The man isn’t an “idiot”, but…

A recent email from a commentator on this blog called this man an “idiot. Or worse.”

I don’t think he is an “idiot”. In saying that “there are no theological reasons against women priests” Cardinal Polycarpo is being very “inaccurate”, but he is correct in saying that the fundamental reason why women cannot be ordained to the Catholic priesthood is “a strong tradition that comes from Jesus”.

In her book “The Catholic priesthood and Women”, Sara Butler makes a useful distinction between the “reasons” and the “explanations” why women cannot be ordained. When you look closely at all the papal and curial statements of the matter, the Cardinal is correct: the fundamental reasons why women may not be ordained are indeed all “traditional”.

However, in seeking to understand the reason for the tradition, the Church has reflected on the theology of the tradition which makes the tradition comprehensible. These theological “explanations” are not in themselves the “fundamental reasons” why women cannot be ordained, but they explain theologically the very good reasons for the tradition. The Church has, over history, expounded varying theological reasons why women cannot be ordained. At one point, this theology WAS based on the idea of the inequality of men and women. That theological “explanation” has been abandoned, and thankfully so. But newer theological “explanations” – especially in the light of the rich nuptial theology of the Eucharist and John Paul II’s exposition of the “theology of the body” have given us new ways of understanding more deeply the ancient and unchanging tradition.

So he is wrong in saying that there are no theological obstacles to the ordination of women. But he is right in saying that the fundamental reason why the Church can never ordain women is “tradition”. In the Catholic faith, however, all dogma is fundamentally about “tradition” and being faithful to the tradition handed on by the Apostles from the Lord himself. It would simply be unfaithful to the Apostolic Tradition to adopt this practice. Whatever the theological explanations given for the tradition, the tradition itself cannot be changed.

UPDATE: CNA has a story on this giving the full context of the Cardinal’s comments. It is as I thought – he is inaccurate in saying that there are “no theological obstacles”, but at the same time, he certainly isn’t putting forward a positive argument for the ordination of women.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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21 Responses to The man isn’t an “idiot”, but…

  1. William Tighe says:

    Actually, what he is quoted as saying is that there is “no fundamental theological obstacle” to WO. I think that you must inadvertently have omitted “no” from the quotation in your second paragraph above.

  2. Gareth says:

    In fairness, I think the Cardinal may have been slightly taken out of context by the ‘i….s’ at Cathnews. A search of what he really said would probably reveal it was nothing like the heading given to it by that news. source

    And I stand by my previous comments on the broad topic of women priests that a major reason many within the Church still want to continue a ‘conversation’ about this is the Church’s inability to take any decent stance against feminism.

    The Church can’t expect people to have a logical understanding of the issue on one hand, whilst on the other hand it seems to give its blessings to the core root of the problem.

    • Schütz says:

      At the risk of opening that can of worms again, Gareth, I will recommend Sara Butler’s book to you.

      She has a section which treats past “theological explanations” for the unbroken tradition that are no longer acceptable today.

      You may find it enlightening to read the book. It is the best that there is on this topic.

      • Gareth says:


        I have not read the Sister’s book in full, but would have a fair idea of the broad picture she is trying to convey.

        Whilst the Sister and like-minded theologians do a good job in addressesing the common objections to Church teaching, one point that I have to take issue with is the view that she seems to be trying to get at that the Church’s traditional explanations is somehow influenced by an ‘outdated view of women’ and the Church historically has some flawed understanding of the role of women and this has somehow been magically overcome by post-Vatican II Popes.

        On these arguements I can’t see eye to eye – in my opinion, the Church has traditionally explained its opposition to women priests because it is not simply not right, not because of any so-called warped view of women.

        Arguements like this only give fuel to the feminist fire and only further lead to feminisation of the Church and the further push of males to the sidelines.

        If the Church wants to its members to take its claims to a male-only priesthood seriously, first it has to be counter-cultural in how it does battle with societals current woeful regard of gender roles/dress/manner etc.

