The expected reaction to the Responsum ad dubium (“Response to a Doubt”) from the usual suspects whose “Catholic” identity rests upon rejection of virtually every Catholic belief and refusal to accept the authority of the Church, was immediate.
The ruling, released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on November 18, reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that only men may be ordained to the priesthood. With mathematical predictability, the “progressive” faction within the Church began its descent into dissent before the ink was dry.
Among the first to react was the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Their statement complained that they are “grieved” and “puzzled” by the Vatican statement. They called for a day of prayer and fasting “to help deal with” the unwelcome news. (The LCWR is a 1,000-member group of superiors of religious communities in the U.S.)
Hans Kung, in a long essay in the National Catholic Reporter (12/15/95), said, “theologians now face [an] either-or situation” and demanded a Third Vatican Council to redefine authority—for it is precisely papal authority that must be destroyed in order for “new church reform” to take place.
Similar frontal attacks on authority were launched by theologian Francis Sullivan, S.J., and canonist Ladislaus Orsy, S.J., in the Jesuit journal America.
Only days before the Responsum appeared, Sister Maureen Fiedler of the marginal Catholics Speak Out, advised the Women’s Ordination Conference that relentless “chipping away” was the only way to demolish the patriarchal Church.
There is nothing new about dissent, of course. Ever since the Second Vatican Council this same faction has reacted similarly to nearly every official statement of the Vatican—on practically every subject. However, the decibel level of the howls of outrage over this brief, almost routine, affirmation of Church teaching seems rather higher than in the recent past—and out of proportion to the ruling itself, which, after all, said nothing new or surprising.
Why such passion now?
First, the “doubt” to which the Vatican responded was raised, not by theologians, but by bishops. This episcopal involvement gave credibility to the views of “progressives” angered by Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic statement, Ordinatio sacerdotalis, which explicitly called the Church’s teaching on priestly ordination “definitive” and said that to teach otherwise constitutes error.
Second, the Responsum uses the forbidden word “infallibly”—a word that has not appeared in any other statement since the Council. (Allegedly, some bishops persuaded the pope to avoid using the word in his 1994 letter.) Use of the powerful “I-word,” obviously, means that there are some things Catholics absolutely must believe in order to remain Catholic.
Dissenters consider the Responsum’s assertion that the Church can teach infallibly not merely odious, but an open challenge that endangers every thing they have stood for (or rather, stood against) for thirty years—from liturgy to moral teachings.
The history of the post-conciliar era shows that dissenters have succeeded in peddling their ideas partly by intimidating Church authorities into silence. The result has been endemic erosion of the most essential teachings of the Church—including her very authority to teach.
Dissenters’ expectations were raised both by public episcopal support and by a belief that dissent and disobedience among Catholics has now reached a critical mass. They felt assured that ordination of women was inevitable, even if “not in the lifetime of this pope.” Their forces seemed invincible. Recent protest petitions in European churches seemed to substantiate this.
But there is another important reason for the ferocity of the response. In defending the male priesthood, the Responsum reaffirms the very meaning of priesthood itself—hence, by implication, the divine origin of Church authority; that it is hierarchical; that it is not and can never be a radically egalitarian “discipleship of equals.” Implicit is a reaffirmation of the tradition of Catholic liturgy—i.e., the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.
Finally, the Responsum makes impossible the belief that the ultimate authority of the Church can ever be exercised collectively by its members of any period in history. No theologian (however clever) and no lay group (however powerful) can supplant this authority. And this means that there are Catholic teachings that can never be changed, that Catholic worship must both reflect and actively promote these teachings.
This cuts dissent to the quick. Although the response to the Response may seem overwrought; dissenters have much at stake, and many may think they have little to lose by intensifying their assault. Three decades of “chipping away” at the Church has done great damage, to be sure. But the blast of open rebellion may now be required to destroy Petrine authority.