Women's Ordination: Taking No for an Answer

Author: Dr. James Hitchcock


Dr. James Hitchcock

If Pope John Paul II were inclined to flippancy, he might have headed his recent apostolic letter on "Priestly Ordination" with the familiar quip, "What part of 'no' don't you understand?" Those who think the letter finally ends the controversy over women's ordination have not been paying enough attention Feminists of both sexes have given their usual response, which is in effect, "Rome has spoken; the question is still open."

Father Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, a theologian who has seldom met a papal document which he did not dislike, tells the media that the letter "must be overturned by his (John Paul's) successors."

A Denver newspaper ran a three-column headline, "Ordination of Women Still a Live Issue." One male Denverite has come up with the ultimate dismissal of religious doctrine as merely the product of its time: "I refuse, on instructions from someone temporarily in Rome, to assign a lower level to half the people of God." In Thomas Kerwin's view, apparently, Church teaching is literally a matter of who manages to get control of the fax machine. Presumably it could change even from hour to hour.

Another Denverite asserts that "scholars have shown" that in the early Church women did serve as priests and bishops and presided over the Eucharist, an assertion feminists are fond of making but for which there is not a shred of evidence.

Much ink will probably be spilled over whether the letter is infallible. I think such discussion is essentially fruitless. The pope says, "This teaching is to be definitively held by all the faithful" and "It does not belong to matters freely open to dispute." That certainly indicates that the next pope, or the one after him, or a pope 100 years from now, is not going to change the teaching.

A few days before the letter appeared, a columnist in the Catholic press, Father John Catoir, told a meeting of the National Council of Catholic Women, that "one day women will serve as deacons and priests." I don't know whether he will now change his mind, but his comments demonstrate why a document of this kind was needed-despite numerous statements on the subject over a period of years, feminists keep insisting that this teaching can and will change. The result has been bitterly divisive controversy which simply saps the Church's vitality.

Father McBrien says that being a Catholic now is like "belonging to a private club that won't admit blacks or Jews." As a friend of mine points out, if Father McBrien really believes that, it is immoral for him to remain in the Church.

That, it seems to me, is the heart of the issue. If one accepts the premises from which Catholic feminists work, then the Catholic Church has badly distorted the Gospel while certain other churches uphold it. Very well, but why go on beating one's head against the stone wall of "patriarchy"? A number of Anglicans have become Catholics over the issue. Ought there not to be more traffic the other way?

The vow "I'm going to stay in and fight this thing" is puzzling. Most of the people who say this would be the last ones to affirm that the Catholic Church is the one true church. If all churches are merely different paths to the same goal, there is no compelling reason to remain in a church whose teachings and practices one despises. It is like a family which gets together on major holidays only so that its members can keep resurrecting old grievances against each other.

Father McBrien claims of the papal letter that there is "no evidence to support it." This is the most irritating aspect of the subject. Some very good theologians- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Louis Bouyer, Manfred Hauke, Donald Keefe, Joyce Little-have discussed why women cannot be ordained. But people like Father McBrien just keep demanding, "where's the evidence?" while refusing to stay for an answer.

Historically popes have often been accused of exceeding their authority. But it is John Paul II's claim, fully in accord with all the traditions of the Church, that he simply does not have the authority to ordain women, and that if he did so he would be going against the intentions of Christ. It is curious to see feminists now urging him to extend his power, even against his own conscience.

The main reason the debate over women's ordination has been so divisive and fruitless is that feminists have essentially mounted their argument in secular terms, with a thin veneer of theology. They may claim some historical justification for their position, but everyone knows that this finally does not matter. The spirit of our age seems to demand that women be ordained, and that, as far as feminists are concerned, is that.

I do not hope for massive feminist defections from the Catholic Church but instead for prayerful meditation on the recent papal letter, and on the profound issues which surround this whole controversy. In the best of all worlds this would be the occasion not for further acrimony but for a truly Christian understanding of these questions.

Dr. Hitchcock is a professor of history at St. Louis University.

This article appeared in the June 23, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Herald."