Authoritatively No Authority to Ordain Women

Author: Stanley L. Jaki


by Fr. Stanley L. Jaki

This time even had to go beyond mere religion to theology itself and, in fact, to its conceivably most authoritative form, or papal infallibility. The voice of Rome most authoritatively rang throughout the apostolic letter () signed by Pope John Paul II on the Solemnity of Pentecost, May 22nd, and made public on May 30th. It came to a close with the declaration: "The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly Ordination on women."

The declaration was so straight and so frontal that it made no sense to try to make another end run around the Rock. In that august daily such end runs customarily take the form of soliciting the ever prompt services of "loyal" dissenters. Not that the "loyal" opposition had not been ready to assist the anti-Rome crusade of the country's "premier" newspaper. It seems, however, that the emphatically papal move did not leave any room for profitably taking against it the high ground of "unprejudiced" academic theology.

In fact, the first contribution from that "loyal" opposition was a far cry from theological discourse. The letter of Daniel C. Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, to the editor ( June 9th, 1994) contained only a nonacademic blow at a Pope who goes about his reform by depriving the flock of priests. The bitterness of the blow may have to do with an indirect impact of the Pope's declaration: That women shall never be ordained to the priesthood puts an end to the expectation that the marriage of priests would come on the coattails of priestesses.

The "loyal" opposition was stunned not only by the fully authoritative tone of the Pope's declaration but also by its wholly unexpected character. The Vatican did not leak anything this time. Loyal Catholics, too, were caught by surprise, and perhaps even by that authoritative tone. For the first time in his already 16-year- long Pontificate, the Pope, so fond of the principle of collegiality, did not make use of it. He could have conceivably waited for the synod to meet this coming October. But he did not. Obviously, he felt that circumstances called for the exercise of a ministry which was his alone.

His statement that the Church has no authority to ordain women is indeed introduced with a reference to that ministry of his: "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 I declare...." No less momentous is the Pope's emphatic warning that "this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." Even The New York Times had to admit that the Pope's words were at least non-fallible, even if not strictly infallible.

The reference to the great importance of the matter betrays a sense of urgency on the part of the Pope. He must have decided that the pressure for the ordination of women suddenly took on a new aspect. Indeed it did, when on March 23rd the Anglican bishop of Bristol laid his hands on 32 women.

It is worth noting that Rome did not get ruffled after the American Protestant Episcopal Church began to "ordain" women in the late 1980s. No matter of great consequence was seen by Rome in that church's first "consecration" of a woman bishop in 1992. After all, it would be greatly illogical for Rome to get worked up about the ordinations of an Episcopal Church, which officially and emphatically calls itself Protestant. That there is an enormous difference between a minister and a priest is held not only by sound Roman Catholics but also by Protestants with some respect for consistency.

The ordinations in Bristol were a very different matter, because the Church of England has never officially declared itself to be Protestant. Indeed, during this century the Church of England has been undergoing a distinctly Catholic process. After Pope Leo XIII had declared that Anglican ordinations were invalid, several Church of England bishops had themselves reconsecrated either by Orthodox or by Old-Catholic prelates. Today, every Church of England bishop can trace his episcopal consecration to one or the other of those reconsecrations. This is why Pope Paul Vl reopened the question of Anglican orders. This is why as late as last November, Pope John Paul II accepted a chalice from Dr. Carey as a token of a future reunion. And this only a day after Dr. Carey had declared in Rome that he fully supported the ordination of women!

Rome did indeed go to the most extreme lengths in showing ecumenical goodwill. Rome was willing to adopt tactful privacy in repeating the warning which Paul Vl had given to Dr. Ramsey, the first archbishop of Canterbury to visit Rome in 400 years. Then Paul VI said nothing less than that the prospects of reunion would come to naught were the Church of England ever to ordain women. This warning made no impact on Dr. Ramsey, who, following his visit, told newsmen that he would not be surprised if women would eventually be ordained in the Church of Rome. Nor was Dr. Coggan, Ramsey's successor, any better impressed after he had received, in 1975, in the form of a letter from Paul VI, the official word about the Catholic position on the ordination of women. John Paul II begins his apostolic letter by quoting from that letter of Paul Vl: The "living teaching authority" of the Catholic Church "has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for His Church."

The swiftness with which Rome now put the matter beyond any doubt stands out against the relative slowness of another pontifical act which was also triggered by a move of the Church of England. On the last day of 1931, Pope Pius Xl issued the encyclical It is best remembered for its rejection of contraception as something inherently immoral. What triggered the encyclical was the declaration, a full year and a half earlier, in August, 1930, by the Anglican bishops' Lambeth Conference that in special circumstances contraception was not sinful. The declaration was the first by a Christian church to throw the door ajar, however slightly, on contraception. Unlike now, Rome then waited a year and a half. This time, two and one-half months were enough!

In 1930, the Church of England was the established religion of a world empire, with enormous cultural and social influence. In 1994, the Church of England is still globally influential in at least one sense: It is the only Protestant church with an impressive semblance of Catholicism which it displays over much of the globe through its 60 million or so communicants. It therefore can seduce a great many Catholics into thinking that Catholicism is possible in an Anglican fashion: with all the spiritual comfort which all those sacred rituals can give, but without significantly curtailing the individual's freedom in matters of faith and especially in sexual morality.

