A definitive 'No' to the ordination of women?

A definitive “No” to the ordination of women?

On Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis”

by Ida Raming (bibliography)

From Orientierung 58 (1994) pp. 190-193; translated for www.womenpriests.org by Mary Dittrich and republished on the website with permission of the author and the editor of Orientierung (Scheideggstrasse 45, Postfach, CH-8059 Zürich, Switserland. Tel. 01- 2010760; fax 01-2014983).

The Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” dated 22 May 1994 was intended by Pope John Paul II to deliver a binding magisterial decision against the admission of women to priestly ordination, to which “all the faithful of the Church must finally adhere” (No 4). The Pope firmly opposes the view that the exclusion of women from priestly ordination is merely “a disciplinary matter”, and that this praxis may continue to be the subject of theological discussion. With this decree he counters the increasing querying of the magisterium’s pronouncements on this subject, particularly since the introduction of female ordination in England’s Anglican Church, so as to banish thus every “doubt concerning the important matter, which affects the divine constitution of the Church itself” (No 4). But can that be done quite so simply by Papal decree ?

It is clear from the many and diverse critical reactions to the Papal pronouncement that the decision of the Papal teaching authority necessarily reaches it’s limit and remains ineffective insofar as it is based on theological ideas and thought processes which in no way can stand up to scientific theological examination. “Well-founded arguments running counter to the stance of the magisterium regarding the priestly ordination of women cannot be dismissed by applying authority” 2) - no matter how weighty. Nor will the semi-official commentaries 3) on the Apostolic letter published in the “Osservatore Romano” (of 30/31.5.94). which easily exceed it in sharpness and relentlessness, be able to reverse the level of theological findings since then achieved.

Even more binding ?

The wording of intention of the semi-official presentational document are remarkable in that here, even more strongly than in the Apostolic letter itself, its compulsory nature is stressed. “Thus, nobody, not even the highest authority in the Church, can disregard this doctrine” (on the reservation of priestly ordination to men only - the author) “without falsifying the will and example of Christ himself, and the course of Revelation.........” It is conceded that the Apostolic letter “is not a new dogmatic formulation”: but nevertheless the papal decision is viewed as quasi-dogmatic, for it is described as a “certainly true doctrine” 4), withdrawn from free theological discussion and calling for “always the full and unconditional assent of the faithful”. So as to make this ruling look like a divine command the author of the Commentaries does not hesitate to resort to intimidation by conscience, in that he stresses that “Teaching otherwise” (than the Papal ukase - the author) “ would amount to misleading the conscience (of the faithful) into error”, because the “Papal declaration is ”an act of attention to the Word of God and of obedience to the Lord on the path of truth".

Critical comments on the argumentation

Such truly inflationary use of metaphysically loaded terms (e.g. “Eternal Plan of God”, “divine constitution of the Church”, “course of Revelation”, “Truth”) characterising the Apostolic Letter, but even more so the commentary, leads to the question of what this apparently “definitively binding” doctrine is based on. 5)

It is solely the fact (reported in the NT) that Jesus called only men into the group of the “Twelve”, and that this practice of appointing only men as holders of office was retained by the Apostles when choosing their associates and successors in office (No 2). So the Pope maintains that “this choice includes those who throughout the history of the Church, were to carry on the mission of the Apostles in representing Christ, the Lord and Redeemer”. (no 2) The doctrine on reserving priestly ordination to men is “both preserved by the lasting and comprehensive tradition of the Church, and also consistently taught by the magisterium on the documents of the more recent past”(No 4)

Summing up this explanation, the Pope draws the following conclusion: “That the Church has no authority to bestow priestly ordination on women” (No 4)

A serious exegetical error in the Apostolic Letter already occurs in the interpretation of the Biblical facts quoted, especially the procedure of Jesus choosing the Twelve. Here an historical fact becomes the “definitive norm” (no2, emphasis by the author) and is even declared an essential part of the “divine constitution of the Church” (No4); this is supported by the assertion that the appointment of the twelve men “took place according to God’s eternal plan. Christ chose those whom he wanted and did that jointly with the Father ‘through the Holy Spirit’ after spending the night in prayer” (No 2)

The various biblical passages quoted and the fact that the twelve men were chosen, by no means permit the conclusion that Jesus expressly wished to exclude women on account of their sex from the group of twelve and from the offices which would develop in the early Christian Church, and which were not instituted at all by him(!). For in the Gospels there is not one word uttered by Jesus which would justify in the very least such an intention! But this specific act of the will gets quite simply assumed as being within Jesus’ procedure, or projected onto it.

