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Putting the right thing the wrong way

April 28, 2014

Dublin archbishop Diarmuid Martin said that ordaining women (to make up for the shortage of priests) was “not on the table at the moment.” What a bad way of putting the right thing. The archbishop might as well have said that questioning the canonization of John XXIII is ‘not on the table at the moment’ or that a pope’s dissolving ratified consummated marriages is ‘not on the table at the moment’. Both of those assertions, while in a strained sense true, make about as much sense as saying that ordaining women to priesthood is “not on the table at the moment”.

That the Church has no power to ordain women to priesthood, or that John XXIII enjoys the beatific vision, or that no power on earth can dissolve the consummated marriages of the baptized, are statements absolutely certain in themselves. Though none of them is technically an object of belief (res credenda) each of them must be definitively held (res tenenda) by all the faithful.

Granted, distinguishing between equally-certain-but-differently-grounded “objects of belief” and “doctrines to be held” provides ample fodder for graduate theological theses, but over time it seems that the very care used in drawing such distinctions has seeped into the minds of the faithful (and in this regard many bishops figure among “the faithful”) in such a way that the notion of “infallibility” has become associated only with objects of belief (e.g., ‘Mary was ever virgin’ or ‘Christ instituted the sacraments’), but is wrongly withheld from assertions definitively to be held. Yet, whether established as “objects of belief” or as “doctrines to be definitely held”, all such assertions are equally certain and immutable. The denial of the first kind of statement is a canonical crime (heresy) per Canons 751 and 1364; the denial of the second kind is a canonical crime (though we don’t have a pithy term for it) per Canons 750 and 1371. But neither kind of statement is ‘more infallible’ than the other.

So yes, as the archbishop said, ordaining women priests is “not on the table at the moment.” And it never will be. + + +

Follow-up: Want to read more about the difference between “objects of belief” and “doctrines to be definitively held”? Start at the top!

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