(Twelve Apostles, photo by BarBus)
John Henry Newman was concerned about corruption of doctrine. Therefore, he sought a way of distinguishing a good development from an erroneous one. In addition to the two Notes or Tests ,identity of type and continuity of principles, discussed in the previous blog post, Newman laid out five other Notes to examine developments in doctrine. After a brief mention of these Notes we will indicate how the ordination of women to the clerical state, one of the topics discussed at the Synod on Synodality, does not meet Newman’s criteria for a genuine development in doctrine.
The third Note is Power of Assimilation. The assimilation of a doctrine into an existing body of belief involves a long process of meditation and dispute, “a diligent, patient working out of one doctrine from many materials” by Popes, Councils and Church Fathers. This was the case with the doctrines on Christ’s consubstantiality to the Father, on Purgatory, and on prayers for the faithful departed.
The fourth Note is Logical Sequence or character. Ideas develop one step at a time, but at some point, looking back, one can see antecedent probability, application of principles, congruity and expedience. An example of this would be the forgiveness of post-baptismal sin by means of Penance and Purgatory.
The fifth Note is Anticipation of Its Future. There are often ideas that occur early on but are not found until later in the course of history. Belief that matter is good and capable of being united to the divine, as in the case of the Incarnation, anticipates belief in the resurrection of the body and the practice of venerating relics.
The Sixth Note is Conservative Action upon Its Past. Newman explains that a genuine development ‘illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects,’ and he offered devotion to Mary as an example.
The last or Seventh Note is Chronic Vigor (Duration in time) A corruption, if vigorous, is of brief duration, runs itself out quickly, and ends in death; on the other hand, if it lasts, it fails in vigor and passes into a decay.
Applying Newman’s theory, it seems clear that the notion that women’s ordination to the diaconate, or as some would wish to the priesthood, would not maintain the type of the early Church which did not have women priests. The ordination of women would also constitute a discontinuity of principles since Jesus chose only to ordain men to the priesthood. In addition, it is not plausible that women priests could assimilate to a system of priests who are men and from whom bishops are chosen as successors of the Apostles. If women were ordained to the diaconate, why should they not be ordained to the priesthood and later to the episcopacy? Furthermore, the existence of a variety of gifts in the Church suggests that there does not exist a logical requirement for women to be ordained to the priesthood. Women exercise their own gifts in the Church without requiring ordination. The fact that in the early centuries of Christianity some women called deaconesses assisted in the baptism of women in a non-sacramental manner is no anticipation of later ordination of women to the diaconate. Lastly, rather than effect a conservative action on the past or vigorous effect on the future, it is very likely that the ordination of women would undermine the sacramental symbolism between Christ as spouse and the Church as bride, and the biblical understanding of the complementarity of the sexes.
In her book, The Catholic Priesthood and Women (2006), theologian Sara Butler, writes that ultimately Newman argued how the teaching office of the Church must discern and judge doctrines to establish if they are developments or corruptions.
Butler explains how for the last half-century some Catholic theologians have advanced the acceptance of the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood. The context for this was the Protestant acceptance of women ministers, a feminist theology that argues against the anthropology in St. Paul’s writings, and more recently the Anglican ordination of women priests. In 1977, Pope Paul VI promulgated an instruction by the Congregation of the Faith teaching that the Church is not authorized to admit women to priestly ordination. Less than twenty years later, in 1994, Pope John Paul II issued the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis in which he pronounced the solemn judgment the “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” Pope John Paul II’s decision was based on the Tradition of the Church but in his encyclical letter Mulieris dignitatem he offers theological arguments for understanding the dignity and equality of women as persons which counters arguments about the unequal treatment of women as the basis for admitting women to the priesthood.
Thus, using reasoning found in Newman’s Notes for genuine development of doctrine, the Church’s Magisterium has passed judgment regarding the ordination of women to the clerical state and given the Church settled teaching on this matter. As the Synod on Synodality was coming to an end, Pope Francis reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on this matter during an interview for a book on his pontificate.