Non-Conclusive Arguments: Therefore, Non-Conclusion? by Francine Cardman from 'Women Priests'

Non-Conclusive Arguments: Therefore, Non-Conclusion?

by Francine Cardman

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp.92-97.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Francine Cardman was at the time Associate Professor of Church History at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She holds a Ph. D. in Historical Theology (Patristics) from Yale University. Publications include The Preaching of Augustine (translation of “The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount”), ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan, and “Tradition, Hermeneutics and Ordination,” in Sexism and Church Law, ed. by James Coriden. She was a member of the Executive Board of the North American Academy of Ecumenists.

If modern thought “would have difficulty in admitting or would even rightly reject” the reasons advanced by medieval theologians for the Church’s practice of not ordaining women, what present weight can be given the scholastic doctors’ opinion that this practice is normative for the Church? By its approval of the disjunction of reasons and conclusions, the Delaration asks that assent to its teaching be given on the basis of an argument from “fittingness” and, implicitly but more fundamentally, an appeal to the authority of the magisterium. Not only does the Declaration misuse its medieval sources by taking this position, it also calls into question the nature of doctrinal development, the foundations of theological reflection and argument, and the locus of discernment and decision-making in the Church.

Development of Doctrine and Discipline: The Hermeneutics of Tradition (1)

Neither the practice and discipline of Christian life (liturgy and prayer as well as ethics and asceticism) nor the process of doctrinal formulation (whether the result of theological reflection on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ or as the legitimation of disciplinary developments) arose in a vacuum. Each interacted with the other and both were in turn shaped by their socio-cultural context. For instance: a penitential system with an accompanying sacramental theology took its start from the practice of a onetime repentance and forgiveness for post-baptismal sin; papal primacy became a matter of doctrine only after papal practice had made it a fact; transubstantiation was found to be an apt expression for the kind of eucharistic piety long dominant in the Western Church; and the medieval doctors’ discussion of women and orders was predicated on current practice and its systematization in canon law.(2) Christian doctrine, then, is rooted in Christian experience: discipline influences doctrinal development and is itself reinforced by doctrine; in unusual situations doctrine is formalized into dogma.(3)

The development of doctrine and discipline is not a homogeneous process. It is, rather, heterogeneous, even discontinuous.(4) The process is not organic, hence not irreversible. Awareness of the often unreflective or unintentional process by which doctrine and discipline have interacted in the Church’s history can be a hermeneutical key to interpreting the continuing significance of a tradition. In assessing past disciplinary or doctrinal developments, it is important to recognize that, as Avery Dulles puts it, “no doctrinal decision of the past directly solves a question that was not asked at the time.”(5) Prior to the present day discussion of women and priestly ordination, the question rested somewhere in the area between discipline and doctrine. Practice disallowed the ordination of women, and some doctrinal positions (e.g., some understandings of the Mass as sacrifice, or priesthood interpreted according to an Old Testament model) seemed to validate the practice. Not only do these peripherally related doctrinal statements fail to touch the question as it is being posed today, but there is also no properly dogmatic assertion that would forbid the ordination of women. The rereading of central Christian dogmas in light of the present hermeneutical situation could, on the other hand, even come to require that women be allowed the possibility of ordination. What is being called for in the current situation, therefore, is not the reassertion of practice but the reexamination of it. Once past practice or doctrinal interpretation is perceived as being in conflict with a more basic dogmatic principle—as, for instance, the understanding of the human nature of Jesus Christ as it was classically formulated at Chalcedon—it becomes not only possible but also necessary to change it.(6) Rather than looking to the past, Christian tradition “points forward” and “constantly propels the Church to move into the promised future and prepare for eschatological life that is to come.”(7)

Arguments and Conclusions: Theological Method (8)

