Mission of Bishops in the Mystery of the Church:
reflections on the question
of ordaining women to
episcopal office in the
Church of England
Cardinal Walter Kasper
An address given to the Church
of England Bishops’ Meeting,
5 June 2006
I wish to thank the Archbishop of Canterbury for the invitation to speak to you as the Church of England House of Bishops on a question that concerns you and therefore also concerns the Catholic Church and me personally as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. I have already had occasion to say to Archbishop Rowan Williams: Our friends’ problems are our problems too. In this spirit of ecumenical solidarity I would like to offer you some reflections on the question of the ordination of women to episcopal office. Naturally these reflections are made from a Catholic perspective; I am of course convinced that the decision that you are facing involves us together with you, insofar as it will be of fundamental significance for relations between us in the future.
Today is not the first time we have discussed the subject of women’s ordination. Therefore I would like to begin with a brief overview of our previous discussions. The introduction of the ordination of women to the priesthood by some provinces of the Anglican Communion, including the Church of England, was preceded by a lively correspondence between Rome and Canterbury. Pope Paul VI addressed a letter on this issue to Archbishop Donald Coggan on 30 November 1975 and again on 23 March 1976, and this was followed by a letter from Pope John Paul II to Archbishop Robert Runcie on 20 December 1984. My predecessor in office, Cardinal Jan Willebrands, responded to Archbishop Runcie’s reply on 18 December 1985.
On the question of the ordination of women to episcopal office, Pope John Paul II wrote a very earnest letter to Archbishop Robert Runcie of 8 December 1988. The Pope spoke openly of ‘new obstacles in the way of reconciliation between Catholics and Anglicans’ and of the danger of ‘block[ing] the path to the mutual recognition of ministries.’ He made reference to the ecumenical and ecclesiological dimensions of the question. In the joint declarations with Archbishop Robert Runcie on 2 October 1989 and with Archbishop George Carey on 5 December 1996 he addressed this question once more.
I should also mention the declarations by ARCIC, and the detailed response to the Rochester Report Women Bishops in the Church of England? by the Department of Dialogue and Unity of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales on 3 October 2005.The official argumentation of the Catholic Church on the ordination of women is found in the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Priesthood’, Inter insigniores (1977), and in the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, ‘On reserving priestly ordination to men alone’, Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994). There the Pontiff stated that the Catholic Church was convinced that it had no authority for such ordinations. It therefore considers such ordinations invalid (CJC can 1024).
This position has often been misconstrued as misogyny and denial of the equal dignity of women. But in the Apostolic Letter ‘On the Dignity and Vocation of Women’ Mulieris dignitatem (1988) and in his ‘Letter to Women’ (29 June 1995) Pope John Paul II made it clear that the position of the Catholic Church in no way arose from a denial of the equal dignity of men and women or a lack of esteem for women, but is based solely on fidelity to apostolic testimony as it has been handed down in the Church throughout the centuries. The Catholic Church distinguishes between the equal value and equal dignity of men and women on the one hand and on the other hand the differentiation of the two sexes, which have a complementary relationship with one another. Similar statements are found in the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘On the collaboration of men and women in the church and in the world’ (2004). Pope Benedict XVI reiterated and made concrete this view in his address to the clergy of Rome on 2 March 2006.
I know that this question involves many complex hermeneutical, anthropological and theological problems that I cannot enter into in this context. The position of the Catholic Church can only be understood and evaluated if one recognizes that the argumentation has a biblical basis, but that the Church does not read the Bible as an isolated historical document. Rather it understands the Bible in the light of the whole 2000-year tradition of all the ancient churches, the Catholic Church as well as the ancient Eastern and Orthodox churches.
Doubtless, historically conditioned views at times had some influence on this tradition. There are some arguments belonging to the past that we do not reiterate today. We should of course be aware that our contemporary views are also historically contingent in many respects, and that presumably only future centuries will be able to measure just how greatly we have been conditioned by our times; they will presumably chuckle over many things which we take for granted today, just as we do over many ideas of the ancient or medieval world.
On the other hand, it can be academically demonstrated that the rejection of the ordination of women within the tradition was not predicated on contemporary concepts alone but in essence on theological arguments. Therefore it should not be assumed that the Catholic Church will one day revise its current position. The Catholic Church is convinced that she has no right to do so.
