Ordinatio sacerdotalis and its limits

This year, many Catholics celebrated or lamented the twentieth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, in which the Holy Father settled the question of whether the Church is able to ordain women. Nunc sicut tunc, the spotlight falls onto the question because of moves in the Anglican communion: Now, because of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women to its episcopate, 1 and then, as in the 1970s, because of Anglican moves to ordain them to the presbyterate. 2 This move set Rome and Canterbury at loggerheads, 3 ecumenicists atwitter, 4 and was causing controversy within the Church. It still does, of course, but with the publication of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that controversy became illicit.

The holding of Ordinatio sacerdotalis determines, infallibly, 5 as an article of faith for all Catholics, that the Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Period. While its magisterial force is often questioned by those who would prefer that the question be open (or settled in the other direction), we can say that its holding—infallibility is not dispensed in gross 6—was given infallibly because it meets the objective criteria for such. The First Vatican Council held, inter alia, that a pope speaks infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra regarding faith or morals. 7 And it supplies objective criteria by which it may be discerned whether a holding is ex cathedra: A pope so speaks “when, [1] in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, [2] in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [3] he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church….” 8 There can be no reasonable doubt that all three prerequisites are met by the holding of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, and that it was therefore an ex cathedra statement. 9 And being such, it is infallible if it addressed a question of faith or morals, which, in terms, it did. It would be only slightly more clear had St. John Paul II added “and yes, by the way, this is an ex cathedra statement on faith.”

It must be noted at this juncture that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith takes a different position. That congregation was formally asked to determine “[w]hether the teaching … presented in … Ordinatio Sacerdotalis [is] to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.” Their answer was :

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren, has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith. 10

This might be rich soil for ecclesiologists and philosophers to till, but for normal Catholics and practical purposes, it’s just soil. Whether Ordinatio sacerdotalis settles the question infallibly by an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium or merely notes that the question has been settled infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium is a distinction without a difference: Either way, the question has been settled infallibly, and clearly. 

But it is equally clear that Ordinatio sacerdotalis has limits which are often crashed through by well-meaning apologists. It has nothing whatsoever to say about lay leadership positions within the Church, or leadership positions of any kind or label in non-Catholic ecclesial groups. Female cardinals lie beyond its scope, 11 and if a presbyterian church were to appoint women as elders and then decided to label its elders “bishops,” Ordinatio sacerdotalis would have nothing to say about that, either. It addresses the Catholic priesthood, the sacramental priesthood, the order of Melchizedeck; that, of its nature, is confined to what Dominus Iesus conceives of as “valid Churches,” which have preserved apostolic succession, not “ecclesial groups” no matter what they call their (in fact) lay leaders. 12

Moreover, Ordinatio sacerdotalis has nothing to say about the permanent diaconate. It speaks only to the priesthood—yet deacons “receive the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.” 13 It seems logical that if women cannot be ordained as priests they cannot be ordained as deacons, but the question remains formally open. There is an instructive legal comparison: After the Supreme Court decided Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, the questions asked, naturally, were: “What does this mean? What happens next?” To answer that, you have to break it into three separate questions. First, what’s next for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, the parties to the case, and those whose situation is absolutely, indisputably on all fours with them? Second, what’s next for those whose situation is substantially similar, but not identical, to Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties (i.e. closely-held corporations with expressed religious views), situations that we might say to be “within the compass of the decision’s logic”? And third, what’s next for everyone else, being beyond the compass of the decision’s logic? Potential plaintiffs in category two may certainly file suit and cite Hobby Lobby, but it’s not certain that they will prevail. Similarly here: It would seem to me that deacons are within the compass of Ordinatio sacerdotalis‘ logic. But as gun-rights advocates have been aggrieved to discover since District of Columbia v. Heller, it does not necessarily follow that their notion of what is within the compass of the decision’s logic and the court’s notion thereof line up.

So there will never be female priests in the Catholic sense, but until the western schism is brought to a close, we have to recognize that there are in fact lay leaders of protestant groups that use titles that we reserve to the priesthood, titles that mean something different to those groups and thus may be more capacious. And we also have to be a little more modest, and a little more precise, about what Ordinatio sacerdotalis holds.


