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 CNS Story:

WOMEN-AMERICA Dec. 1, 1995


By Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Two Jesuit scholars writing in the Dec. 9 issue of America magazine have cautioned that church teaching on the exclusion of women from the priesthood may not meet the church's own rigorous tests for identifying it as clearly infallible doctrine.

But a Vatican official defended the Vatican's mid-November statement on the infallibility of church teaching on ordination of women as a proper application of church procedure.

The two Jesuits -- Father Ladislas Orsy, a theologian and canon law expert, and Father Francis A. Sullivan, a theologian widely regarded as one of the world's leading experts on issues of church teaching authority -- commented in separate articles on the Nov. 18 statement from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on women priests.

The congregation said church teaching that women cannot be ordained priests "requires definitive assent" by Catholics because it is founded on the written word of God, constantly preserved in the church's tradition and "set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium" as part of the deposit of faith.

Its statement was issued in the form of a "response" to a question about the binding character of Pope John Paul II's 1994 apostolic letter on the subject.

In that letter the pope strongly reaffirmed the teaching and declared that it must be "held definitively" by Catholics. But the congregation's response was the first explicitly to invoke the language of infallibility and "the deposit of faith" as grounds for demanding assent to the teaching.

Father Orsy, who is a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law School, addressed the canonical perspectives of the doctrinal congregation text.

The theological terms used by the pope and by the congregation to describe the character of the teaching "are not identical, even if they can come close to each other," he said. "The congregation in its terminology goes further than the apostolic letter itself."

An official of the doctrinal congregation, shown a copy of the America articles, disputed Father Orsy's interpretation that the congregation's text tries to give more weight to the teaching than the original papal letter.

"The papal letter said that this is a question that concerns the divine constitution of the church, and therefore the integrity of the faith," said the official, who asked not to be named but who spoke on behalf of the congregation's secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone.

While contending that the response's language goes further than the pope's, Father Orsy also concluded that in the last analysis it adds no new weight to the teaching. But he did so from the standpoint of the different levels of authority involved. "A noninfallible organ of the Holy See, on its own authority, does not have the power to modify in any way the doctrinal weight of a papal pronouncement," he said.

The form of issuance of the response makes it clear that it is strictly a statement of the congregation -- published with papal approval but not as a "pontifical teaching or decision" -- Father Orsy said. He said the document did not contain the rarely used but centuries-old phrase "in forma speciali" (in a special manner) that popes customarily add if they not only approve a curial statement but want to raise it to the level of papal teaching.

"The doctrinal message of the apostolic letter remains the same is it was on the day of its publication," he said.

The doctrinal congregation official said that in approving the congregation statement and ordering its publication, the pope confirmed that it reflected the content and intention of his own letter. "So the content of the response is affirmed in the apostolic letter. This is not an addition," he said.

Father Sullivan, now retired in Boston after 36 years as a theology professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, said, "Catholic theologians have commonly taught that there are some articles of faith that have never been solemnly defined but have nonetheless been infallibly taught by the 'ordinary and universal magisterium."'

But he said the new doctrinal congregation document "marks the first time, to my knowledge, that an authoritative document of the Holy See has specifically declared that a particular doctrine has been infallibly taught in this way."

He said official church documents have proposed "three ways of establishing that a doctrine is taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium: consultation with all the bishops, the universal and constant consensus of Catholic theologians and the common adherence of the faithful."

The doctrinal congregation "has not invoked any of these criteria in support of its assertion that the doctrine excluding women from the priesthood has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium," he said.

Father Sullivan said he takes the response "to mean that it is a clearly established fact that the worldwide Catholic episcopate is in agreement with Pope John Paul in teaching that the exclusion of women from ordination to the priesthood is a divinely revealed doctrine that must be held definitively by all the faithful."

"I think it is a fair question to ask how they know that this is a clearly established fact.... Unless this is manifestly the case, I do not see how it can be certain that this doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium," he said.

The doctrinal congregation official said the question of how infallibility is recognized is complicated. But in response to Father Sullivan's argument he said the idea that "the ordinary universal magisterium should be subject to a universal consultation of the episcopate is not found in the Code of Canon Law or in the practice of the church."

The pope can consult with the world's bishops on women's ordination or any other issue but "is not obliged to do so by canon law or the practice of the church," he said.

The official argued that in his apostolic letter Pope John Paul was confirming with authority what was the constant teaching and practice of the church.

Father Sullivan said other teachings and practices once held firmly and universally in the church were changed when advances in culture or knowledge raised new issues or insights which "obliged the church to look at the question in a new light."

He argued that constancy of past teaching and practice does not establish the certainty and clarity of universal teaching today because the question of women's ordination today arises out of new questions not considered in the past. - - -

Contributing to this story were Jerry Filteau in Washington and John Thavis in Rome.


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