Following this brief review of the discussionregarding the ordination of women to priesthood I would like to turn now to the current question of the ordination of women to the episcopal office. At first glance it seems to be a virtually unavoidable consequence of the first step, the ordination of women to the priesthood. The sacrament of ordination is one single sacrament, and access to one step in principle also opens the way to the next step. The reverse conclusion then must be that if women cannot be admitted to the priesthood, then they obviously cannot be admitted to episcopal office either.
Nevertheless, in the ecumenical context the ordination of women to episcopal office confronts us with a new situation relative to the ordination to the priesthood, and represents a considerable further escalation of the problem. Why? The answer to this question derives from the nature of the episcopal office, which according to the early church as well as to the current understanding of the Catholic Church, is an office of unity. As such it is particularly relevant to ecumenical concerns and aims.
I can here only touch on the foundations of this thesis. My starting point is that unity and unanimity are fundamental words in the New Testament: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Eph, 4,5). According to the testimony of the Acts of the Apostles, unanimity was one of the signs of the first church (1,14; 2,46; 4,24 et al). The significance of unity in the Church and under the apostles emerges from the way the Church dealt with the conflict regarding the continued validity of Jewish law, which touched on the foundations of Christianity. After extensive discussions the controversy was settled at that time with a handshake as a sign of communion (koinonia) (Acts, 15; Gal, 2). So koinonia / communio is a foundational term which gained fundamental significance for the early church, and which in the eyes of many once more occupies a pre-eminent place in defining the essence of the Church today. The Church is shared participation in the life of God, therefore koinonia with God and with one another (1 Jn, 1,3).
So from the beginning the episcopal office was ‘koinonially’ or collegially embedded in the communion of all bishops; it was never perceived as an office to be understood or practised individually. In his history of the Church Eusebius describes in detail the endeavours to maintain peace, unity, love and communion during the violent conflicts of the second century regarding the correct fasting practices and the dating of Easter (Hist. eccl., v,23f; cf. vii,5).
The collegial nature of the episcopal office achieves its most impressive expression in the consecration of bishops. As early as the Council of Nicea (325) it was stipulated that, if possible, a bishop should be consecrated by all the bishops of a province, or at least by a minimum of three bishops with the consent of the others (Can. 4). A synod at Antiochia (341) demanded the presence of at least the majority of the bishops of the province. The ‘Apostolic Constitutions’ are even more demanding in their judgements. Anyone who has been consecrated by only one bishop should be deposed (Can. 27). In the early church collegial induction into the episcopal office corresponded to the collegial exercise of the office through the exchange of letters, reciprocal visits and above all the joint consultation and formulation of resolutions at the synods or councils.
We are indebted above all to the martyr bishop Cyprian of Carthage for a thorough theology of the episcopal office. His sentence ‘episcopatus unus et indivisus’ is well known. This sentence stands in the context of an urgent admonition by Cyprian to his fellow bishops:
Quam unitatem tenere firmiter et vindicare debemus maxime episcopi, qui in ecclesia praesidimus, ut episcopatum quoque ipsum unum atque indivisum probemus. [And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, intrinsically contradictory. It should then not take place, or should be postponed until a broader consensus can be reached.
In formulating this last conclusion I have already moved from a presentation of the theological foundations toward the practical questions and conclusions that I would like to address in the following discussion. I do so with inner hesitation and at the same time with pain and sadness. But I believe I can best serve the cause of ecumenism with open and honest statements.
If I see it correctly, the principles I have set out lead to two practical consequences, one for the sphere of the Anglican Communion and the Church of England itself, and one for the inter-ecclesial, ecumenical sphere, and in concrete terms, for the future relationship of the Church of England to the Catholic Church.
If what I have said about the unity of the episcopate and the shared collegial participation in the one episcopate is true, then the mutual recognition of bishops, and in particular the recognition of the validity and legality of their ordination, is constitutive for the unity of the Church. At issue here is not a purely canonical or disciplinary question which could be solved or bridged by more or less organisational arrangements such as flying bishops, or the creation of a third ecclesial province or such like. Where mutual recognition and communion between bishops does not exist or no longer exists, where one can therefore no longer concelebrate the eucharist, then no church communion, at least no full church communion and thus no eucharistic communion can exist.
Arrangements like those I have referred to can only cover over the breach superficially; they can paper over the cracks, but they cannot heal the division; one can even go one step further and say that from the Catholic perspective they are the unspoken institutionalisation, manifestation and virtual legitimation of an existing schism.
