An historic decline in papal authority

Faith & Reason: The Vatican has announced that the Pope's prohibition on women priests is infallible. Margaret Hebblethwaite, a Catholic feminist, finds herself unconvinced.
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This month has seen two events of mega-drama for the Roman Catholic Church, both directly concerned with the question of women priests. In early November a woman, Ludmila Javorova, announced she had been secretly ordained as a Catholic priest in Communist Czechoslovakia. Last Saturday the Vatican announced that the prohibition on women priests, expressed in the Pope's letter on the subject in May, was infallible. Considering that most Catholics will think either one event or the other totally ridiculous, perhaps I should speak rather of melodrama.

As a Catholic feminist, what can I make of it all? What is the bottom line, I have to ask myself, of my attachment to women's priesthood? And what do I really believe about infallibility?

When women are declared incapable of priesthood, I feel deep within my female identity something crying out that it is being twisted and trampled on. That may sound strong language, but if women cannot represent Christ, simply because they come from the other sex, then how can Christ represent women? And so I feel my very salvation is at stake.

On the other hand, when I think that somewhere in the world there is a real, living Catholic woman priest, saying mass every day, I find that extraordinarily consoling and reconciling. We no longer just live in hope of women's full and equal share in Christ's saving work; we are beginning already to see the promise fulfilled.

What do I really believe about infallibility? If Catholics believe in papal infallibility one might expect them to want such an exciting capability to be exercised constantly. Truth, truth and more truth. Why not? Can it be because they fear the awful prospect that the Pope, when acting "infallibly", would make a mistake?

I believe that Jesus asked his followers to carry on his work, and authorised them to act in his name. Any ambassador, any representative, acts with the authority of someone greater. It makes perfectly good sense that the Church acts in the name of Christ, and that Christ backs up the decisions made by the Church. If that is what infallibility means, I believe in it.

At the same time it makes perfect nonsense to claim for human beings attributes that can only belong to God, like "almighty", "all-seeing", "all-knowing", "all-loving". No human being can have the sort of infallibility that it would be blasphemous to attribute to anyone other than God.

The infallible claims made by this latest declaration are curiously slippery. There is no claim of an exercise of papal infallibility as such. Rather, the infallibility is attributed to the "ordinary, universal magisterium" - the bishops as a whole.

But the allegedly infallible doctrine is the teaching "that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women" - the particular papal formulation of last summer. Moreover it is the Pope who has ordered the declaration of infallibility to be published.

So the Pope has told the Congregation to say that what he the Pope said last summer is something that all the bishops everywhere have always taught as a dogma of faith and is therefore infallible.

But supposing you don't agree that they have taught that? What they have always done, because no one until recently seriously thought of doing anything other, is very different from what they have always taught as a dogma of faith. After all, the bishop who ordained Ludmila Javorova clearly did not hold such a view.

So what then? Then of course you only have the non-infallible authority of the Congregation to say that others have taught this matter infallibly.

Even with these technical reservations, the announcement of an infallible doctrine should be a world-shattering event. Instead, the event merited no more than an "In Brief" paragraph in the Independent on Monday. The mood has changed since the 1968 encyclical against birth control, Humanae Vitae, despite its much lesser authority. Then people met in private huddles with anxious faces, worrying what the implications were for them as Catholics if they could not agree with the Pope.

If in 1995 no one pays much attention when Rome bangs its fist and says "This is infallible", then what can we conclude? We can conclude that we are witnessing what may be the biggest decline of papal authority in real terms ever seen in history. There could be no greater gift to the ecumenical movement than that.