Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Definitive Character of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Regarding Some Doubts.

by Archbishop Luis Ladaria, S.J.


The head of the Vatican office overseeing Church doctrine has insisted that the Church’s teaching on the male-only priesthood is “infallible,” and has offered a veiled rebuke of a prominent Cardinal who recently claimed the teaching could change. In an article appearing in the Wednesday, May 30th edition of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, SJ said the reservation of the ordained priesthood to men is part of the deposit of faith, and the Catholic Church, in obedience to her Lord, cannot change this tradition.

Larger Work

l'Osservatore Romano

Publisher & Date

Vatican, May 29, 2018

“Abide in me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John, 15: 4). If the Church is able to offer life and salvation to the whole world, it is due to her rootedness in Jesus Christ, her founder. This rootedness takes place first and foremost through the sacraments, with the Eucharist at the center. Instituted by Christ, they are the founding pillars of the Church that continuously generate her as his body and his bride. Intimately linked to the Eucharist is the sacrament of Holy Orders, in which Christ makes himself present to the Church as the source of her life and work. Priests are are configured “to Christ the Priest in such a way that they can act in the person of Christ the Head” (Presbyterorum Ordinis, n. 2).

Christ willed to confer this sacrament on the twelve apostles, all men, who in turn communicated it to other men. The Church has always known herself to be bound by this decision of the Lord, which excludes that the ministerial priesthood can validly be conferred on women. John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, issued on May 22, 1994, taught: “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance,” and “in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren” (cf. Lk 22:32) “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” (n. 4). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in response to a doubt about the teaching of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, reiterated that it is a truth belonging to the deposit of faith.

In this light, it is a cause of serious concern still to see voices being raised in some countries that call into question the definitiveness of this doctrine. In order to maintain that this is not definitive, it is argued that it has not been defined ex cathedra and that a subsequent decision of a future Pope or Council could therefore overturn it. Sowing these doubts causes grave confusion among the faithful, not only about the sacrament of Holy Orders as part of the divine constitution of the Church, but also about the ordinary Magisterium which can infallibly teach Catholic doctrine.

In the first place, with regard to the ministerial priesthood, the Church recognizes that the impossibility of ordaining women belongs to the “substance of the sacrament” of Holy Orders (cf. Denzinger-Hünermann, 1728). The Church has no capacity to change this substance, because it is precisely on the basis of the sacraments instituted by Christ that she is generated as Church. It is not only a matter of disciple, but also of doctrine, as it concerns the structure of the sacraments, which are the original place of and encounter with Christ and the transmission of the faith. Therefore, we are standing before an obstacle that prevents the Church from being more effective in her activity in the world. If the Church cannot intervene, indeed, it is because on that point the original love of God intervenes. He is at work in the ordination of priests, so that the Church always contains, in every situation in her history, the visible and effective presence of Jesus Christ “as the principal source of grace” (Francis, Evangelii gaudium, n. 104).

Conscious that, in obedience to the Lord, she cannot modify this tradition, the Church also strives to deepen its significance, since the will of Jesus Christ, who is the Logos, is never without meaning. The priest, in fact, acts in the person of Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church, and his being a man is an indispensable element of this sacramental representation (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter insigniores, n. 5). Certainly, the difference in functions between men and women does not bring with it any subordination, but rather mutual enrichment. We recall that the perfect image of the Church is Mary, the Mother of the Lord, who did not receive the apostolic ministry. Thus we see that masculine and feminine – the original language which the Creator has inscribed in the human body – are taken up in the work of our redemption. Fidelity to Christ’s plan for the ministerial priesthood is precisely what makes it possible, then, to deepen and promote ever more the specific role of women in the Church, given that, “in the Lord, woman is not independent of man nor man of woman” (1 Cor 11:11). Additionally, this can shed light on our culture, which struggles to understand the meaning and goodness of the difference between man and woman, which also touches on their complementary mission in society.

Secondly, the doubts raised about the definitiveness of Ordinatio sacerdotalis also have serious consequences for the way we understand the Magisterium of the Church. It is important to reaffirm that infallibility does not concern only the solemn pronouncements of a council or of the Supreme Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, but also the ordinary and universal teaching of the bishops scattered throughout the world, when they propose, in communion with one another and with the Pope, Catholic doctrine that is to be held definitively. John Paul II referred to this infallibility in Ordinatio sacerdotalis. Thus, he did not declare a new dogma but, with the authority conferred on him as the successor of Peter, formally confirmed and made explicit, in order to remove all doubt, what the ordinary and universal Magisterium has considered throughout the history of the Church as belonging to the deposit of faith. Precisely this way of deciding reflects a style of ecclesial communion, for the Pope did not want to work alone, but as a witness listening to an uninterrupted and lived tradition. On the other hand, no one will deny that the Magisterium can express itself infallibly on truths that are necessarily connected with what is formally revealed, since only in this way can it exercise its function of safeguarding and faithfully exposing the deposit of faith in a holy manner.

A further proof of the commitment with which John Paul II examined the question is the prior consultation he wished to have in Rome with the presidents of the episcopal conferences who were seriously interested in this issue. All, without exception, declared with full conviction, through the Church’s obedience to the Lord, that she does not have the faculty to confer priestly ordination on women.

Benedict XVI also insisted on this teaching, recalling during the Chrism Mass on April 5, 2012, that John Paul II “stated in an irrevocable manner” that the Church “had no authorization from the Lord” regarding the ordination of women. Benedict XVI later asked, with regard to some who had not accepted this doctrine: “But is disobedience really a way? Are we able to perceive in it something of the conformation to Christ which is the prerequisite for every true renewal, or rather only the desperate urge to do something, to transform the Church according to our desires and our ideas?”

Pope Francis has also returned to the subject. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium, he reaffirmed that the reservation of “the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist,” is not a question open to discussion, and he invited everyone not to interpret this doctrine as an expression of power, but of service, so that the equal dignity of men and women in the one body of Christ might better be perceived (104). In the press conference, during the return flight from his apostolic trip to Sweden on November 1, 2016, Pope Francis reiterated: “As for the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last clear word was given by Saint John Paul II, and this holds.”

In this time, when the Church is called to respond to so many challenges of our culture, it is essential that she remain in Jesus, like the branches in the vine. This is why the Teacher invites us to ensure that his words remain in us: “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). Only fidelity to his words, which will not pass away, ensures that we are rooted in Christ and in his love. Only the acceptance of his wise plan, which takes shape in the sacraments, strengthens the roots of the Church, so that she might bear the fruit of eternal life.

by Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Translation by Diane Montagna

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2018

This item 11879 digitally provided courtesy of