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WOMEN-CLOSED Nov. 20, 1995 (Analysis)

VATICAN SEEKS TO END DEBATE ON WOMEN'S ORDINATION

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In declaring that the all-male priesthood belongs to the deposit of faith and has been "infallibly" taught, the Vatican is aiming to shut the door on debate about women's ordination and slide a theological bolt across it.

The statement, published Nov. 18 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the strongest effort yet to end a simmering discussion inside and outside the church.

The brief text took an already authoritative teaching by Pope John Paul II and presented it as even more final. It appeared only a year and a half after the pope delivered what he described as the church's "definitive" position on the matter.

Why, then, was another statement needed?

One reason is that the teaching has continued to be openly questioned by many faithful and some theologians.

In recent weeks, for example, more than a million German Catholics signed a petition calling for women priests and other changes in the church. Opinion polls elsewhere have shown that substantial percentages of Catholics support the idea of women priests.

In a much-publicized case in November, a 65-year-old woman said she was ordained a priest in the "underground church" when Czechoslovakia was under communism. The Vatican said the ordination would have been invalid; the woman said she would continue her battle for women's ordination, though recognizing that the church's tradition "cannot be changed overnight."

Meanwhile, there have been increasing calls -- by cardinals, bishops, canon law experts and the faithful -- to explore the possibility of ordaining women as deacons. The Vatican considers this a separate issue that merits careful study, but in the minds of some it would be an opening toward ordaining women as priests.

Faced with all these questions and challenges, the Vatican could either ignore them or spotlight its message. It chose the spotlight.

In using terms like "deposit of faith" and "infallible," the Vatican was speaking as much to the average Catholic as to theologians. Some believe these are the only terms able to break through widespread doctrinal confusion today.

"A lot of people have come to believe that until it is defined as infallible by a solemn act of the pope, a doctrine of the church can be subject to any type of interpretation," said Father Rino Fisichella, a professor of fundamental theology at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, writing in the Italian Catholic newspaper Avvenire.

He said the critical reaction to the pope's 1994 apostolic letter, "On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone," was worrisome for that reason. With dissenting voices echoing loudly in the mass media, a climate of uncertainty was being kept alive, he said.

He said there was also a tendency emerging to relegate the teaching against women priests to "a momentary historical period that would be changed as time progressed."

In contrast, the doctrinal congregation stressed that the all-male priesthood could never change. And by saying the teaching was founded in Christ's own words and actions -- and not just a papal pronouncement -- it set up the natural consequence: No dissent is allowed.

In fact, the statement said it was dealing less with the teaching than with the type of assent required by the faithful. That assent must be "full, definitive" and "irrevocable," it said.

According to Father Fisichella, that means refusing to accept this doctrine would bring one "outside the communion of the Catholic Church."

The doctrinal congregation reminded Catholics that the church finds its basic truths of faith in revelation and tradition, not in "the principles of social life of each historical moment."

It also responded to the criticisms made by other Christian churches that see the all-male priesthood as an ecumenical obstacle.

"Real ecumenical commitment ... demands full sincerity and clarity in the presentation of the identity of one's own faith," the Vatican statement said.

After the pope published his 1994 apostolic letter, some Anglican and Protestant leaders said its tone posed questions and possible difficulties for future dialogue.

END


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