The Pope Further Erodes His Authority : Women: The letter on female ordination weakens the church and is destined to be reversed.

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<i> The Rt. Rev. Hugh Montefiore is the retired bishop of Birmingham, England. </i>

The Pope’s recent Apostolic letter to his bishops reaffirming the ban against women priests was obviously timed to counter the Church of England’s ordination of 1,000 women to the priesthood over the last few weeks, and the outpourings of joy that so many have experienced. The Pope has written as strongly as he can without invoking papal infallibility, but he comes as close as he can to it, recalling his Petrine office by a reference to “confirming the brethren” (but what about confirming the faith of the sisters?). He produces what seem to Episcopalians as the same old tired arguments. The Pope insists that the church “has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” and asserts that “this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful,” with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger adding that anyone who does not do so “obviously separates himself from the faith of the church.”

These strong words seek to stifle growing sympathy for women priests in the Roman church and to counteract the warm welcome that Anglican women priests have received from so many Roman Catholics. My daily newspaper had four letters on the subject (all from Roman Catholics). Three were strongly in favor; the exception was a recent convert from Anglicanism on this account. When I preached recently at the first celebration of a newly ordained woman, two Roman Catholic priests were present.

This papal statement will not greatly worry Episcopalians because, while they respect the Pope, they do not acknowledge his authority, and he does not recognize their male orders anyway. For Roman Catholics, however, the matter is different. Authoritative statements of this kind have to be acceptable to the church as a whole, and if this is not the case, they may eventually be subject to revision. This has happened within the Roman Catholic Church before. For example, the medieval ban on interest from loans has never been formally revoked, but it is no longer operative. The doctrine of no salvation outside the church, which earlier popes affirmed, has been so modified that adherents of other faiths are now said to be within the sphere of salvation. In 1864, Pope Pius VIII published the “syllabus of errors,” which was later completely abandoned. In the last century, popes inveighed against democracy; now this attitude has been reversed completely. Less than a century ago, the Bible was regarded by popes as inerrant and written at the dictation of the Holy Spirit, but a recent statement on biblical studies puts the Pontifical Biblical Commission in the vanguard of modern biblical criticism.


These hiccups have been fairly easily contained in the past, when authoritarianism was acceptable. Now things are different. The 1968 document “Humanae Vitae” (against artificial contraception) was found unacceptable by many Roman Catholics because they are no longer prepared to receive authoritarian teaching that seems to them unreasonable. Even the Duke of Norfolk, the leading Roman Catholic layman here in Britain, came out against it. Similarly, the Pope’s insistence on no abortion under any circumstances whatsoever has not improved his standing in many peoples’ eyes, especially women, who feel that such matters should not be decided by elderly unmarried gentlemen.

The result of all this is a sad loss of the Pope’s authority within his own church. I fear it will be the same over the ordination of women. Many women feel affronted by the Pope’s strong language. Eventually, of course, the Roman Catholic veto on women priests is bound to be reversed, as in the West more and more women feel a priestly vocation, and there are fewer and fewer male priests. (In England and Wales, there are only 71 men in training for the Roman Catholic priesthood, and half of them may be expected to drop out before ordination.) But the recent strong words of the Pope will make it hard for his eventual successor to permit women priests very quickly. We Episcopalians in Britain are sad that the great Church of Rome seems, under present management, determined to give itself such a handicap.