Another Occasion to Be Glad to Be Protestant, Alas

The non-story of the week in religion was the Vatican’s announcement that anyone involved in the ordination of a woman to the priesthood would be excommunicated.

It’s a non-story because anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the last, oh, two or three decades of Roman Catholic leadership would have been able to predict with confidence approaching certainty that Joseph Ratzinger, once made pope, was not the guy to reverse the policy against female clergy.

So the fact that he felt it necessary to stamp out a little fire or two in the United States—the country in which there is the largest number of supporters of the ordination of women—is no surprise and hardly worth all the news attention it received.

Why comment on it here? Because Tony Blair has become a Roman Catholic, and so has ethicist Francis Beckwith, and so (further back) has philosopher and Buddhologist Paul Griffiths–all eminently intelligent, modern, progressive, and admirable people.

And here’s what I don’t get: not the resistance to female clergy, which I understand (although I disagree with it pretty soundly—and at length).

Okay, I don’t really get that, either.

But what I really don’t get is such people belonging to a church in which disagreement over women’s ordination does not only cost you your membership in good standing—we’re going to boot you out if you participate in ordaining women—but your soul.

For the penalty in Roman Catholicism, unlike in Protestantism, for dissent on this matter is excommunication. And the “communication” that you no longer enjoy when you’re “exed” is communication with Christ, not just with his One, True Church.

(Addition to original post: Not all communication with Christ, or his Church, is forfeit in excommunication, let’s be clear. One can always repent. But until one does, one is judged to have left the communion of the church and its sacraments. And that’s a mortally perilous thing to do.)

That seems to me to be theologically absurd, as well as odious. The sex of clergy just isn’t a gospel issue. Disagreeing with church leaders, even the Pope, isn’t one, either. Even disagreeing with God on the issue, if you do so meaning to agree with God, isn’t one.

I’ve studied the Roman Catholic Church off and on for thirty years. I have a great admiration for it in many respects. But this past weekend, I simply had to shake my Protestant head and say, No: You go too far.

And why anyone would convert into such a system makes me shake my head further. Protestantism has lots and lots of faults—I’ve been studying them for thirty years, too. But not this one: not sending someone to hell for disagreement on such an issue.

0 Responses to “Another Occasion to Be Glad to Be Protestant, Alas”

  1. rogueminister

    Add this to the not eating meat on Fridays thing and I’m sold.

  2. rogueminister

    Oh yeah, not to mention I enjoy not being Roman Catholic because I happen to appreciate my eternal soul being in the hands of God, not a guy in a funny hat.

  3. Houghton G.

    You may have studied the Catholic Church for 31 years but you have not studied it particularly well. Excommunication bars one from communion. It is a disciplinary judgment of the human leadership of the Church. It is serious. But it is a disfellowshiping from the visible Church. If you were to read Lumen Gentium or the Catechism of the Catholic Church you would know that the sphere of salvation extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church. The visible Church is very important because Christ is God incarnate and he established a visible Church and appointed its leadership and gave them authority to discipline. (That’s biblical–Jn 20 etc.) But discipline by fallible human leaders is, well, fallible. So excommunication is by itself not identical with eternal damnation.

    It’s serious and the Church does insist that the non-ordination of women was established by Christ himself in his establishing of the office of apostle-bishop. Those excommunicated for rejecting this doctrine have a bigger problem than being excommunicate. They are rejecting a doctrine about the nature of the Church and her Christ-established leadership.

    The problem is that you don’t agree, I’m sure, with the very nature of the bishop’s office and the priest’s office as understood by Catholics. So when you favor women clergy you are not favoring women priests because you don’t favor even men priests. Your ecclesiology and understanding of “clergy” is different. You use the term “clergy” equivocally, not univocally. You haven’t even begun to engage the issue until you engage the question, just what are “clergy,” what are priests and bishops? Only then can you and Catholics alike decide what they believe about whether women can be “ordained” to “clergy.” “Ordination” means for you something different than it means for Catholics.

    You are happy to be out of fellowship with the Catholic Church but no knowledgeable Catholic thereby declares that you will be damned for all eternity. We assume that you’ve not fully engaged the issues and one cannot be condemned for rejecting what he doesn’t understand.

    Even the excommunicated advocates of ordaining women to the Catholic priesthood may not be damned–it all depends on whether they really understood what the issues are and knowingly rejected Catholic faith. Given the horribly confused state of Catholic catechism today, it’s possible some of them did not. Others may know full well what they are doing. But God decides that. The leaders of the visible church cannot and do not try to decided that here on earth. They can and do, authorized by Christ, bar people from Communion as a warning to think through before God, prayerfully, the doctrines they reject.

