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.
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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….

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3 Comments on “Even Popes Make Mistakes”

  1. Amos Says:

    The argument that Jesus was a man, therefore, all priests must be men is theologically questionable.

    Catholic theology teaches that Jesus was a divine person, the second person of  the Trinity. His divine personhood embraced two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. 

    In his human nature, Jesus was a man, in his divine nature, he is God. Jesus uttered the words “This is my body; this is my blood” through his human nature, but the change could only have taken place through the interposition of his divine nature inhering in his divine personhood.

    A priest exercising the function of confecting the Eucharist, does not do so as a result of his human nature or human personhood, but by sharing through ordination in the divine power of Jesus. When it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,  Divine  power knows no distinction by reason of gender.  As Aquinas put it, sex is but an accident inhering in the substance of personhood as an attribute.

    To put it bluntly, all humans are created equal, not because they posses a human nature, but are equal because they are persons, who posses a human nature. The equality resides not in their human nature which accidentally may have one or the other gender, but in their personhood endowed with a human nature. The error is made by assigning the modifier human to person but assuming they are one substance, when in in fact, the quality of humanness inheres in the substance of person as an attribute.

    The gospels, recording events from an earlier time, cannot ignore the prominence given to women as witnesses to Jesus’ teaching and deeds. It is only in subsequent apologetical writings that there was created a culture that justified a male only leadership in the later faith communities. 

    The personal satisfaction afforded by the proposition of a male only priesthood, is no evidence of it’s validity. Nor is the intensity of feeling or conviction with which this proposition is held.

    Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, a favorite source of quotes by Catholic apologists and divines was a sexual neurotic, who never succeeded in logically resolving the Manichean duality he internalized early in life.  His protestations to the contrary are belied by his coarse statement on womankind, echoed down the centuries by like-minded clerical celibate bachelors, who would feel the fires of Hell welling up around them should they ever see a real live vagina: “Love her as a wife, but hate her as a woman!”  Augustine wrote.

    Theological inkslingers  have wasted way too much time and human resources trying to disprove what is  patently evident using the logic of the Scholastics.

    Uta Ranke-Heinemann writes: “The whole of church history adds up to one long, arbitrary, narrow-minded masculine despotism over the female sex.”

    Acts 10: 34 “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.'”

    Proverbs 28:19 “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

  2. amos2 Says:

    Women priesthood

    The argument that Jesus was a man, therefore, all priests must be men is theologically questionable.

    Catholic theology teaches that Jesus was a divine person, the second person of  the Trinity. His divine personhood embraced two natures, a human nature and a divine nature. 

    In his human nature, Jesus was a man, in his divine nature, he is God. Jesus uttered the words “This is my body; this is my blood” through his human nature, but the change could only have taken place through the interposition of his divine nature inhering in his divine personhood.

    A priest exercising the function of confecting the Eucharist, does not do so as a result of his human nature or human personhood, but by sharing through ordination in the divine power of Jesus. When it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel and the Eucharistic Sacrifice,  Divine  power knows no distinction by reason of gender.  As Aquinas put it, sex is but an accident inhering in the substance of personhood as an attribute.

    To put it bluntly, all humans are created equal, not because they posses a human nature, but are equal because they are persons, who posses a human nature. The equality resides not in their human nature which accidentally may have one or the other gender, but in their personhood endowed with a human nature. The error is made by assigning the modifier human to person but assuming they are one substance, when in in fact, the quality of humanness inheres in the substance of person as an attribute.

    The gospels, recording events from an earlier time, cannot ignore the prominence given to women as witnesses to Jesus’ teaching and deeds. It is only in subsequent apologetical writings that there was created a culture that justified a male only leadership in the later faith communities. 

    The personal satisfaction afforded by the proposition of a male only priesthood, is no evidence of it’s validity. Nor is the intensity of feeling or conviction with which this proposition is held.

    Augustine of Hippo, Doctor of the Church, a favorite source of quotes by Catholic apologists and divines was a sexual neurotic, who never succeeded in logically resolving the Manichean duality he internalized early in life.  His protestations to the contrary are belied by his coarse statement on womankind, echoed down the centuries by like-minded clerical celibate bachelors, who would feel the fires of Hell welling up around them should they ever see a real live vagina: “Love her as a wife, but hate her as a woman!”  Augustine wrote.

    Theological inkslingers  have wasted way too much time and human resources trying to disprove what is  patently evident using the logic of the Scholastics.

    Uta Ranke-Heinemann writes: “The whole of church history adds up to one long, arbitrary, narrow-minded masculine despotism over the female sex.”

    Acts 10: 34 “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.'”

    Proverbs 28:19 “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

    • KMC Says:

      If the RCC was following the Gospels only in the literal sense, then only males who could prove Jewish descent would be eligible for the priesthood, etc!!
      Since there were no Gentiles among the Twelve!
      It is a STRONG TEACHING OF THEOLOGIANS IN THE Church that All
      Scripture is never to be taken only in its literal sense.
      That practice surely outweighs a single pope’s claims of infallible teaching , without a formal proclamation according to prior norms, ie the Assumption of Mary…


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