To a world which is largely secularised, the question of whether Catholic women should be ordained as priests must appear as a sideshow, if not a bore. For persons not of the Catholic persuasion, the issue is no different from the admission of women as lawyers, the appointment of women to the judiciary or to the Federal Cabinet.
For Catholics, the position is different. The Church to which they belong must deliberately set out to follow - whether successfully or not is another question - the example of Christ and His Apostles, and the teachings of the Church which they believe He founded. Catholics have believed that these include the solemn definitions concerning doctrine and morality, (to be distinguished from the mere obiter dicta) of the Pope, the successor to St. Peter, whom Christ chose as the rock on which I will build My Church."
The present conflict within the Catholic Church is thus not about female ordination. It is about the meaning and extent of Papal authority. The question has arisen in acute form, over the past twenty years, when Papal authority, to varying degrees, has been routinely denied by Catholics in semi-official positions. This repudiation has extended over the whole range of the Church's teachings, including the origin and nature of the priesthood.
The central question is whether Papal authority, when solemnly asserted on matters of faith or morals, is binding on the Catholic, by virtue of membership of the Catholic Church.
On this matter, the allegedly liberal Second Vatican Council (1962-65) in its most important Declaration, the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (21 Nov. 1964), spoke as unambiguously as the allegedly conservative First Vatican Council in 1870: "The Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful - who confirms his brethren in the faith (cf. Lk. 22:32) - he proclaims in an absolute decision a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. For that reason his definitions are rightly said to be irreformable by their very nature and not by reason of the assent of the Church".
Both the authority and the limiting qualifications are thus clearly stated. This Declaration was carried by 2,151 votes to 5. There is no ambiguity either as to the content or the statement, or as to the near-unanimity of the vote.
Pope John Paul concluded his recent Apostolic Letter on women's ordination by using almost exactly the same phraseology as that above, to indicate that he intended to clothe this decision with the authority, not of infallibility, but of irreformability.
What flows inevitably from the solemn definition is indicated by the statement of the Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide (Most Rev. L. Faulkner D.D.), whose reputation is as an ecclesiastical 'liberal'. Having called on all Catholic priests to "adhere faithfully to the teaching of the Letter", he added: "It is not the Pope's job to keep Western cultures happy over their concern about women's ordination. His concern is for doctrinal leadership, not for making the Church in some way modern."
For the non-Catholic, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope is, at best, irrelevant. Even for the Catholic, to whom all of the serious arguments against religious belief are as well-known as the many unpalatable aspects of Papal history, it is not easy to accept. Acceptance depends entirely on whether one believes that Christ was God, that He established the Church, and that the New Testament - the only historical record of His teachings - clearly indicates that he vested his teaching authority in St. Peter, the first Pope, and his successors.
"Everyone is free to decide whether or not he is able and willing to subscribe to the Catholic faith with responsibility before God and his conscience," wrote Cardinal Ratzinger recently. "If I come to the conclusion that I can no longer support this set of beliefs, then it is a matter of honesty to declare this and draw the consequences."
At one level, the Pope's statement will be decisive. Even in the present chaotic condition of the Catholic Church, it is difficult to see any bishop purporting to ordain a woman.
At another level which, in the Church's present condition, may well be the more important - namely that of the ordinary practising Catholic - it is unlikely to have much effect. The fact is that the horse has bolted, and even now, there is little sign of any intention to close the stable door. The faith of many hitherto orthodox Catholics has been eroded over a long period of time by continuous repudiations of Papal authority on the part of persons occupying semi-official positions in the Church. These include masters of university colleges, seminary professors, headmasters of schools, theologians and philosophers. Their various repudiations have covered not merely Papal teachings relating to sexual morality, but even more basic doctrines, which Catholics had believed to be founded directly on the Scriptures. No action has been taken. Naturally, the Pope's critics have now raised the "ante". The Australian Conference of Religious Institutes (representing all Catholic religious orders in Australia) and Jesuit Publications, separately representing the Jesuit Order, have now publicly questioned the Pope's letter. The Australian bishops are clearly faced with a major revolt. Will these actions also be allowed to pass?
This anarchy is a main factor in explaining why the Catholic Church in this country has lost almost two-thirds of the constituency it possessed in the 1960s.
Even as far back as 1987, the degree of chaos was already such as to lead Oxford's Wykeham Professor of Logic, Michael Dummett, to write: "The divergence that now obtains between what the Catholic Church purports to believe and what larger and important sections of it do believe, ought, in my view, to be tolerated no longer; not if there is to be any rationale for belonging to that Church; not if there is to be any hope of reunion with the other half of Christendom; not if the Catholic Church is not to be a laughing stock in the eyes of the world."