When such a situation becomes a reality, it is not a purely inner-Anglican matter, but also has consequences for the ecumenical relationship between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church. We had invested great hopes and expectations in the Catholic-Anglican dialogue. Following the historic encounter of Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey on 24 March 1966 – 40 years ago now – ARCIC was, together with the Lutheran–Catholic and the Methodist–Catholic dialogues, among the first dialogues we initiated after the Second Vatican Council. Since that time it has in many respects brought great progress, for which we thank God and all those who have taken part. Thus the meeting of Catholic and Anglican bishops in Toronto-Mississauga (2000) was filled with great hopes.
The progress made relates not least to the question of a shared understanding of ministries. Even in the first phase of dialogue positive results were achieved in this fundamental question, and later we were able to expand upon these gains. Besides the official dialogue there was a thorough historical and theological discussion of the Bull of Pope Leo XIII, Apostolicae curae (1896) (DS 3315-3319). All of these discussions have not led to a conclusive resolution or to a full consensus, but they achieved a pleasing rapprochement that justifiably aroused promising expectations.
But then the growing practice of the ordination of women to priesthood led to an appreciable cooling-off. A resolution in favour of the ordination of women to the episcopate within the Church of England would most certainly lower the temperature once more; in terms of the possible recognition of Anglican Orders, it would lead not only to a short-lived cold, but to a serious and long-lasting chill.
Three provinces within the Anglican Communion have already ordained women to the episcopate; several other provinces have authorized such ordinations, though none have taken place in the latter to this point. These developments already stand as a major obstacle in Anglican–Catholic relations. But the Catholic Church has always perceived the Church of England as playing a unique role in the Anglican Communion: it is the church from which Anglicanism derives its historical continuity, and with whom the divisions of the 16th century are most specifically addressed; it is the church led by the Archbishop of Canterbury who, in the words of the Windsor Report, is ‘the pivotal instrument and focus of unity’ within the Anglican Communion; other provinces have understood being in communion with him as a ‘touchstone of what it was to be Anglican’ (§99); finally, it is the church which we in continental Europe directly associate with Anglicanism, in part because of your many Church of England chaplaincies spread throughout the continent. For us, the Church of England is not simply one province among others; its decisions have a particular importance for our dialogue, and give a strong indication of the direction in which the Communion as a whole is heading.
Because the episcopal office is a ministry of unity, the decision you face would immediately impact on the question of the unity of the Church and with it the goal of ecumenical dialogue. It would be a decision against the common goal we have until now pursued in our dialogue: full ecclesial communion, which cannot exist without full communion in the episcopal office.
Such a decision broadly taken within the Anglican Communion would mean turning away from the common position of all churches of the first millennium, that is, not only the Catholic Church but also the ancient Eastern and the Orthodox churches. It would, in our view, further call into question what was recognised by the Second Vatican Council (UR, 13), that the Anglican Communion occupied ‘a special place’ among churches and ecclesial communities of the West. We would see the Anglican Communion as moving a considerable distance closer to the side of the Protestant churches of the 16th century. It would indeed continue to have bishops, according to the Lambeth Quadrilateral (1888); but as with bishops within some Protestant churches, the older churches of East and West would recognise therein much less of what they understand to be the character and ministry of the bishop in the sense understood by the early church and continuing through the ages.
Amidst all of this, the question arises which also occupied John Henry Newman: is the socalled via media a viable path? Where and on what side does the Anglican Communion stand, where will it stand in the future? Which orientation does it claim as its own: the Latin, Greek, Protestant, Liberal or Evangelical? It may retreat to the Anglican principle of comprehensiveness and answer: We are a little of everything. Such comprehensiveness is doubtless a good principle to a certain degree, but it should not be overdone, as my predecessor Cardinal Edward Cassidy once told you: one arrives at limits where one must decide one way or the other. For without identity no society, least of all a church, can continue to survive. The decision you are facing is therefore an historic decision.
What follows from these conclusions and questions? What follows for the future of our ecumenical dialogue? One thing is certain: the Catholic Church will not break off the dialogue even in the case of such a decision. It will above all not break off the personal relationships and friendships which have developed over the past years and decades. But there is a difference between types of dialogue. The quality of the dialogue would be altered by such a decision. Ecumenical dialogue in the true sense of the word has as its goal the restoration of full church communion. That has been the presupposition of our dialogue until now. That presupposition would realistically no longer exist following the introduction of the ordination of women to episcopal office.