The best summary of the Church of England is that it is the consummate form of "mimic Catholicism." Hence Rome's concern. As in the biological world, in the spiritual realm, too, mimicry is a most alluring instrument of survival and expansion. To put that label "mimic Catholicism" on the Church of England will lose its apparent rudeness as soon as one identifies the one who coined it, John Henry Newman. He did so in the context of a series of 12 lectures he delivered in London between April and June, 1850. The general title of his lectures, "Certain Difficulties Felt by Some Anglicans in Catholic Teaching," reveals those whom he wanted to reach above all. They were his former comrades-in-arms in the Oxford Movement, soon to be known as Anglo-Catholics, who failed to follow him into the Catholic Church. To them, Newman said nothing less than that it was impossible to be Catholic and Anglican at the same time, because the Church of England was essentially Protestant. Anglo-Catholics reluctant to recognize this were, so Newman warned them, putting their eternal salvation in jeopardy.

The lectures were in part triggered by the failure of the Anglican hierarchy to stand up, shortly before Newman gave those lectures, on behalf of baptismal regeneration, or the very Catholic doctrine that Baptism imparts a new, a supernatural nature. About that failure of "dogmatic nerve" Newman showed in those lectures that it was but part of a long chain of similar failures, a chain amounting to a sinister inner logic at work within Anglicanism. And he laid down the truth with no words minced, among them his cry that "the Establishment is a wreck...." A prophetic anticipation of the spiritual wreckage that looms large at a time when England has barely completed the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the birth of its most lecherous and perfidious monarch, Henry VIII.

Plain words once more had their desired effect, although not as humans would like to have their desires fulfilled. Newman himself hoped that most of the hundreds of Anglo-Catholics who attended the lectures would make the move he urged on them. Only a few listened in such a way as to recognize the futility of an illusion: to remain as Catholics within the Church of England. Among the few were Henry Manning and James Scott Hope. Manning gave up the almost complete certainty of becoming the archbishop of Canterbury. Hope, although the most prominent lawyer in the House of Lords, had to face subtle forms of social disgrace for the rest of his life.

Catholic Newmanists, and especially "ecumenists," have long tried to keep the lectures, now reprinted as under cover or to dismiss them as a momentary deviation on Newman's part. This was an element of their technique to present Newman as one who was always a Catholic rather than a Roman even as a Roman Catholic. Consequently, they had to give a strange twist to what the Oxford Movement was truly about. In doing so, they gave great comfort to Anglican specialists on the movement. All of them tried to avoid

No wonder. The lectures are Newman's most authentic portrayal of the real driving force of the Oxford Movement. It was a movement inherently and inevitably directed toward Rome as its only fulfillment. The lectures are also his most trenchant unfolding of the inner logic of the Church of England. The logic is an irresistible trend toward naturalism-to put in a nutshell Newman's elaborate claim argued throughout the lectures.

On seeing the naturalism of feminism gain full hold of the Church of England, Newman would today refer to those lectures, long out of print and long ignored even by those most in need of it, namely, the Anglo-Catholic clergy. The lectures represent Newman's prophetic foresight at its strongest, his anxiety for the salvation of Anglo-Catholic souls at its keenest, and his theology of the notes of the true Church at its most persuasive. For the last five lectures deal with the notes of the true Church, with two of those lectures devoted to the note of holiness! It is in these lectures that Newman first went into print with his great cry: "Let my soul be with the saints!"

Any failure of nerve, any shortcoming within the Church of England, caused Newman great sadness. But he knew that those failures had to happen. He knew that divisions among Christians had to come so that the true Church may be seen all the more vividly.

He was never an optimist. He had a tragic sense of history, including ecclesiastical history. He was never swayed by the lure of "progress." This is why he was at loggerheads with Lord Acton, the darling of "liberal" Catholics in England and elsewhere. And this is why, during these last 30 years or so, no stone has been left unturned by some "leading" Newmanists to present a theologically "civilized" image of him. This effort reached, sadly enough, its high point during the celebrations of the centenary of his death in 1990.

Even the exodus of Anglo-Catholic clergy, which is now reaching a stampede, may fail to impress those Newmanists. But they come and go as do all fashions. The true Newman remains and looms larger with every passing decade. For he always took the long view which he saw tied to the "cathedra sempiterna." This concise and moving testimony of his on behalf of Peter's Chair has been added to this new edition of Newman's lectures also constitute a most enlightening answer to the difficulties felt by many Catholics in these increasingly troubled ecclesiastical times.

(This new edition of entirely reset from the final edition made by Newman, is available from Real View Books, with a long introduction by the present writer who also provided brief notes on the 60-some Anglican theologians mentioned by Newman. Real View Books is a subsidiary of the American Council on Economics and Society, 34152 Doreka Dr., Fraser, Mich., 48026. Only prepaid orders [$9.95] are accepted. The price includes free postage.)

This article was taken from the June 30, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer,." 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107.