The brief section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that we touch on this week covers perhaps the most contentious issue in the Roman Catholic Church today -- who can be ordained to the priesthood. The church has been the object of much scorn these last few decades for its insistence that it is not authorized to ordain women and that it won't ordain married men.
Here is where the authors of the Catechism get to have their say. Here is the chance for them to refute those who say the church is wrong. What is interesting is that they don't take that opportunity. The Catechism passes over the issues of whether women can be ordained and whether married men ought to be, briefly and succinctly, leaving most of the church's arguments untapped.
If you want to explore these issues, you're going to have to look elsewhere. In its footnotes, the Catechism gives pointers to where to find a fuller treatment of these issues. If you want to understand the church's teaching on the non-ordination of women, you ought to look to parts of Pope John Paul's statement on The Dignity and Vocation of Women and to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1977 Declaration on the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood. As for what the church says about priestly celibacy, you're advised to consult the Second Vatican Council's Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests.
Such a treatment of controversial topics is quite typical of the Catechism. Although the text is some 800 pages long, it is essentially an overview of the teaching of the church. To gain something even approaching a full understanding of any particular teaching, one will have to consult other relevant church documents and also perhaps some theological writings. The Catechism is not the full and final word. It is more like a door that opens into the treasury of church teaching.
Further, the Catechism is not a handbook full of answers to those who disagree with the Catholic Church. Like Vatican II, the church council which gave birth to it, the Catechism exists "above all to strive calmly to show the strength and beauty of the doctrine of the faith."
So the issues of priestly celibacy and the non-ordination of women are kept in the perspective of the fullness of the faith. They are not allowed to take over the whole house as they well might once the debate gets into full flight.
Still, the church's teachings on these issues are there in the Catechism. And like each of its 2,865 numbered paragraphs, these four paragraphs call for our response in faith.
My own natural bias is to reject these teachings of the church, to say that it's OK to ordain women and married men. But natural bias is not a response of faith. It is uninformed prejudice which stands to be corrected by the power of church teaching inspired by the Holy Spirit.
One can respond that this teaching -- the one which says women cannot be ordained -- has not been inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, that response is dangerous to faith for two reasons.
First, it assumes that I have an ability greater than that of the church's teaching authority to determine what is or is not of the Spirit.
Second, by rejecting church teaching on this issue, it rejects the authority of the church on all issues. The church is reduced to the level of any other human institution, albeit one that is oriented toward the divine. Christ's promise that the Holy Spirit will lead the apostolic college "into all truth" is reduced to wishful thinking.
Some say it is courageous to challenge the church's teaching in this area. But courage is a virtue which is always at the service of truth and fidelity. Unpinned from its attachment to truth, "courage" is a source of division and acrimony.
The issue of ordaining married men is different from that of ordaining women. It is generally seen as a matter of discipline which can change. Many of the Eastern Catholic churches ordain married men and the Western church also did so for many centuries. It may do so again.
Still, at Vatican II and several times since then, the church has given a strong defence of priestly celibacy. It is not only a practical measure which allows priests to serve God and his people with "an undivided heart." It also bears witness to an important truth -- the marriage between God and his people.
Vatican II taught that, through their celibacy, priests "recall that mystical marriage . . . by which the church holds Christ as her only spouse. Moreover, they are made a living sign of that world to come, . . . in which the children of the resurrection shall neither be married nor take wives" (Decree on the Priesthood, 16). According to Vatican II teaching, it is fitting that priests be celibate.
The church's teaching on who is eligible for priestly ordination goes against the grain of what our society believes about equal opportunity and non-discrimination in employment. But we ought to be very guarded about ever believing the church's teaching should take a backseat to society's widely-held beliefs. Further, we should not see the priesthood as akin to a job.
And finally, we need to take seriously and explore more deeply the church's teaching about the equal dignity of all the baptized. This is not a rationalization intended to get the church off the hook from ordaining everyone who asks for it. It is a deep truth oriented towards the building up of God's kingdom both in this world and in the next.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.