As we mentioned yesterday, the Holy Father has poured a measure of cold water on the hopes of the progressives in the Church who wish to see women ordained to the priesthood. Responding to a question during one of his famous in-flight press conferences, the Holy Father stated that St. John Paul’s Ordinatio sacerdotalis is the final word on the question. This has provoked the all-too-predictable outrage from progressives. Read the comments here, for a taste. Generally, despite the Church’s clarification that Ordinatio sacerdotalis is infallible, even if it is not an ex cathedra exercise of the extraordinary papal magisterium (though one might argue that it is such an exercise), the progressives argue, for a variety of reasons, that John Paul got it wrong. Now, this is based in a faulty understanding of the Church and the deposit of faith; progressives (and some conservatives) see the Church as a political entity with the choice to define its doctrine.
With this ecclesial vision firmly in mind, the progressives’ argument proceeds as it often does; that is, on grounds of fairness and inclusion. So far, they hold, the Church has chosen to define its doctrine to “unfairly” “exclude” women from the priesthood. If this sounds like the recent argument over admitting bigamists to Holy Communion, it’s because the progressives don’t have a very deep bench, in terms of arguments. But, of course, we know better, dear reader. The Church is not a political entity and the Church does not get a choice in its doctrine. The Church must obey the apostolic mandate—indeed, a mandate arguably founded in divine law—to hand on what it received, and to do so faithfully, neither adding to nor subtracting from the deposit of faith. This is why the universal ordinary magisterium is so important, especially when it is specifically confirmed by a pope, who is the visible sign of the unity of the Church.
But if the progressives are right and the magisterium is just a political choice, what other choices have the popes gotten wrong? Consider Leo XIII’s Apostolicae curae, for example, which declared Anglican orders “absolutely null and utterly void.” The question of the validity of Anglican orders was hotly litigated until Leo settled the question. But some have noted that, ultimately, the decision to issue Apostolicae curae was based upon the “politicking” of Herbert Cardinal Vaughan, then the archbishop of Westminster, an opponent of early ecumenical efforts between Catholics and Anglicans. This, then, ought to be in the progressives’ wheelhouse. Indeed, the argument that Leo issued Apostolicae curae for purely political reasons is stronger than the argument that John Paul issued Ordinatio sacerdotalis for political reasons. Thus, by the progressives’ standards, it is no less likely that Leo XIII got it wrong when he said that Anglican orders were “absolutely null and utterly void” than it is when John Paul II said that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament.
A brief aside. Though we hope that our faint humor—very faint, most likely—is obvious enough, we emphasize here that we are joking. Certainly men and women of good will can disagree about the circumstances that led to Apostolicae curae, or whether subsequent developments in the Church of England have affected the applicability of the bull. On with the joke.
Progressives may decide, therefore, that Leo XIII did get it wrong and that Anglican orders are valid. There are, then, any number of churches or ecclesial communities or whatever that have preserved apostolic succession and the sacraments. Certainly, the Catholic Church has done so, but the Orthodox and the Anglicans have, too. And one might argue that anyone in communion with the Anglicans has, but we needn’t go that far down the path. So, we can return to their original problem, which is that the Catholic Church teaches that women may not be ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament as a matter of divine law. They think St. John Paul II got it wrong when he confirmed the universal ordinary magisterium by a definitive act. But another ecclesial community, the Church of England (and many other Anglican groups), holds that women may be ordained to the priesthood of the New Testament. Indeed, the Anglicans ordain women not merely to the presbyterate but also to the episcopate. And, remember, we have already decided that the Anglicans have valid orders and apostolic succession because we have already decided that Leo XIII whiffed his big decision, too.
The question, then, is why do the progressives stay formally in communion with Rome? Once you decide that the magisterial acts of this or that pope are subject to review and contradiction—indeed, once you decide that they are merely political acts of the head of a political organization—you can read yourself into all sorts of interesting ideas. The entire world opens up before you, almost as if you are standing on the pinnacle of the Temple or on a high mountain, to take two places entirely at random. The foregoing exercise is entirely reasonable from their standpoint. You can read yourself into ultramontane Anglo-Catholicism that includes the ordination of women, if you want. So why stay in the Church of Rome? Is it simply because they are a disaffected wing of a political party, waiting for more propitious circumstances at the next party conference? Certainly that is how many progressives have acted since well before the Council, and why so many of them clamor for a new council that will, at long last, make the Church as vibrant as the Presbyterians or the liberal Lutherans. But could it be something deeper, a sense that, despite dreary progressive theology and drearier progressive politics, there is something True at the heart of the Church, which cannot be cast aside so lightly as all that?