More on the question of heresy, women’s ordination, and excommunication

Dr. Edward Peters has commented on the question as to whether or not Norma Jean Coon committed heresy by invalidly attempting to receive ordination to the deaconate. Was she automatically excommunicated under Canon 1364, for the sin of heresy? He answers: “I don’t think so.” His three main points, and my replies, follow.

My previous post on this subject (to which Peters seems to be replying) is here.

1. He states that:

“acting in ‘violation’ of a Church teaching does not necessarily imply one’s heretical ‘doubt or denial’ of that teaching. For example, if I commit murder, I do not necessarily deny the Church teaching that murder is always wrong, I might simply have chosen to act contrary to it.”

This point is certainly true. He also agrees that an action can be an expression of the sin of heresy. However, his opinion is that her action in this particular case probably is not.

My reply is that her action was to attempt to receive Holy Orders to the diaconal degree, from a woman who claims to have received Holy Orders to the Episcopal degree. This action is not only a violation of the moral law. The action also necessarily expresses a belief that women can be ordained to the Episcopal degree. For only a validly ordained Bishop can ordain anyone to any degree of Holy Orders.

If she did not firmly believe that a woman can be validly ordained as a Bishop, her action would be nonsensical. It would not be merely the sinful choice of an act believed to be immoral (e.g. the sin of murder, without the heresy of believing that murder is moral). Her action would make no sense at all.

Furthermore, the reception of Holy Orders is a serious matter, having a lasting effect (when valid) on that person for the rest of his life. No rational person would undertake Orders lightly. So in order for her to publicly attempt to receive Holy Orders from a woman Bishop, she would necessarily have to have a firm belief that a woman can be validly ordained a Bishop. Therefore, in this case, attempting to receive this Sacrament, even to the diaconal degree, is an expression of the heresy that women can be validly ordained as Bishops.

2. His second point concerns the fact that she attempted to receive Orders only to the diaconal degree, whereas the relevant teaching document, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, only teaches that women cannot receive priestly ordination.

“Second, any attempt to invoke Ordinatio against Coon labors under the obvious limitation that Ordinatio addresses, by its express terms, attempted female presbyteral (and by implication, episcopal) ordination, but not diaconal ordination.”

My reply is that she attempted to receive Holy Orders from a woman claiming to be Bishop. Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, in teaching that women cannot be ordained as priests, also in effect teaches that women cannot be ordained as Bishops. For a Bishop is a type of priest. So her heresy is expressed, not so much by attempting to be ordained as a deacon, but by attempting to be ordained to any degree by a woman who claims to be a Bishop.

3. Dr. Peter’s third point is based on a distinction that he makes between a doctrine that is to be believed with divine and catholic faith, and a doctrine that is to be held definitively. He claims that refusal to believe the former type is heresy, and the latter type an error short of heresy. He notes that Canon law uses the term ‘divine and catholic faith’ when defining heresy:

“Ordinatio asserts only the obligation to hold (tenendam) that the Church has no power to confer presbyteral orders on women; it does not require one to believe (credendae, let alone to believe “with divine and Catholic faith”) that the Church has no power to confer sacerdotal orders on women. But for heresy, recall, one must obstinately doubt or deny an assertion that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith…. The difference between believing something (with divine and Catholic faith, no less) and holding something (even if “definitively”) is quite significant”

This distinction is not theologically correct.

It is often the case, in magisterial documents and even in Canon law, that terminology varies. The use of a different phrase in one place versus another does not necessarily introduce a different meaning, or a different category of action, or a different doctrine. One and the same doctrine can be explained in many different ways.

Heresy contradicts a teaching to be believed with divine and catholic faith; such teachings are the infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Refusal to believe an infallible teaching is heresy. Which teachings are infallible?

Vatican I: “8. Wherefore, by divine and Catholic faith all those things are to be believed which are contained in the word of God as found in Scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the Church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.” (Chapter 3, On Faith).

But another way of expressing the belief that is required of infallible teachings is to say that these teachings are to be held definitively, or to be held by the whole Church.

Vatican I infallibly defined the dogma of Papal infallibility, but the definition itself uses the term ‘to be held’, and not ‘to be believed with divine and catholic faith’. If the definition had used the latter term instead, the meaning would be the same:

Vatican I: “we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” (Chapter 4, n. 9).

Vatican II uses the same term, ‘to be held’, rather than ‘to be believed’, to refer to the infallible teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium.

“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).

And Canon Law, obviously drawing upon the above documents, uses the same terminology concerning infallible teachings, ‘to be held’ :

Can. 749 §1. By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.

§2. The college of bishops also possesses infallibility in teaching when the bishops gathered together in an ecumenical council exercise the magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals who declare for the universal Church that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held definitively; or when dispersed throughout the world but preserving the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter and teaching authentically together with the Roman Pontiff matters of faith or morals, they agree that a particular proposition is to be held definitively.

So if the Magisterium teaches that a doctrine is to be held definitively, this does not imply or even suggest, a lesser requirement of belief than the full assent of faith, also called divine and catholic faith.

But is the teaching of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that women cannot be ordained as bishops or priests an infallible teaching?

“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare 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.” (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, n. 4).

Notice that the wording is not merely ‘to be held’ but ‘to be definitively held’. This is the type of terminology used by Vatican I and Vatican II for infallible teachings. Also, the obligation to believe falls upon the whole Church, just as Vatican I and Vatican II require for any infallible teaching. In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II asserts that this teaching has been “the constant and universal Tradition of the Church” and that this document was written “in order that all doubt may be removed”. Any teaching that is the constant and universal teaching of Sacred Tradition, and about which the Magisterium has removed all doubt, is an infallible teaching.

Although some scholars doubt that the wording of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis rises to the level of an infallible teaching by itself, in the years since Ordinatio Sacerdotalis it has become absolutely clear that the ordinary and universal Magisterium, even apart from that papal document, teaches that women cannot be ordained as priests and bishops. All teachings of the ordinary and universal Magisterium are infallible, require the full assent of faith, and the obstinate rejection of any such teaching is the sin of heresy.

Therefore, the act of attempting to receive any degree of ordination from a woman who claims to be Bishop, is an act that expresses a firm belief, contrary to the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, that women can be ordained as Bishops. This act necessarily expresses a heresy, and therefore also incurs the penalty of automatic excommunication.

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One Response to More on the question of heresy, women’s ordination, and excommunication

  1. ronconte says:

    I don’t agree with the theological opinion that infallible teachings are divided into those that are proposed as divinely-revealed and those that are somehow infallible without being proposed as divinely-revealed is not found in the relevant documents of Vatican I and Vatican II. All the truths taught infallibly by the Magisterium are drawn from Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, and therefore these truths are all divinely-revealed and require full theological assent. (For the truths of natural law are also found in Tradition and Scripture, at least implicitly.)

    Only the teachings of the non-infallible ordinary Magisterium require a lesser degree and type of assent, called the religious submission of will and intellect. A teaching of the Magisterium can be either infallible or non-infallible; hence, there are two types of assent to those two types of teachings.

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