Against this. Jesus procedure should be viewed against the background of the social culture of those times. In necessary agreement with the social structure of the Israel of antiquity, which was definitely patriarchal (for instance women were excluded from public teaching in the synagogues and from acting as witnesses in court). Jesus chose twelve then as symbolic representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel, these being represented, again, in the Hebrew Bible only by founders of races (the sons of Jacob), so as to express symbolically that the whole of Israel was addressed by his message and called to conversion. The New Testament tells us that the “Twelve” were sent forth by Jesus to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Jesus himself and the Twelve preached in Israel’s villages and towns, including the local synagogues. (Mk 1,39; 6,1 on; 6,6b-13 parallel; Acts 13, 5b & after). How could women assume or carry out such tasks in those days, when they were not even entitled to speak in the Synagogue?

They could not bear public, official witness.

Against the background of the strictly patriarchal structure of Jesus’ times, the only plausible interpretation thus seems to be that the attitude of Jesus and his associates in this regard can be sufficiently explained by “the cultural and social milieu of the period in which they acted, and had to act the way they did, without their behaviour having normative meaning for all time” 7)

Jesus could not simply do away with the patriarchal, sociologically -grown structures of his time. To expect that of him would amount to not taking really seriously the incarnation of God in Jesus. These preconditions and circumstances are ignored when the Pope declares, in support of his thesis, that “ when Christ appointed only men as his apostles he did that quite freely and independently. He did it with the same freedom with which in his whole behaviour he stressed the dignity and mission of woman, without adhering to the customs prevailing and to the tradition sanctioned by the laws of that time” (8). Such a statement lacks the requisite differentiation. For Jesus dealings with individual women whom he meets , or who are among his disciples, are not on the same plane as the appointment of the Twelve, which should be understood as a symbolic act. In other words, Jesus did certainly infringe when dealing with women, the taboos and prejudices of these times (cf.Jn 4,27; Mk 5, 24b-34b & after); but he was unable to break through or conquer sociological and legally set contemporary structures (eg the exclusion of women from public speaking in the Synagogues and from bearing witness in court). In the same way he encountered and knew slavery as a sociological institution of these times, but neither scorned it nor fought it, although for its victims slavery meant sinking into being a material possession of the owner.

Disregard of recognised rules of interpretation

So in its use of the Bible the Apostoloc letter thus diverges in several ways from the standards and rules laid down in the Instruction of Papal Biblical Commission on the “interpretation of the Bible in Church”, published in 1993 (9). No attention whatsoever is paid to the historical-critical method said therein to be dispensable. Indeed, the Apostolic letter clings to the fundamentalist approach, although this is expressly rejected by the Biblical Commission. Again, the Pope supports his decision with arguments ‘e silento’ which “can never suffice as a firm basis for a finding”. (10) Further weaknesses in the argumentation of the papal letter, which can only be mentioned here, are in the erroneous dipiction of the development of ecclesial offices and of ecclesial tradition (11). Contrary to the assumption in the Apostolic Letter, on straight line descended from the Twelve who are not the same as the group of Apostles, which is broader and which evidently included women( (cf Rm 16,7: Junia) - the later offices (bishopric, presbyterate and diaconate), none of which was founded by Jesus. For “the shaping and structuring of offices - - was left to the developing Church”.(12) Over and above that, the reference to the apparently “constant and comprehensive tradition of the Church” (no4) regarding the “doctrine on the restriction of priestly ordination to men” (No 4) by no means stands up to critical examination. This undifferentiated line of argument wholly supresses both the fact that in the early Christian missionary movement women acted as official co-workers, and also strands of tradition in later times running counter to the Church’s usual patriarchal praxis. First and foremost, though it disregards the fact that the apparently constant tradition of excluding women from priestly office rests on a highly impaired valuation of women. That can already be found in the later N T books (cf specially 1 Tim 2, 11-15); it got worse as the centuries passed and reached its sad culmination in the “Hammer of Witches”. The so-called witnesses from tradition (13) which include certain biblical passages and texts based on them both patristic and in medieval theology, are permeated by the pre-eminence of men by nature, often ethically too.

However, though the anti-woman nature of this tradition has now come to light, especially since Vatican II, the Church leaders are stil clinging to it with the negative concept of women, however much they try to obfuscate the way in which it is presented. Divergent opinions run up against repressive measures. (14)

Unconquered Misogyny

From all this it follows that none of the reasons adduced in the Apostolic Letter for excluding women from priestly ordination holds water. Basing on such arguments a definitive decision having the force of law, which excludes half the membership of the Church from priestly ordination and office on account of gender (cf c.1024 CIC/83) is, frankly monstruous and a grave injustice. It clearly shows to what extent women are at the mercy of arbitrary patriarchal stances in the Roman Catholic Church.

