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Slav pope gripped by messianic mission: he sees self spared to teach values to West.

OXFORD, England--On Whitsunday we had our first women priest in the house. Kathy is chaplain at St. John's College, Oxford. It was a sort of celebration. Yet that same day, in the Gemelli Hospital in Rome, Pope John Paul was putting his signature to the letter designed to rule out women's ordination.

For Anglican women priests this was like another Apostolicae Curae, another way of declaring Anglican orders invalid. Anglican women's orders were doubly invalid: first as Anglicans, second as women.

I must confess that I am puzzled and mystified by the letter, especially by its timing. Why precisely now?

We should, of course, have been warned. The letter did not fall out of a clear blue sky. The Catechism of the Catholic Church already declared that the ordination of women was "not possible." That went vastly further than any previous Catholic teaching.

There is an important nuance here. Paul VI, in Inter Insigniores, was no less opposed to women's ordination. But he also had a keen, Italian sense of precedent. The pope has no business committing the church for the future unless he is absolutely sure.

In 1976, Paul accepted that this was a wholly new question. His conclusion that the church "does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination" was deliberately put in the present tense. It did not preempt the future. No theologian I know imagined that it made debate impossible or closed discussion. Since then there have been innumerable articles critical of the arguments used in Inter Insigniores.

Most of the patristic and medieval texts, when they dealt with the question at all, were based on women's alleged inferiority. They wouldn't have any credibility today when "equal but different" is the norm. Most of the scripture texts don't apply either, for in the New Testament there is only one priest, Jesus Christ.

A theologian who is also a cardinal, Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Italy, felt able to comment freely in April 1993: "The problems, the questions, raised by women's issues should be taken seriously by both sides. Feminism has a tendency to exaggerate its own message, to see everything from one point of view, and no doubt there are good reasons for this. The church is part of society, and society develops more rapidly in some sectors than in others."

Martini explained that if the Catholic church were to admit women priests suddenly there would be a risk of schism; and "the pope has to be concerned with keeping his huge flock, with all its different opinions, together." However, the man viewed by the Italian press as likely to be the next pope went on: "As for the issue itself, I think we should come to it little by little, to gradual solutions that will satisfy not only the most progressive but also the majority, while remaining true to tradition and also within the bounds of common sense. That's my opinion."

He added: "But I can foresee decades of struggle ahead. When people ask me, and it's usually Americans, 'Will we have women priests?' I answer: 'Not in this millennium.'" Since there were only seven years to go when Martini made this remark to John Cornwell of The Sunday Times, there was not long to wait.

Martini could not be described by any stretch of the imagination as a "dissident." So on one level the battle seemed to have been won. Inter Insigniores drew one into the realm of argument and on closer inspection its arguments proved broken reeds. This is what makes the present action so disconcerting. What we have witnessed now is rather like the note the Scottish preacher put on the manuscript of his sermon: Argument weak, thump pulpit. The letter to bishops is a piece of papal pulpit-thumping.

But it raises the question of "infallibility" or near-miss or close-as-dammit infallibility. This is best approached via a detour.

Would it help the archbishop of Canterbury to possess the charism of infallibility? He could cut short debates, silence opponents, call out the ultimate deterrent.

But the truth is that "infallibility" as some privileged extra access to the sources of revelation not open to others is a useless, rusty weapon. In any case, it is wrong to see infallibility as a private hot line to God. The object of a definition is what is already the faith of the church. In practice, infallibility would not aid the archbishop of Canterbury in the slightest: He would still have to persuade, reconcile, educate and do all the other ordinary tasks that belong to that blessed word magisterium. It only means teaching, after all.

John XXIII said he would never use the charism of infallibility. His magisterium would have intrinsic authority based on its relevance and pertinence to people's problems. That is the best form of magisterium. Paul VI also knew this. At Vatican II, he liked to use that wonderful French phrase: He wanted people to be convaincus, pas vaincus, convinced, not conquered. He did not present even Humanae Vitae as infallible and remarked that he was as sure the Holy Spirit was with himself in propounding the doctrine as he was with those who would receive it.

John Paul II is a different sort of pope. He believed from the outset that his election was providential. Maybe all popes think that. But he believed it, as he likes to say, "in a special way."

From childhood he had known by heart a poem of Roman Slowacki, written in 1849, just after Pius IX had fled revolution in Rome. It predicted that in the 20th century a Slav pope would arise, who would not run away, but would stand up there on the battlements and heroically confront the world.

He interpreted his election as pope Oct. 16, 1978, as the confirmation that through him Poland had a special mission. On his return home in 1979 he asked: "Should we not claim that in our time Poland has become the land of particularly responsible witness -- that it is from here that the word of Christ must be spread with particular humility and faith?"

