Important Clarifications on Argument and Authority by M. Mary Ellen Sheehan from 'Women Priests'

Important Clarifications on Argument and Authority

by M. Mary Ellen Sheehan

from Women Priests, Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp.239-243 .
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

Mary Ellen Sheehan, IHM, received her B.A. from Marygrove College, her M.A. from St. Louis University and an S.T.D. from the Catholic University of Louvain. She was at the time Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. John's Provincial Seminary in Michigan.

After a short introduction on the role of women in modern society and the church, the content of the Declaration is divided into six parts. From a simple listing of their titles, the parts appear to signal six areas from which arguments against the admission of women to the presbyteral ministry(1) are drawn equally. From a careful reading of the text, however, it is evident that this is not really the case. Paragraph 25 points clearly to this fact. Short as it is, it is the key to interpreting where the real “argument” of the Declaration is located and thus where the real debate should be centered.

This paragraph puts forth a basic distinction that points to at least two kinds of “arguments” used in the Declaration. There is frst the Church’s normative practice (and its “basis thereof”) of excluding women from the presbyteral ministry; there is secondly the illustration of this norm in arguments of “profound fittingness" drawn from theological reflection. The frst kind of argument—constant practice as normative—is developed in parts one through four. The second kind—illustrations of fittingness—is put forth in parts five and six. Our paragraph is clearly a transitional one, pointing both backwards to parts one through four and forwards to parts fve and six.

On the Declaration’s own admission, the real argument is the Church’s constant practice of excluding women from presbyteral ministry, a practice which the Doctrinal Congregation believes is both normative and sufficently explained and justified in the document. This argument is forcefully concluded in the last two paragraphs of part four:

In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her Magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable. . .

This practice of the Church therefore has a normative character, in the fact of conferring priestly ordination only on men, it is a question of an unbroken tradition....(2)

After taking up many arguments of various sorts as “basis” in the preceding four parts of the document, the issue is thus summarily boiled down to the constant practice as normative. Why, then, the addition of two more parts explaining the “fittingness” of this practice?

The Declaration ìs clear on this point: it is not to argue demonstratively but to “illustrate this norm” and to “clarify this teaching” by showing the fittingness of exclusively male presbyteral ministers.(3) Interestingly, the Doctrinal Congregation admits to some reservation regarding this procedure in the Commentary: “In itself, such a quest is not without risk.” But in a rather quick and facile manner, the Congregation dispels its hesitancy: “However, it does not involve the Magisterium. It is well known that in solemn teaching infallibility affects the doctrinal affirmation, not the arguments intended to explain it."(4)

Several important points from this paragraph and its parallels in the Commentary need to be made more evident. They provide the basis for ordering reactions to the documents and for clarifying both the nature of the Declaration and the nature of the real argument it proposes against the admission of women to the presbyteral ministry. In short, they offer a basis for internal critique of the document itself.

1. Arguments of fittingness are no real arguments at all. They are theological opinions—perhaps well formed and to be revered and even formative of religious attitudes and convictions—but they are not firm and definitive positions on the question.

The Doctrinal Congregation certainly alludes to this understanding of “fittingness” arguments,(5) but in style and content it does not persist in this understanding. It is selective in its choice of arguments of fittingness—accenting the natural resemblance model and avoiding, for example, an equally possible argument of fittingness based on the eschatological dimension of Eucharistic celebration. This argument also enjoys a long tradition in the Church, but it would lead to the possibility—indeed perhaps even the necessity—of including women as sacramental ministers since it is the Risen Lord, and not exclusively the male, human Jesus, that is signed and celebrated in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Further, the Congregation draws conclusions that are too literal, that claim too much, from its selected arguments of fittingness and then by its style accents these overdrawn and overstated conclusions.(6)

Some current reactions to the Declaration also fail to focus sharply the nature of arguments from fittingness. While some thinkers accept some arguments from fittingness. While some thinkers accept some arguments of fittingness as more compelling than others(7) and other thinkers do not accept them at all,(8) both groups should clearly identify their reflection task in terms of the nature of the fittingness argument itself, and be careful not to claim too much.

