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Ban on women priests is shaky conclusion: noted theologian sees scholarly flaws.

A leading German theologian has questioned the arguments of the apostolic letter, Sacerdotalis Ordinatio, which concluded that "the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church's faithful."

Peter Hunermann is professor of dogmatic theology in the Catholic faculty of the University of Tubingen. He is also the founder and president of the European Society for Catholic Theology. He has no track record as a "dissident" and is known as a scrupulously careful scholar trusted by the German bishops.

Hunermann's view is that the conclusion that the church has no authority to ordain women is based on two premises, neither of which is defensible.

The first questionable assumption of the apostolic letter is that the group of the "twelve," to which Jesus calls only males, is identical with "the apostles."

Although the New Testament does speak of "the twelve" (Revelation 21:14), scripture and tradition bear witness to the fact that they are not the only ones called to be "apostles" and recognized as such.

Alongside the calling of the eleven and the replacement of Judas by Matthias, there are other church-founding witnesses to the resurrection. Among them are Paul himself, Barnabas, James "the brother of the Lord," as well as Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7).

In the earliest Western liturgies, Paul, Barnabas and James are celebrated as apostles, as are Andronicus and Junias in the Oriental tradition.

That the call to be an apostle extended beyond the call to belong to the "twelve" is made clear in a number of texts. In Acts 10:41, Peter says that Jesus appeared "not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses ... after he rose from the dead."

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says explicitly that after appearing to "Cephas and then to the twelve," Jesus appeared "to more than 500 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep." He adds: "Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles" (1 Cor 15:7).

The category of "witnesses to the resurrection" is much broader than the group of the "twelve." Paul speaks explicitly of "those who were apostles before me" (Gal 1:17) and says that he "saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord's brother."

It follows that conclusions about the ministry of the apostles cannot be based solely on the practice of the "twelve." Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Hunermann points out, was fully aware of this objection. He tried to counter it with the remark that "such interpretations are of their nature hypothetical and can only claim a very modest degree of probability."

No purely historical certainty exists, Ratzinger claims, independently of the historically lived faith of the church and its magisterium. It alone is empowered to provide "the interpretation of scripture which has emerged in the way believers listen to tradition."

But, says Hunermann, that reply is based on the view that exegesis is a purely historical discipline rather than a theological discipline. Moreover, Ratzinger's position is refuted in the recent document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission on "The Interpretation of Scripture in the Church." Ironically, Ratzinger is prefect of this commission.

Its document states clearly that Catholic exegesis regards the Older and newer testaments as inspired scripture that contain divine revelation for human salvation. It uses historicocritical methods to discuss questions that concern and throw light on the understanding of faith. And that is a properly theological task. Exegesis does more than provide the "raw materials" for theology.

The second premise of Sacerdotalis Ordinatio is that the "twelve" formally chose only men as "fellow workers who would succeed them in the ministry" and called them bishops. This direct continuity is also asserted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Hunermann finds this position very problematical. In the early church there was great fluidity in the idea of ministry and the titles by which offices were characterized.

Yet from early on, the place of the "apostles," understood in the wider sense, was recognized. The evangelists, shepherds and teachers (Ephesians 4:11) take care to "build on the foundations of the apostles and the prophets" (Ephesians 2:20) for the edification of the church, which is the body of Christ. This is what realizes the continuity with the apostolic origin of the church and guarantees its unity.

In this period of "fluidity," women certainly had a place in the church's ministry. Paul writes: "I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae ... for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well." This title -- deaconess -- indicates a permanent and recognized ministry.

Such a view of ministry is today the common property of exegetes, whether Catholic or Protestant. This was why, Hunermann suggests, the Biblical Commission, in its never officially published report of 1974, declared that no objection to women's ordination could be based on New Testament evidence alone.

Thus, according to Hunermann, Sacerdotalis Ordinatio is based on two premises, neither of which can stand up to scholarly examination. It does not follow that the conclusion is false, but it is certainly shaky and hardly likely to prove in the long run as "definitive" as it claims.

What are we to do in this situation? For the Catholic theologian who wishes to remain loyal to the church, this poses a grave problem -- characterized by Hunermann by the Greek word aporia (an inextricable contradiction).

The difficulty is not that the Catholic theologian imagined that the ordination of women was imminent. He/she well knows that "the church's clocks mark a different time in different continents." He/she feels a responsibility to do everything imaginable in order to avoid schism -- knowing that at the present time women's ordination would probably be more likely to produce schism than would holding the line.

The majority of the episcopate is opposed to it, and the pressures coming from the Orthodox churches must also be taken into account, although bishops also know that they must take seriously women's concerns. But none of that constitutes the aporia.

The real problem is that the magisterium has pronounced on this question in a manner that, although not strictly infallible, comes as close to it as maybe. For consolation, Hunermann looks to other examples in recent theological history in which the magisterium committed itself to positions from which it found itself soon obliged to retreat.

It is not a matter of embarrassing the magisterium. At issue is the tricky question of how to deal with "modernity" in a period of immense cultural change. New cultural horizons bring new questions to which the church's first response tends to be negative.

In the 19th century, the magisterium responded negatively to questions about human rights, religious freedom, the authorship of the Bible and the relationship between the Christology of the early councils and the New Testament. Hunermann takes as symbolic of this problem what Pius XII said about original sin in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis. It condemned the theory of "polygenism," that is the view that there could have been human beings who were not literally descended from Adam and Eve.

This position was formally described as "theologically certain" and presented as the necessary presupposition for the doctrine of original sin. It was thereby removed from permissible theological discussion.

But in little more than a decade, the condemnation of polygenism came to be regarded as theologically obsolete and it was quietly set aside. The same fate befell the condemnations of religious freedom, human rights, and the scriptural claims about authorship. Yet before that could happen, many theologians had fallen victim to this primacy of unity.

So, concludes Hunermann, there is a dialectic between a legitimate concern for unity and an equally legitimate concern for the development of the intellectus fidei (the understanding of faith), which is the theological task. Says Hunermann: "Both are indispensable if the church is to remain in the truth. Without the preservation of unity, the church would be untrue to its divine vocation. Without the intellectus fidei, it would decline into superstitious residual forms."

He does not underestimate the difficulties. Not everyone in the church today is theologically contemporary. Many clocks mark different times. If unity is to be maintained, then there must be a readiness to listen to each other, a willingness to learn and respect for the other side.

This holds, he says, "for all believers, theologians as much as for bishops and cardinals." Anything less will do immense harm to the church and to papal authority and eventually to the papal office itself.

Hunermann concludes: How does one truly serve the church? Only by an ongoing discernment of spirits.
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Title Annotation:Peter Hunermann
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 2, 1994
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