I’d just as soon never write, speak, or think about the “womenpriest” movement so long as I live. It seems cruel, like teasing an alcoholic for his drunkenness. But then I stumbled across this extraordinary profile in Commonweal and knew I had to take a crack.
As I’m sure you know, the “womenpriests” are Ladies of a Certain Age who have been invalidly ordained as priests of the Catholic Church. They advocate for the “right” of women to join the priesthood.
Of course, if you’re a faithful Catholic—or if you know anything at all about the Catholic faith—you know that it’s impossible to ordain women. It’s not just forbidden: it’s impossible. The ordination wouldn’t “take.” Why? Because only men are able to receive holy orders. A man could take the vows of a Poor Claire, but that wouldn’t make him a nun.
Now, I’m not here to bag on womenpriests. But the Commonweal piece is different (at least from those I’ve read) because it doesn’t pretend that womenpriests is a single-issue lobby. The author writes:
“Many womenpriests are mothers and grandmothers, and some are in committed lesbian relationships. They also take a more open, inclusive approach to Catholic sacraments, officiating at sacramental marriages for same-sex couples and offering the Eucharist to all, regardless of age, marital status, or religious affiliation.”
The article even notes that “most womenpriests invite worshippers to co-consecrate the Eucharist. Their sacramental authority thus becomes not an exclusive, personal privilege but a communal gift. “
Now, the original womenpriests—known as the Danube Seven—were “ordained” in 2002. This is a relatively new movement. And yet its theology is identical to that of a mainline Protestant denomination like the Episcopal Church.
That makes sense on an intuitive level. Once you’ve decided that the Catholic Church can be wrong about women’s ordination, you might just as easily conclude that the Church might be wrong on clerical celibacy, homosexuality, and even the priest’s unique authority to affect Transubstantiation in persona Christi. The minute you resolve to ignoring the Church’s magisterial authority and sacred traditions, you’re already heading down a slippery slope. That’s a given.
Really, it would be more surprising to find a group of Catholics who accept Church teaching on homosexuality, abortion, the Sacraments, etc.—except they believe that women should be admitted to Holy Orders. Because the magisterium is pretty much an all-or-nothing affair.
If the Church gets women’s ordination wrong, it’s not infallible. And if it’s not infallible, you may as well ignore it. If your “inner light” tells you that women can and should be ordained as priests, you don’t need to bother with theological arguments. You’re no longer thinking in supernatural terms. You can simply dismiss the magisterium as “the Vatican’s all-male Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith,” as the author of the Commonweal piece does.
Likewise, we have the infamous “Catholics for Choice.” Its stated mission is to lift up the voices of the majority of Catholics who believe in reproductive freedom.” But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. Catholics for Choice also works with the womenpriest movement, the pro-LGBT group DignityUSA, and a bunch of other organizations that fundamentally dissent from Church teaching.
Again, none of this is surprising. In 2021, you’d never find a pro-choice Catholic who’s horrified by the idea of women’s ordination or same-sex marriage. In 1971? Maybe. But in 2021? Of course not. That goes without saying.
This is why I always say, The “slippery slope fallacy” is not a fallacy. It’s one of the iron laws of history. There are no single-issue heretics—not for long, anyway. Once you stop believing in the Church’s authority, the opportunities for error are only limited by the scope of your imagination.
Back to the Episcopal Church. What’s extraordinary is that it took centuries for Episcopalians to get to the position they’re at now.
At the sixth Lambeth Conference in 1920, the Anglican Communion issued an “emphatic warning against the use of unnatural means for the avoidance of conception, together with the grave dangers—physical, moral and religious.” Ten years later, at the seventh Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion did an about-face and authorized contraception for married couples.
Also at the seventh Conference, the Anglican Communion gave approval for women to be ordained as deacons, while insisting that “the order of deaconess is for women the one and only order of the ministry which we can recommend our branch of the Catholic Church to recognize and use.” Then, at the twelfth Conference in 1988, the Communion demanded that “each province respect the decision of other provinces in the ordination or consecration of women to the episcopate.”
Also at the twelfth Conference, the Communion committed itself to “rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture.” Today, several provinces of the Anglican Communion (including the Episcopal Church) not only perform same-sex weddings but ordain gay men and women to the clergy.
It took all of sixty years from Anglicanism to go from embracing contraception to consecrating married lesbian bishops. So, again, I say: The slippery slope fallacy is not a fallacy.
Still, it’s interesting: there was no such “evolution” among Catholic dissidents. Once a hardcore modernist movement emerged within the Church, it immediately went Full Episcopalian.
