Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?

Q1: Why did Pope John Paul II claim that he can’t allow women to be priests? If he’s the Pope, and has absolute authority, who can prevent him from changing the current rule? — Jennifer

Q2: How can it be that Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments, yet women cannot be ordained? I heard a woman arguing in support of women’s ordination in this way, and didn’t know how to respond. — Thomas

A: We have already seen in the December 1, 2007 column that the Code of Canon Law very clearly states that only a baptized male may be ordained (c. 1024). A woman, therefore, may go through all the external motions of a sacramental ordination, but the sacrament will still be invalid.

We have also seen that as the supreme legislator, the Pope may — and sometimes does — make changes to the code. So could the Holy Father conceivably change the law so as to permit women validly to be ordained as Catholic priests someday? 

The answer hinges, as we saw in the February 8, 2008 column, on the origin of an existing law. If it is simply an ecclesiastical law, that was written and promulgated by human church authority, it can be changed. If, however, it has its origins in divine/natural law, there is no authority on earth that may alter it. So where did the Church’s law banning women from the priesthood originally come from?

In the case of some church laws, the answer to such a question is obvious. We know instinctively, for example, that a parent and child may never marry, as this violates natural law (c. 1091.1). We know that the authority of the papacy (cf. c. 331) may never be abolished, because Christ clearly gave that authority to Saint Peter, the first Pope, as is described in the Gospels. The basis for these laws is quite evident. But frequently the origin of the Church’s laws is not so clear. This is certainly the case with canon 1024, mandating the male-only priesthood. The actual basis for this law is far from obvious, either theologically or historically.

If there were an explicit statement in Sacred Scripture, for example, which indicated that Jesus specifically reserved sacred ordination for men, the uncertainty would be removed, and the question would be answered. In such a case, the fact that women are prevented from being ordained would clearly be of divine law. All Catholics would be able to see, without any doubt, that this law could never be changed without directly violating a precept laid down by Christ Himself. Since there is no such statement anywhere in the New Testament, we are stuck.

 Or are we? As Catholics, we know that the Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit, and as the highest church authority on earth, he can speak definitively on theological matters that require clarification. And fortunately for us, Pope John Paul II did exactly that, when he addressed the issue of women’s ordination in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

The Pope stated that “in some places” the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood was “considered still open to debate.” Nevertheless, “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance,” the Pope stated unequivocally, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” 

Look closely at his wording. The law barring women from being ordained cannot be changed, he said, because the Catholic Church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” With this statement, John Paul II was effectively asserting that a male-only priesthood is a matter of divine law. Even the Pope does not have the power to change it. And the matter is, therefore, no longer open to discussion.

Now the answer to the question posed above by Thomas can easily be answered in an absolute, permanent way. Yes, the sacraments may not be denied to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them (c. 843.1; cf also the May 24, 2007 column). Women are, according to canon 1024, prohibited by law from receiving the sacrament of holy orders. Since women do not have the right to receive this sacrament, there is no violation of a right when it is refused to them. And this is not merely true for the time being, until another Pope some day in the future changes the law. This will always be true, because no Pope can change the law.

It is undeniable that there are many people, including many sincere Catholics, who don’t like this one bit. Many of them feel that the Church of the 21st century should be open to the ordination of women. Thus they don’t agree with either canon 1024 or with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

But they risk overlooking a crucial component of being a Catholic: deference to authority. We Catholics know that the Church is not run by elected officials, and that church teachings are not defined by opinion polls. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and as such possesses the authority to teach in His Name. When the Pope makes definitive statements, or promulgates laws, Catholics are obliged to follow them, regardless of whether they like them or not.

Here in the United States, we are accustomed to voice our opinions about civil laws and to assert our own rights, but it is important to keep in mind that this same general mindset cannot be applied to church laws and doctrinal issues. We Catholic Americans know that the Church is not a democracy that is ruled by the will of the people. It is ultimately ruled by God, and instead of openly disagreeing in church matters, we should all acknowledge church authority, and thank Him for it.

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