An infallible teaching on women’s ordination?

Though I hesitate to comment on the removal of Toowoomba Bishop William Morris, Megan won't let me get away with it. The newest Catholic News Service story on the drama notes that the Vatican has been trying to get Morris to resign for years. But it's still hard to figure out exactly what Morris was removed for. He didn't ordain a woman, marry a same-sex couple, desecrate the Eucharist or anything else that might have resulted in an immediate action. Most commentators have focused on Morris' 2006 pastoral letter in which Morris proposed some possibilities to the shortage of priests in his diocese, including expressing openness to the ordination of women "if Rome would permit it." The pope's own correspondence with Morris suggests that it was this questioning of what the pope refers to as an infallible teaching as the trigger for Morris' removal.

And there's the rub: When John Paul II ruled out the ordination of women in Ordinatio sacerdotalis, he used the expression "definitive," but did not use the formula that would signal an infallible teaching; in fact the word "infallible" doesn't appear anywhere in the document. (These documents are carefully crafted. "Infallible is missing for a reason.) Cardinal Ratzinger, as prefect for the Congregation for the doctrine of the Faith, argued in a response to a question about Ordinatio sacerdotalis that the teaching was part of the "deposit of faith" and therefore an infallible teaching of the "ordinary and universal magisterium"–although he knows full well that's not how infalliblility works; something can't be declared infallible by a Vatican office. Canonists and theologians the world over argued that the teaching was not infallible for a variety of reasons. Still, Ratzinger, now as pope, is pushing this kind of back-door infallibility on the question, as John Allen at NCR pointed out in a recent piece on the controversy surrounding what many call "creeping infallibility."

But the pope's actions in the Morris matter beg the question: If the pope intends to teach that the restriction of priestly orders to men is part of the deposit of faith and the divine institution of the church, which is his position, he now has the power to declare it infallibly. In other words, he could dispel the authoritative haze around Ordinatio sacerdotalis himself. So why doesn't he do it?

My guess: Doing so would provoke a serious crisis in the church, probably one as serious as if the Catholic church began ordaining women. Papal infallibility is already held lightly by many Catholics and theologians–there are significant disputes about what it means and what it may apply to. To deploy it on the question of the ordination of women might actually do more damage to belief in papal infallibility than to the Catholic opinion on the ordination of women.

It's a conundrum: It cannot be denied that Pope John Paul II believed and definitively taught that the church lacks the authority to ordain women, and that he considered the matter closed to development. It can also not be denied that Catholics in large numbers have not received that teaching and continue to at least hope for the day when women may be ordained. To declare the matter infallibly settled would in effect make communion with the Catholic church hinge on this issue, and some argue it does already.

Is Benedict trying to avoid that by merely waving "infalliblity" over the question, rather than making an infallible declaration himself?

PS: I couldn't fit this in the comment section (see Steve's comment below), so since I can edit my own blog post, I will:

Here are all three papal statements, for kicks, with my emphasis for the crucial parts:

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. (Ordinatio sacerdotalis, 4)

Wherefore, in humility and fasting, we unceasingly offered our private prayers as well as the public prayers of the Church to God the Father through his Son, that he would deign to direct and strengthen our mind by the power of the Holy Spirit. In like manner did we implore the help of the entire heavenly host as we ardently invoked the Paraclete. Accordingly, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, for the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the glory and adornment of the Virgin Mother of God, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith, and for the furtherance of the Catholic religion, by the authority of Jesus Christ our Lord, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own: "We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful." (Ineffabilis Deus)

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. (Munifentissimus Deus, 14)

Steve's points are interesting, if debatable. I wouldn't think you would have to do so much work to determine if it was infallible. There are a few issues here: the lack of the proper formulation (declare, pronounce, define; declare, define, JPII uses declare only); the use of the words doctrine and dogma, which JPII does not use; and the disputed matter of whether the question of ordination pertains to the "deposit of faith," those things necessary for salvation; note that JPII does not say it is divinely revealed. But I think Steve correctly points out the touchstones that give the pronouncement the aura of infallibility, though there is a great deal lacking.

Whether it is infallible doesn't call into question whether it is correct, of course, only whether it is reformable. I imagine Cardinal Ratzinger had a hand in the OS formulation–I bet he wrote it–and he knew what he was doing. It would have been easy for him to track the language of the previous two, but he didn't.

The test for infallibility in the ordinary magisterium is sketchier. Usually it would require universal assent by all the faithful or by the entire apostolic college. That is utterly impossible to determine. Besides, that judgment was made in the response to the question about OS, not in the papal text itself, and so it lacks the force of papal teaching.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.