Now let an open debate begin

From The Editor, THE TABLET, 11 July 2019

In an article in The Tablet last month, the former Bishop of Middlesbrough, John Crowley, asked for “free and open discussion throughout the Church at every level” regarding the ordination of women. This is apparently in flat contradiction to the directive given 25 years ago by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. He declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”. What John Paul II did not, and could not, forbid is discussion about the content of the apostolic letter itself. For instance, was Pope John Paul II acting within his jurisdiction? What did he mean by “definitively held”? And, could any authority whatsoever overrule opinions held in good conscience?

If those issues can be discussed without defying papal teaching, it has to follow that the substance of the apostolic letter can also be discussed. Are the reasons given for the ruling the best ones or are there better? For instance, John Paul II’s ruling is often defended on the grounds that Jesus’ decision not to include women among the 12 apostles was made in order to defend the proposition that women and men are equal but different – that they are complementary rather than interchangeable. But why Jesus should have felt it necessary 2,000 years ago to make such a point is never explained. It is more likely he merely accepted the relationship between the sexes as it then was. To suppose that he foresaw the gender politics of the early twenty-first century and wished to intervene therein is too far-fetched to be credible.

Other reasons given by the papal edict and the supporting documents it cites have to be open to question. Is it clear from theological tradition and historical memory that women have never received Holy Orders? It appears not. Does the unanimity of the worldwide Catholic episcopacy on this point prove that this papal teaching rests on the consensus of the ordinary magisterium? Given that any priest who had a contrary view would be most unlikely to be made a bishop, that is a weak argument.

Does the Catholic Church have authority to alter or amend the rules for the administration of the sacraments, for instance ordination? Though John Paul II did not think so, the answer would appear to be “Yes” in principle, but the exact circumstances would need further debate. Is it possible that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis made a ruling that really could only be made by a General Council of the Church, so only a General Council – Vatican III in effect – could overturn it? These are all legitimate questions.

Bishop Crowley is correct to say that this should not be a debate about equal rights. There is no such thing as a right to be ordained. The alternative device of demanding “a right to have a vocation tested”, which seemed to win the day in the Anglican debate, is a circular argument. The call from God to the priesthood, comes via the Church. The conviction of some women that they have such a calling has to surmount that logical obstacle. But it is right that the debate should happen, and that all propositions for or against should be cross-examined. Bishop Crowley should be commended for his brave initiative.

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