum. The congregat on took this action only after continued questions had arisen about the force of the teaching already affirmed in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

Theologians in the church have the responsibility of elucidating the truths of the faith. Sometimes that elucidation will involve the theological community in long and difficult discussion. The understanding of the church's teaching on the reservation of the sacrament of orders to men will require just such discussion and debate, since the theological arguments for the teaching have not yet been fully explored.

Instead of undertaking this task, the CTSA report raises a series of difficulties about the grounds of the teaching. At one point, the report asserts that the effort to conform one's judgment to the judgment of the pope "may not suffice to overcome a person's doubts and bring one to sincere internal assent" (p. 76). This may well be. But in the present case it should be recognized that the teaching concerning the reservation of holy orders possesses as much of a claim to definitiveness as one might reasonably expect-one that has a basis in Scripture, that is attested by an unbroken tradition in the church, that has been supported by serious theological work and that is proposed by the magisterium. as requiring the definitive assent of the faithful. It may be hoped that this recognition would aid in overcoming doubts where they persist and in fostering the sincere internal assent that the truths of faith demand of all of us.

© Origins, CNS Documentary Service, Catholic News Service, 3211 4th Street N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1100.


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