If the opinions of medieval masters are to have any bearing on the current discussion, they must be viewed in their historical context and in light of their authors’ intentions and method. The Declaration cites the opinions of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus, along with the lesser figures of Richard of Middleton and Durand of Saint-Pourcain. Thomas Aquinas’ views, dependent as they are on the assumption of the natural inferiority of women, are apparently among those which the Declaration would consider “rightly rejected,” as they are not mentioned.(9) The conclusions reached by Thomas, Bonaventure and Scotus represent three major types of argument about the ordination of women and several kinds of theological method. The arguments are essentially similar to those being proposed today. For Thomas, the argument is sacramental: women may not be ordained because the sacrament of order signifies preeminence and women are incapable of signifying this, as they are in a state of subjection. For Bonaventure, it is biblical or typical: the priest represents the male Christ and acts in his persona, symbolizing particularly Christ’s role as spouse (husband) of the Church, and women can no more be husbands than they can typify the male Christ. And for Duns Scotus, the argument is neither sacramental nor from biblical typology: the Church does no injustice to women in not ordaining them because it is following the will of Christ rather than its own opinions on this matter. The will of Christ is also put forward by Richard of Middleton and Durand of Saint Pourcain as justification for not ordaining women.

Voluntarism is the best designation for the kind of theological method employed by Duns Scotus and others like him on the question of women and orders. The growth of canon law in the medieval period also contributed to the blurring of reasons and facts in theological argumentation about the ordination of women. For it was particularly in the area of the sacraments that canon law had considerable influence on the elaboration of theology.(10) This meant that actual practice often served as the “reason” offered for theological conclusions in medieval discussions of the sacraments. But whenever the argument was in the least reflective, the method employed assumed an integral connection between faith and reason. This is certainly the case in Thomas and even Bonaventure. Thomas’ testimony is omitted by the Declaration as apparently unacceptable. Bonaventure’s is misrepresented: for, finally unable to construct a tight or persuasive argument for not ordaining women, Bonaventure admits that his view is only the “sounder and more prudent opinion of the doctors,” a point not mentioned by the Declaration or its Commentary.(11) In contrast to the method of Thomas and Bonaventure is that of Duns Scotus. For Scotus, only the will of Christ himself prohibits the ordination of women, for apart from Christ’s will, reason would find great injustice in denying both women and the Church the good that could come from their ministry. Again the Declaration and Commentary misrepresent their sources, for no reference is made to the second part of Scotus’ statement where the question of injustice and pastoral benefits is raised.(12) But more importantly, in relying on the type of argument offered by Duns Scotus, the Declaration seems to approve the voluntarism of his theology. By endorsing conclusions that have been divorced from their arguments, the Declaration promotes a kind of fideism and seeks a response of obedience to its discernment of the will of Christ.

Because the Declaration assumes that its interpretation of the tradition will be authoritative, it can appeal in a later section to the analogy of faith as further support for its position. As employed in Catholic theology, the analogy of faith is an internal argument from the interconnection of doctrines.(13) Its use in the Declaration is in keeping with the disjunction of reasons and conclusions already noted. The argument from fittingness or convenience convinces only those who are already convinced—whether by the preceding four sections of the Declaration or by prior preferences. In prescinding from demonstrative argument, the Declaration considers its efforts with the analogy of faith as illustrative rather than probative: those who already share the vision will be moved by the sketch, those who do not, will not be. In appealing to the analogy of faith, the Declaration begs the question: it presumes that there is a sufficient body of faith about the ordination of women to make a judgment about the question with ease; and it suggests that a pattern can be found in this body of faith apart from the ordinary processes of reasoned argument.

The Declaration’s disjunction of faith and reason extends beyond internal theological argument to the relationship of other forms of human knowledge to theology. Although it alludes to psychological and biological evidence when referring to differences of sex vs. ethnic differences, the Declaration is consistent in its isolation of theology from other forms of human thought when it insists that “problems of sacramental theology . . . cannot be solved except in the light of Revelation.”(14) However valuable they may be in their own right, “the human sciences . . . cannot suffice here, for they cannot grasp the realities of faith: the properly supernatural content of these realities is beyond their experience.” Similarly, the Church is seen as “a society different from other societies, original in her nature and in her structures.” Equality of rights, though an acceptable ideal in the human realm, has no place in the supernatural society that is the Church.(15) Because of this, “the priestly office cannot become the goal of social advancement; no merely human progress of society or the individual can of itself give access to it: it is of another order” (emphasis mine). Not only are arguments unrelated to conclusions, reason to faith, but human reality has little bearing on the Church except as the substratum in which the Church functions

Followed to its logical end, the Declaration resolves the question of women’s ordination on the basis of authority, for it is only through the authoritative magisterium that the will of Christ for the Church is known.

