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Church From Below: A cardinal with “a very closed mind”

Church From Below: A cardinal with “a very closed mind”

Photo: Robert McClory

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Today’s Guest Blogger is Robert McClory. Robert is an associate professor emeritus at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, a longtime writer with the National Catholic Reporter and the author of seven books, including Faithful Dissenters: Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church.


In a recent column in the Catholic New World, Cardinal Francis George with grim determination explains why women cannot be ordained priests and claims that those who press openly for a change in the law are “inconsistent” with their “continuing claims to be Catholic.” No waffling here and no possibility of discussion.

The column appears to be a response to growing disagreement within the Church about the ban on women priests. Recent polls indicate upwards of 60 percent of U.S. Catholics favor the ordination of women. Last month some 600 members of Ascension Church in Oak Park, along with their pastor, signed a statement expressing “solidarity” with women and married men who feel called to the priesthood. George said such sentiments are seriously wrong-headed, but his arguments are likely to convince only those who hold a narrow, almost fundamentalist notion of Church authority and a simplistic, one-sided view of Church history.

First, says the cardinal, no one has a right to the priesthood since it is a free gift of God. While that is certainly true, it is not the point of advocates of women’s ordination. The real point is whether the Church hierarchy has a right to ban half the members of the Catholic Church from being considered for priesthood, solely because of their sex. And in doing so, the Church has constructed a roadblock to prevent many freely called by the Holy Spirit to priesthood from responding to that call.

George insists the institutional Church has barred women because it is Christ’s will that only men be ordained. However, that is not a self-evident truth. Various passages in the New Testament can be produced to support arguments both for and against women’s ordination. A Pontifical Biblical Commission summoned by Pope Paul VI concluded in 1976 that the New Testament does not settle “in a clear way and once and for all the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.” Their conclusion has never been refuted. So George is simply stating his own opinion in claiming that the argument of women’s ordination advocates “is with Jesus, not the church.”

The hierarchy has also long resisted the possibility of women priests on the grounds that we have a constant and irreversible tradition of male-only priesthood. But that is not self-evident either. Considerable archaeological evidence points to the existence of women deacons, priests, even bishops in the Church’s early centuries. Cardinal George presents his own overview of Church history, stating, “The fact that some theologians in every age have put forth arguments contrary to church teaching proves nothing except that they are mistaken.”

He gives no consideration to the teaching embraced by the Second Vatican Council in the Constitution on Divine Revelation: “The tradition that comes to us from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is growth in the understanding of the realities and the words that have been handed down.” This development, says the council, happens through the study and contemplation of believers as well as the preaching of bishops and popes. History provides numerous examples of teachings once assumed to be absolute and certain that were ultimately reversed. The ban against accepting interest on loans and the doctrine that the Earth is the center of the solar system are among the better-known examples.

Nor does the cardinal wrestle with the telling words of Joseph Ratzinger in his commentary on The Constitution on Divine Revelation: “Not everything that exists in the Church must for that reason be a legitimate tradition. . . . There is a distorting as well as a legitimate tradition. . . . Consequently, tradition must not be considered only affirmatively, but also critically.”

In conclusion George says Catholics who want to live their faith in peace should not be subjected to protests and arguments “by others whose personal faith is not adequate to the faith of the church.” For him, it seems the faith of the Church is located in a hermetically sealed box and not subject to scrutiny, much less the possibility of development, and those who think otherwise are doubtfully Catholic. What is involved here, he says, is “personal integrity.” What is really involved here, I believe, is a very closed mind.