This is not to say that arguments of fittingness should not be attacked for faulty presuppositions or for incorrect understandings of such key concepts as symbol and myth (whether they be taken too literally or too historically, too absolutely or too relatively). But many and varied arguments of fittingness should be developed, and developed properly from their historical roots and evolution. It is simply too facile to jump to the universal truth and applicatton of a symbol without this historical and cultural study.

In so doing, the limits as well as the legitimate insights from fittingness arguments will emerge and the theological reflection process will be clarifed accordingly. This process is indispensable to a proper and traditional understanding of Magisterium as a characteristic of the Church. While the Declaration seems to acknowledge the limits of arguments from fittingness, it nevertheless over-exaggerates the importance of.one such argument, the argument of natural resemblance. In the long run, this procedure distorts the real issue.

2. The real argument of the Declaration, on its own admission, is that the Church’s constant practice of excluding women from the presbyteral ministry is taught with authority.(9) Thc Doctrinal Congregation regards this fact (“datum,” as it is called in the Commentary)(10) as normative and as established and explained by the arguments it proposes from scripture, the attitude of Christ, and the practice of the Apostles in parts one through three. The Congregation believes that it has adequately and correctly discerned the attitude of Jesus and the Apostles on the question and that this attitude as presented in the Declaration is of “permanent value,” as indicated by the title of part four.

But several questions emerge here that have not been satisfactorily answered by the Declaration. There is little dispute with the fact that the constant practice has been the exclusion of women from the presbyteral ministry. But is this practice normative and in a permanent way? Has the document really established this beyond any doubt? Silence on the question until relatively recent times cannot be used as a positive and definitive argument to uphold the practice. Too much of the Church’s “constant practice” in other areas of its life and teaching have changed in the course of history to give absolute adherence to the normative nature of this practice.

Neither is it sufficent to assert that this issue is different because it “impinges too directly on the nature of ministerial priesthood....”(11) The authors of the Declaration seem to argue that the truth of the Eucharist is dependent on a male minister as sign and that this is an absolute that is given to us by God in Jesus. But is this the case? By the Declaration’s own admission, this is an argument of fittingness and therefore not finally compelling. What happens to this approach (not argument) when it is complemented with other elements of Eucharistic theology—that it is the Risen Lord who effects the sign, for instance, or that the Eucharist signs an eschatological reality as well as a literal meaning centered on the memoria of the historical Jesus as man?

But even more importantly, is the normative character of thc constant practice of excluding women from the presbyteral ministry established by “recalling the Church’s norm and the basis thereof . . .”? The Congregation is convinced that it has established the permanent truth of the practice by the arguments it has set forth from Scripture and Church practice in parts one through four. But has it? The exclusion of any reference to the findings of the Biblical Commission’s Report (whose work here was commissioned by the Doctrinal Congregation) is telling here. This action alone raises serious doubts regarding the Doctrinal Congregation openness to the data fully and adequately considered, i.e., the fact (the constant practice) and the possible interpretations (scriptural, historical, and symbolical) of that fact. It is simply not convincing - in fact it introduces suspicion of the Doctrinal Congregation's credibility - to assert, “In the final analysis it is the Church, through the voice of her Magisterium, that, in these various domains, decides what can change and what must remain immutable.”(12) What is meant by Church, by Magisterium, by various domains in this sentence?

The real battleground is in the area of the normative nature of the Church’s constant practice regarding this issue. The Declaration is not unquestionably convincing here. It does, however, center and sort out some of the arguments. Scholars and practicing pastors (male and female) have the responsibility to criticize, put forth, and refine arguments centering on the normative value of practice. The history of the Church shows this to be a tension-filled but fruitful process that is part of the Magisterium itself.

