"Infallibility" and Equality in Catholicism

by Christine Schenk csj

I have been asked to respond to an article which appeared in the New York Times a week ago stating that Cardinal Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith had interpreted the teaching on the non-ordination of women as “infallible.” I have consulted with several theologians and as nearly as I can understand, this appears to be somewhat of an overstatement. Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement seeks to place the teaching about the non-ordination of women within the “deposit of faith” rather than as part of Church discipline which many theologians have maintained. Fr. Richard McCormick of Notre Dame, speaking on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” says many theologians believe that the Vatican has failed to show any evidence that this teaching on women in the priesthood has been handed on as part of the deposit of faith over the centuries. “Many of us believe there has not been such a teaching because they weren’t conscious of gender for those periods of time the way we are today.” The statement reiterates that the teaching is definitive and part of the ordinary magisterium. I will leave the arguments about the levels of authority to others more versed than I in this regard. Suffice it to say that the “clarification” stunned many respected theologians insofar as it appeared to be trying to extend an infallibility claim more broadly than heretofore experienced in the family of Catholicism. Until now, infallibility was seen to be exercised only in ecumenical councils, by the Pope formally teaching “ex cathedra,” and by all of the Bishops of the world in union with the Pope. In all of these.. “the assent of the Church can never be lacking to such definitions on account of the same Holy Spirit’s influence through which Christ’s whole flock is maintained in the unity of the faith and makes progress in it” (Lumen Gentium 25).

Some facts:

1. Ratzinger’s statement was issued on the eve of the presentation of 1.8 million signatures from German Catholics asking that ordination be opened to married people and women, that sexuality be celebrated as a gift, that the laity participate in the selection of bishops and that married people be consulted and included in teachings about sexual morality. The German media interpreted Ratzinger’s statement as a “preemptive strike” to the press conference announcing the signatures.

2. Over the summer, Austrian Catholics collected over 500,000 signatures attached to the same petition. Austrian Bishops permitted the petitions to be distributed in their parishes.

3. Also over the summer, Archbishop Maurice Couture of Quebec promised to take the results of a clergy-laity synod asking to reopen the question of women’s ordination to Rome.

4. In November of 1995, (a month before the Vatican’s statement was issued) a Czechslovakian woman, Ludmilla Javorova confirmed that she had been ordained to the priesthood in the early 1970s by Bishop Felix Davidek in the clandestine Czech Catholic Church during the communist era. She acted as vicar general to the Bishop and stated that she and several other women were ordained to serve the needs of imprisoned women, particularly women religious who had no access to the Mass or the sacraments. Until now Javarov was reluctant to make her priesthood public because she saw it as strictly confined to an emergency situation. This decision however so disturbed her peace of mind that she decided to reveal the details. She claims to know the names and addresses of other ordained women who now live in Slovakia. She told the British weekly The Tablet (11/11/95) that she had explained all the circumstances of her ordination to Pope John Paul II in a letter, but had not received a reply.

5. 43% of all parishes worldwide have no priest at all according to figures found in the 1988 Vatican directory. More women are functioning in ministerial roles than ever before. In fact according to CatholicTrends…1,068 of the world’s parishes are entrusted to nuns and 1,614 to lay people (in contrast to 1978 when 464 were entrusted to nuns and 458 to lay leaders, both men and women.)

6.Three years ago 140 U.S. dioceses (out of a total of 17l) reported that the ban on women¹s ordination was the issue sparking the most controversy at local hearings leading up to the planned women’s pastoral. In 1993, 110 U.S. Bishops voted successfully against the draft pastoral letter containing the ordination ban. In June of 1995 12 U.S. Bishops, with the tacit support of many others, objected to the Vatican’s publishing of a 1994 statement against the ordination of women “without any prior discussion and consultation with our (NCCB) conference.” Lastly, Cardinal Ratzinger communicated the present statement to the head of the NCCB three hours after the close of their four-day meeting November 13-16, with no advance warning and no opportunity for the Bishops to discuss it among themselves and provide input or reaction. The present statement was not sent individually to every bishop, contrary to the customary procedures for such important matters.

7. In mid October 1995, the Canon Law Society of America issued the results of a three year study which showed no canonical obstacles to the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate.

8. At least three polls by Gallup, Time-Life and others have shown that U.S. Catholics also favor the ordination of women by 61-67% depending on which poll is being cited. A recent Irish poll also showed a majority of Catholics in favor of opening ordination.

9. In 1976 the Vatican’s own Pontifical Biblical Commission found nothing in Scripture which would prohibit the ordination of women.

10.On July 10, Pope John Paul issued a letter of apology to women for sexism in the Church, even while reiterating the teaching about the non-ordination of women. He also wrote: “As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and dutues of a citizen in a democratic state…..This is a matter of justice but also of necessity. Women will increasingly play a part in the solution of the serius problems of the future.”

Some conclusions and some questions:

* It appears that the Vatican is being deluged with faithful Catholic people who, far from having “doubts” about the teaching on the non-ordination of women, are in fact actively in favor of ordaining them.
* Could this issue have more to do with Church politics than with theology? Given the fact that there is a Eucharistic famine all over the world because of the priest shortage, wouldn’t it make more sense for our leadership to be thinking about who they can include in the priesthood rather than who they want to leave out?
* Presuming that Catholics must accept the non-ordination of women, what will the all male church heirarchy do to actively implement women’s equality (which they are always so careful to say they support) in the church? Where are the women Cardinals? How may qualified women participate in the selection of the next Pope? What dioceses will be open for qualified women to govern, much as the medieval abbesses functioned as Bishops?
* Vatican officials delight in saying that women are “different but equal.” Unfortunately,only men have defined this kind of “equality.” Women have been forbidden to join the conversation, and when they do try to offer a different theological perspective based on recent biblical scholarship, efforts are made to brand them as heretics. “Equality” seems to mean that male Catholics are equally entitled to make the rules and female Catholics are equally entitled to obey them.
* Somehow, I can¹t believe that this was what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned Magdalen to go and tell her fellow apostles that He had, indeed, risen from the dead.

Where does this leave us?

We must continue to struggle for women¹s equality in the family of Cathlicism.

To my brothers-in-Christ, apparently so fearful of change, I say..Be not afraid! With Paul the apostle, we Catholic women acknowledge that we too, have the Spirit of God who leads us into all Truth.

And to my sisters-in-Christ I say…Be of good cheer! Jesus is indeed risen, and that resurrection power to transform sexist structures, and convert even the hardest of hearts will not fail us!

We must witness to the Jesus of Scripture whose behavior in favor of women’s equality so scandalized the patriarchy of his times that they sought to smear his reputation and discredit him, much as the patriarchy of our times seeks to discredit Catholic female theologians today.

We must witness to the Jesus who was also rejected by the leaders of his religious tradition yet instead of abandoning it with hatred, sowed sweet seeds for the transformation of hearts and the salvation of a people.

We must witness to the Jesus who prayed for his persecutors even in the midst of crucifixion, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

In these difficult times, to be faithful Catholic women and men, we must make this prayer of Jesus our own even as we struggle for that equality into which we have been baptized: “For there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female..for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).


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