We Are Church Intl.

Women and Francis by Fr Frank Brennan SJ


By Fr Frank Brennan, Jesuit Priest and Human Rights Lawyer, Australia,


From `This Time in the Church` : Camino Address November 2013 Sydney Australia you can access the full document at  http://eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=38484


The greatest challenge is providing a place in the Church for women wanting to contribute to the mission.  It is high time to put institutional flesh on the bones of Pope Francis’s unassailable claim stated in the sentence which was unwittingly omitted from the America version of the La Civilta Cattolica interview: “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the Church.”  He then went on to say:


The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity. We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.


If we are to continue to justify anything less than full participation at all levels of leadership and service for women in the Roman Catholic Church, we must provide coherent scriptural and theological warrant for the ongoing discrimination or exclusion.  Authoritative declarations prohibiting discussion from hereon will only undermine the authority of the speaker and of the enforcers.  


Let’s recall that the 17 member Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded unanimously 37 years ago: “It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.”  The minority of five members of that Commission thought that “in the scriptures there are sufficient indications to exclude this possibility, considering that the sacraments of eucharist and reconciliation have a special link with the person of Christ and therefore with the male hierarchy, as borne out by the New Testament”.  The majority of twelve members of that Commission wondered “if the church hierarchy, entrusted with the sacramental economy, would be able to entrust the ministries of eucharist and reconciliation to women in light of circumstances, without going against Christ's original intentions”.  


Admittedly, biblical interpretation is not a numbers game.  But come on Francis, it’s time for change.  I know you have said the door is closed.  But the door rather than the wall was a good image for you to choose.  A door can be opened.  It might still need a little prising and a lot of prayer, especially as your two predecessors attempted to close the door more firmly with more authoritative pronouncements than had previously been made.  


It is regrettable that the complete 1976 report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission has still never been released.  We were left dependent on leaks of some of the material, though of course we know that the leaks were accurate.  What we have “is not really an official or finished document but the unofficially leaked portions of sections of the Commission’s deliberations”.   None other than Raymond E Brown SS was a member of the Commission back then.  He is the co-author of the entry in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary which states: “Reportedly, PBC member scholars voted 17-0 that the NT does not settle the question in a clear way, once for all; 12-5 that neither Scripture nor Christ’s plan alone excluded the possibility.”  It would be a good start for the Vatican now to publish the complete 1976 report and record of deliberations of the Commission, and for Pope Francis to ask the Commission for an update on recent scriptural studies which shed light on the “the role of women in the Bible in the course of research being carried out to determine the place that can be given to women today in the church” and “whether or not women can be ordained to the priestly ministry”.  


We cannot be credible as a Church claiming that we are committed “to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the Church” unless we tackle this issue of women’s ordination afresh, starting with the scriptural base and limitations (if any) on future action.  Many of us Catholics see no theological objection to the ordination of women.  Some of us suspect that the incidence of child sexual abuse and institutional cover-ups would be much less if women were included at all levels of the hierarchy.  If a future pope were to determine that women could be ordained, we would not think him guilty of theological error.  We see an increasing symmetry between scriptural warrant and the social reality of the Church in the Modern World.  


The continued official suppression of the complete 1976 report and the failure by recent popes to address the ambiguities raised by the Commission renders contingent Pope John Paul II’s declaration of 1994 “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”.  One can affirm the consistency of the Tradition and the Magisterium ordaining only men for millennia, while being open to the ordination of women in future.  What has been taught definitively by one Pope is not necessarily infallible.  As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger did assert that this teaching had been “set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium”, but thankfully not even he repeated this claim as Pope.  It is not a claim which has been made by the preponderance of bishops and theologians.  


Canon lawyer Ladislas Orsy SJ claims that this category of “definitive” teaching is a novel category in our Church’s panoply of titles.  He says, “This new category of definitive teaching has not emerged from the crucible of an ecumenical council, nor is it the result of a thorough consultation among the bishops, nor has it been the fruit of critical debates among theologians.”  Though such teaching should be received with respect, Orsy says, “Yet, as of now, we do not have a full comprehension of its place in our Tradition.  It represents a new development that demands a considered response from the part of the episcopate and the community of theologians.”  


We can continue to be good Catholics while entertaining the thought and offering the prayer that Pope John Paul II’s self-proclaimed “definitive” teaching against the ordination of women will not be the last word in our Church.  If the Vatican’s curial response continues to be that Pope John Paul II taught infallibly on this issue, many Catholics will sadly conclude that Pope Francis’s inspiring remarks about women in the Church are an idle pipedream.  


A consistent exclusive practice does not preclude an inclusive development if that development is consistent with the possibilities left open by Scripture.  For the moment the door is firmly and definitively closed, and it will be until this Pope or one of his successors decides, perhaps even definitively, that there is scriptural warrant for opening it, given that in Jesus’ time it was not closed and locked shut, just left ajar, while some women, like their male counterparts, were recorded as having been there at the door performing a variety of ministries, making “a positive collaboration in service to the Christian communities”.  Let’s pray



[Fr Frank Brennan SJ writes The Meddlesome Priest column for Eureka Street. He is professor of law, director of strategic research projects (social justice and ethics), Australian Catholic University, adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University]