    • Hannah says:

      Gareth, there are two types of feminism. There is the type which has liberated the woman from slavery, from abuse, from being a thing to be bartered and disposed of by the male. Then there is the feminine feminism which recognises itself as wholly worthy and equal to the male. The first type of feminism was needed in order to be rid of the curse of being born “woman” worth not much and the genuine second type knows itself to be equal but different and doing different task with life but not devalued.
      Sadly perhaps its the first type of feminism which also raised its head within the church as it did outside of the church and that is the femiinism which the media has toyed with and has enhanced.
      Im not sure that the Church has given” blessings to the core root of the problem” because the root of the problem I think comes from “your yearning will be for your husband and he will dominate you” (Gen.3:16) taken to extreme.

      • Gareth says:


        I simply do not believe the utter nonsense that women were once in a state of ‘slavery’ and thatsecular feminism has somehow magically rid the world of this. This line of thinking is really the stuff of fairytales and I would have to question anyone who honestly believes this.

        I also do not believe that the Church has taken the Christain doctorine that wives must submit to their husbands to the extreme. In fact, all the women in my immediate and extended family both now and tracing my family tree back to the 1700s have all been hapily married women married to the mostly Godly men who treated them right.

        I think you would find that a high proportion of men treat their wives with respect now ‘batter and dispose’ them – do you seriously believe that?

        I simply find it unacceptable in this day and age where feminism has GONE TOO FAR that men sit and there and take the nonsense that we somehow treat women inferiorly. It is a fixation of a lot people’s imagination and if we looked around our Churches and saw all the men missing and on top of this all the broken families, contracepting Catholic families, the extermination of our women religious orders that did so much for the Church and now do absolutely nothing – I think you would find that it is women and not men that should have a good look at themselves and ask themselves if the road women have taken in western society over the past forty years has truly led to greater family happiness or been beneficial for society.

        • Hannah says:

          “stuff of fairytales and I would have to question anyone who honestly believes this ..(I dont belive it I know it!)
          “In fact, all the women in my immediate and extended family both now and tracing my family tree back to the 1700s have all been hapily married women married to the mostly Godly men who treated them right”
          (good for you and your family)
          batter and dispose’ them – do you seriously believe that?
          Dont even go there Gareth…
          “if the road women have taken in western society over the past forty years has truly led to greater family happiness or been beneficial for society.”
          We agree on this. some women have messed it all up for all of us. They could have done well for woman but chose instead to mess it up with their gluttony for power. It was mishandled. that we can agree on the rest of your post is offensive to those women who have been abused. the numbers are higher than you imagine and if you leave your ivory tower you might see it.

          • Gareth says:

            I am happy living in reality that secular feminism is lethal to society and families that must Catholics must fight at all costs.

            • Hannah says:

              we agree on that Gareth. secular feminism must be fought at all costs. But please do not kid yourself that females have been tenderly cared for as obviously your family females were. That is not the reality.
              The secualr feminism which sought to free the woman from her feminine self, her genius and her family is the caricature of true feminism. It is not what I spoke about.

  3. adam george says:

