Part Seven: The Catholic and Magisterial Tradition - From the Middle Ages to Today

The following is the last in a seven-part series.

The High Middle Ages witnessed a great flowering of religious and spiritual writing by Catholic women. For example, Blessed Julian of Norwich, St. Gertrude the Great, St. Bridget of Sweden, and three Doctors of the Church: St. Hildegard Von Bingen, St. Catherine of Siena, and later St. Theresa of Avila. Saint Hildegard was even a public preacher and travelling evangelist.

Yet not one of all these brilliant and saintly women objected to the reservation of the priesthood to men.

The Medieval period also gave us two of the most important theologians in the history of the Church: the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Franciscan St. Bonaventure. These two men both deeply considered the question, and both rejected the ordination of women to the priesthood.

Saint Bonaventure's arguments here were especially interesting, and, as it turns out, of more lasting influence. One of the great mystical theologians of all time, he pointed out that the bishop or priest must represent Christ at the Eucharist, and Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church. The Bridegroom of the Church cannot be visibly imaged by a female in the nuptial mystery of the Eucharist. Saint Bonaventure held this to be true while at the same time being a strong defender of the doctrine of Mary's Assumption into Heaven and the Catholic faith that she is the highest of all creatures and the Queen of All Saints.

When Pope St. John Paul II turned his attention to the issue of the ordination of women, he had all of this evidence before him (see also article six in this series). He knew that the popes, saints, and Doctors of the Church had always, with a single voice and without exception, in every time and place, rejected the possibility of the ordination of women. It was, so they often said, among the "heresies," and amounted to a contradiction of "divine truth" about the Church and the priesthood. Moreover, the bishops of the Church scattered throughout the world, with one accord (save for a handful who joined up with otherwise heretical movements or schismatic sects) had always acted in harmony with this belief and teaching.

The Pope had more recent evidence before him as well. In 1976 the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in a long statement approved and signed by Pope St. Paul VI titled Inter Insigniores, had reiterated the constant Tradition of the Church on this matter. Pope St. John Paul II added his own reflections as well in 1988 in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988, On the Dignity of Women).

In that letter he developed the argument rooted in the writings of St. Bonaventure that the reservation of the priesthood to men is a visible expression of the great nuptial mystery at the heart of the Catholic faith: our Eucharistic union with the Lord, the Bridegroom of the Church. Furthermore, in the early 1990s, after the Vatican had consulted with all the bishops of the world regarding the proposed text of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, the final, approved text of entry 891 explicitly states that it "is not possible" for women to be ordained.

With all of this evidence before him from Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of the Church, Pope St. John Paul II decided to issue an official papal declaration on the matter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, on the Feast of Pentecost, in 1994. The last paragraph of that statement reads as follows:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church, and firmly taught by the magisterium in its most recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgement that women are not to be admitted to ordination is held to have a mere disciplinary force. Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren, 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.


There can be no doubt that the Pope was here declaring that the reservation of the priesthood to men is a divinely revealed truth - and therefore an infallible teaching of the Church. That is why the Holy Father said that he was acting "in order to remove all doubt." Only what is infallibly taught or defined can remove all of our doubts. And that is also why the Pope says that this judgment is "definitively" to be believed by all faithful Catholics. Definitively means something that is part of the very "definition" of the Catholic faith. The reservation of the priesthood to men is therefore a small part of that great body of divinely revealed truths of the Catholic faith. To reject that teaching is, by definition and to that extent, to step outside of the Catholic faith.

One thing the Pope did not make entirely clear, however, was whether or not he was exercising in this declaration his extraordinary Magisterium, in other words, whether he was making a new, ex cathedra, solemn and infallible definition on the subject of priestly ordination.

In 1995, therefore, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified this matter. In a reply to a question sent to the Holy See by some of the world's bishops, the Congregation stated that the Pope did not have to exercise his infallible, extraordinary Magisterium in this case, because in its more ordinary way, the Church's bishops, though scattered around the world, in concord and communion with the See of Rome had always and everywhere taught that priestly ordination should be reserved to men. Here is the crucial passage from the Congregation's reply:

The [Pope's] teaching requires definitive assent since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.


These days some people try to weasel out of this teaching by saying: "That Vatican reply was merely written by Cardinal Ratzinger and Co., the members of a Vatican Congregation, who have no authority to teach infallibly or bind the consciences of the faithful. Therefore, the rejection of women's ordination is still not an infallible teaching of the Church, and one day could be reversed by an ecumenical council or ex cathedra papal declaration."

This argument is manifestly false on two counts.

First of all, as we have seen, Pope St. John Paul II declared that the reservation of the priesthood to men pertains to "the divine constitution of the Church," to be held "definitively" and without any "doubt" by all the faithful. The only thing that was still in doubt was whether the Pope had made a new definition in this regard, utilizing his infallible, extraordinary teaching authority, or whether he was simply declaring this to be a teaching of the infallible ordinary Magisterium of the Church. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said it was the latter - but either way, it is taught infallibly, and held to be definitive. No future ecumenical council or pope has the authority to contradict what was taught in an infallible manner by the whole Church from the beginning, and declared to have done so by the papacy itself.

Second, it is not true to say that this document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was merely the product of "Cardinal Ratzinger and Co." For at the bottom of the statement one finds this explicit papal endorsement:

The Sovereign Pontiff, John Paul II ... approved this Reply, and ordered it to be published.


In short, this Vatican statement was approved and ratified by the Holy Father himself.

We need to remember that according to both the First and Second Vatican Councils, the pope, the Vicar of Christ, is "the supreme judge of all the faithful .... And none may reopen the judgement of the Apostolic See, than whose authority there is no greater, nor can anyone lawfully review its judgement [that is, regarding matters of faith and morals]." After all, if the successor of St. Peter, the Rock on which the Church is built, does not have the authority to settle for us, once and for all, that a doctrine has been infallibly taught by the Church's ordinary Magisterium, then who does?

In short, this matter has been settled. To use St. Augustine's famous phrase: "Roma locuta; causa finite" (Rome has spoken; the case is closed).

In fact, this issue has been closed from the time of the apostles themselves, in the example set by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, in the precepts of St. Paul (his chosen apostle to the Gentiles), and in the consensus of the Church's saints, Fathers and Doctors down through the ages, without exception. Pope St. John Paul II saw that he simply had no authority whatsoever to reverse what is implicit in Scripture, as understood and expressed by the whole witness of Sacred Tradition, fashioned in the universal Church by the Holy Spirit.

Catholics who cannot accept this discernment by the Holy See are basically saying that the Catholic Church cannot be trusted when it officially declares to us the revealed truth from God. And that's not just some minor matter of theological opinion: If widely accepted, it would be the death knell of the Catholic faith itself.

Read the entire series.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

©Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, 2019

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