Magazine article The Christian Century

An 'Infallible' No from Rome

Magazine article The Christian Century

An 'Infallible' No from Rome

Article excerpt

The Vatican, using the word "infallible" for the first time in connection with the debate over the ordination of women, has again declared that women cannot become Catholic priests. In a statement issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and approved by Pope John Paul II, the Vatican said that the Roman Catholic Church's ban on women priests is "founded on the written Word of God," that it "has been set forth infallibly" and that it is "to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith."

The ruling was prompted by continued questions regarding the status of John Paul's May 1994 statement, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Priestly Ordination), in which he put forward the strong position that "the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women" and that "this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church's faithful." He did not, however, use the term "infallible." Rather than end debate, John Paul's statement only provoked more of it. Ratzinger's recent statement was in part made in response to the continuing discussion and as an attempt to bring discussion to a close.

After the November pronouncement from Rome, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, recently elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked that "all in the church in the United States, especially theologians and pastors who instruct and form our Catholic people in the faith, reverently ... receive this teaching as definitive." Pilla went on to say: "To those who have questioned this teaching in the past, I ask you now prayerfully to allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with the wisdom and understanding will enable you to accept it." On the other side a spokesman for Call to Action, a Chicago-based group that advocates ordination of women, called the Vatican's ruling "troubling and disheartening" and said its evoking infallibility on the issue constituted "a nuclear weapon."

Since the new statement about ordaining women came from Cardinal Ratzinger rather than John Paul II himself, its level of authority has been a matter of debate. While the term "infallible" is usually most closely linked to a papal statement designated ex cathedra ("from the chair" of Peter) by the pope, the issue is more complex than this explanation might suggest.

Explained Leo Lefebure, professor of theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois: "Catholic tradition holds that the church is fundamentally without error. According to Vatican II, while the church recognizes that it is not without sin; nevertheless, because of continual divine guidance it trusts that the body of the faithful as a whole cannot err in central matters of belief. Within this general context of `indefectibility' the Catholic Church's teaching authority, or Magisterium--the bishops throughout the world together with the pope--plays a special role.

"The church's Magisterium claims infallibility in two forms," Lefebure continued. "One is when the pope explicitly invokes his supreme teaching authority ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals. This happens very rarely. The clearest case occurred in 1950 when Pius XII spoke ex cathedra when he defined the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The second form of infallibility is present in what is called the `ordinary and universal' teaching of the bishops throughout the world over a long period of time--a body of teaching that Vatican II declared to be `coextensive with the deposit of revelation. …

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