The question was rhetorical. His answer was an unequivocal yes. This concept of Polish messianism is rooted in Polish Romantic literature of the 19th century. Poland had suffered uniquely; therefore, it would be uniquely rewarded. It was rewarded by his election. After the passion, a hint of resurrection.

A strong element of resentment toward the "West" enters into his attitude. Poland was left to its fate in 1939 -- carved up once more between Germany and Russia. The "West" abandoned it again at Yalta, allowing Joseph Stalin and the Red Army to make a mockery of the "liberation" of Poland.

So the first Slav pope believes that he has a special mission to teach the West about true values, especially about the redemptive and mystical value of suffering.

This gave him a totally different agenda from the churches of the West. It led him to believe that if a problem did not exist in Poland, it did not exist at all.

Moreover, his sense of providential mission was enormously strengthened by the failed assassination attempt of May 13, 1981, feast of Our Lady of Fatima. He believed that Our Lady of Fatima "saved his life." For a purpose. He felt it confirmed the policies of his pontificate.

Tears well up in his eyes when he recalls how Our Lady saved his life. He brooded over this a few weeks ago as he lay, once again, a patient in the Gemelli Hospital in Rome. "That shot in St. Peter's Square should have taken the life of the pope 13 years ago," he wrote in a letter to the Italian bishops only last month, "but instead the mortal bullet was stopped and the pope lives -- lives to serve."

What all this means in practice is that John Paul has been increasingly confined within the private world of his own mystical intuitions. Thoughts of mortality struggle within him with Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski's exhortation in 1978: "You must lead the church into the year 2000." He hopes to lead it there with "various initiatives" and with "suffering."

Frankly, the pope has been rambling, as is shown by his answer to the question why should he be suffering now: "Precisely because the family is suffering, the family is attacked. (So) the pope must be attacked, the pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel, the gospel of suffering."

There is nothing wrong with a pope rambling. It tends to happen in old age. But it becomes a serious matter if slipped in among the other utterances from his sickbed is a document like the letter to bishops on the ordination of women. Was he in a fit condition to sign it? How much consultation took place? Was he allowing his personal views to prevail?

There is nothing wrong with a pope having a sense of mission -- provided it does not become too idiosyncratic.

The problem is that the sense of personal mission can threaten to engulf and overwhelm the primary and essential papal ministry. Its essential function is quite clear. It is to express and embody the unity of the church.

But this highly personal "decision" about women priests, rooted in his intense Polish spiritual experience, serves more to divide the church than to unite it.

It is premature. It does not allow time for the new question to "mature." It jumps in with both feet. It is as though Pope John Paul were saying, as Pius IX imagined, "Io sono la Tradizione (I am the Tradition)."

The papacy is not the cause of the church's unity -- that role belongs to the Holy Spirit poured out in our hearts, which impels us to come together (Rom 5:5). The role of the papacy is to be not the cause but the expression of the church's unity.

To do that, the pope must be "centrist" and not partisan. In this way "the chair of Peter," as Lumen Gentium 13 says, "presides over the whole assembly of charity and protects legitimate differences."

But it cannot do that if the pontiff's unargued personal opinions are allowed to become the norm of Catholic doctrine. The trouble is that hardly anyone is prepared to point this out. Even a sick pope remains an intimidating figure. Jobs are on the line. Priests and professors could be suspended for "thinking wrong thoughts." Yet they can hardly be expected to "stop thinking." It remains to ask the most redoubtable question of all: What does "the providential meaning" of a given pontificate really entail? It cannot mean simply that every pope is the best possible pope for his own era. History would not endorse such a theory. But it might mean that something unintended is achieved by a given pontificate. A pope may think he is saving the church from pernicious error when in fact he is demonstrating that an unresponsive church, unable to face new questions, is condemning itself to impotence and failure.

Fr. Peter Cornwell, the former vicar of St. Mary's Church, Oxford, followed his predecessor John Henry Newman into the Catholic church in 1984. Like most Anglicans, he was not opposed to women priests "as such," but merely thought the Church of England did not have the authority to decide this question on its own.

Now chaplain to a Catholic college near Bath in the southwest of England, he points out that his students take it for granted that there should and will be women priests. If that is the general response, it means the next generation of Catholics is already lost.

Thus a "judgment" designed to stop the rot, actually stimulates it. It weakens the institution, forcing its pastors temporarily into ambiguity or silence or casuistry. This could be where the doctrine of infallibility, in so far as it is involved, self-destructs before our very eyes.
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Title Annotation:John Paul II's opposition to women's ordination
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 17, 1994
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