    You might want to consider doing the same, Professor Stackhouse–not because you are somehow in grave danger of damnation, but simply out of intellectual honesty and curiosity.

  4. John Stackhouse

    Houghton G. raises a lot of issues in a short space. I’ll reply simply to the one I actually raise in my post, namely, that Catholics who participate in the ordination of a woman are rendered excommunicate.

    I don’t talk about Protestants, or people of other religions, or people who don’t know what they’re doing. I’m talking about people who participate in the ordination of a woman–who would be, one must presume, theologically literate if she is to be a candidate for ordination or a bishop if he is to preside.

    So once we get past Houghton G.’s various other issues that aren’t actually on point, we get to this: do such people put their souls in peril by choosing to ordain a woman? Of course they do, by orthodox Roman Catholic standards.

    Does the current Pope think that excommunication is “fallible” and maybe it won’t actually put you in spiritual peril? Well, maybe, but I wouldn’t bet (my soul) on it. Would you, Houghton G.? I expect not.

  5. Houghton G.

    You originally used the term “cost you . . .your soul.” I assumed you meant eternal damnation. If you meant it otherwise, please correct. I replied to what seemed to be your meaning.

    Now you use “put you in spiritual peril.” Certainly excommunication puts one in spiritual peril. Had you used that term, I would not have objected. And I wrote more than once that excommunication is serious. I merely objected that it does not equal a decree of God’s damnation. Only God can reach that judgment because only he knows whether someone does what he does from full knowledge and after deliberation.

    Excommunication puts someone in peril, but the peril is that of now resisting not merely the Christ’s doctrine as laid down in Scripture and interpreted by Christ-authorized apostle-bishops but now also resisting the human and fallible discipline of Christ’s appointed vicar on earth. That’s serious to be sure, but not the same as a human being decreeing that someone is damned to hell. No one, not even the pope, can decree that. He can point out that someone is in danger of that (spiritual peril to use your second formulation, which is fine).

    And yes, since you ask, the pope would agree fully with the principle that papal (and episcopal) disciplinary actions are fallible. Papal and bishops-in-council _doctrinal_ teaching is infallible under certain conditions. We Catholics are asked to give assent even to ordinary and non-infallible papal and episcopal teaching, so even that is “serious” stuff, but infallibility is limited in scope and it does not apply to disciplinary rulings, only to matters of “faith and moral teaching.” If you go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 891, 2035 you’ll see not a word about discipline, only about doctrine. Until John Paul clarified in “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” in 1994 that the ordination of women question was a matter of doctrine, not discipline, some of its advocates took refuge in their claim that it was discipline only and therefore could be changed. Mandating priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline and can be altered in the future. John Paul’s 1994 statement (reasserting Paul VI in Inter Insignores of 1976, in response to the Philadelphia Episcopalian “ordinations” of 1976) instead insisted that non-ordination of women was a matter of ecclesiological doctrine. When later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was asked whether John Paul’s allocating of the issue to doctrine rather than discipline was intended by John Paul to be an irreformable and infallible doctrinal teaching, the answer of the CDF, under a curious fellow named Ratzinger, was, Yes indeedy, the claim that the ordination of women issue is a matter of doctrine not discipline was an infallible claim. So I think Benedict XVI knows about he distinction I made between doctrine and discipline.

    The distinction between fallible discipline and infallible teaching is a very basic distinction in Catholic teaching.

    It is possible for a person to be unjustly excommunicated. In this case, it’s not likely, since the excommunication was over rejection of a doctrine that has been infallibly defined. But what counts is the doctrine, not the discipline. Even someone declared a persistent heretic is not thereby damned to hell by that declaration. Only God knows his heart. The Church judges to the best of her ability that the person has departed the faith, but only God knows his heart and whether he has repented or not. The Church can only judge the outside; the inside is what counts as far as “costing someone his soul.” I think any Protestant group that takes church discipline seriously would make the same distinction.

    So, Benedict XVI certainly believes that those who attempted to ordain “women priests” are in spiritual peril, but they put themselves in spiritual peril by their rejection of Catholic doctrine. That’s what makes their actions really SERIOUS.

