Pope Philogynes and the Ladies

John Hunwicke wonders when Hell will freeze over

Shall we end up looking decidedly silly? Will the next Pope, or the one after him, cheerfully introduce the ordination of women? Of course, he would have to cancel or get round the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of 1994 (OS in what follows) which excluded it … and the future has always, in the past, held its surprises. But a careful analysis of the ‘Magisterium’ of the Roman Catholic Church makes it possible to hazard some very informed guesses about the future.

Doctrinal Development

The first factor is the nature of papal authority. Vatican I, which defined in 1870 the pope’s primacy and Infallibility, emphasized that papal authority is not given to introduce new doctrines. ‘The Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter in order that by his revelation they should display new doctrines, but that by his assistance they should conscientiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation and deposit of faith handed on through the Apostles.’ The promulgation of two Marian dogmas in 1854 and 1950 has tended to overshadow this basic principle, because they do look a bit like luxuries of devotion rather than barriers against fundamental error (‘valid and licit but extraordinary’ was Newman’s view). But this Papacy has resisted calls for another such Marian definition (Mediatrix of all Graces) and has, at every turn, emphasized in a very Pauline way (cf 1 Corinthians 11.23 and 15.3) the basic function of the papacy, to hand on carefully and uncorrupted the Paradosis, or Tradition, received from the Lord. OS recalled this Pauline approach before making its negative judgement: ‘I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.’

Uncle Joe

Behind this insistence on the negative nature of papal authority and on its limitations probably lurks the decidedly Pauline figure of Cardinal Ratzinger. Writing as a private theologian, he has asserted ‘the first Vatican Council had in no way defined the Pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The Pope’s authority is bound to the Tradition of Faith … the authority of the Pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.’ In the more authoritative Note of Presentation which accompanied OS, he wrote ‘No one, not even the supreme authority of the Church, can fail to accept this teaching without contradicting the will and example of Christ himself’; in May of this year he again wrote of teaching which ‘expresses the Church’s consciousness of the limits of her power; it expresses the bond with the word of the Lord that is binding even on a Pope.’ One of his consultants, Fr Rino Pisichella, observed in 1994 that any Catholics who rejected OS ‘would per se put themselves outside the communion of the Church.’ And this must include the Pope. Roman theologians are adamant that the Pope owes as humble and total a duty of obedience to defined doctrine as any other Catholic. A heretic cannot be Pope; the only dispute is about whether a pontiff who lapses into heresy automatically ceases to be Pope, or whether a way has to be found of deposing him.

Power and Paradosis

So, for women priests to be allowed, a new definition of papal authority would be necessary – a definition which, contrary to the words of Vatican I, enabled the papacy to set aside the Paradosis linking the praxis of today with the word and example of the Lord, a definition which would enable a Pope to claim to have had, in the Spirit, some new revelation. Such a revolutionary change is inconceivable. Indeed, it is curious that ‘liberals’ are so keen to see such a dramatic extension of the powers claimed for the papacy.

The Status of the Statement

But what is the authority of OS? Papal infallibility does not mean that everything a pope says, even everything solemnly uttered and doctrinally important, possesses infallibility. That characteristic attaches only to those very rare pronouncements which are deemed ex cathedra. And it is agreed, as much by the Vatican as by its critics, that OS was not ex cathedra. So what exactly is the extent, and the limit, and the unalterability, of the authority of OS?

The answer is that OS is infallible, not in terms of Vatican I and its teaching on the Infallibility of the Pope, but in terms of Vatican II and its teaching on the Infallibility of the Universal Episcopate (Lumen Geniium 25): ‘Although individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, nevertheless, even when dispersed throughout the world but maintaining the bond of unity between themselves and with Peter’s successor and teaching authentically matters of faith or morals, they come together into a single judgement as one which must be definitively held, they do proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly.’ That is called the Ordinary Universal Magisterium. Rome has made clear that OS is infallible because of this infallibility of the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of the universal episcopate to which, in OS, the Pope bears witness by confirming and reaffirming it. An authoritative Note on this (1998) explains: ‘A doctrine is taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world who are in communion with the Successor of Peter. Such a doctrine can be confirmed or reaffirmed by the Roman Pontiff, even without recourse to a solemn definition, by declaring explicitly that it belongs to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium … as a truth of Catholic doctrine. Consequently, when … a doctrine … belonging to the inheritance of the deposit of the Faith is taught by the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium, which necessarily includes the Pope, such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly. ‘The declaration of confirmation or reaffirmation by the Roman Pontiff in this case is not a new dogmatic definition, but a formal attestation of a truth already possessed and infallibly transmitted by the Church.

What is the Magisterium?

It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary ‘for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. Furthermore, the intention of the Ordinary and Universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context.’ And a Note of 1995: ‘An act of the ordinary papal Magisterium, not in itself infallible, witnesses to the infallibility of the teaching of a doctrine already possessed by the Church.’

The task for Philogynes

Now: Fr Pisichella is not infallible; Cardinal Ratzinger is not infallible; and the Pope, according to Vatican I, is not infallible except in exceptional circumstances not relevant here. So let us suppose that, in the future, Pope Philogynes I decides that

OS does not, after all, express the Ordinary Universal Magisterium of the episcopate;

the universal episcopate does not in fact teach that women, as a matter of doctrine, are excluded from Holy Orders;

women need not, on doctrinal grounds, be excluded from priesthood;

it has become expedient to change the Church’s discipline and admit them to priesthood.

Each of these necessary steps is highly improbable; popes do not saw the bough of authority from beneath their own feet by rubbishing their predecessors. But … just suppose he did … perhaps a natural sense of institutional loyalty would make many bishops fall into line behind him. But remember that a pope who lapsed into heresy would no longer truly be Pope. And the weightiest authorities in the Rome of the 1990s did vigorously assert that the exclusion of women from priesthood is part of the Church’s infallibly guaranteed doctrine to which every Catholic, including the Pope, owes a duty of submission. So an enormous wide-open invitation is just lying there, gazing up at any disaffected group of bishops. They can point out that Pope Philogynes has fallen into (what a predecessor declared could be infallibly known to be) heresy; and plausibly claim that he had thereby ceased to be Pope.

Has anyone forgotten Archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre and the schism, still continuing, which was caused by his conviction that there were doctrinal flaws in the teaching and reforms of Vatican II? That schism would be like an Anglican vicar’s tea-party compared with the Philogynes schism – the Second Great Schism of the West is what the historians would call it, a schism more serious than the First Great Schism of the West, because it would be doctrinally rather than politically driven; far deeper than previous doctrinal splits; ARCIC has shown how ingenious wordsmiths can fudge verbal theological differences, but a woman at the altar is not a negotiable form of words; she is flesh and blood.

The Philogynes scenario is inconceivable.


John Hunnwicke was until recently head of Theology at Lancing College

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