Following that action we could still come together for the sake of information and consultation; we could continue to discuss and attempt to clarify theological issues, to cooperate in many practical spheres and to give shared witness. Above all we could unite in joint prayer and pray for one another. All of that is, God knows, not negligible. But the loss of the common goal would necessarily have an effect on such encounters and rob them of most of their élan and their internal dynamic. Above all – and this is the most painful aspect – the shared partaking of the one Lord’s table, which we long for so earnestly, would disappear into the far and ultimately unreachable distance. Instead of moving towards one another we would co-exist alongside one another.
For many that may seem a more realistic path than what we have attempted previously, but whether it is in accordance with the binding last will and testament of Jesus, ‘that all may be one’ (Jn, 17,21) is of course another question. The answer would have to be in the negative. I ask you: Is that what we want? Are we permitted to do that? Should we not ponder what Cyprian tells us, namely that the seamless robe of Jesus Christ cannot be possessed by those who tear apart and divide the church of Christ (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 1,6)?
That brings me back once more in conclusion to a consideration of the fundamental principles. I have quoted our common Church Father, Cyprian. In conclusion I would like to refer to another shared Church Father, Augustine, and to one who must be particularly close to you, the Venerable Bede. Both of them took up Cyprian’s ideas.
Cyprian had illustrated his thesis of the ‘episcopatus unus et indivisus’ through a series of metaphors: the metaphor of the sun which has many rays but only one light; of the tree which has many branches but only one trunk grounded in one sturdy root, and of many streams which spring from one single source. Then he states: ‘Cut off one of the sun’s rays – the unity of the light permits no division; break off a branch of the tree and it can bud no more; dam off a spring from its source, it dries up below the cut.’ (De catholicae ecclesiae unitate, 1,5).
Augustine took up these metaphors more than once in his text Contra Cresconium. I will quote just one instance: ‘Avelle radium solis a corpore, divisionem lucis unitas non capit: ab arbore frange ramum, fructus germinare non poterit: a fonte praecide rivum, praecisus arescit’ (lib II 33.42). [Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree, - when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up.] Similarly, the Venerable Bede says in a homily: ‘Pastores sunt omnes, sed grex unus ostenditur qui ab apostolis omnibnus tunc unianima consensione pascebatur.’ [All are shepherds but one flock is revealed. Then it was fed by all the apostles with harmonious agreement.]
‘Grex unus, qui unianima consensione pascitur’, that is the aim of ecumenical dialogue; it can only succeed if the unianima consensio of every single one of the separated churches is preserved and is then constituted step by step between those separated ecclesial bodies. May this, in spite of all the difficulties and resistance, be granted to us one day by the grace of God.
Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the clergy of
Rome on 2 March 2006
‘Thus, the Church has a great debt of gratitude to women. And you have correctly emphasized that at a charismatic level, women do so much, I would dare to say, for the government of the Church, starting with women Religious, with the Sisters of the great Fathers of the Church such as St Ambrose, to the great women of the Middle Ages – St Hildegard, St Catherine of Siena, then St Teresa of Avila – and lastly, Mother Teresa. I would say that this charismatic sector is undoubtedly distinguished by the ministerial sector in the strict sense of the term, but it is a true and deep participation in the government of the Church.
How could we imagine the government of the Church without this contribution, which sometimes becomes very visible, such as when St Hildegard criticized the Bishops or when St Bridget offered recommendations and St Catherine of Siena obtained the return of the Popes to Rome? It has always been a crucial factor without which the Church cannot survive.
However, you rightly say: we also want to see women more visibly in the government of the Church. We can say that the issue is this: the priestly ministry of the Lord, as we know, is reserved to men, since the priestly ministry is government in the deep sense, which, in short, means it is the Sacrament [of Orders] that governs the Church.
This is the crucial point. It is not the man who does something, but the priest governs, faithful to his mission, in the sense that it is the Sacrament, that is, through the Sacrament it is Christ himself who governs, both through the Eucharist and in the other Sacraments, and thus Christ always presides.
However, it is right to ask whether in ministerial service – despite the fact that here Sacrament and charism are the two ways in which the Church fulfils herself – it might be possible to make more room, to give more offices of responsibility to women.’
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