There never was a time since the 700-year-old epoch of the Dark Ages in which the Church has enjoyed such a moment of opportunity. Increasing numbers of men and women are coming to understand the nature of the barbarism which has followed the apparent collapse of the institutions on which even tribal societies are based. Thousands of intelligent men and women are now at least passively seeking a way out rather than a continuous path downward towards an unknown abyss. Many, although without religious faith themselves, are prepared to give public support to a Pope who directly engages himself at the very centre of the struggle. They are not prepared, however, to identify themselves with a Church which they believe to be as weak as he is strong.
In this particular historical era, the crisis facing the Church is not the product of persecution from external forces. Its origin is internal, in the dissolution of what were once widely-held beliefs and values, a process which leads inevitably to disintegration. The Protestant Reformation, headed by men like Luther and Calvin, did not remotely threaten the very existence of the Church as it is threatened today. They still believed in essential Christian doctrines, and, at least at the beginning, were intent merely on rebelling against the corruption which was only too visible in both Rome and Avignon and which was permitted to persist uncured until the Counter-Reformation. By that time it was too late. England was lost, and it went on to create a world empire. So were the Germanies.
Today it is the internal structures of doctrine and moral teaching which are crumbling. The essential crisis is the vanishing of the beliefs, once regarded as fundamental, which are rarely taught in Catholic schools and only too frequently falsified in the Catholic press.
The further sapping of what certainties remain is not unlikely granted the programs apparently initiated by two influential Catholic bodies, the Australian Catholic Theological Association and the Catholic Biblical Association of Australia, which have commissioned two reports on the question of women's ordination.
The decision to commission these reports was originally taken by both bodies, following that of the National Executive of the Australian Catholic Conference of the Leaders of Religious Institutes, who expressed their "dismay and disappointment at the recent Apostolic Letter of the Holy Father, specifically as it prohibits further discussion of the ordination of women" (see AD2000, August 1994).
The National Executive of ACLRI claimed to represent the opinions of "almost 12,000 male and female religious in Australia and approximately 170 religious congregations of sisters, priests and brothers. The Australian Conference comprises the leaders of all these Congregations."
Subsequent correspondence received by AD2000 showed that not all of the leaders went along with the decision, and that many ordinary members did not know what was being said in their name. The "prohibition" is obviously not being observed.
A spokesman discussed the two projects of the Biblical and Theological Associations in the Perth Catholic Record (20.7.95).
The spokesman reportedly stated that the recent Letter Of Pope John Paul II to Women (29 June 1995) "represented a whole new mood emerging on the part of the Church in regard to women's rights, but that any re-opening of the issue of women's ordination would probably not occur until reconciliation, conversion and repentance with regard to the way the Church had treated women had taken place."
The spokesman observed that "a new appreciation of women's ministry and ministry in general would be timely."
Referring to the reports to be expected from the Theological and Biblical Associations, he added: "The first report examines the relationship between women and priesthood, while the second examines the status of the Pope's teaching on the ordination of women with regard to possible future roles of women in the Church ... Regarding the issue of women's ordination ... it was theology's job to keep examining new ways of looking at things."
It would be reassuring to know that the two committees intend to respect both the spirit and the letter of the Pope's first statement on women's ordination (dated 22 May 1994), which the Holy Father obviously did not intend to be contradicted by his later 1995 Letter. An investigation of "the status of the Pope's teaching" must face the fact that it was described by Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as "irreformable."
If "irreformable" is not accepted as "irreformable" then the highest authorities in the Church have no claim to obedience on any serious question. The suspicion might easily arise that there could be an attempt to interpret the clear meaning of the Pope's definitive statement on women's ordination out of existence.
An example of how easily this could develop is to be seen in the spokesman's further statement.
"Who's to say, for example, that (while) the ordination of women question might be closed for the time being [we] may be able to open other questions - for example the ordination of women to other ministries - maybe new ministries that we haven't thought of, like ministry of reconciliation." Such things as "women being ordained to minister the sacrament of reconciliation [i.e., penance] could possibly be the kind of things that theology would want to explore."
A proposal that women might be ordained to hear confessions (at a time when, except among the elderly, the sacrament has all but disappeared) could only be regarded as a political manoeuvre to reopen the question of general ordination which the theologian in question obviously regards not as "irreformable" but only as "closed for the time being." Who is kidding whom?
The time is overdue for firm positions to be taken on matters of doctrine and morals so that they will not simply be eaten away by theologians who might better devote their talents to protecting the faith rather than - unwittingly, one trusts - weakening and ultimately destroying it, as happened during the Reformation.