    And all the other points I made are relevant. I’m sorry you don’t understand that at heart the issue is the nature of the Church and Holy Orders (bishops and priests who act by delegation from bishops). Look, given your understanding of “clergy” it makes perfect sense even from a Catholic standpoint, to have women ministers. Call them clergy–it’s fine with us. But what we call clergy are members of “holy orders,” ordained to something (priesthood)that you do not believe exists–unless you are an Anglo-Catholic–which is why, only when Anglicans, who claimed to believe in Catholic priesthood, started ordaining women to that, it for the first time became a real issue for Catholics. Until then, Protestant women ministers were simply irrelevant to Catholic priesthood. (One of two things all Protestants agreed on was rejection of apostolic succession of bishops along Catholic and Orthodox lines, from which Catholic/Orthodox priesthoood is derived. The other thing they agreed on was that the Mass is not an expiatory sacrifice.)

    You, as a Protestant (unless you are an Anglo-Catholic, which, if you are, you aren’t the Protestant you say you are glad to be) have no priests for women to become. You assumed that your beliefs about women clergy are relevant but those beliefs are apples to our oranges.

    I know you find it incredible that the Pope doesn’t agree with what you thought to be true about excommunication. As incredible as it may be, it’s true. Truth is stranger than fiction, sometimes.

  6. Houghton G.

    I see that the excommunications in this case are latae sententiae. So there is no decree of excommunication. The excommunication follows automatically upon the rejection of the doctrine, which rejection takes place objectively in the attempt by a bishop to “ordain” a woman and a woman’s attempt to be “ordained.”

    However, removal of this automatic excommunication is reserved to the pope, which means that he would, authorized by Christ, in a disciplinary action, make a judgment whether the excommunicate is contrite, repentant. So we are back to my point: lifting the excommunication in this case would be a matter of discipline, not doctrine, and it is fallible, exercised by a fallible pope fully authorized by Christ to exercise discipline. The excommunication itself is a form of discipline following automatically upon a action based on rejection of infallible doctrine.

  7. John Stackhouse

    I don’t think all this is helping very much, Brother Houghton. If someone knowingly defies the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine (in this case, by participating in the ordination of a woman), then one is understood by that church to have put oneself outside the church wherein is salvation.

    (Again, we’re not talking about Protestants, Orthodox, or members of other religions: We’re talking about Catholics, and Catholics who knowingly have chosen to separate themselves from the church and its sacraments.)

    Thus such persons, you agree, have put their souls in peril. Indeed, I should say that they have put their souls in extreme peril. Yes, only God knows the heart. But unless there is something hidden going on, the verdict from the Vatican is: You’re done for. As far as we can tell, you have separated yourself from Christ and his Church, and that’s what we’re telling you via our recognition of excommunication.

    Now, my original point, let us recall, was to say that I am glad not to be part of a church that has defined the non-ordination of women to be so crucial to the faith that disagreeing on that matter means to set yourself outside God’s salvation. All of your asterisks aside, Brother Houghton (we don’t know someone’s heart, only God knows whether someone is saved, etc.), are you really denying anything significant in my original point? I don’t yet see that you are.

    Of course I see ordination differently than does the Roman Catholic Church. That’s implied in my contention that the sex of ordinands ought not to be raised to the height of importance that it has been raised to. (It’s worse than you think, actually, since I don’t think ordination of any sort is a great idea, Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox–but that’s not important to my point here.) So what?

    Again, I think my point stands: I’m glad not to be part of a Church that excommunicates people for participating in the ordination of a woman. And I see nothing in what you’ve so industriously written to challenge that point.

  8. Houghton G.

    The Catholic Churchd does do for women exactly what you want to be done for women: set them aside for ministry.

    It does not ordain them to priesthood, but you don’t think ordination to priesthood is right anyway.

    So why are you angry at the Catholic refusal to admit women to what you already think is a bad thing while the Catholic church does admit women to an immense array of ministries that exactly parallel the ministries you accept as valid?

    What I disagreed with in your original post is that it attacked a phantom. You are glad not to be something that does not exist. I pointed out that the real issue was ecclesiology, the meaning of ordination and priesthood, and you called it “irrelevant”

    If you had written, “I’m glad not to be a Catholic because I don’t believe in their understanding of ordination to priesthood, for men or for women” you would at least have be jousting at a real target.” Instead you took out personally after the pope and the first commentator went the next step and mocked him and his funny hat. You portrayed the problem with the Catholic church as one of authoritarianism when your real disagreement is with her doctrine of priesthood and ordination, a disagreement which, finally, you admit in your last response-conceding the “irrelevant” point I made in my first response.

    But since it’s all irrelevant anyway, I guess I’ll leave you to study the Catholic Church for another 30 years.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Well, no, that’s not what I argued. But I think it’s clear enough to anyone who is not a doctrinaire apologist for Roman Catholicism, so I won’t restate it again.

