In a statement approved by Pope John Paul II, the Vatican announced Saturday that Roman Catholics must consider their church’s doctrine that only men can be priests to be “infallibly” taught.
Invoking the word “infallible,” which in Catholic theology is reserved for teaching considered irreversible, free from error and requiring full assent from the faithful, indicates the pope’s desire to rule out unequivocally the possibility of ordaining women.
But Saturday’s statement, although carrying papal approval, came from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees church teaching, and not directly from the pope. And that is likely to spur a new round of disputes among theologians about the statement’s degree of authority.
Behind those disputes will be agonizing reappraisals by many Catholics who are deeply committed to the ordination of women. A New York Times survey in September showed that 61 percent of American Catholics favor the ordination of women to the priesthood, and among many nuns and women holding key posts in the church this question is viewed as a measuring stick of the its attitudes toward women’s equality.
Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, who was elected Tuesday as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Saturday addressed a plea to Catholics who have questioned the church’s teaching that only men can become priests.
“I ask you now prayerfully to allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with the wisdom and understanding that will enable you to accept it,” Pilla said of the teaching. He insisted, as has the pope on many occasions, that the limitation of priesthood to men is not meant to diminish the equality or dignity of women.
But several theologians and bishops said the new statement was as likely to lead to reappraisals of the teaching authority of the church and the pope as to rejection of women’s ordination.
“There are literally millions of Catholics in the U.S. alone who see no reason why women can’t be ordained, and they’re not going to decide they’re not Catholics or stop going to church,” said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. “It is the pope and the Vatican who will be seen as out of step.”
Saturday’s statement was an official response by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to a query concerning “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” Pope John Paul’s declaration in May 1994 that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitely held by all the church’s faithful.”
There were reports that at the request of bishops from around the world, the pope had refrained from using the word “infallible” in that declaration. A letter from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the congregation, explains that Saturday’s statement is being issued because doubts have persisted whether Catholics must abide by the pope’s earlier declaration. That may explain why “infallibly” appears now, although not directly in the voice of the pope.
Few theological concepts are subject to more confusion than infallibility.
It is usually associated with papal infallibility. The exercise of papal infallibility, which requires solemn declarations by the pope under carefully specified circumstances, is in fact very rare; there are only two clear occasions since the idea was defined in the 19th century.
Because of controversies over papal infallibility in modern times, many Catholics have come to think that only teachings declared in this fashion are considered infallible.
But a more general teaching - an infallibility of the church rather than of the pope - holds that basic doctrines stemming from Jesus and Scripture and taught by the church are to be considered infallible.
The congregation’s statement puts the restriction of priesthood to men in this latter category. The Rev. J. Augustine DiNoia, a theological adviser to the American Catholic bishops, put the teaching in the same category as the church’s teaching that bread and wine are necessary for a priest validly to celebrate a Mass and, in Catholic belief, transform them into the Christ’s body and blood.
But other theologians found the congregation’s statement puzzling.
“I am dumbfounded, frankly speaking,” said the Rev. Francis Sullivan, who teaches at Boston College and specializes in questions of teaching authority.
A year ago, Sullivan wrote that the pope’s 1994 declaration did not meet the conditions for ordinary infallibility since there was no evidence that bishops around the world had concurred with it, at least not since modern debates on the role of women in the church had begun.