By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
Here in the United States, there was a time when slavery was legal. Slaves did not have the right to vote and to be voted into public office. With the end of slavery, in due course the ex-slaves were recognized as citizens and entitled to vote and be voted into public office. In the Catholic Church, women are not entitled to be ordained to the priesthood. Is this parallel correct? If this situation ever comes to an end, will they be entitled to be priests, bishops, and even. . . ?
Here is the question: Is the Christian priesthood a human right, like voting in a republic, or is it a privilege, given to some but not to all?
In other words, is the election to the priesthood a matter of human agreement, like the rules of football, soccer and rugby, basketball and tennis, chess and checkers? Or is it something divinely ordained, which does not depend on our opinions or desires?
Again, you cannot play golf with a tennis ball, or soccer with a rugby ball. Each has its own purpose and arrangement. But, of course, such things can change. Tomorrow some people may decide to create a different sport and play rugby with the ball used in basketball in a tennis court. It may look a bit nuts, but they can do it if they so wish in their own courts. This is because sports are simply man-made rules. (I purposely did not say human-made or person-made rules because I am not politically correct.)
Let us take another example: the dynastic succession in a monarchy, such as in England, Spain, or Belgium, and the limitation of two terms as president in a republic. In a monarchy, everybody knows who will be the next head of state to inherit the throne, and most people are happy about it. It suffices to see the popularity of the Windsor royal family in the UK. Very few people there want to have a republic where a mere politician is able to sit on the throne — or chair, rather.
Again, however, those are man-made rules. Spain changed from a republic back to a monarchy and Austria from a monarchy into a republic. There are people today who want to make the current president a king, but I do not think there will be sufficient popular support for this idea. But in any event, man-made laws can change.
But there are other kinds of laws: natural laws. The world is filled with them, in all sorts of sciences: physics, chemistry, biochemistry, mechanics, botany, astronomy, nutrition, medicine, and so on. We humans do not make those laws; we discover them. They are not like the ones I mentioned previously, in sports and politics. Natural laws are natural laws, and if we try to disobey them we get into trouble, like denying the reality of gravity or thinking that poison gas may be good for asthmatics or that volcanic eruptions are an optical illusion.
But there are still other kinds of law: supernatural laws, the laws established by God Himself, and here we enter the realm of theology. Theology depends entirely on God for its origin — it is called divine Revelation, and authentic theology is basically the deepening of our understanding of the revealed truth — we do not invent supernatural laws like sport rules, change them like political systems, or even discover them like natural sciences. They are revealed by God, and all we do is to make them more explicit, clearer, more understandable, but we never alter them.
In short, theology does not establish new dogmas or moral rules; it only makes the revealed ones more understandable.
This is because the Church and her sacraments are faith realities, mysteries revealed and instituted by Christ. Like all such mysteries, they invite us to ongoing reflection and meditation. We do not judge them or evaluate their credibility in the light of our reason or by the criterion of our experience. We must accept them as light given to us by Christ. We receive them with gratitude and humility and love, and allow them to illuminate our understanding of ourselves and our human experience, and all of creation.
Here I am citing teachings from a brilliant pastoral letter issued by the New Zealand bishops on the occasion of the publication of the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in which John Paul II closed the debate on the ordination of women. I will quote from it a few more times in this series.
The practical application of this teaching is that not even the Pope can interpret the Bible as he may please, if he wakes up in a bad mood. The Deposit of Revelation must always be interpreted and taught in the light of the apostolic Tradition: “The faith once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1).
St. Paul does not pull any punches on this issue: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a Gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8). To be anathema, by the way, means to be under a curse, or excommunication, expulsion from the Body of Christ, the Church.
We are not talking about a mere observance of a series of cultural values and practices: Such is “tradition” with a small “t.” The apostolic Tradition — with a capital “T” — is the Deposit of Faith given by our Lord Jesus Christ to the apostles and brought down to us over the ages by their successors — the Popes and bishops in union with him. Without them, how on earth could anyone today know the correct teaching?
Without a continued authority, everything is up for grabs, as has happened after Luther’s sola Scriptura.
The unbroken Tradition of the Church has to carry a great deal of weight for Catholics, because the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church to safeguard fidelity to what Christ has instituted in matters as central to the faith as sacramental Ordination, ensuring that what is handed on is what has been received.
Does that mean that there is no room for development?
Not at all. This does not mean that there can be no development. On the contrary, the fact that the Holy Spirit remains with the Church ensures that we can come to a deeper understanding of what has been given once and for all by Christ and the apostles. But it is the responsibility of the Magisterium of the Church to distinguish between development and the distortion of what has been given. And distorting the Christian message is what modernist Catholics love to do.
If we do not accept the Magisterium of the Church, we cannot call ourselves Catholic. We must leave the Church and go to establish or join something else. Luther, Calvin, and Leonardo Boff were more consistent.
Therefore, it is in this context that we investigate the possibility of women’s ordination: Is it or is it not part of the divine Revelation entrusted to the apostles?
Next article: Clarifying the terminology.
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Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International (HLI); president of the Sacred Heart Institute, and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. Web site: www.RaymonddeSouza.com.