by Clyde Christofferson
This Crux article confirms what NCR reported yesterday: the new CDF head ‐‐ who is soon to be given a red hat, and who is head of the papal commission to study the question of women deacons ‐‐ will state that JPII's 1994 teaching against ordination of women is "definitive". He said, "To hold that it is not definitive, it is argued that it was not defined ex cathedra and that, then, a later decision by a future Pope or council could overturn it ... Sowing these doubts creates serious confusion among the faithful, not only about the Sacrament of Orders as part of the divine constitution of the Church, but also about the ability of the ordinary magisterium to teach Catholic doctrine in an infallible way."
This is an embarrassment to the People of God. On the one hand, it is clear as a bell that this treatment of women by the institutional Church is not "part of the deposit of faith". As Vatican II asserted in Dei Verbum , the deposit of faith is defined by God's self‐revelation in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a significant shift from the pre‐Vatican II habit of equating revelation with a series of propositional statements, some drawn from scripture and some drawn from tradition. The question is not "what does a long accepted propositional statement say about an all male priesthood?" To take that answer at face value is to risk (if not outright commit) idolatry.
The better question is "what does God's self‐revelation in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit say about calls to priestly ministry?" This requires the same kind of discernment that Francis describes in Amoris Laetitia. It is plain that the Spirit continues to call people to priestly ministry without regard to gender. When Paul VI in 1975 rejected the offer of the Archbishop of Canterbury to join the Anglicans in considering the issue of women's ordination, an opportunity was missed. The Church was on doctrinal autopilot set in place before Vatican II. It's a very human mistake. The Church has dug itself a deeper hole.
However, we should not expect a change in this mistaken Vatican position, for the simple reason that the necessary predicates have not yet been laid. But they are being laid, even as we speak. It is clear that the sensus fidei is in the process of reexamining this misbegotten doctrine, and withdrawing its reception. The limited purpose of such doctrinal statements is to direct our gaze (a word Francis like to use) to Christ, who by the power of the Holy Spirit is the fullness of God's self‐revelation. That limited purpose is no longer being served by this doctrine, which is misbegotten on its face whatever its historical pedigree. Even its historical pedigree is cast in doubt by the brazen 11th and 12th century attempts to suppress the evidence that the sensus fidelium was coming to a different conclusion.
In any event the injustice remains and is only going to become more widespread. The Spirit is having little patience with this unrepentent and intemperate doctrine. In such circumstances two things need to happen. First, the injustice must be called out. People must speak from their own hearts. There will be those who defer to the magisterium, but that deference has a long history and is part of the messiness of life. Second, we must work toward recovering the foundations for a "sense of the faithful" that was so rudely stifled at the time of the Gregorian reforms. This is more than calling out injustice. We need to enable and promote an examination of conscience by the institutional Church on this matter. And this will be futile unless we also find a way of conceptualizing Church history so that such an injustice can be admitted without compromising the integrity of the institution.
Vatican II has already enabled an examination of conscience by conceeding ‐‐ quite properly ‐‐ that the institutional Church's own mistakes have contributed to strained relations with other religions, the "separated brethren" in particular. More importantly, Dei Verbum refocuses God's self‐revelation on Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, effectively repurposing doctrine, even "definitive" doctrine, so as to direct our gaze to Christ. This redirection opens up the possibility that "loving one another" will be seen to take precedence over this gender based rule, leading eventually to a better understanding of Christ's Spirit at work and to a doctrinal formulation that better directs our gaze to God's self‐revelation. Ironically, the current doctrinal formulation on this issue is causing consternation as well as injustice.
What remains is work toward a "sense of the faithful" on this issue. Historically, the people have been passive. Many are in the habit of relying upon the "definitive" pronouncements of the magisterium, which prior to Vatican II systematically cultivated such reliance. But there are indications that the people may be developing participatory structures and practices on their own, structures and practices that may overcome the traditional deficits of unruly democratic processes. The key is precisely the same remedy that Vatican II applied to revelation in Dei Verbum : a shift in focus toward Christ, toward discernment of Christ's Spirit in the human heart. This discernment is a skill that has been neglected. What is needed are structures and practices that support and foster the learning of this skill.
The Spirit is alive and well, so discernment is evident widely in communities across the globe where people are gathered in prayer, and for reform of the Church. And one reform minded group of people, in particular, is currently planning a program that will send participants back to their home communities to use a "listening circle" technique to support this discernment process for people who are struggling with the kind of tension that arises when doctrines of long standing become so self referential that they are less and less able to illuminate what God is revealing in Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is hoped that this lay led initiative, planned for October 12‐14, 2018, in Dallas, Texas, USA, will spawn a series of local "listening circles" that can give structure and discern direction for a "sense of the faithful" on matters currently in tension. The structures and practices being set up can be applied to such matters generally, including the call of women to priestly ministry.