Refining the Question About Women’s Ordination

by Hermann J. Pottmeyer

Professor Hermann J. Pottmeyer is one of Europe’s leading Catholic theologians. He studied with Lonergan at the Gregorian University in Rome and taught with Carl Rahner at the University of Munster. Dr. Pottmeyer is Professor of fundamental theology at the University of Bochum, Germany. He is the author of fifteen books. Among his articles in English are: "The Traditionalist Temptation of the Contemporary Church," America, Aug. 29, 1992); "A New Phase in the Reception of Vatican II: Twenty Years of Interpretation of the Council;" and "Why Does the Church need a Pope?

This article first appeared in America, October 26, 1996, pp. 16 – 18.


The new role of women in today’s society is one of the most important signs of the time. What is the significance of Jesus’ action in choosing and commissioning only men as members of the Twelve, and then after Easter sending women as the first witnesses and messengers of his resurrection? The question cannot be decided on the basis of either historical exegesis or church tradition. We have to consider Jesus’ true intention afresh.

"The Pope is fully justified in saying that he has no authority to change the tradition on his own initiative. The proper forum for a decision in a matter of this kind is a council………If Jesus acted in accord with the culture of his day, then we can ask whether faithfulness to him does not require us to do the same."

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued on Nov. 18, 1995, a "Response" to questions concerning the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of May 1994, in which the Pope had stated that he had no authority to change the church's tradition of ordaining only men to the priesthood. Immediately thereafter Cardinal Joachim Meisner, , the archbishop of Cologne, published an article in the German Catholic weekly Rheinischer Merkur asserting that O.S. was an infallible ex cathedra papal statement (an instance of the Pope's extraordinary magisterium) confirming the unanimous teaching of the episcopal college (the ordinary magisterium), which is also infallible.

Corning hard on the heels of the Roman "Response," Meisner's article suggested that he had himself instigated this response. It is well known that Meisner was dissatisfied with the very moderate response of the German Bishops' Conference to O.S. If Meisner was among those who demanded that Rome speak to the question again, and more forcefully (as is widely assumed), then he did not get the infallible ex cathedra papal dogma he was looking for.

In the next issue of the paper I responded with an article contending that the Cardinal's interpretation of the C.D.F. "Response" was mistaken. I cited the quasi-official interpretation published in Osservatore Romano, signed with three stars. Most likely the author was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It said much the same as an article about O.S. that Ratzinger had published in the international journal Communio in 1994.

Both of these commentaries emphasize that O.S. is an instance of the ordinary (i.e. non-infallible) magisterium, declaring that the church's unbroken tradition with regard to ordination is irreformable. This justifies the presumption that Cardinal Ratzinger had warned against an ex cathedra statement and that the C.D.R "Response" represented a compromise with those who were pressing for a papal dogma. Possible reasons for such a warning are not far to seek. Ratziner may have wished to avoid jeopardizing agreement with the Orthodox. Though they agree with Rome about women's ordination, they would not look kindly on a resolution of the question by papal flat. Moreover, Ratziner is all too familiar with the controversy over papal infallibility provoked by Hans Kung. The Cardinal may have wished to avoid providing fresh fuel for that fire by an ex cathedra definition regarding, the ordination of women.

Be that as it may, Rome's fundamental intention is clear: the desire to terminate debate about the ordination of women that is driven by appeals to equal rights, which is taking place in the United States and Germany especially, but elsewhere as well. Rome fears that this debate, as well as the actions already taken by Anglicans and Protestants, will create pressure to act-although the theological debate hitherto has failed to produce reasons to justify abandonment of a 2,000-year-old tradition. Rome's intention, in other words, was primarily pastoral. 'Mere was no desire to forbid responsible theological discussion. As in the case of the C.D.F.'s earlier ban of women's ordination, Inter Insigniores (1976), Rome pursued this pastoral goal by making use of magisterial statements that, though authoritative, were not at the highest level. These proved inadequate. Discussion continued, and with it an escalation of magisterial statements.

The Question: Fidelity to Jesus.

This has produced the situation we face today. Bishops and theologians are uncertain about the bindin- force of the Roman statements. Some bishops and some theologians feel they must keep silent. Others continue the previous discussion.

