When asked last year about the possibility of female ordination in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis answered with a clarity and directness that has at times eluded him during his papacy:
“With regards to the ordination of women, the church has spoken and says no. Pope John Paul said so with a formula that was definitive. That door is closed.”
During a Holy Thursday homily back in 2012, Pope Benedict also tackled the issue head on. As reported by Reuters at the time:
“The pope responded specifically to a call to disobedience by a group of Austrian priests and laity, who last year boldly and openly challenged Church teaching on taboo topics such as priestly celibacy and women’s ordination.
“Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church?,” he asked rhetorically in the sermon of a solemn Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on the day Catholic priests around the world renew their vows. In his response to the Austrian group, his first in public, Benedict noted that, in its “call to disobedience”, it had challenged “definitive decisions of the Church’s magisterium (teaching authority) such as the question of women’s ordination …”
“He then restated the position by citing a major 1994 document by his predecessor John Paul II that stated that the ban on women priests was part of the Church’s “divine constitution.”
That major 1994 document was the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, issued by Pope St. John Paul II in response to a growing call by some in the Church for female ordination. In his letter the Holy Father begins by quoting his predecessor Paul VI:
“She (the Church) holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
Pope John Paul concludes by reaffirming the immemorial and immutable truth regarding priestly ordination:
“Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church’s judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare 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.”
Which brings us to Sunday nights interview of Cardinal Seán O’Malley by 60 Minutes correspondent Norah O’Donnell. No surprise to anyone, the question of female ordination once again came up. Apparently it is giving Ms. O’Donnell too much credit to hope that she might actually research a topic she intended to ask the Cardinal about. Two minutes and a Google search reveal the answer to her question. However, for the secular media who have an agenda to advance, why bother with research or facts?
Norah O’Donnell: The church says it’s not open to the discussion about ordaining women. Why not?
Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Not everyone needs to be ordained to have an important role in the life of the church. Women run the Catholic charities, the Catholic schools, the development office for the archdiocese.
Norah O’Donnell: Some would say women do a lot of the work but have very little power.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well “power” is not a word that we like to use in the church. It’s more service.
Norah O’Donnell: But they can’t preach. They can’t administer the sacraments.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well…
Norah O’Donnell: I mean, some women feel like they’re second class Catholics because they can’t do those things that are very important.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well, they, but they’re, they have other very important roles that, you know, a priest cannot be a mother, either. The tradition of the church is that we have always ordained men. And that the priesthood reflects the incarnation of Christ, who in his humanity is a man.
Norah O’Donnell: But in spite of that, does the exclusion of women seem at all immoral?
Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well, Christ would never ask us to do something immoral. And I know that women in…
Norah O’Donnell: The sense of equality. I mean, just the sense of sort of the fairness of it, you know. You wouldn’t exclude someone based on race. But yet you do exclude people based on gender.
Cardinal Seán O’Malley: Well, it’s a matter of vocation. And what God has given to us. And this is, you know, if I were founding a church, you know, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it and what he he has given us is something different.
And with that final utterance, Cardinal Seán (as he prefers to be called) basically invalidated all that had previously been said. In a world of headlines, sound bites and misquotes, “I’d love to have women priests” has for all intents and purposes become the Cardinal’s sole response to Ms. O’Donnell’s question. Is it fair? No. Is the Cardinal responsible for the resulting headlines? Yes.
One is reminded of that moment which occurs nearly every election cycle when, during a televised debate, the pro-life candidate is asked about his or her opposition to abortion. Inevitably the candidate fumbles for an answer, looking ill prepared; all the while trying to avoid controversy where controversy is unavoidable. The result is always an answer which is anything but convincing.
Cardinal Seán must understand that, on this subject, there is no answer acceptable to either 60 Minutes or dissident Catholics short of a repudiation of the definitive teaching of the Church. Going forward may the Cardinal, and any other prelate asked about female ordination, simply respond with the words of our Holy Father, “That door is closed.”
Brian Williams is a convert who entered the Catholic Church in 2006. He is a graduate of Long Beach State University with a BA in History. Brian blogs on life, liturgy and the pursuit of holiness at liturgyguy.com. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina with his wife and five children.