VATICAN CITY — In a letter informing Australian Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba of his dismissal, Pope Benedict is said to have described the church’s teaching against women’s ordination as “infallibly” taught by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
That the present pope would use such language is not surprising. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he said the same thing in a 1995 written statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — a statement which was itself approved by Pope John Paul.
The year before, in 1994, Pope John Paul had issued his apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (“On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone”), declaring that “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.'”
The 1995 doctrinal congregation statement, as well as later Vatican documents, said the teaching against women’s ordination had been “set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium.” We wrote about the significance of that statement here. The point being made was that such teachings are infallibly taught and must be accepted as definitive by Catholics, even if they have not been defined as infallible by a solemn act of the pope.
In 1998, in a commentary on Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter “Ad Tuendam Fidem” (“To Defend the Faith”), the doctrinal congregation made two related points: It said there was no difference in the “full and irrevocable character of the assent”‘ owed to church teachings that are set forth as divinely revealed or that are taught definitively. And it said that when a pope confirms or reaffirms a doctrine, declaring that it belongs to the ordinary and universal magisterium as a truth that is divinely revealed or a truth of Catholic doctrine, “such a doctrine is to be understood as having been set forth infallibly.”
The Vatican documents of the mid-1990s prompted discussion among some theologians and canon lawyers, some of whom questioned the Vatican’s assertion that the teaching on ordaining only men had been “infallibly taught.” We covered it extensively at the time. That debate has now resurfaced with the removal of Bishop Morris.
According to the Australian public broadcasting network ABC, Bishop Morris said that in his letter, Pope Benedict asserted that “Pope John Paul II had said irrevocably and infallibly that women cannot be ordained.”
The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, declined to comment on Pope Benedict’s letter to Bishop Morris or confirm its contents. However, on the infallibility issue, he pointed to the 1995 doctrinal congregation document and to the Second Vatican Council’s document on the church, “Lumen Gentium” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), which in section 25 spoke of infallibility and how it is understood.