The question at issue is this: Is it possible, through an act of the Pope's ordinary magisterium, to declare definitively that a tradition is irreformable while the intention behind the tradition and its binding force are still the subject of serious theological discussion? The C.D.F. "Response" contends that the tradition is irreformable because it is based on the unbroken, universal teaching of the episcopal college. This contention is doubtful. The continuing theological discussion shows that the Pope has not achieved universal consensus among the bishops. Nor is it certain that the bishops today teach the exclusion of women from priestly ordination as "a teaching to be held definitively and absolutely" -- the prerequisite, according to "The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" (No. 25), for the infallible exercise of the ordinary magisterium of the universal episcopate.

Before the publication of O.S. the Pope merely invited the presidents of the episcopal conferences to a brief meeting, at which they were presented with a text in which they could make few chanaes. A number of them are said to have warned against issuing a final prohibition of discussion about women's ordination. In these circumstances, many people are asking, can the church demand definitive assent? My article in response to Cardinal Meisner was an attempt to pay attention to Rome's just concerns while keeping the door open, if only a crack, for a responsible dialogue on this question. The article made four points.

1. Rome is quite right in affirming that women's ordination is not merely a question of church discipline. The question is rather this: In calling only men as his Twelve Apostles, did Jesus reveal the will of God for his church? That is a dogmatic question, involving the content of revelation.

I have no difficulty accepting that an essential motive of the church's 2,000-year tradition was the desire to be faithful to Jesus' action and example. Admittedly, many of the past arguments against women's ordination reflected the social and cultural conditions of their day. But these were merely arguments of convenience -- attempts to explain the practice of Jesus and of the church. The arguments advanced may be dated, what is crucial is the church's desire to be faithful to the practice of its Lord.

This desire was, in fact, so basic that there was hardly any discussion of the question until very recently. Given this fact, the Pope is fully justified in saying that he has no authority to change the tradition on his own initiative. Claiming such authority would be papalism of the most extreme kind. The proper forum for a decision in a matter of this kind is a council.

2. Why, nonetheless, has the Pope used only his ordinary, not Ws extraordinary teaching authority? I respond: with good reason. The Pope has said that he wishes to let the tradition speak for itself. That is noteworthy. For decades theologians have criticized the Pope for not giving sufficient weight in his doctrinal statements to Scripture and nation and for making too much use of his formal teaching authority. Here the Pope, in a question of grave importance, invokes not his supreme formal authority but the content of Scripture and tradition despite the fact (which we can safely assume) that he personally believes an ex cathedra declaration would be quite legitimate.

He embarks on this s welcome course, however, halfheartedly, thus involving, himself in a contradiction. For if he really wishes to let the weight of tradition speak for itself, he cannot invoke the authority of his office to demand definitive assent. Evidently he does not really trust the weight of tradition, or he does not trust us to recognize tradition's weight. It is possible that the C.D.F. noticed this contradiction and for this reason appealed as O.S. did not, to the ordinary teaching of the universal college of bishops.

Personally, I do not believe that the Pope intended to contradict himself. I believe he spoke quite deliberately. If he wished to give tradition its full weight and for this reason used only his ordinary and not his extraordinary teaching authority, then he wished the theological discussion to continue. provided the proper conditions were observed.

3. If the Pope permits, indeed wants us to reflect on the authority of tradition, we must inquire: Did the church in past centuries really ask whether faithfulness to Jesus required that only men be ordained? Indeed, could this question have been asked, given the social and cultural situations in which the church has lived hitherto? If the church did not ask this question, how can we claim that the impossibility of women's ordination was "a teaching to be held definitively and absolutely" ("The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church," No. 25)?

4. The defenders of tradition argue thus: Even if we grant that the church has been influenced by cultural factors, nonetheless Jesus himself chose freely and independently to call only men as apostles. In following Jesus' example, therefore. the church was not influenced simply by cultural considerations. I respond: Jesus' limitation of the Twelve to men was certainly free and independent. Had he included women, the Twelve would not have been understood as symbolizing Israel -- which for Jesus was crucial.

Hence the decisive step: If Jesus, in complete freedom, acted in accord with the culture of his day, then we can ask whether faithfulness to him does not require us to do the same. If we are to be true to his example, must we not take account of the changed role of women today? Is it not possible that tradition actually compels us not to limit ordination to men but rather to follow Jesus' example in taking seriously the culture of his time. This, it seems to me, is the decisive question before the church today.

