Posted by Colm, With 0 Comments, Category: Church News, Church Reform, Latest News, Women in the Church, Women's Ordination,

By John O’Loughlin Kennedy

Cardinal Luis Ladaria re-opened the discussion on women’s ordination by publishing an article in Osservatore Romano last May. The clear, although probably unintended, message is that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of which he is Prefect is aware that the current teaching (the Apostolic Letter of Pope St John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, 1994) has not been ‘received’ by the universal church. The reception of a doctrine by the faithful is something outside the control of the Congregation, but is the acid test of infallibility (Lumen Gentium n12, quoted below). Rather than admit to a failure of reception, the article refers to ‘confusion’ among the faithful. The polls indicate, however, that there is little confusion. About two thirds of respondents in ten countries who described themselves as practising Catholics have been ready to assert unequivocally that they disagree with papal teaching that women cannot be ordained. That is not confusion. It is rejection.

Granted that doctrine cannot be decided by majority vote (with the unique exception, of course, of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility), Vatican II teaching means that a sizeable minority is sufficient to undermine a supposed infallibility:

“Thanks to a supernatural sense of the faith which characterises the People as a whole, it manifests this unerring quality when, ‘from the bishops down to the last member of the laity’ it shows universal agreement in matters of faith and morals”. (Lumen Gentium n12, quoting St Augustine, emphasis added).

The faithful seem to have arrived at their conclusion independently since the issue has not been open to free discussion since the Apostolic Letter was issued. (I take it that the publication in Osservatore Romano of an article by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has the effect of re-opening the discussion).

The ban on discussion has tended to obscure the fact that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis introduced a new doctrine which was unknown to the experts when the previous comprehensive document (6,500 words) on the subject was being prepared less than twenty years earlier. (Declaration by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Inter Insigniores, October 1976). Curiously, the Congregation seems to have been unaware then of something that would have suited their brief nicely and that they would now have us believe is an integral and infallible part of the deposit of faith! How could this have happened?

The new teaching is far from being a development of doctrine as understood and defended by Newman. There is a theological chasm between the earlier statement of fact “that the Church . . . does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination”. and the later doctrine that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. The former teaching was by its nature open to change if wiser counsels were to prevail, while the latter introduced a required doctrine, saying “that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful”. Thus, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis requires most of the faithful to revise their belief if they want to stay in communion with Rome. In addition, it attempts to tie the hands of future popes.

Moreover, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis contradicts the Council of Trent on the very question of authority in relation to the sacraments. Trent laid down:

“In the Church there has always existed this power, that in the administration of the sacraments, provided that their substance remains unaltered, she can lay down or modify what she considers more fitting either for the benefit of those who receive them or for respect towards those same sacraments, according to varying circumstances, times or places”. (Council of Trent, Sess. 21, Chapter 2, emphasis added)

The statement that the Church ‘has no authority whatsoever’ to ordain women thus contradicts Trent unless it can be proved that the gender of the recipient is part of the substance of the sacrament. I don’t think that this has been done or, indeed, can be done without doing violence to the meaning of the term ‘substance’. Trent does not define what the ‘substance’ of a sacrament is. Prummer’s Handbook of Moral Theology[1] equates it with the ‘matter and form’ (while his context assumes the intention of administering a sacrament as a further necessary part). It could be defined as the sign that confers a gift from God, which may be a grace, an effect, or a change of status —conferring a right, office, permission, title, authority, or power on the recipient. A recipient is as essential for a gift, as a buyer is for a sale. Define it how you will, however, the recipient is not part of the substance of the gift. There are three essential elements at work here, the minister, the sacrament and the recipient. Unlike the Trinity, each of these has its own separate substance.

The ban on open discussion has meant that this crucial contradiction had been generally, if not completely, unnoticed. An opinion piece of mine in the Irish Times, (2/4/2018) called attention to it, and evoked a surprising reaction. In a letter to the editor (16/4/2018), the Emeritus Professor of Moral Theology, Dr Vincent Twomey, tried to downplay the contradiction by asserting that sacraments are symbolic by nature and it would seem the male gender of the recipient is part of the substance. However, he offered no evidence or argument in support of this interpretation.

Cardinal Ladaria, in his article the following month, picks up the issue and expresses much the same opinion, but he appears to offer a supporting reference:

“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)”.

For the casual reader, the reference to Denzinger-Hunermann implies some sort of support for the contention. Consulting the reference, however, merely leads to the extract from the Council of Trent, as quoted above, which says that the Church can change everything except the substance. The reference is misleading. While it describes the substance of any sacrament as unchangeable, it makes no mention of priesthood, gender, ordination, or of the recipient being part of the substance! A misleading reference is worse than no reference at all, discrediting the argument it was intended to support . . . not to mention the quality of scholarship. Yet this appears to be the best citation that the CDF could find in support of the contention that the gender of the recipient is part of the substance.

In the same article, Cardinal Ladaria refers to ‘serious concern’ that doubts about this particular issue might undermine the authority of the Ordinary Magisterium to “teach Catholic doctrine in an infallible manner”. His concern here is not without foundation. The trend has been apparent for generations. Abuse of infallibility is probably the surest way to undermine the very concept itself. Ironically, the handling of the issue of women’s ordination has played a significant rôle in the undermining process. In 1994, after an eighteen-year-long debate in which numerous attempts at justification had failed to convince the faithful, the Apostolic Letter fell back on authority. Pope St John Paul II, however, did not claim his definition was infallible. It was left to the CDF a year later, to assert that it was. This has produced the contradiction between the new definition which they claim is infallible and the Council of Trent which is generally treated as infallible.

Both cannot be right, let alone infallible. The papacy is left with a choice between Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the Council of Trent, unless they can prove that the gender of the recipient is part of the substance of the sacrament of ordination. The issue hinges on the ordinary meaning of the word ‘substance’ and the onus of proof rests on those who would wish to modify this.

The issue has important ecumenical significance. Withdrawing infallibility from Ordinatio Sacerdotalis would remove the last excuse for refusing to ordain women and could imply that the Anglicans listened to the Holy Spirit before Rome did. A formal abandonment of one teaching of the Council of Trent would open the way to revisit others that were influenced by the perceived need to reject everything proposed by the Reformers.


Published in The Furrow (February 2019) which used the alternate heading: A Conflict of 'Infallibilities'. 

Bio Note:

Dr John O’Loughlin Kennedy is a retired economist and entrepreneur, living in Dublin, Ireland. He studied at UCD and as a Fulbright scholar at UCLA. He and his late wife, Kay, founded the relief and development agency, CONCERN Worldwide, which celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2018.

[1] —Dominic M. Prummer O.P., Handbook of Moral Theology, Fifth Edition (translated by Gerald W. Shelton, S.T.L), Cork, Mercier Press. 1956, P 244