The Malta Independent 25 June 2024, Tuesday
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The question of women priests and its historical implications

Simon Mercieca Monday, 9 July 2018, 07:41 Last update: about 7 years ago

On 21 April 2018, Pope Francis broke with tradition and appointed three women - two Italians and one Belgian – [together with two priests] consultants to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as part of his effort to give a greater role to women in the central administration of the Catholic Church.

On 30th May 2018, the Catholic Herald carried an article penned by Fr. Cindy Wooden, about the current position within the Catholic Church regarding the consecration of women priests. Fr Wooden refers to an article by Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer and carried in the official Vatican newspaper  ‘L’Osservatore Romano wherein he expresses his  serious concern that there are still Catholics who are questioning what he defines as ‘the definitive nature of this doctrine’. Ladaria, in his official capacity as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has completely ruled out the possibility of the ordination of women as priests.


I am not a theologian and therefore cannot look at this from a theologian’s point of view. However, I am making here some reflections that stem from my reading of history, in particular, with regard to Ladaria’s comments on the Pope’s infallibility to justify this strong position by the Catholic Church on what Ladaria is defining as doctrine.

While I am not interested in questioning the Pope’s infallibility from a theological point of view, historically this premise can be easily challenged. I say this also in the light of a very interesting book that I am reading; Pietro, Pastore della Chiesa (Peter, Shepherd of the Church) written by Giuseppe Di Corrado. This was the subject of his doctoral dissertation submitted to the Augustinianum, the Patristic Institute in Rome where his tutor was Nello Cipriani. His dissertation was eventually published with an introduction by Cardinal Prospero Grech. As can be deduced from the title and place of study, the author studied Petrine Doctrine from the viewpoints of St. Augustine.

But what intrigued me most in Di Corrado’s tome is the fact that when St. Augustine spoke about the Bishop of Rome as the legitimate and direct successor of Peter, he did not have in mind that, as successor of Peter, the pope was infallible in his teachings. In other words, St. Augustine considered the pope a leader who at the same time remained a common mortal who could easily fall into heresy and sin. Therefore, the pope could also be admonished by his fellow bishops. And this is precisely what St. Augustine did with regard to Zosimus.

Giuseppe di Corrado goes into lengthy details to explain St. Augustine’s views and theological position against pope Zosimus. Pope Zosimus had been carried away by the theological precepts of the monk Pelagius. This led to a movement known as Pelagianism;  a  doctrine which stated that original sin only concerned the first parents; Adam and Eve. It did not transcend to their descendants. In other words, human nature was not tainted by original sin. Zosimus supported this movement and consequently, as pope, denied that human beings were born with original sin. As a result of this dispute between St. Augustine and Zosimus, the latter is no longer studied. And it seems that there have even been  attempts to obliterate Zosimus from historical memory.

In the light of the above, I found Luis Ladaria’s argument that the question of women-priests was closed because Pope John Paul II took a definite stand against it, rather weak. In brief, in his Apostolic Letter dated 1994 entitled  ‘Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II stated that ‘the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively upheld by all the Church’s faithful.’

This has led cardinal-designate Ladaria to state that it is wrong to continue to question the infallibility of Pope John Paul II’s declaration because ‘it was not defined ‘ex cathedra'. Therefore, those against this doctrine argue that a future pope or a council could overturn such decision. Ladaria took it upon himself to define the infallibility of the pope on this matter because the Pope issued it in communion with the universal teaching of bishops. Therefore, Ladaria argues, that Pope John Paul II “did not declare a new dogma, but with the authority conferred on him as successor of Peter, he formally confirmed and made explicit – to remove any doubt – that which the ordinary and universal magisterium had considered as belonging to the deposit of faith throughout the history of the Church.”

Di Corrado’s dissertation seriously challenges Ladaria’s position vis-à-vis historical and theological precepts. Zosimus was being supported in his doctrinal position by other bishops. In simple words, when he was taking these positions, he was taking them in collegiality with a number of bishops. Still, St. Augustine opposed these ideas and was not afraid to admonish Pope Zosimus. The result was that Christian Catholic doctrine took a completely different path.

Ladaria presents the argument that Christ conferred this sacrament to the 12 apostles during  the Last Supper. Ladaria’s argument tends to be sloppy from a historical point of view because there was another apostle, Paul, who was not with the 12 apostles during the last supper but still historically credited with being both a priest and a bishop.  This is the reading given in the past of the story in the Acts about St. Paul’s arrival in Malta. He is not only credited with the distribution of the Holy Eucharist but also of having consecrated Publius as Malta’s first bishop. The question here would be – how could Paul have distributed the Eucharist and consecrated Publius as a bishop and performed the Eucharist when he was not with the rest of the Apostles at the Last Supper? The historical argument would most probably be that Paul was consecrated by Ananias, who was one of the disciples of the apostles.  

I am stating these facts to show that when theology seeks to base its arguments on faith and not history to justify an argument, this can lead to erroneous conclusions. “The Church always has seen itself as bound to this decision of the Lord”, wrote Ladaria, “which excludes that the ministerial priesthood can be conferred validly on women.” I don’t know where this decision is written in the Bible. History confirms that until the time of Charlemagne, there were still women deacons. The historical records, or what has survived from this early period, are indicating that women played a more vital role in the spread of Christianity in the West than their males counterparts. Such an attitude of masculinity, which the Spanish Jesuit, Ladaria, is expressing, is a remnant of the Franks’ Salic vision of religion rather than a biblical tradition that goes back  to the early period of Christianity.

What the Church should be seeking at this moment of its history is to reconcile history with faith.  Di Corrado’s book shows that when these two aspects are studied together, they lead to a third way that till now has not been thoroughly studied but was indicated by Pope Francis at the start of his Petrine ministry. This concerns the different sensibilities that one finds within the various Christian communities. Such a plurality of sensibilities was present during the early times of the Church. These different sensibilities between the West and the East impounded on how their respective Christian communities viewed the exercise of power within them. Such considerations had an impact on the construction of Europe and resulted from the spread of Christianity. The fact that Europe today is failing in its ability to create one central power, capable of influencing or outright controlling the behaviour of its people, needs to be studied and understood in what Di Corrado considers as the plurality of authorities during the early days of the Church. Europe, as a Christian construct, was built on social structures that perceived the legitimization of power differently.  


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