In early December the independent and very liberal National Catholic Reporter weekly newspaper published a long, carefully reasoned editorial declaring that “The Ordination of Women Would Correct an Injustice.” If the Church were deliberately perpetrating an injustice in the matter of ordination, of course, it would be a serious matter. The NCR editorial was a response to the earlier “excommunication, dismissal, and laicization” of Roy Bourgeois, who as a Maryknoll priest had long and defiantly—and in spite of numerous warnings—engaged in what was officially described as a “campaign against the teachings of the Catholic Church”—he repeatedly and obstinately engaged in public agitation in favor of female ordination.
According to the NCR editorial, both the disciplining of Roy Bourgeois and the Church’s “failure” to ordain women constituted grave injustices that urgently need to be remedied. “The call to priesthood,” the newspaper wrote, “is a gift from God. It is rooted in baptism and is called forth and affirmed by the community”—not, significantly, by the Church, according to the NCR, but by the “community.” Characterizing the Church’s position of ordaining only men as “absurd,” while describing that position as being based on nothing more substantial than a belief that “anatomy is somehow a barrier to God’s ability to call one of God’s own children forward,” the editorial claimed that female ordination is not only favored by most Catholics today, but represents the true sensus fidelium, or “sense of the faithful,” of Catholic believers today.
The conclusion of the NCR editorial was that “exclusion of women from the priesthood has no strong basis in Scripture or any other compelling a rationale,” and hence the NCR editors issued a clarion call to the Catholic laity to oppose the Church’s teaching on ordination, both publicly and strenuously: the laity need “to speak up in every forum available to us: in parish council meetings, faith-sharing groups, diocesan convocations, and academic seminars. We should write letters to our bishops, to the editors of our local papers and television news channels”—in other words, we should assume that Catholic teaching is established in the same way as political opinion in a modern democratic regime, that is, chiefly by political agitation and pressuring.
When speaking before Catholic groups, I have often found that many Catholics today in fact do notunderstand why the Church does not ordain women. The NCR editors have hit upon a real sore spot here. Whether this indicates—or could—any kind of shift in the sensus fidelium, however, is another and very different question entirely.
In a society such as modern American society today, where almost any kind of discrimination, or supposed discrimination, is almost automatically considered to be the worst of injustices—and where for practically a good half century now, feminists and their allies have been hammering away at the idea that women have been and still are being discriminated against in American society (as well as within the Church)—in this kind of climate, perhaps the surprise is that there are not more voices protesting the Church’s position of not ordaining women and, like the NCR, calling for a revision of the Church’s teaching in the matter.
In view of what seems to be the widespread (but erroneous) popular opinion here, perhaps it is worthwhile briefly summarizing what the Church actually does teach about female (non)ordination.
The principal current explanatory official Church document in the matter is the Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, Inter Insigniores, issued by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on October 15, 1976. The key statement in this document is the assertion that the Church, “in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.” The NCR editorial quotes the second part of this statement about the Church not considering herself authorized, but omits the first part about this being “in fidelity to the example of the Lord.”
Yet this is the principal reason offered by Inter Insigniores for the Church’s position: the Church does not ordain women to the sacred priesthood essentially because Christ did not include women among the select Twelve to whom he gave sacramental powers that were to be handed down in the Church to and through their successors, the bishops. The priesthood is acquired by means of a sacrament, the sacrament of Order. The bishops possess this sacrament in its fullness, which they share with their priests, and transmit to their successor bishops. If it is asked why they cannot also share it with women, the Church’s answer is that Jesus did not share with women membership in the group of the Twelve on whom he conferred sacramental powers.