The Definitive Character of the Doctrine of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis
Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria, SJ*
“Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (Jn 15:4). If the Church can offer life and salvation to the entire world, it is only because she is rooted in Jesus Christ, her Founder. This rootedness occurs in first place through the sacraments, with the Eucharist at the center. Instituted by Christ, they are the foundational pillars of the Church that continually give life to her as His Body and His Spouse. Intimately connected to the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Holy Orders, in which Christ becomes present to the Church as the source of her life and work. Priests are conformed “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 of whom were men, provided that, in turn, they communicated it to other men. The Church understands herself to be always bound to this decision of the Lord, which excludes that the ministerial priesthood may be validly conferred on women. John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of May 22, 1994, taught, “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” (n. 4). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in response to a doubt about the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, has reaffirmed that it concerns a truth belonging to the deposit of faith.
In this light, a serious concern is seen arising in some countries regarding opinions that put into doubt the definitive nature of this doctrine. In order to maintain that it is not definitive, it is argued that it has not been defined ex cathedra and that an eventual decision by a future Pope or Council could overturn it. Spreading these doubts creates grave confusion among the faithful, not only with regard to the sacrament of Holy Orders as belonging to the divine constitution of the Church, but also with regards to the Ordinary Magisterium that can teach Catholic doctrine in an infallible manner.
First, concerning the ministerial priesthood, the Church recognizes that the impossibility of ordaining women belongs to the “substance of the sacrament” of Orders (cf. DH 1728). The Church does not have the power to change this substance, because it is precisely from the sacraments, instituted by Christ, that the Church is made. It does not pertain only to a disciplinary element, but a doctrinal one, inasmuch as it pertains to the structure of the sacraments, which are the original place of encounter with Christ and of the transmission of the faith. Therefore, this should not be understood as a limit that would impede the Church from being more efficacious in her activity within the world. If the Church cannot intervene in this matter it is because it is at that point that the original love of God intervenes. It is He that is at work in the ordination of priests, in such a way that the Church always holds, in every situation of her history, the visible and efficacious presence of Jesus Christ “as the principal source of grace” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 104).
Aware that there cannot be a change to this tradition, in obedience to the Lord, the Church strives also to deepen its significance, so that the will of Jesus Christ, who is the Logos, is never deprived of meaning. The priest acts in the person of Christ, spouse 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 of roles between man and woman does not carry in itself any subordination, but a mutual enrichment. Recall that the most pcrfect image of the Church is Mary, the Mother of the Lord, who did not receive the apostolic ministry. It is thus evident that the masculine and the feminine, the original language that the Creator inscribed on the human body, were assumed in the work of our redemption. It is properly this fidelity to the plan of Christ for the ministerial priesthood that allows for the deepening and the promotion of the specific role of women in the Church, given that, “woman is not independent of man or man of woman in the Lord” (1 Cor 11:11). Moreover, this teaching throws light on the cultural struggle to understand the significance and the goodness of the difference between man and woman, and their complementary mission in society.
Secondly, the doubts raised about the definitive nature of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis also have grave consequences for the manner of understanding the Magisterium of the Church. It is important to reaffirm that infallibility does not only pertain to solemn pronouncements of a Council or of the Supreme Pontiff when he speaks ex cathedra, but also to the universal and ordinary teaching of bishops dispersed throughout the world, when they propose, in communion among themselves and with the Pope, the Catholic doctrine to be held definitively. John Paul II referred to this infallibility in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In this manner he did not declare a new dogma, but, with the authority conferred upon him as the Successor of Peter, he formally confirmed and made explicit, so as to remove all doubt, that which the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium has long considered throughout history as belonging to the deposit of faith. This manner of declaration reflects a mode of ecclesial communion, since the Pope did not want to act alone, but as a witness listening to an uninterrupted and lived tradition. On the other hand, nobody denies that the Magisterium can express itself infallibly on truths that are necessarily connected with what has been formally revealed, since only in this manner is it able to exercise its function of devoutly safeguarding and faithfully expressing the deposit of the faith.
Further proof of the commitment with which John Paul II examined the question is the prior consultation that he undertook in Rome with the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences who were seriously interested in the problem. All of them declared, with complete conviction, through obedience of the Church to the Lord, that the Church does not have the faculty to confer on women priestly ordination.
Pope Benedict XVI also reaffirmed this teaching, recalling in the Chrism Mass of April 5, 2012, that John Paul II “declared in an irrevocable manner” that the Church, with regard to the ordination of women, “has received no authority from the Lord”. Benedict XVI then asked, with regard to some who do not accept this doctrine: “But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?”.
Pope Francis also returned to the argument. 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 asked for an interpretation of this doctrine not as an expression of power, but of service, in a manner that better perceives the equal dignity between men and women in the one Body of Christ (n. 104). During the Press Conference of the return flight from the Apostolic trip to Sweden, on November 1, 2016, Pope Francis reaffirmed: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the last word was clearly given by Saint John Paul II, and this remains”. In these times, in which the Church is called to respond to many challenges of our culture, it is essential that she remains in Jesus, as the branches on the vine. This is why the Teacher invites us to make certain that his words remain in us: “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (Jn 15:10). Only the fidelity to his words, that will not pass away, assures our rootedness in Christ and in his love. Only the welcoming of his wise design, which takes bodily form in the sacraments, replenishes the roots of the Church, so that she may bear the fruits of eternal life.
*Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
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