Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Church and Doctrinal Change, Revisited

Sightings  7/28/08

On Women's Ordination

-- Martin E. Marty

Robert J. Egan, S. J., of Gonzaga University, started it all (this round) with an article in the April 11 Commonweal, in which he asked whether official Roman Catholics ought to consider reconsidering the Vatican declarations against the ordination of women to the priesthood.  In best "fair and balanced" style the editors later gave space (July 18) to Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers.  She draws on her book The Catholic Priesthood and Women (2007), which had helped prompt Egan's response.  And, also in the July 18 issue, Father Egan was given another chance. So today's Sightings is a response to a response to a response to a response – almost ad infinitum?

Whether Catholics should change and begin ordination of women is their business, not mine, at least not here and today, though outcomes of Catholic debates do have huge "public religion" consequences.  I can only testify to the manifest blessings so many churches, like my own (ELCA), have received during the past half-century from the ministry of women-ordained.  My business instead picks up on Egan's closing paragraph, where he argues against Sr. Butler's reversion to and repetition of the claim that Rome does not change.  He orthodoxly celebrates the constancy of teachings from Rome.  But: "New questions arise, and new horizons open, cultures themselves are transformed, and the fund of human knowledge changes."  His article has no room to provide chapter and verse when he lists understandings and teachings in which Rome "has changed dramatically, in ways that could not have been foreseen."
He offers a short list. You could look 'em up:  "on slavery, women's inferiority, the divine right of kings, the uses of torture, the status and dignity of the Jewish people, the execution of heretics, the idea of religious liberty, the moral legitimacy of democratic governments, the indispensability of Thomism, the structure of the universe itself."  In all these cases, after Catholic change has been virtually total and quickly taken for granted, one is hard put to think back to when it supported slavery, women's inferiority, torture, et cetera, or opposed the items just listed which it now affirms.
Several years ago Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabbin, editors, corralled eighteen scholars who tracked papal statements which suggest significant revisions and reversals in "understanding and teaching," in Rome Has Spoken.  Their authors, for example, tell of "Usury: Once a Sin, Now Good Stewardship."  Evolution.  Positive views of sexual expression within marriage, changes in scriptural interpretation, ecumenism, and more.  Admittedly, the nature and extent of changes on some of these subjects are open to debate and should be debated.  But change there certainly has been.
"Religious Freedom" is the change most recognized and experienced by modern publics. Rome Has Spoken quotes a dozen papal prohibitions against religious freedom from 1184 to 1906.  Change came suddenly, beginning with Pius XII in 1946, more explicitly with John XXIII in 1963 and then, conciliarly, at the Second Vatican Council in 1965.  Just 102 years ago, Pius X was still teaching the following in a papal encyclical:  "that the state must be separated from the church is a thesis absolutely false, a most pernicious error…an obvious negation of the supernatural order."  "Rome" changed, and admitted it did so – and survived.  Globally, it flourishes now most where it had persecuted least.


Maureen Fielder and Linda Rabbin, eds.  Rome Has Spoken…: A Guide to Forgotten Papal Statements, and How They Have Changed Through the Centuries.  NY:  Crossroad Publishing, 1998.

Sr. Butler's Cardinal Cooke Lecture on the subject of women's priesthood is available at http://www.archny.org/seminary/st-josephs-seminary-dunwoodie/administration/sister-sara-butler/

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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