The authority of the Pope as the ultimate teacher of the Catholic faithful in matters of faith and morals is now being put to the test. The events which followed the issue of the Pope's letter on the Ordination of Women (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) on 22 May have had the effect of bringing into the open the internal schism which has existed in the Church for the past twenty years.
Accompanying the issue of the Apostolic Letter, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated: "It is an act of the authentic ordinary Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff, an act, therefore, neither "definitive" nor of solemn ex-cathedra, although the objective of this act is the declaration of a doctrine taught as definitive, and therefore not reformable".
Cardinal Ratzinger also stated that "anyone who did not respect the Pope's teaching on this issue was separated from the faith of the Church."
Nevertheless, the Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes (Religious Orders belonging to the Church in Australia) immediately repudiated the document.
The letter, dated June 3, is signed by Sr. Angela Ryan, a Brigidine sister and president of the conference, on behalf of the other 15 members of the executive.
In the letter, national executive members compare their position with that of St Paul at the first ecumenical council of the Church at Jerusalem in the first century.
"You will recall that in the face of the opposition of the first Pope, St. Peter, and the more reactionary elements in the early Church, St Paul requested that gentile and pagan, and not just Jewish, converts should be admitted to the ranks of Christians," the letter said.
"Nineteen centuries later we join with many other Christians in requesting that the question whether women, as well as men, should be admitted to the ranks of the ordained ministry should continue to be considered as a suitable topic for further theological and scriptural research and discussion within the Roman Catholic community."
The degree of organisation associated with the attack on the Pope's position may be gauged from the press release issued by Jesuit Publications (an agency of the Jesuit Order in Australia) to "news editors, chiefs of staff and religion reporters for immediate release", immediately prior to the attack on the Pope's letter made by the Executive of the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes.
The press release from "Jesuit Publications" reads thus:
"Pope's letter on women will backfire. Attention: news editors. chiefs of staff and religion reports for immediate release.
"Pope John Paul's apostolic letter prohibiting the ordination of women would fail to achieve its stated objective of removing all doubt on the question among Catholics, a Melbourne Jesuit priest said today.
"Fr. Richard Leonard, S.J., said that the statement would cause widespread concern among women and men who had been encouraging the official church to continue to discuss the issue, and that many bishops would privately be anxious about the consequences of the Pope's stand.
"The bishops in Australia, the US and Western Europe have seen the valuable contribution of women in pastoral leadership, Fr. Leonard said. Women are running parishes and ministering to the poor and the sick - they are doing everything except celebrating the Eucharist and hearing confessions. It will be difficult for these bishops to reconcile the document's hard line with their own experience. Fr. Leonard, who has conducted postgraduate research on the history of papal teaching on women, said that a person who was informed about the findings of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and other recent research on the issue could continue to believe, in good conscience, that the question was not yet settled. Although the apostolic letter did say that the present teaching was 'to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful', the Pope had refrained from declaring the teaching to be infallible as it could be changed in the future.
"'This is the third time the Vatican has spoken directly on the issue', Fr. Leonard said, 'A Vatican department published a declaration in 1970, and the Pope sent out an apostolic letter in 1988, restating the ban. Many said then that closed the debate, but evidently the Pope feels the need to speak again.
"I think there will be a long and protracted debate because many biblical scholars and theologians say the basis for this teaching is not as clear as the official line suggests', Fr. Leonard said.
"In 1976 the Pope's own Biblical Commission unanimously found that the New Testament evidence didn't settle the question one way or the other. And many reputable theologians and historians argue that new research on the tradition is enabling women like Mary Magdalen, Junia and Phoebe to be seen as apostles, teachers or deacons.'
"Fr. Leonard said that historically the Vatican had sometimes revised doctrinal positions that had previously been held to be true. 'It took the Church 18 centuries to decide that slavery was wrong. And over the past five centuries, the Church has moved a mile from its declaration of 1314 that anyone who defended the taking of interest on a loan was a heretic!"
The names of the "contacts" attached to the press release were appended.
They were: Sr. Angela Ryan CSB, Sr. Deidre Rofe IBVM, Sr. Maryanne Confoy, Fr. Philip Kennedy OP, Sr. Marlette Black PBVM, Sr. Jan Geason RSM, Sr. Pauline Smith, Fr. Michael Whelan SM, Sr. Maureen Minehan PBVM.