The theological reasoning in the Apostolic Letter and other instruction of recent date, to which the Pope expressly refers (including Inter Insigniores, Mulieus dignitatem, Catechism of the Catholic Church No 1577) is in fact based on unsurmounted anti-feminism. It is expressed by disappointing women and by allocating to them a dependent, subordinate role in the Church. Critical observers (in the USA), both male and female, see linkage, both in time and in content, between the Apostolic Letter “ordinatio Sacerdotalis” and Vatican politics in the forefield of the international conference in Cairo on population and developemtn (ICPD). The decisive rejection of artifical birth control by the Vatican is at the same time an attack on women’s right of self-determination in sexual matters, and opposition to the growing importance of women and their requirements at this conference.(15) In both cases the intention is to maintain the patriarchal gender pattern. Or it gets built up into categories savouring of the mystical-religions, such as “symbolic transparence of the corporeal” (in context, that can only mean a link with the masculinity of Christ), or “a binding to the will of the Creator, and binding within the Church to the will of the Redeemer.” And so it is pronounced indispensable. (17)

On the other hand, the call for equality for women in the priesthood on account of their human dignity gets discredited as an exteriorised, purely functional understanding of priestly office as “decision-making power”, and as an ominous route to the purely “functional equivalence of sexes” and to the “abstract, sexles human being”. And so it gets rejected.(18)

Of course, in this way the fundamental “data” that demand equality of the sexes and thus equal access to ecclesial office are entirely left out of consideration. These are the personal dignity of woman, her baptism and confirmation, her mystical bond with Christ as a member of the Church, the right to free choice of status (guaranteed in CIC c.219) (19) and, not least, the promise in Gal 3,28 that (Jerusalem Bible) “in Christ there are no more distinctions between male and female”, which definitively revokes the unchristian pre-eminence of men, which is why, typically, it is not mentioned anywhere in the Apostolic Letter and the commentaries on it.

The need to turn away from the sin of sexism

So if the leadership of the Church is not to petrify in the guise of “the old Adam” (Eph 4,22) and block the dawning of the Kingdom of God in the Church, it must urgently turn away from the sin of patriarchalism. In positive terms that means turning to what according to Ep 4,24 is meant by the Kingdom of God (Jerusalem Bible): “Put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth”. and according to Gal 3,27) (Jerusalem Bible): “All baptised in Christ, you have all clothed yourselves in Christ, and there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.

Abolishment of all domination by some humans over others, by men over women, will finally light up fully the image of God and Christ in both sexes, so that the Easter message of liberation and renewal in Christ will at last apply to women too, who will no longer be cheated out of it.

This Papal pronouncement should spur (Catholic) women into firm and courageous opposition to any disadvantage based on their sex. They should insist upon the unrestricted recognition within the Church of their person and of their image in God, and also of their religious vocation, including one to the priesthood. For in the words of John Paul II “women themselves have a duty of co-operation, so that they achieve respect ot their personality, and they may in no way compromise with that is inconsistent with their dignity”.(20) But feeling and establishing what conflicts with their dignity must be left, even by the Pope, to women themselves. Not as in his last Apostolic Letter when he wanted to do their thinking and tell them what to do.(21)

The movement for the entire liberation of women in the Catholic Church has in fact to be mainly conducted by themselves. But it needs the firm solidarity of right-thinking men if it is to succeed and help the Church to a fundamental renewal.

Ida Raming


1)  German text in: Herder Korrespondenz 498 (1994), p355f, with commentaries in “Osservatore Romano” (ibid p 356ff); now also as: “Verlautbarungen des Apostolichen Stuhls” No 117, Bonn 1994 (together with the declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the admission of women to priestly ordination “Inter Insignores” dd 15 October 1976).

2)  V Ruh, “Lehramt in Abseits?” in: Herder Korrespondenz 48 (1994), p 325ff, here 327; P Hünermann, “Schwerwiegende Bedenken. Eine Analyse des Apostolichen Schreibens ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis’” in: Herder Korrespondenz 48 (1994), pp 406-410.

3) Cf Herder Korrespondenz 48 (1994) p 356ff

4) This wording leads one to suspect that it is a circumlocution of the term “infallible”, which is avoided in the Apostolic Letter. Cf Archbishop R Weakland (Milwaukee USA): “I note that the Holy Father has avoided the word ‘infallible’” in: Origins 24 (1994) No4 p557.