Magisterium and Discernment: Who Reads the Signs of the Times?

By relying, in the final analysis, on an argument from authority, the Declaration raises the question of magisterium: who is “the Church . . . [which] does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination”; who is the Church which “through the voice of her magisterium . . . in these various domains decides what can change and what must remain immutable”; and how does this Church “know” that “when she judges that she cannot accept certain changes, it is because she . . . is bound by Christ’s manner of acting”? Or, put another way, who or what is magisterium?

At present a considerable debate is shaping up in the Church as to the nature of magisterium.(16) The actual collaboration of bishops and theologians at Vatican II—such that the council would have been impossible without it— led to expectations of collegiality and co-responsibility that were dashed agamst the rock of Humanae vitae. In this encyclical, as well as in the Declaration in Defence of the Catholic Doctrine on the Church against Certain Errors of the Present Day (Mysterium Ecclesiae), the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics (Persona humana), and the present Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood (Inter insigniores), the problem of the relationship of theologians and bishops in the teaching office of the Church has become acute. There is growing opinion that, in contrast to a 19th century neo-scholastic and Roman theology of magisterium, both bishops and theologians are jointly under responsibility to the Word of God.(17) If bishops and popes make official declarations of what the Church already believes, it is the task of theologians, according to Dulles, not merely to defend these teachings but especially to “discover what hasn’t yet been taught.”(18) Gaudium et spes noted that it is the task of the Church, the People of God, to labor “to decipher authentic signs of God’s presence and purpose in the happenings, needs, and desires in which this People has a part along with other men of our age."(19)

Because the present is as much a locus theologicus as the past or the future, there is need for discernment in the Church, for a magisterial function directed toward reading the signs of the times. Magisterium that represented the insights of the faithful as well as the cooperation of theologians and bishops would enable the Church to be responsive to its changing historical context.

Institutional change, in the Church as in other human societies, occurs in three major stages: innovation, articulation, and adoption. Pastoral practice is already undergoing considerable innovation as women share in many forms of ministry; the continued evolution of practice will in time make an argument of fittingness work in the direction of ordination of women to the priesthood. Theological reflection on the ordination of women is only now beginning to mature; a new level of discourse, beyond the old arguments and the appeal to authority, must evolve before the process of articulation can be completed. The time for magisterial decision is not yet, and even the Declaration is not a final pronouncement on the question; adoption will come as the Church learns to live toward the future.


1. Tradition (capitalized) is the Gospel of Jesus Christ made present in the Church by the Holy Spirit; it is to be distinguished from tradition, which includes both the traditionary process and that which is handed on (often referred to as “apostolic tradition”). I have attempted to define the various meanings of “tradition” and to raise the question of a hermeneutics of tradition in “Tradition, Hermeneutics, and Ordination,” in Sexism and Church Law, ed. James Coriden (New York: Paulist Press, 1977).

2. For the relation of canon law and scholastic theology on the question of women and orders, see George Tavard’s essay, “The Scholastic Doctrine,” in this volume. I have traced the development of the topic as a question in medieval theology in “The Medieval Question of Women and Orders,” forthcoming in The Thomist.

3. In his multi-volume history of the Christian tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan defines doctrines as “what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God”: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p 1. What is believed is always more than what is taught, which is also more than what is confessed by dogmatic statement. For perceptive explorations of the process of doctrinal development, see Pelikan, Development of Doctrine: Some Historical Prolegomena (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969), and Maurice Wiles, The Making of Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967).