  1. See Simon Dodd, The Church of England approves women bishops, 4 MPA __ (2014), available at https://simondodd.org/blog/?p=1458.
  2. See generally Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report 2004 14-15 (2005).
  3. Paul VI, Letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggin, 68 AAS 599 (1976).
  4. E.g. id. (“We must regretfully recognize that a new course taken by the Anglican Communion in admitting women to the ordained priesthood cannot fail to introduce into this dialogue an element of grave difficulty which those involved will have to take seriously into account”).
  5. But see Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 80, 136 n.122 (2012) (noting with approval the observation of Ladislas Orsy, SJ, that “’infallible’ was an infelicitous label for that charism, and ‘definition’ an infelicitous label for the means through which it is exercised, insofar as both are likely to breed misunderstanding. [Orsy] prefers the more cumbersome term ‘fidelity to the revelation’ for the former and ‘determination’ for the latter”).
  6. Sharp-eyed readers will note the use of the legal notions of “holding” and “dicta.” While the labels are imposed, the substance is received; in an instructive example, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

    The subject matter of infallibility, or supreme judicial authority, is found in the definitions and decrees of councils [i.e. the holding], and in them alone, to the exclusion of the theological, scientific, or historical reasons upon which they are built up [i.e. the dicta]. These represent too much of the human element, of transient mentalities, of personal interests to claim the promise of infallibility made to the Church as a whole; it is the sense of the unchanging Church that is infallible, not the sense of individual churchmen of any age or excellence, and that sense finds expression only in the conclusions [i.e. holdings] of the council approved by the pope.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia: General councils, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04423f.htm (1908).

  7. Dog. Con. Pastor æternus6 Acta Sanctæ Sedis 40, 41 (1st Vat. Co., 1870).
  8. Id. It is the third prong of this on which we may say that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible: Although promulgated by an Apostolic Constitution, 1992’s Fidei depositum, as “a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine,” it intends to recapitulate existing teaching, and does not set out to answer a disputed and concrete question that might focus the papal mind and give rise to a careful and precise definition.
  9. Advocates for women’s ordination are apt to pretzel themselves on this question, concurrently insisting on two contradictory positions: That John Paul intended to squelch the debate, and did everything in his power to do so, but did not give Ordinatio sacerdotalis ex cathedra or understand it to be infallible. See, e.g., Jamie Manson, The women’s ordination movement is about much more than women priests, The National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 2014, http://ncronline.org/blogs/grace-margins/womens-ordination-movement-about-much-more-women-priests (last visited Aug. 19, 2014).
  10. http://www.doctrinafidei.va/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19951028_dubium-ordinatio-sac_en.html (emphasis added) (citations omitted).
  11. The fatal problem with appointing not just laywomen to the cardinalate but even laymen is the essential nature of the cardinalate. Those who say that the cardinalate is a human creation and may thus be modified by humans are right, but they miss the point: What have humans created? The cardinals are in origin, and remain in legal fiction, the senior clergy of the diocese of Rome. See, e.g., Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes 118 (3d ed. 2006). That is why the cardinals elect the bishop of Rome, the pope: It is a legacy of a time in which the clergy of the diocese elected their bishop that perdures in legal fiction today. See, e.g., Paul Collins, God’s New Man 115 (2005). It is why the cardinals, no matter where their actual see may be, have titular sees in the Roman diocese. See, e.g., Mildred Tuker & Hope Malleson, Rome 201 (1906). While it is merely a legal requirement that cardinals be a certain grade of clergy (a requirement that has fluctuated over time and sometimes been waived), it is in the nature of the cardinalate that the cardinals be clergymen, just as a gaggle is an aggregation of geese, be definition, and thus a goose and a cat are not a gaggle no matter how much they might wish to be. While lay curialists were in centuries past admitted to the cardinalate, very occasionally, this shows only that rare and abberational exceptions have been made before. See also Straight talk on altar girls, 1 MPA 81, 87 (2012).
  12. See generally Dec. Dominus Iesus (CDF, 2000).
  13. CCC¶1569 (quoting LG 29); accord St. Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition (circa AD215) (the deacon “is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command”).