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An order that is impossible to obey

The issue of whether women can or should be ordained as priests within the Roman Catholic church has been part of the church conversation since at least 1975 when 1,200 men and women showed up for the first Women’s Ordination conference in Detroit. A few years later, in 1978, the Catholic Theological Society of America took up the subject. Both Catholic women and men continued to ask questions and press for answers. It was not long before a handful of U.S. bishops in the 1980s and early 1990s began to ask the same questions. The issue, which was both of theological and pastoral importance, seemed to be gaining momentum.

And sparking concern in Rome.

Responding to the questions being raised throughout the church, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in May 1994, in which he said the church has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women.

Yet discussions continued. If anything, the letter only intensified them.

So it was in November 1995 that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its Responsum ad dubium, a brief letter that said the pope’s 1994 apostolic letter required “definitive assent.” The congregation ordered all further conversations on women’s ordination to halt. It said Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was now part of the church’s body of infallible teaching.

The dubium, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was not received kindly in either theological or women’s circles. The reaction was so hostile it only fueled further conversation about the ordination issue while calling into question papal infallibility itself. Fr. Hans Küng, the theologian, put words on the lips of many when he stated, in the wake of the Ratzinger document, that Catholics now faced two options. Either they accept the impossibility of women’s ordination or accept its possibility and call into question the issue of infallibility.

Rome’s dictum had backfired. It did not stop thinking Catholics from continuing to ask questions about the church’s teaching on ordination. It only called into question the church’s credibility.

If there is a lesson to be learned -- and it appears it has not been learned -- it is that people cannot be ordered to stop asking questions about belief. What Rome has failed to comprehend at great loss to the entire church is that believers deepen their faith by questioning.

Catholics want the guidance of the institutional church. They depend on their church’s teachings to be reasoned and credible, articulated in ways that beckon believers into the fullness of the divine mystery and its cornerstone Christian beliefs. Just the opposite happens when the church orders people to stop asking questions.

The order is impossible to obey. It is like asking a person to stop thinking. Such orders, rather than projecting legitimate authority, actually reveal deep fears that only provoke further questions.

The question Sr. Joan Chittister asks by attending the International Women’s Ordination Conference indirectly deals with the issue of women’s ordination. The essential question she raises is “What kind of church forbids its members from asking questions?”

To this we respond: a fearful and unhealthy church.

Perhaps every age is an age of transformation. Certainly this one is. Twentieth-century science has exploded the minds and imaginations of the entire human family. Photo images of planet Earth from the moon forever changed the way we imagine our familial, planetary and cosmic connections.

In the 20th century, the Genesis story was replaced by the story of the cosmos as the primary spiritual story. We learned that God’s creative designs go back not only 4,000 years, but 15 billion years. We began to understand the paschal mystery not only through the revelation of Jesus Christ, but also in the birth, death and rebirth of planets and galaxies. Our use of human intelligence, far from diminishing the wonder of the Creator, has drawn us deeper and deeper into imagination and insight concerning the sacredness of all things.

Entering the 21st century, the human family is struggling to articulate the full scope of the transformation. It does not always have the words. Yet it increasingly seems to sense the awesome challenges involved. Can the human family make it through the century? How will it learn to live in peace? How will it nurture the planet back to health? How will it feed the 70 percent who remain hungry? How will it share its resources more equitably? How will the religions of the world come together in common mission to liberate the human family, physically and spiritually?

Answers will not come unless questions are asked. It is the nature of healthy people and healthy institutions to ask questions, indeed, to nourish the asking of questions.

Whether women will be ordained in the Catholic church in this century remains uncertain. Catholics differ on the wisdom and necessity of ordaining women for the future health of the church. It is clear, however, regardless of decrees and disciplines that may be handed down by Rome, that the conversation will go on.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001