Even Popes Make Mistakes
Some church anniversaries are best celebrated with new historical-theological insight. We had such a special anniversary this week on Thursday: the twentieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, of 22 May 1994, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (on the ordination of priests). That document theoretically closed the door to women’s ordination in the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope John Paul famously explained it this way:
Priestly ordination, which hands on the office entrusted by Christ to his Apostles of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the faithful, has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone….
When the question of the ordination of women arose in the Anglican Communion, Pope Paul VI, out of fidelity to his office of safeguarding the Apostolic Tradition, and also with a view to removing a new obstacle placed in the way of Christian unity, reminded Anglicans of the position of the Catholic Church: “She holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church….
I declare 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.
A closed book or still an open book? Just as we have nine gifts of the Holy Spirit, I suggest nine points for reflection, based on contemporary historical and biblical studies:
(1) Jesus chose men and women as his disciples, with no indication that one sex was superior to the other. Women disciples in fact played a major role as proclaimers of Jesus raised from the dead.
(2) As close friends and followers of their teacher and friend, it would seem that both men and women were gathered with Jesus for their last meal with him. And there were probably a few children scampering around as well.
(3) The historical Jesus had no understanding of ordination. Jesus did not ordain anyone, at any time. In his day ordination did not exist. It was a later creation of the Christian community, as a way of ensuring a sort of quality control in their leadership.
(4) There were far more apostles than just “The Twelve.” Some apostles, like Paul, were not at the “Last Supper.” “The Twelve” was more symbolic for Jewish Christians who understood Jesus creating the New Israel under twelve just as the Old Israel had twelve tribes. Even in the four gospels, the number is somewhat ambiguous, with different gospel writers giving different names for the same individual, or some apostles mentioned in one gospel not being mentioned in another.
(5) The early Christian apostles were messengers sent out to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. And of course – just as there were men and women disciples, there were indeed men and women apostles. Certainly among them Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he sends greetings to Prisca, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister, who worked and traveled as missionary apostles with their husbands or brothers.
(6) Among church historians there is a strong consensus that the people who presided at Eucharist in the early church were the heads of households; and we know from biblical studies that there were women who were heads of these households as well. Did women preside at Eucharist in the early church? My understanding today is that they certainly did.
(7) When I study the research of historical theologians like Gary Macy in his book The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West, and Marianne Micks, writing in The Ordination of Women: Pro and Con, I have no doubts that in fact – in our tradition – women in earlier times were ordained as priests and bishops.
(8) It is appropriate that church authorities formulate clear statements of belief. It is equally important – necessary in fact – that church authorities acknowledge that official statements of belief (i.e. church teaching) have changed in the past; can change in the present; and will change in the future, as we grow in our understanding of our tradition and become aware of changes in human understanding, culture, and language.
(9) Twenty years after Ordinatio Sacerdotalis we are reminded of what I see as the major challenge confronting us as contemporary Roman Catholics: to develop effective ways of sharing new insights and information and effective ways of doing that in respectful and open and constructive conversation.
Yes…..just like you and me…..popes (even recently canonized ones) have made mistakes in official pronouncements. Like all professionals, they are always in need of historical updating and ongoing theological education and formation. No one is ever too old to learn….