Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Exercise in Infallibility

Author: Jeff Mirus

Sysop's Notepad, June 2, 1994 (revised June 3, 1994)


============================================================================= ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS: AN EXERCISE OF INFALLIBILITY (revised June 3, 1994) =============================================================================

I have been astonished over the past few days at how many commentators, including Catholics widely known for their orthodoxy, have hastened to state that the Pope's recent Apostolic Letter, "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", is not infallible. In fact, it is a textbook case of infallibility in action.

The operative paragraph in this short document is the final substantive paragraph, immediately preceding the Apostolic Blessing:

"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."

Let us compare this with Vatican I's definition concerning the exercise of papal infallibility:

". . . the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines, by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, possesses through the divine assistance promised to him in the person of St. Peter, the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals; and that such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are therefore irreformable because of their nature, but not because of the agreement of the Church." [First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ]


There are, clearly, four tests of infallibility: The Pope must be (1) intending to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority (3) a matter of Faith or morals (4) to be held by the universal Church. "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" not only passes all four tests, but it is manifest that the Pope deliberately phrased the teaching to ensure that this would be obvious.

With respect to point 1: The pope clearly intends to teach something; in fact, he intends to do so in such a way that "all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance".

Point 2: The pope is teaching by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority; he specifically alludes to that authority, "in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren"--a reference to the precise passage which forms the chief Scriptural basis of infallibility (Luke 22:32): "I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail, and once you have recovered, you in your turn must strengthen your brothers." This passage has no meaning apart from the exercise of supreme authority, since it is only in the exercise of this authority that the promise of Our Lord to Peter applies.

Point 3: The subject in question is a matter of Faith; the Pope deliberately states that it is not a matter of discipline, but rather "a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself." The divine constitution of the Church, of course, is the central mystery in the continuation of Christ's work on earth as well as the means through and by which God brings men to salvation. What the Pope has "defined" as part of the Catholic Faith is that the Church does not have the authority to ordain women.

Point 4: The pope intends the teaching to bind the whole Church; this is manifest when he says that "this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."


I have heard a number of reasons alleged against the infallibility of "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", and none are persuasive. Some have said that the statement never mentions "supreme authority" or "infallibility", or that there is no doctrine "positively defined", or that "this is not a matter of dogma and so not covered by infallibility." Such assertions show an inadequate understanding of the nature of infallibility, and of the process by which doctrine becomes dogma. Four clarifications need to be made.

First, it is important to use the terminology of infallibility correctly. It is not strictly correct to refer to a Church document as infallible. The Pope, under certain conditions, is infallible; what he teaches under those conditions is "irreformable"--that is, unchangeable because certainly true.

This distinction is significant because it leads directly to a second clarification. Once we understand that it is the Pope and not the document that is infallible, a subtle shift in our perception occurs. Instead of looking for a particular linguistic formula in the text, and fearing that something may not be infallible if the "proper" formula is absent, we look in the text for language which indicates the Pope's intention. Does the language clearly indicate, by whatever words, that the Pope intends to teach by virtue of his supreme authority on a matter of faith or morals in such a way that binds the whole Church? If so, the Pope is exercising his prerogative of infallibility, and what he teaches is irreformable.

Third, dogma is not limited to a prescribed body of information already defined. Rather, any point in the general body of Christian doctrine may become dogma by being irreformably defined. The process by which a doctrine is stated so precisely and authoritatively that it becomes irreformable is the process by which a doctrine develops into a dogma; the clearest culmination of this process is a formal dogmatic definition.

Fourth and finally, the definition of infallibility at Vatican I does not limit infallibility to those extraordinary cases in which the Holy Father states he is formally defining a new dogma. Whether or not he would call Ordinatio Sacerdotalis a dogmatic definition, the Pope has stated infallibly a doctrine that has always been known, taught and believed by the great body of Catholic faithful--namely that the Church has no authority to ordain women. He has, in other words, irreformably formulated a proper understanding of a limitation on the authority of the Church.

The "Presentation" by the Vatican Press Office which accompanied the Apostolic Letter makes all of this abundantly clear (see ORDPRESS.TXT in the News and Current Issues Forum file library). The consequence of this limitation on the Church's divinely-given authority to ordain is that women cannot be priests.


I think that what we are witnessing in the denial of "infallibility" to "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" results from the long struggle of orthodoxy with modernism over the past generation. Faithful Catholics are enormously frustrated and what they really want is a document that will, frankly, shut the dissidents up and make them go away. When the dissidents respond to a document by pointing out a number of reasons why it really isn't the last word, faithful Catholics tend to think that they must be right; otherwise the question would really be settled.

But this credits the dissidents with far too much intellectual honesty. The fact is that no document can close a question for someone who is in rebellion against legitimate authority. The claim about many questions that they are really open because there had been no ex cathedra statement on them has been intellectually dishonest all along. I don't mean that there aren't many open questions in Catholic life. But a great many questions have been settled without ex cathedra pronouncements, and only willful obscurantism prevents the admission of this fact.

What is needed to make the dissidents go away, of course, is discipline, and you don't get discipline from a document (though it can be a good starting point). And even if the Pope were inclined to greater discipline (which, apparently, John Paul II is not), there is no guarantee that his disciplinary measures would be effective in all quarters.

Without discipline, the best we can do is understand infallibility properly and live by it ourselves. Papal infallibility rests on three basic arguments: from Tradition (or history); from Scripture; and from ecclesiology (the logic of the Church's situation). (I should mention here, perhaps, that my doctoral dissertation at Princeton University was on the subject of papal authority.)

The argument from Tradition or history is simply that, from the earliest times, Catholics have credited the successors of Peter with the authority to settle disputes and teach the Faith without error. This is manifest in the works of the Fathers, for example.

The argument from Scripture is based upon those passages which bear upon the authority of Peter: his name as Rock; the conferral of the keys to the Kingdom; the power of binding and loosing; and, as the Pope pointed out, the guarantee of Christ that Peter would not fail in Faith and must confirm his brethren. To take into account the Petrine succession, we add the logical argument that these powers were essential to the Church, that Christ knew He would not come again before Peter died, and that it would be tantamount to a new dispensation if Christ had not intended (as Tradition makes clear) that these powers would also be exercised by Peter's successors--all vicars of Christ--until He comes.

The argument from ecclesiology is based upon the logical necessity of having a supreme power of this type at work in the Church if Christ's promise to be with the Church forever is to have any real meaning. By Scripture and Tradition we know that the popes can bind the faithful to believe something as Divinely revealed. Clearly Christ's promise would be violated if a Pope ever bound the faithful to believe something false in a matter relating to their salvation. Hence, it must be impossible for a Pope to do this. He simply MUST be protected by the Holy Spirit when teaching about a matter of faith or morals, by virtue of his supreme authority, with the intention of compelling the assent of the entire Church.


Those who love Truth and love the Church will have little trouble grasping these elementary points. Those who don't, will raise a thousand objections at every turn. But consider: If the Pope were to state that his teaching was infallible, would this settle the question? What if he wasn't speaking infallibly when he said his teaching was infallible? There is no end to such questions, except the end provided by Faith and common sense.

For our part, we rejoice in the liberating clarity of "Ordinatio Sacerdotalis", and we do not fear to proclaim that John Paul II was exercising his prerogative of infallibility when he issued it. He has indeed given us an irreformable teaching, a teaching from which may arise in time a new and more profound understanding--not only of the Church--but of man and woman as well. -- JAM