WOMEN'S ORDINATION: TAKING NO FOR AN ANSWER
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