Presentation of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

Author: VPO


Vatican Press Office

Given on 30 May 1994

With the Apostolic Letter <Ordinatio Sacerdotalis>, dated May 22, the Solemnity of Pentecost, the Supreme Pontiff Pope John Paul II expressly intends to fulfill his office as Successor of Peter, confirming by virtue of his apostolic ministry the teaching according to which the Church does not have the authority to confer priestly ordination on women, and declaring that this teaching is to be definitively held by all the faithful.

In particular, the Holy Father recalls that this teaching, based on the Church's constant and universal Tradition, which from the beginning has reserved priestly ordination to men, had been authoritatively presented and explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its Declaration <Inter Insigniores> on the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood, published on 15 October 1976, by order of Pope Paul VI and with his approval.

Referring to that Declaration, the Supreme Pontiff calls attention to the fundamental reasons why the Church is aware that she does not have the authority to admit women to priestly ordination: they are to be found in the example of Christ who chose the Twelve Apostles from among men, in the apostolic tradition, and in the constant Magisterium of the Church. The present Letter also mentions the other recent Documents of the Magisterium which repeat the same teaching: the Apostolic Letter <Mulieris Dignitatem> (No. 26), the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation <Christifideles Laici> (No. 51) and the <Catechism of the Catholic Church> (No. 1577). No one therefore, not even the Supreme Authority in the Church, can fail to accept this teaching without contradicting the will and example of Christ himself, and the economy of revelation which, as the Dogmatic Constitution <Dei Verbum> of the Second Vatican Council teaches, "is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity" (No. 2), in such a way that not only words but also deeds are sources of revelation and become words in the living memory of the Church.

<Ordinatio Sacerdotalis> notes however that, despite the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and the teaching of the Magisterium proposed anew in the above-mentioned recent Documents, in some places the question continues to be considered as still open to debate, or this teaching is held to be merely a matter of discipline. This widespread uncertainty explains and justifies the intervention of the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiff, explicitly in order "that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance" (No. 4) involving the correct understanding of Catholic teaching on the ministerial priesthood.

Certainly, the fact that the Church acknowledges that she does not have the authority to confer the ministerial priesthood on women also has repercussions on the discipline of the Sacrament of Orders. However, it is not for this reason merely a disciplinary matter. Rather, it is an expression of the truth according to which Jesus Christ conferred on the Apostles and their Successors the power of handing on the ministerial priesthood only to men. And given that the ministerial priesthood is one of the essential elements of the Church's structure, it follows that the question of who can receive priestly ordination "pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself" (No. 4).

The Apostolic Letter <Ordinatio Sacerdotalis>, in formally declaring the nature and the definitive force of this teaching, deriving from the will of Christ and the practice of the Apostolic Church, confirms a certainty which has been constantly held and lived by the Church. It is not therefore a question of a new dogmatic formulation, but of a doctrine taught by the ordinary Papal Magisterium in a definitive way; that is, proposed not as a prudential teaching, nor as a more probably opinion, nor as a mere matter of discipline, but as certainly true. Therefore, since it does not belong to matters freely open to dispute, it always requires the full and unconditional assent of the faithful, and to teach the contrary is equivalent to leading consciences into error. This declaration of the Supreme Pontiff is an act of listening to the word of God and of obedience to the Lord on the path of truth.

Pope John Paul II—also referring in this regard to the Declaration <Inter Insigniores>—is likewise mindful of the need, felt particularly strongly today, to avoid in the Church all discrimination between men and women. In this regard the Holy Father recalls the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church: the fact that she "received neither the mission proper to the Apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that the non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity, nor can it be construed as discrimination against them" (No. 3). The ministerial priesthood depends on the economy of the mystery of Christ and the Church. Since it involves a sacrament, and not a form of social organization, the priesthood can be understood only in the light of Christ's revelation, handed down in Scripture and interpreted by Tradition. This does not imply any inferiority of women, whose presence and responsibility in the Church, though not linked to the ministerial priesthood, are absolutely necessary and irreplaceable, as is witnessed to in an exemplary way by the figure of the Virgin Mary.

Finally, as regards ecumenical dialogue, which is a dialogue in the truth, the Apostolic Letter <Ordinatio Sacerdotalis>, far from constituting an obstacle, can provide an opportunity for all Christians to deepen their understanding of the origin and theological nature of the episcopal and priestly ministry conferred by the Sacrament of Orders.