In a stern veto, Pope John Paul II reasserted a ban against women priests Monday, ordering Catholics to end internal debate and obey historic teachings.
In a righteous, authoritarian apostolic letter addressed to his bishops, John Paul marked his first day back in the office after four weeks in a hospital for a broken leg.
His resounding “no” to any possibility of a greater religious role for Catholic women in their church was the second time in a week that the Vatican has crossed swords with assertive Catholic women. Before returning to the Vatican on Friday, the Pope accepted an English translation of the church’s new catechism that women’s groups have denounced as sexist for its language.
Monday’s 1,000-word letter, “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone,” is remarkable for its bluntness and the absolute authority that John Paul asserts “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance.”
“I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held for all the church’s faithful,” he writes in the letter.
Fundamentals of their faith make it impossible to ordain women as priests, the Pope tells his bishops, noting that Jesus “acted in a completely free and sovereign manner” in selecting only men as his apostles--the first priests. Still, John Paul laments, despite an all-male priesthood unbroken across two millennia, “in some places it is nonetheless considered open to debate.”
No more, in the Pope’s view. An accompanying Vatican commentary said the letter “confirms a certainty which has been constantly held and lived by the church.” As such, the Pope’s views are not to be regarded as new, or an opinion, or a matter of discipline, “but as certainly true.”
“Therefore, since it does not belong to matters freely open to dispute, it always requires the full and unconditional assent of the faithful, and to teach the contrary is equivalent to leading consciences into error,” his commentary says.
John Paul, 74, who has been increasingly outspoken in recent months, will host a private meeting at the Vatican on Thursday with President Clinton, who may get a papal lecture about his support for abortion.
In a debate the Vatican no longer wants to hear among Catholics, advocates of women priests say Jesus’ choice of disciples was determined by customs and laws of the time, not because he sought a unisex ministry.
John Paul’s vigorous restatement of the ban may have been prompted in part by the ordination of the Church of England’s first women priests in March, an innovation that effectively scuttled reunification talks between the two churches. Thousands of Anglicans and hundreds of Anglican priests have turned to Catholicism. The Vatican is even accepting married Anglican priests as converts--and priests--despite its own ban on married priests.
Lobbying among Catholic activists for women priests has increased since the Anglican ordinations, a Vatican official noted.
John Paul has now fired an unanswerable broadside in response.
“The Pope clearly intends for the ban to stick, because he comes right up to the brink of infallibility with this teaching. Still, it is not infallible, and therefore it is open to possible change by some later Pope,” said one senior theologian.
Under Catholic dogma, Popes are infallible in matters of faith and morals when they say they are giving infallible teachings. John Paul has never given one.
The number of women joining orders of Catholic nuns has fallen dramatically in industrialized countries in the last 20 years, and a recent survey of nuns showed that many felt they are underutilized in the man’s world of their church.
Revisiting themes he addressed in a 1988 letter on the role of women in the church, the Pope said the fact that Mary, Jesus’ mother, did not become a priest, “clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, or can it be construed as discrimination against them.”
Although women may not become priests, their role in the church remains “absolutely necessary and irreplaceable,” in the Pope’s view.
Quoting a 1977 Vatican statement rejecting priesthood for women, he says that “Christian women should become fully aware of the greatness of their mission: Today, their role is of capital importance both for the renewal and humanization of society and for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the church.”
Although it has been inflexible on expanding the role of women to the ministry, last month the Vatican agreed to U.S. demands that altar girls serve at Roman Catholic Masses where the local bishop and parish priest agree.
Vatican spokesmen stressed at the time, however, that the decision was not a new initiative but rather “an interpretation of existing church law.”
“This decision has nothing to do with ordained ministry, which has a different juridical and doctrinal nature,” papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro said then. “It would be wrong to interpret this as the first step toward women priests.”
On Monday, John Paul himself hammered the point home: The Roman Catholic Church will launch its third millennium with a men-only priesthood.