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Should one take Cdl. Schönborn’s comments on female ordination seriously?

April 11, 2018

Symptomatic of a society experiencing a breakdown of its order are, among other things, casual assertions by prestigious figures within that society that, if taken according to the plain meaning of their words, are deeply opposed to fundamental values within that society, but which, though uttered, raise nary an eyebrow among those charged with care for that society.

Recent comments from Viennese prelate Christoph Cdl. Schönborn, apparently supportive of ordaining women, are opposed, I suggest, to at least three fundamental ecclesiological values but they have occasioned, as far I have seen, no correction whatsoever from Church leadership, and thus seem to be a chilling illustration of the erosion of order in the Church.

Consider, please.

Apparently Schönborn holds that “The question of ordination [of women] is a question which clearly can only be clarified by a council. That cannot be decided upon by a pope alone. That is a question too big that it could be decided from the desk of a pope.” There are least three serious errors in these remarks, all them ecclesiological, and all of them (assuming we are to take cardinals giving formal interviews at their word), quite disturbing.

First, the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood (and episcopate) was definitively ruled out on ecclesiological grounds by Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994) n. 4 when he declared that “that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women”. Whatever additional sacramental, Scriptural, or historical arguments against female ordination John Paul II could have relied on, he framed his conclusive ruling against female sacerdotal ordination in terms of the Church’s in-ability confer such orders on such persons. Schönborn’s claim, therefore, that female “deaconesses, female priests, and female bishops” could someday happen is to contradict a central ecclesiological assertion set out in Ordinatio. 

Second, for Schönborn to say that a pope cannot, on his own, rule on (specifically, against) the possibility of female ordination is directly to challenge a pope’s authority in the Church as set out in Canon 331, specifically, that the pope “possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”* Given that John Paul II ruled (yes, from his desk,  gasp!) that the Church had no power ordain women to priesthood and that his ruling was “to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”, Schönborn’s statement, I suggest, directly denies the authority of the pope to issue such an ecclesiological teaching and/or such a directive to the faithful.

Third, in the same breath wherein he denies the authority of a pope to rule as John Paul II ruled, Schönborn claims that the female ordination question (humoring him that there even is such a question in regard to the sacerdotal state) can only be decided by an ecumenical council, committing thereby, I suggest, the ecclesiological error of holding ecumenical councils to be superior to popes and coming thereby perilously close to crossing a line that few modern canonists thought ever could be crossed, that one marked out in Canon 1372, which states “A person who makes recourse against an act of the Roman Pontiff to an ecumenical council or the college of bishops is to be punished with a censure.”

Now the modern Canon 1372 had, as it happens, a Pio-Benedictine predecessor norm, 1917 CIC 2332, which read as follows: Each and every one of whatever status, grade, or condition, even if they are regal, episcopal, or cardinatial, appealing from the laws, decrees, or mandates of the Roman Pontiff existing at that time to a Universal Council, are suspected of heresy and by that fact incur excommunication specially reserved to the Apostolic See … .

The great Swiss/American canonist Dom Augustine, commenting on Canon 2332 (in his Commentary VIII: 327-328), granted that appealing to a general council rested on a theory that was “absurd” and “ridiculous”, adding that such an attempt would be “neither excusable nor intelligible”. He observed, in any case, that even cardinals could be charged under its terms and that “it makes no difference whether the general council appealed to is in session or to be held in the future”. Finally, said the scholar, the papal act being contested could be any papal “decree, either dogmatical or disciplinary.” Ordinatio, clearly, is a papal act both dogmatic and disciplinary.

In sum, that such comments, coming from one of the most prestigious figures in the Church today, comments that, if understood according to their plain sense, expressly impugn the sufficiency of a prominent papal act, deny the capacity of a pope to issue such rulings on his own, and imply that an ecumenical council is the only authority that could decide certain ecclesiological matters, that such comments, I say, have not elicited, as far I can tell, a single fraternal correction, is, I think, a sign of how urgently a restoration of order in the Church is needed.

Unless, of course, Cdl. Schönborn is not to be regarded as one who says what he means and means what he says. + + +

* Canon 331 draws heavily here from Lumen genitum 22 and Christus Dominus 2, both of which conciliar documents Schönborn himself cited in crafting the accurate description of papal authority that he provided for the Catechism of the Catholic Church nn. 882 and 937. 

 

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