Women’s Ordination and the Development of Doctrine

Author(s): Sara Butler, MSBT
Dated: Oct. 1997
Protocol: ARCIC-II 406
Persistent link: https://iarccum.org/doc/?d=1136
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Sara Butler, MSBT. "Women’s Ordination and the Development of Doctrine", ARCIC-II 406 (Oct. 1997). https://iarccum.org/doc/?d=1136.

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Women’s Ordination and the Development of Doctrine

Sara Butler, MSBT

SOME MONTHS AGO, the Catholic papers reported that Patrick Kennedy, Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, was obliged to apologize to Bishop Gelineau for wondering aloud when the Catholic Church would “crawl out from the Stone Age” and ordain women. He understands failure to ordain women to contradict the Gospel message that all people are equal.

Young Catholics can probably be excused for thinking everything is in flux. The implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms has accustomed us to change and has generated new controversies as the implications of change have made themselves felt. Given that this emphasis on change is driven by a concerted effort to bring the Church into a more effective relationship with the modem world, many Catholics are extremely puzzled by the Pope’s insistence that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. It is not surprising, then, that Patrick Kennedy should be confused.

In the apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, of Pentecost, 1994, Pope John Paul II stated that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” and that this teaching requires the definitive assent of all the faithful.1 Many who did not pay much attention to that letter were caught short when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified that the Pope intended to reaffirm a teaching which had already “been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”2

The word “infallibly” certainly caught everyone’s attention, but it also left many seriously dismayed about how this position could be justified theologically. I believe a case can be made in support of this teaching. The whole case cannot be laid out here, but perhaps some light can be shed on the papal teaching by taking up the commonly asked question, Why isn’t this tradition open to development? Why isn’t this another case of the “development of doctrine”? If so much could be re-thought and then adapted in significant ways at Vatican II, what prevents the same thing from happening in this case?

First I will identify three different lines of reasoning in favor of such development. Next I will provide evidence that there has, in fact, been significant development in the Church’s teaching in relation to each of these three lines of argument. My conclusion is that the developments that have taken place do not suggest that the tradition ought to change. In fact, they stand in some tension with change and, in my view, favor the existing practice.3


Let me briefly sketch three ways in which some Catholics pose the question. First, some believe that Catholic practice ought to change in response to the changed social circumstances of women. This just seems to them like common sense, an obvious part of human rights. Just as eligible women are now admitted to the other professions, justice requires that women be admitted to the ordained ministry. Many women are surely as well qualified as men to serve the Church as priests, they note, if demonstrated competence in ministry is taken as the criterion.

Second, some would argue the case on the grounds of Catholic doctrine regarding the equality of the baptized. It is not just a question of catching up with society, they point out; the foundation for change may be found in the Church itself. Appeal is made to St. Paul’s assertion in the Letter to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). These people ask the Church to implement its own teaching on the baptismal equality of women and men.

Third, some…