Like many readers, we follow the Holy Father’s in-flight press conferences closely, since they appear to be, if not an action of his papal magisterium, then a means of communication close to his heart. Following the Holy Father’s recent trip to Sweden, he was asked a question about women’s ordination. You may recall that he recently established a commission to explore the historical aspects of deaconesses. While Benedict XVI’s Omnium in mentem severed in some way—or, more precisely, concretized finally a process of severing that began with Lumen gentium—the diaconate from the episcopate and the presbyterate, it has nevertheless been seen by many that the push for deaconesses is but the thin end of the wedge for women’s ordination into the presbyterate and episcopate. This is, obviously, one of the great dreams of progressives in the Church today. But the Holy Father appears to draw a bright line under St. John Paul II’s Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which teaches infallibly that women may not be ordained.
Here is Hannah Brockhaus’s coverage at the National Catholic Register:
During a press conference Tuesday aboard the papal plane from Sweden to Rome, Pope Francis said the issue of women priests has been clearly decided, while also clarifying the essential role of women in the Catholic Church.
“On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the final word is clear, it was said by St. John Paul II and this remains,” Pope Francis told journalists Nov. 1.
The question concerning women priests in the Church was asked during the flight back to Rome after the Pope’s Oct. 31-Nov. 1 trip to Sweden to participate in a joint Lutheran-Catholic commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
(Emphasis supplied.) Brockhaus goes on to note that the Holy Father has been clear on this point previously, citing Ordinatio sacerdotalis repeatedly:
In a press conference returning from Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5, 2013, he answered the same question: “with reference to the ordination of women, the Church has spoken and says, ‘No.’ John Paul II said it, but with a definitive formulation. That is closed, that door.”
He said that on the theology of woman he felt there was a “lack of a theological development,” which could be developed better. “You cannot be limited to the fact of being an altar server or the president of Caritas, the catechist … No! It must be more, but profoundly more, also mystically more.”
On his return flight from Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families Sept. 28, 2015, the Pope again said that women priests “cannot be done,” and reiterated that a theology of women needs to “move ahead.”
“Pope St. John Paul II after long, long intense discussions, long reflection said so clearly,” that female ordination is not possible, he said.
(Emphasis supplied.) However, it is unclear to us the extent that the Holy Father sees the question of deaconesses as inextricably tied up with the broader question of women’s ordination, which he apparently views as settled by Ordinatio sacerdotalis.
As we noted at the time, some members of the Holy Father’s deaconess commission are known to be advocates for the ordination of women at least to the diaconate. The argument of Phyllis Zagano, for example, is that while Ordinatio sacerdotalis (probably, she would say) settles the question of ordination to the presbyterate and, a fortiori, the episcopate, it does not settle the question of ordination to the diaconate. In other words, the question of deaconesses is not connected to the questions answered by Ordinatio sacerdotalis. Of course, such an argument likely creates disunities within Holy Orders and immediately serves to create two tiers of ordained ministers. Which is the next step in the argument from the advocates for women’s ordination, to be sure. At least, it has always been the argument.
So, while it is greatly cheering to hear the Holy Father reaffirm simply and directly the infallible pronouncement of John Paul II, we are left wondering what his overall picture of the situation is. Does he, like Zagano and her associates, think that Ordinatio sacerdotalis is limited to the episcopate and presbyterate? Or does he think that the diaconate is somehow off to one side? Certainly he would not err if he considered the diaconate somehow different. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul, and Benedict each considered it as somehow separate from the episcopate and presbyterate. However, the extent of the difference is, we think, an open question.