    Well the statement by the Cardinal patriarch of Lisbon recently has really thrown the theological cat among the pigeons. One well known European blogger has stated that the cardinal is sprouting heresy! Indeed, there are many calls for women to be priests, but Blessed John Paul II explicitly ruled it out as has his successor. But what baffles me, in the light of the recent removal of the Bishop of Toowoomba (who was voicing similar thoughts), is why has the cardinal not been slapped down and yes, even removed, from his post as archbishop of Lisbon? How can a member of the College of cardinals, a papal elector (who was once considered papabile) state such things and yet remain in post, when others have been dragged over the coals, called to Rome and given severe admonitions or/and removal from their posts. Hans Kung was removed for less decades ago!!
    Something is wrong here, with all respect, when a cardinal can state such things and just ‘get away with it’.
    There has hardly been a whiff of comment in Europe on this matter. Indeed, not a single other cardinal has come out in the media attacking the Lisbon patriarch. So what’s going on here? Do they all agree with him, or is it just the case that no other cardinal may attack another cardinal in public (cf. Cardinal of Vienna attacking Cardinal Sodano, then being called to Rome to apologise for speaking out against the Dean of the College of Cardinals last year).
    There appears to be a real lack of consistency here.
    Comparisons also with Archbishop Weakland, who had resigned from his archdiocese after paying huge amounts of money to hush up an affair, which he fully acknowledged, yet the bishop still retains his episcopal status, says public masses etc.
    Something does not ring true here.
    What will happen to the Lisbon cardinal? perhaps he is untouchable. perhaps many silently agree with him.
    If the story coming out of Austria today in Europe that up to 250 preists are prepared to disobey their prelate then trouble is brewing there and probably elsewwhere.
    There needs to be consistent theological teaching and obedience to the teachings of the Church. But that seems to be crumbling in some quarters across Europe.
    The Arab Spring began with the self-immolation of a market trader in Tunisia – such is the destiny often of movements.
    Just some thoughts from Europe.

    • Schütz says:

      Adam, I think the reason that the Cardinal Patriarch has not been “slapped down” is because he is NOT actually supporting the ordination of women. He is voicing an opinion that there are no “theological” (in the narrow sense) reasons why women cannot be ordained. He is not including in this category the reasons why women cannot be ordained on the basis of TRADITION. He perfectly upholds the fact that the ordinatio of women is ruled out by tradition. And in that he is quite correct. It IS tradition that rules out the ordination of women. The theology comes up when we try to explain the reasons for the tradition. His problem is that he does not properly acknowledge that there ARE theological reasons why women cannot be ordained, even if the fundamental reasons why we do not ordain women all pertain to tradition (whichhe does not count asa “theological” reason). It all hangs on a pretty narrow view of what is “theological” and what is “traditional”. Splitting hairs, I would say.

      • adam george says:

        Well yes indeed you may be right but I do think that this is really splitting theological hairs, since why is there any need for such a statement in the first place. I have not seen or heard BXVI make any theological statement of late but here we have the Cardinal patriarch throwing out the issue as if to say, well let’s have a discussion. He may not be, but I am curious as to why he would raise the matter. Now, married priests is another issue. Indeed the great cross-over to Rome, leaping the Tiber, of late with literally 100s of Anglican ‘priests’ jumping to Catholicism, many with their wives and indeed 3 former ‘bishops’ and their wives in England, certainly makes the Latin-rite married priest issue very topical. We now have in Europe, especially England a two-tier stream of ordained priests. Most Catholic ones have taken 6-7 years to ordination, but now we have many many Anglicans jumping across and within weeks for most they are ordained Catholic priests.
        Will this two-tier system of non-married and married priests bring about tensions, jealousies etc that may well arise. It seems that the path to the married priesthood is become an Anglican priest, be married, then after a couple of years leap the Tiber and bring the whole family into the Church with the man as a married priest!!
        At the moment all is quiet, but I would venture that this growth in married priests in the Church may well cause disharmony and disunity.
        What are the celibate bishops going to do? Not ordain women as priests, that’s for sure :)

        • Hannah says:

          Hi Adam
          I agree with you that this two tier priethood is problematic and in my opinion maybe the beginning of the end priesthood as we have known it.
          I think its a pity because the priesthood we have had in Cath Church is priesthood according to Jesus (unmarried). Perhaps other denominations have had or adopted priesthood according to the apostles (married) and this new tier of catholic priesthood is a compromise. Again its a pity.
          As for women priests, I am not sure of the theological reasons but priesthood according to Melchizedek and according to Jesus is male.
          Perhaps again are we (soceity) trying to make “priesthood” into a job? because if it is a job than surely women can do this work but if it is a service unto God, then God Himself has determined how the worship is to be done. See OT worship. No women priests there. This I think is the fundamental question, is priesthood just another job. If yes then of course women can do it but if its something else then we are obedient the God’s ways of praise and worship.

