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Tea leaves are for brewing tea, not for theological illumination

April 24, 2013

Folks are free to predict, and even argue for, the end of celibacy and the ordination of women as deacons if they want, but those arguments must be made competently lest serious confusion be sown along the way. Fr. Michael Orsi’s recent essay “Reading the tea leaves” concerning these and related matters calls for several corrections. I highlight just some.

Infallibility

Orsi writes: Doctrinal faith is divided, according to Cardinal Josef Ratzinger . . . into two main areas; infallible and non-fallible.

First, what is the difference between “infallible” and “non-fallible” doctrines, and who divides Church teaching into these two categories? Cdl. Ratzinger surely did not. In any event, Orsi uses this odd classification to contrast, e.g., the truths professed by the Nicene Creed with, e.g., Church teaching against the ordination of women to priesthood. Now, these kinds of concepts are distinguishable but not along the lines Orsi offers (his ‘infallible/non-fallible’ vocabulary offers no distinction). Rather, I suspect Orsi is trying to get at, not the degree of certainty with which these assertions are made (for both are infallible), but rather, the character of the response that the Nicene Creed demands (namely, credenda) compared to the response owed to Church teaching against female priestly ordination (namely, tenenda). It is a common but serious mistake to confuse “infallible” with “objects of belief”, the doubt or denial of which objects is heresy punishable by excommunication (cc. 750 § 1, 751, 1364), with, well, with lots of other assertions that, while still infallible, are “doctrines to be held” definitively, the rejection of which constitutes opposition to Catholic doctrine and is punishable by a just penalty (cc. 750 § 2, 1371, 2º).

Liturgy

Orsi writes: Francis’ washing of women’s feet on Holy Thursday . . . is an example of where a bishop may take liberties based on local need. This break with the rubric by the Pope is problematic insofar as it gives license for the makeshift liturgies that have plagued the Church.

I am not sure how these two sentences even go together, but this must be said: Pope Francis’ foot-washing action tells us absolutely nothing about the authority of local bishops to “take liberties based on local need”. Francis’ action was prudent or not, but either way, it was pontifical in nature, not episcopal. Similar unilateral action by a bishop would be illicit per Canons 838 and 846.

Female ordination

Orsi: So, how will women deacons come about? Very similar to the way altar-girls did.

I cannot imagine what parallel exists between a divinely instituted sacrament on the one hand and an ecclesiastically instituted function on the other that results in female deacons as it resulted in female altar servers, but Orsi continues and so must we.

Orsi: After a long period of illicit [female deacon] ordinations . . .

Stop. This scenario is ridiculous. The attempted ordination of women to any rank of Orders is invalid (c. 1024), constitutes sacramental simulation (c. 1379), represents an abuse of episcopal office (c. 1389), and results in automatic excommunication (CDF decree, 2008). Is Orsi seriously suggesting that such grave crimes are on a par with letting girls serve at Mass and that Rome will wink at such offenses until there are so many ‘female deacons’ that the point is not worth defending? Not a shred of evidence suggests Rome to be anything less than decisive in repudiating attempts to ordain women. Not one shred. Still continuing…

Orsi: It is doubtful that any canonist or for that matter the Pope realized that the Code permitted altar-girls.

Complete balderdash. Many canonists realized that the 1983 Code permitted altar girls well before the 1994 Roman interpretation confirmed it, including: CLSA Comm (1985) 168, 648; Commento al Codice (1985) 136-137; CLSA Adv. Op. (1985) 25-26; Code de Droit Ann (1990) 153; and GB&I Comm (1995, but written before 1994) 131-132. Moreover, to imply that popes can be surprised by the Code and feel themselves stuck with a disciplinary canon they don’t like is nonsense. Popes can change disciplinary canons as they see fit (c. 331). If popes do not want altar girls, we would not have altar girls.

Celibacy

Orsi writes: A bishop may believe that providing the Eucharist is more important than the discipline of celibacy. This is known as epikeia.

The phrasing muffs the notion of epikeia but, to be clear, if a bishop were to ordain a married Roman Catholic man to priesthood without apostolic dispensation he would act gravely illicitly against Canons 1042 and 1047 and an epikeia argument about the Eucharist or anything else would avail him not one iota. Look, I do not dispute that clerical celibacy is in crisis, let alone do I dispute that celibacy (correctly understood) is disciplinary (correctly understood). But to label an observance in the Church these days as “disciplinary” is tantamount to describing it as optional or even trivial; it certainly always prefaces a call to abandon the practice in question. Those beating the “merely disciplinary drums” on celibacy, however, let alone those implying that only similarly slim barriers prevent female ordination, are setting a whole lot of people up for a whole lot of confusion and/or disappointment. What can I say, experts should not treat the reading public that way.

Well, okay, there are several more problems in Orsi’s essay, but other projects beckon now, so let me conclude by suggesting that those interested in these important matters avoid ecclesiastical tasseography and instead use tea leaves as they were intended, namely, as a way to make a delightful drink for sipping over the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

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