5) In the following observations my sources include: K Rahner “Priestertum, der Frau?” in: Stimmen der Zeit 102 (1977) pp 291-301; R Albrecht, entry on “Apostelin/Jüngenin” in Wörterbuch der feminishschen Theologie, Gutersloh 1991, pp 24-28; I Raming, “Die zwólf Apostel waren Männer - - - ”Stereotype Einwände gegen die Frauenordination und ihre tieferen Ursachen in: Orientierung 56 (1992) pp 143-146; the relevant articles in “Theologisch Quartalschrift” 173 (1993) vol 3: on the subject of ordination for women. Cf. also the opinion of the Biblical Commission dated June/July 1976, in which a 12 to 5 majority vote recorded that on the basis of NT writings, the ordination of women is not excluded. The text of this finding is in: L Swidler et alia, “Women Priests”, Paulist Press, New York 1977, pp 338-346.

6) According to the “Commentaries” on the Apostolic Letter (cf Note 1), “not only the words but also the works (of Jesus) are sources of Revelation” and “become words in the living memory of the Church”. One notices, however, that only such “works” as sustain the patriarchy in the Church are declared to be “sources of Revelation” and norms, Jesus’ healing methods (eg Jn 9,6) are not assessed in this way.

7) K Rahmer (cf Note 5) p 299.

8) Apostolic Letter “Mulieribus dignitatem” dd 15 August 1988, No 26 (cf: AAS 80 (1988) p 1715; also as No 86 of the “Verlautbarung des Apostolischen Stuhls”, Bonn 1988. The text is repeated verbatim in the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacredotalis”, No 2.

9) Cf. H Haag, “Bilanz eines Jahrhunderts. Ein Lehrschreiben der päpstlichen Bibelkommission” in: Orientierung 58 (1994) pp 129-132; V Ruh (cf Note 2) p 327.

10) H Haag (cf Note 9) p 131.

11) Further comments on this in: Ida Raming (cf Note 5) p 144ff.

12) G Lohfink, “Weibliche Diatone in Neuen Testament” in: A Dautenberg et alii, “Die Grau im Urchristentum” (QD 95) Freiburg 1983, pp 320-338, esp 322.

13) A critical examination of the tradition is found inter alia in P Hünerman, “Lehramtliche Dokumente zur Frauenordination, Analyse und Gewichtung” in: Theologische Quartalschrift 173 (1993) pp 204-218; I Raming, “Der Ausschluss der Frau vom priesterhchen Amt - gottgewollte Tradition oder Diskriminierung?”, Cologne-Vienna 1973.

14) More on this in: I Raming, “Frauenbewegung und kirche. Bilanz eines 25 jährigen Kampfes fúr Gleichberechtigung und Befreiung de Frau seit dem Zwerten Vatikamschen Konzil.” Weinheim (2) 1991, esp pp 40-61.

15) See article by D von Drehle. “Population Summit has Pope worried. Vatican fears Advocacy of Reproductive Rights” in: The Washington Post dd 16 June 1994.

16) Apart from many quotations in Vatican pronouncements, recently again see in John Paul II’s address on the dignity and mission of the Christian woman in: Osservatore Romano 24 (1994) No 26 dd 1 July 1994 p 17.

17) Thus, remarkably often in the explanatory article on the Apostolic Letter “Ordiratio Sacerdotalis” by J Ratzinger: “Die Kirche kann nicht machen, was sie will” in: Rheinischer Merkur, No22 dd 3 June 1994. pp 27 and 30; now too, amplified by a body of comment in: Internationale Katholische Zeitschrift 23 (1994) pp 337-345.

18) J Ratzinger (cf Note 17) pp 27 and 30.

19) Cf I Raming: “Ungemutzte Chance für Frauen im Kirchenrecht” in: Orientierung 58 (1994) p 68ff.

20) Address on “The dignity and mission of the Christian woman” (cf Note 16) p17.

21) The Pope’s reference to Mary’s unique vocation as “Mother of God and Mother of the Church”, who nevertheless “was not accorded the specific missionary task of the Apostles” is not proof that “the exclusion of women from priestly ordination cannot mean a lessening of their dignity or discrimination against them.” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis No 3). For Mary was subject to the same partiarchal laws as the other women of her people. Furthermore unless they are misinterpreted and distorted by androcentrically moulded mariology, Mary’s religious vocation and her significance in no way contradict the priesthood of women.

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