        • Gareth says:

          Hi Adam,

          I see what you are saying about married Anglican clergy becoming Catholic priests and I think you have made some valid points here that celibate Catholic clergy may feel slightly uncomfortable with this (indeed if I had made the ‘ultimate sacrifice’, I would too).

          I think the Church should remember that when ‘permission’ was first given to this, the married priests did not fill the role of parish priests, they were generally given tasks such as Hospital Chaplains etc in order to avoid conflict and more importantly not to overwhelm them with a workload of running a parish and a family at the same time.

          I think this is a far better model to follow – let’s face it a married priest is not a celibate one and we should not pretend that they are.

          I also base this judgement on experience as the Diocese I belong to was one of the first in the world to accept a married Anglican married clergymen all the way back in the 197os (I think a certain current Catholic Bishop in Lismore also crossed the Tiber at precisely the same time) and as fate would have it – it turned out a disaster ten years later and his family experienced great personal problems.

          The priest in question before he died openly admitted if he had his time again he wouldnt have become a married Catholic priest – the Church is really onto something good when it insists that married life and the priesthood are separate vocations.

          • adam george says:

            Valid arguments Gareth. Actually +Guilford Young ordained a former Anglican minister into the priesthood and he and his family were quite extraordinarily welcomed in those days back in 70s. Guilly had some very clear vision on this matter, surprisingly or not, perhaps since his mother (or father) was an Anglican. He of course was very visionary on the liturgy and when he celebrated Mass it was a truly reverential and deeply spiritual event. I have never known any bishop to celebrate Mass the way in which Guilly did.

      • Alexander says:

        The article leads with:—

        “There will be women a priest «when God wills», for the moment it is better «not to raise the issue».”

        It is impossible to tell from this quote in exactly what way the cardinal meant the quoted comments, but it is clear that someone wants the reader to think the patriarch thinks it is possible for women to become priests. I think anyone interpreting this article needs to be careful about what conclusions they permit themselves to draw about the opinion of the cardinal; but also they need to remember that the worst and least objective style of writing is the one where people pretend to be objective and neutral. (I find the Age a much more trustworthy source of information than Wikipedia, because the former makes no real attempt to mask its opinion, and the latter goes to great lengths to hide it.)

        I think the article itself is quite useless at conveying any information whatsoever, be it about the Cardinal’s opinion or the permissibility of women priests. It has successfully spawned this discussion, and I wonder how many people have read it and used it to reinforce their conclusion that, maybe, women can and should be ordained. I wonder if that isn’t the main purpose of this article, no matter what the cardinal thinks and has said.

        (Those pairs of angle brackets are a European quotation mark; apparently the editors of that website feel obliged to use English words, spelling and grammar, but not English punctuation)

      • Schütz says:

        See the update on this post.

  4. Jim Ryland says:

    I wonder if the confusion is largely a matter of semantics? The (perhaps) better comment might have been; “there are no scriptural prohibitions”… “Theology” is the child of the marriage of holy writ and tradition. An exclusively male priesthood comes to us from the Old Testament and the reasons, if not the theology, are compelling. We are, in the final count, Jews in our traditions and our theology. One cannot read the New Testament without encountering references and reiterations of our older scriptural foundations and the Mass is Aaronic in its structure, origins, and much of its language.

    • Alexander says:

      But that doesn’t seem to be a reason, it just says, “this is the way it’s been done before”. An male priesthood may be a fundamental mystery; it’s possible we cannot know the reason why women can’t be priests, but we can know that they can’t. It would hardly be the first or only mystery. (If you really don’t like the answer “we just don’t know”, then try and find a “why” for existence, be it God’s or the universe’s according to your beliefs. I mean, surely you know you exist, but you don’t know why you exist.)

    • Schütz says:

      You put it well. The problem arises partly from the tendency in the Catholic academy to split “theology” and “scripture studies” – something that Pope Benedict has been fighting to overcome.

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