Why church teaching on women’s ordination isn’t infallible

There’s good reason the pope hasn’t declared the ban on women’s ordination infallible: He can’t.

Guest blog post by Robert McClory

A lot of folks have been weighing in lately on the subject of infallibility, particularly whether or not the ban on the ordination of women is or soon will be an infallible teaching. In his recent blog on the subject, Bryan Cones suggests Pope Benedict could declare the ban infallible but may be hesitating because such a declaration would provoke a huge crisis in the church. I think Bryan is right, but there is more to this potential crisis than the storm that would likely ensue.

To merit the stamp of infallibility, according to church teaching, a doctrine must be founded on scripture or on an unbroken tradition or on both. The pope and bishops are not free to decide on their own what qualifies and what doesn’t. As Vatican II said in the document Verbum Dei:

“Now the Magisterium is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it conscientiously and explaining it faithfully, by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.”

The pope must study scripture and “listen” to the faith of the church from the beginning up to the present day before making a decision. It’s a fact that the traditional ban on ordaining women is being seriously questioned and disputed in a great part of the Catholic world. The consensus that once existed is no more; the tradition is not intact and has not been for at least 20 years. Pope Benedict, despite his deep personal belief and desire, must realize that putting the stamp of infallibility on such a doctrine will not only stir a crisis but may place him in the position of betraying his authority.

It’s happened before when doctrines, once considered irreformable, absolute and firmly based on scripture and tradition, were solemnly supported over and over again by councils and popes. The belief that the earth is the center of the solar system and the prohibition against requiring interest when making a loan are two examples of such doctrines now buried in the sand.

Theologians have long recognized the danger of pushing the teachings of the faith too far. Francis Sullivan, B.C. Butler, and Avery Dulles are among those who have argued that if a papal definition of infallibility failed to enjoy widespread reception on the part of the church, this would prove the definition had not, in fact, met the stringent requirements for an infallible pronouncement.

Perhaps the best commentator on this subject is Joseph Ratzinger himself when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith. “Where there is neither consensus on the part of the universal church nor clear testimony in the sources,” he wrote, “no binding decision is possible. If such a [infallible] decision were made, it would lack the necessary conditions and the question of the decision’s legitimacy would have to be examined.”

Robert McClory is the author of Power and the Papacy: The People and Politics Behind the Doctrine of Infallibility. He is also professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a regular contributor to U.S. Catholic.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.