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WFF's Statement on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

May 30, 1994

Pope John Paul II's declaration, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, May 22, 1994), not only reaffirms the Church's constant teaching on the matter of ordination, but definitively states that this teaching is a matter of doctrine which all Catholics must believe. As a matter of doctrine "which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself" (¶4), this teaching "always requires the full and unconditional assent of the faithful", as the Presentation accompanying the letter states. Furthermore, it states, "to teach the contrary is equivalent to leading consciences into error" - an unusually clear warning to all who are responsible for the teaching of the Catholic faith, including theologians, priests and bishops.

This is a most important and timely definition. There has been increasing confusion about liturgical roles for women, and questioning of the Church's doctrine on restricting ordination to men has persisted, despite the explicit teaching on the matter of ordination contained in the documents the Pope cites (e.g., Mulieris Dignitatem, Christifideles Laici, the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

Significantly, the statement repeatedly calls the reasons for the Church's teachings "fundamental", and, while re-emphasizing the equal dignity of women and the importance of women's contribution to the mission of the Church, it also reaffirms the "hierarchical structure of the Church."

This is important because the fundamental conflict underlying the controversy over ordination to the priesthood, as well as other matters central to the Church's worship, is the conflict over the essential nature of the Church - what the Church is and what constitutes her authority; whether the Church was intentionally established by Christ and derives her authority directly from Christ, or is in essence a human institution, a "gathered Church", deriving authority from the "assembled community", who would then "choose" her ministers and make all decisions about her "sacraments" or worship. In succinctly reaffirming the constant teaching of the Church, the Pope has effectively ended this debate and the resulting confusion of Catholics about what being Catholic means.

Confusion over these matters was made more public - and the controversy prolonged - by the conflict which developed in the discussions surrounding the U.S. bishops' nine-year attempt to write a pastoral letter on "women's concerns". Some influential theologians, liturgical experts - and even a few bishops - publicly added their voices in support of those feminist movements (such as the "Women's Ordination Conference") who demanded ordination of women as a matter of "justice" for women.

Although the hopes of women's ordination advocates within the Catholic Church that this would be accomplished soon had begun to fade, the Pope's definitive declaration closes the door even for the future.

Unlike the matter of female altar servers, a disciplinary rule which could change tomorrow, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is so explicit "that all doubt may be removed"

Those who have said women will eventually be ordained to the priesthood, even if "not in this millennium" or "not in the lifetime of this Pope", now face some difficult choices.

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