4. Avery Dulles, “The ‘Irreformability’ of Dogma,” in The Survival of Dogma (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973), p. 208. See also John T. Ford’s comments on homogeneity and development in “Newman on ‘Sensus Fidelium’ and Mariology,” Marian Studies, Vol. 28 (1977), pp. 144-45.

5. Dulles, “The Hermeneutics of Dogmatic Statements,” Survival, p.185.

6. For the process by which a maxim conditioned by a socio-cultural situation comes into conflict with a more universal and fundamental moral principle, and the application of this to the Declaration’s argument, see Karl Rahner, “Priestertum der Frau?” Stimmen der Zeit, Vol.195, No. 5 (March, 1977), pp. 191-201.

7. Dulles, “The Magisterium in a Time of Change,” Survival, p.126. See also his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, “What is Magisterium,” Origins, Vol. 6, No. 6 (July 1, 1976), pp.81, 83-88.

8. The debate unleashed by David Tracy’s study of pluralism in theology and theological method in Blessed Rage for Order (New York: Seabury Press, 1975) indicates the profundity of the question of theological method and underscores the Declaration’s disregard of the same. For one response to Tracy, see Avery Dulles, “Method in Fundamental Theology,” Theological Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (June, 1976), pp. 304-16.

9. Thomas’ explanation is set out in Commentum in 4 Librum Sententiarum, Dist. 25, q. 2, a. l. The Supplement to the Summa (Q.39, a. l) merely repeats this treatment.

10. See Joseph de Ghellinck, Le Mouvement theologique du XIle siecle (2nd ed., Brussells, 1969), pp. 52-65, 203-13, 416-510, 537-47.

11. That woman’s incapacity for ordination is defacto as well as de jure is only a “probable” opinion according to Bonaventure (saniorem opinionem et prudentiorem doctorum). The Declaration only quotes that part of Bonaventure’s statement which attributes the non-ordination of women to the incapacity of their nature rather than the Church’s decision.

12. Read in its entirety, Scotus’ explanation takes on a different tone: “The Church would not have presumed to deprive the entire sex of women without any fault of their own, of an act which could licitly have been theirs and which might have been ordained for the salvation of woman and others in the Church through her, for it would seem a very great injustice, not only to the entire sex but also to a few (specific) persons; but now, if by divine law ecclesiastical order could licitly belong to woman, this would be for their salvation and the salvation of others through them.”

13. See Leo Scheffczyk, “Analogia Fidei,” Sacramentum Mundi, Vol. 1, pp. 25-27. The idea of the analogy of faith can be recognized in Catholic theology from the time of Vatican I, but the expression only gains currency with Leo XIII. For Protestant theology the term refers to a hermeneutical principle in scriptural interpretation. The two views come into conflict when Karl Barth challenges the Catholic usage of analogia entis and by extension analogia fidei—see Hans Urs von Balthasar The Theology of Karl Barth (New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1971), pp. 93-100, 147-50.

14. It is worth noting that the same kind of argument appears in the Declaration On Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics. According to that document, sociological surveys of sexual practices are useful for discovering facts, “but facts do not constitute a criterion for judging the moral value of human acts.” Similarly, the moral norms affirmed in the document “must be faithfully held and taught” because the Church “knows with certainty that they are in complete harmony with the divine order of creation and with the spirit of Christ, and therefore also with human dignity."

15. See the essay by Margaret Farley in this volume, “Discrimination or Equality? The Old Order or the New?” pp. 310-315.

16. Richard A. McCormick S.J., surveys the major positions to date in “Notes on Moral Theology,” Theological Studies, Vol. 38, No.1 (March, 1977), pp. 84-100.

17. Ibid., pp 90-97

18. Dulles, "Doctrinal Authority in the Church," Survival, p.98.

19. Gaudium et spes 11, in Documents of Vatican II, ed. Walter M. Abbott, S.J. (New York: Association Press, 1966), p. 209.

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