Submit the Question to Prayer and Council

A few years ago, before the publication of O.S., I published a short article in my diocesan paper suggesting how the Pope might deal with the question of women's ordination. Shortly thereafter my bishop received a letter from Cardinal Ratzinger saying that I had disregarded the previous declaration Inter Insigniores, and asking the bishop to speak to me about this. Since, as a member of the International Theological Commission, I would soon see the Cardinal himself in Rome, the bishop asked him to speak to me. He did so a few weeks later.

This is what I had proposed. Since women's ordination was being so widely discussed, since changing tradition in such a matter would be so grave and since the theological discussion hitherto had failed to show whether a change was even possible, the Pope should invite the whole church to pray for guidance. We should pray, moreover, for signs of God's will. I compared our present situation to that of the apostles confronted with the question of whether Gentiles could be baptized. The apostles came to regard the conversion of Gentiles as a sip of the Spirit and of God's will.

When Cardinal Ratzinger confronted me with the argument that the question of women's ordination had already been settled in Inter Insigniores, I responded: If the Holy Spirit considers himself bound by that document, then I agree with you. I should like to ask, however: Even after Inter Insigniores. may we not continue to pray for enlightenment and for signs of God's will? The Cardinal smiled in a friendly manner and said no more, for he is a good theologian.

I remain convinced that most Catholics in the world today would understand and support the Pope if he were to say that he could not himself change tradition in this matter, but that since what was at stake was God's will, he was inviting everyone to prayer and dialogue and that he was summoning a council to make a final decision. Catholics would support such a declaration because it would show that their questions were being taken seriously and because the Pope would be acting as the spiritual leader of a church in dialogue.

In June of last year Leo Scheffczyk, emeritus professor of dogmatic theology in Munich, published an article criticizing me for "subverting" O.S. and the C.D.F. "Response" with "subtle theological arguments." Scheffczvk's argument was this: Once the Pope has declared authentically that the traditional teaching is infallible and has demanded definitive assent, further discussion of the authority of tradition in this question is forbidden. Hence my attempt to keep the door open for responsible discussion was illegitimate.

In point of fact, I do not question the church's tradition. I point rather to the intention this tradition embodies: the desire to remain faithful to Jesus' action. And I ask how we can best manifest this faithfulness today? The question remains: Can the Pope, by means of a non-infallible exercise of his authentic teaching office, declare a tradition permanently irreformable and demand definitive assent to such a declaration? And should he do this when the effect of such a declaration is to exclude not merely erroneous but even responsible discussion especially when the goal of this discussion is to discover, for today's church and in the light of new questions, the true significance of Jesus' action? It is significant that at the end of his article Scheffczvk regretted that the Pope had not chosen to make an ex cathedra declaration.

Choosing the Twelve.

Let me conclude. The question of women's ordination cannot be discussed or decided in the context of the debate over equal rights for women. Equality for women is God's will. Whether that means that God wants women to be ordained, however, still needs to be clarified. This means that we must properly understand Jesus' action in this regard, through which God has revealed his will to us, and we must decide this question in faithfulness to Jesus. Conceivably such faithfulness could lead us, in light of the "signs of the time," to change the previous tradition.

Moreover, the new role of women in today's society is one of the most important "signs of the time." We cannot reach a decision, however, through political correctness, but only by seeking God's will. I do not believe that the Pope wishes to forbid theological discussion that respects these postulates.

The decisive question for the church is this: What is the significance of Jesus' action in choosing and commissioning only men as members of the Twelve, and then after Easter sending women as the first witnesses and messengers of his resurrection? The Pontifical Biblical Commission declared rightly that the question of women's ordination cannot be decided on the basis of the historical method. Historical exegesis can uncover some important evidence for the intention of Jesus and his apostles, as well as information about the position of women in New Testament society, but it cannot do more than that.

Nor can the question be decided solely on the basis of subsequent church tradition. The changing role of women in today's society compels us to face this question afresh. Study of church tradition can disclose the motives and reasons that led the church to follow Jesus' example. The permanent core of this tradition, in my view, is the desire to be faithful to Jesus and to his action. As we see, however, in the case of Gentile baptism, the church has never understood this faithfulness in a fundamentalist way. We have every reason today, therefore, to consider Jesus' true intention afresh. We should do this in dialogue with one another, certainly -- but, more importantly, in dialogue with the Holy Spirit.