3. There is a definite ambiguity in the Declaration, as well as the accompanying Commentary, regarding the understanding of Magisterium that is employed. On the one hand, it is clear that the Declaration is not infallible teaching, though it is not always reported as such. It is a declaration of a Sacred Congregation, and admittedly an important one. But it is not a solemn pronouncement of either an Ecumenical Council or the Pope acting ex cathedra. The Declaration, and the Commentary, generally respect this fact.(13)

On the other hand, there are some aspects of these documents that are at least in tension with the non-official pronouncement character of the Declaration. The Declaration is intended to be some kind of solemn and official teaching of the Church: 1) It is a Declaration of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; 2) It was approved, confirmed, and ordered to be published by the Pope; 3) It proposes to put forth the authoritative teaching of the Church;(14) 4) It proposes to do this in some kind of definitive way.(15)

With these kinds of tensions in the documents, what concept (or concepts) of Magisterium do they employ? What in fact is the real value of thc Declaration? What is the nature of its teaching as authoritative?

In my opinion, based on some internal criticism of the Declaration itself, especially as crystallized in paragraph 25,(16) the Declaration and the accompanying Commentary are important theological documents. But they should never have been published under the authority of the Doctrinal Congregation and the Pope, however non-official this may be in the technical sense. Instead, the documents should have been published in a book or a journal, like any other theological work, as a position arguing in favor of maintaining the constant practice of the church and signed by those theologians of the Congregation who are committed to its claims.

The Declaration asserts too much about too many arguments, both those types of arguments put forth as the basis of the constant practice as normative (parts one through four) and those types identified as arguments of fittingness (parts five and six). On its own grounds, it is not a normative statement; it does not sufficiently identify or establish the nature of its teaching authority. This means that the question is still open. It simply clouds the issue to publish a Declaration of this sort in a semi-official way and to intend in tone and in several overdrawn conclusions that it be an authoritative teaching. The Doctrinal Congregation would have exercised its important task of safeguarding the Faith more truthfully and faithfully by being consistent with its own arguments and concluding that the question of admitting women to the presbyteral ministry is still open.


1. In my judgment, the phrase presbyteral ministry is to be preferred to the Declaration’s wording of Ministerial Priesthood. The former makes ministry (as noun) central and specifies a type, presbyteral (as adjective). This is more in keeping with the New Testament development of ministry and ministries. The Declaration’s phrasing accents Priesthood (as noun) and suggests that ministry is the qualifier. The contrast intended is perhaps with the priesthood of the laity, a valid but much later development.

2. Declaration, pars. 23 and 24.

3. Ibid., par. 25.

4. Commentary, par. 37.

5. Declaration, par. 25; Commentary, par. 37.

6. Later commentators in this book will support this assertion. An example is the statement: “Christ is the Bridegroom; the Church is the Bride.” While this is a rich and important biblical symbol, the declaration errs in reducing it to a literal meaning. If the Church is Bride, then in what way is it also Christ, if Christ is Bridegroom? If the Church is Bride, then can only women be the Church? Obviously, more nuance is needed to interpret this bridal symbolism and many other symbols must be introduced into the discussion in order to criticize and correct the deficiencies of any one symbol taken too exclusively or too literally.

7. A. M. Henry and Ph. Delhaye as quoted by Hcrve-Marie Legrand O.P., “State of the Question: Views on the Ordination of Women,” Origins Vol. VI (Jan. 6, 1977), p. 466; David Burrell, “The Vatican Declaration: Another View,” America, Vol. 136 (April 2, 1977), pp. 289-292.

8. Examples would be those who do not accept any symbol as absolute.

9. Declaration, pars. 23, 24 and 25; Commentary, par. 37.

10. Commentary, par. 37.

11. Commentary, par. 36.

12. Declaration, par. 23.

13. See especially the nuance offered in the Commentary, par. 37.

14. References as in note 9 above.

15. In addition to the references just cited, this point is reinforced by the wording of the title of part four, “The Permanent Value of the Attitude of Jesus and the Apostles.”

16. See also pars. 23 and 24 and the parallel sections in the Commentary.

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