    As for rogueminister’s jibes, I don’t like them, either. There are serious issues here that affect a lot of lives, and cheap jokes don’t help.

  10. Houghton G.

    And you are a non-doctrinaire Protestant apologist? Ad hominems are a good way to end a non-conversation, I guess. Why the “doctrinaire” adjective? I made some distinctions on the matter of ordination of women, crucial ones, I think.

    But because I am a “doctrinaire” Catholic I’m ruled out of court? The original post was a pretty proudly Protestant self-assertion. But it was like a review of a book that the reviewer wanted the author to write rather than the book that the author actuallo wrote.

    I attempted to point to the nub of the actual disagreement between Catholics and Protestants in this area so that, remaining a proud Protestant as I’m sure you will, you would at least do it with better awareness of the issue than your post indicated.

  11. rogueminister

    I am sorry that my attempt at humor bothered you. These are issues I take very seriously. In fact, I was fired from a congregation a little over a year ago for teaching that women should be allowed to participate in all aspects of church life. I have taken considerable flack for holding this position in a tradition that has long held women in a subservient role.

    As far as the Roman Catholicism goes, my family has had several generations who were devout Catholics. What made me think of the first comment I made was actually a story my grandfather, a life-long Catholic, told me. The story was about eating meat on Fridays, and my grandfather used to joke with me about it because I have always hated vegetables. I certainly have many points of disagreement with the Roman Catholic tradition, like I do with many denominations, but I am thankful for all of the faithful Christians from Catholicism that have contributed to the great cloud of witnesses who help me see Jesus more clearly.

    Again I apologize. It is very different making a pithy comment on a blog where there are people one doesn’t know, and doing the same in a group of friends who understand you. I am still learning.

    Blessings and Shalom

  12. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for clearing that up, rogueminister. As one who has frequently had to apologize for humour, I appreciate those with the gumption and consideration to do the same!

  13. phillip

    Dear Stackhouse,
    I read your conversation with rogueminister. I found it very interesting. I think your position made more sense. However, I am a protestant. I of course disagree with the concept of priesthood. I don’t think it is taught in the Bible (except for the Old Covenant) or instituted by Jesus. And I agree that women should not be ordained as priests or as clergy. I don’t think the Roman Catholic church can trace back their beginning to the early church. For about the first 300 years there were churches and bishops in various locations, and no one ever claimed to be above the others. Peter never claimed to have been given any special authority, nor is there any real proof that can substantiate he ever went to Rome. Nor did Paul or others in the Gospels/letters ever refer to him as such or defer to him on matters. And most importantly, Peter’s confession was not about himself – but about Christ. The Rock upon whom the church is built is Jesus the Christ – Not Peter, and not the Pope. And therefore the question to ask is not whether one is subject to the one true Church of Rome and/or Orthodox, but is he subject to Christ Himself, and then subject to a true church as defined by the word of God. You of course will say the protestants have as many interpretations of the word of God as they do denominations. And there is some truth to that. But they are not all true churches. However, even Catholicism has not been consistent in their belief system – doctrines have either changed or appeared over time when they did not exist before or were denied before (in spite of what it teaches). Anyway, I think you might see what I’m saying even though I’m sure you disagree. There are some aspects of the Catholic church which I admire and respect. However, there are many more things/doctrines which I believe are definitely wrong. Maybe we can discuss them without becoming too vitriolic.

  14. Kathryn

    I am glad to belong to a denomination that does not embrace the Roman Catholic idea of priesthood. Scripture teaches that every believer is a priest before God (I Peter). I heard a preacher say that the word Nicolaitan means “victory over the laity” and refers to a group who believed Christians could not approach God without an earthly priest to intervene. In Revelation, Jesus says He % s” the doctrine of the Nicolaitans. Could that have been the beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church? Certainly, Peter never claimed in his writings to have Papal powers, nor did Paul or any of the other disciples refer to him in any special way in their epistles. As to the ordination of women, Scripture says in Genesis 1: 26 and Galatians 3:28 that male and female were created equal in authority. If the male has authority not available to the female, that would ultimately be uncriptural. Scripture was written to a patriarchal society but this does not mean that patriarchy should be upheld as the will of God. Patriarchy is a result of sin and the fallen nature of mankind.

  15. Kathryn

    I apologize for the mistake above. I am at a public library computer and some words do not come across even though they are good words. The above quote from Jesus is from Revelation 2:15. Let’s just say “intense, intense dislike” instead of the word He actually used to describe the Nicolaitan doctrine.


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