As we said, once you open yourself up to dissent, the opportunities for error are only limited by the scope of your imagination. Well, these Anglicans have spent the better part of a century thinking of new ways to be wrong. How could any liberal Catholic content himself with just one little error like contraception when the Episcopalians have laid out this vast smorgasbord of “Progressive Christianity”?
Heresy is like a river flowing down from a lake high in the mountain. It grows deeper and wider and stronger over time. Once, perhaps, you could splash around on the banks of the lake. But now the current became too powerful. As soon as you dip your toe in the water, it will sweep you down the river and out to sea.
Of course, a faithful Catholic sees very clearly that the Anglican Communion’s woes didn’t begin in 1920. They began, rather, in 1534: the year Henry VIII broke from the Holy See. Henry plucked the English Church from its foundation on Petrus—the Rock, against whom the gates of hell would not prevail—and set it down on sinking sand.
As always, Chesterton put it better than I ever could. The trouble with Protestantism (he explained) is that it’s not built of the same solid stuff as Catholicism. It’s made of sand, not rock. And while you may come across a clump of sand that looks like a rock, that illusion won’t last very long. Likewise,
“The point is that the snow-man may in theory be made in the real image of man. Michelangelo made a statue in snow; and it might quite easily have been an exact replica of one of his statues in marble; but it was not in marble. Most probably the snow-man has begun to melt almost as soon as it is made. But even if the frost holds, it is still a stuff capable of melting when the frost goes. It seemed to many that Protestantism would long continue to be, in the popular phrase, a perfect frost. But that does not alter the difference between ice and marble; and marble does not melt.”
I don’t say this to be triumphalist. I say this because, as I look around the Church, I see much more reason for hope than despair.
Like you, perhaps, I’m concerned about the flagrant errors being spread by the German bishops’ conference. But the point is that the German bishops are the dissenters. They’re the outliers, not the norm. They’re hurling little snowballs at the marble turrets of Rome. And not even Pope Francis’s most ardent critics can deny that he’s resisting those errors at every turn. He’s giving them no quarter.
The question is, Why do these dissidents—be it the German bishops or the womenpriests—remain within the Catholic Church? If they don’t believe in the magisterial authority of the Church, or sacred Tradition, or even the efficacy of the sacraments, then why don’t they become Protestants? Why do they feel the need to bring the the Catholic Church to heel?
I suppose we might ask the same of Arius and Valentinus. Since the Church was just a nursling in her crib, heretics have scorned and rejected her… and yet they’ve also desperately sought her approval.
The womenpriests would be very happy as Episcopalians. The dissident German bishops would fit in nicely with the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, the mainline Lutheran church. And yet, deep down, they feel this deep need to be validated by Rome. It’s oddly Oedipal: those who hate the Church seem to need her the most.
I’m not saying that, deep down, they know that what they’re doing is wrong. (Though I hope they do!) I’m not even saying that this perverse filial devotion will do them any good. If anything, the opposite will most likely be true. I expect their deep-felt need for approval will only fuel their hatred for the Church when it continues to oppose their errors. As they slink further and further into the outer darkness, they’ll rage ever more violently against the dying of the light.
But I do think that each new generation of heretics and schismatics provides a sort of cautionary tale about the dangers of dissent. Those who might quietly entertain doubts about (say) the Church’s attitude towards homosexuality should look with horror at what extraordinary corruption follows from even the smallest deviation.
Doubt is inevitable, but dissent is not. And while it may take two decades or five centuries, the end-point will always be the same. Those who dabble in the waters of heresy will, in time, be swept out to sea.
And it seems to me that the root of all heresy—from Gnosticism to Modernism to Sedevacantism—is pride. It’s an inability to humble oneself before the wisdom and authority of the Church. And by the Church, I don’t (necessarily) mean the bishops. I don’t (necessarily) mean “the Vatican’s all-male Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.”
I mean Petrus, the Rock, which has stood fast through two thousand years of heresy and schism. I mean the sensus fidelium: the mass of bishops, priests, and laymen who have—in all places, throughout all time—held to the Apostolic Faith.
The beginning of heresy is a refusal to be relegated to a mere sensus. It’s a desire to be recognized as an authority in one’s own right. This is true of laymen but, just as often, it’s true of priests and bishops. These clerics don’t realize that their authority, though real, doesn’t come from any virtue of their own. They’re not “thought-leaders”: they’re teachers.
This is true in the secular world as well. Not even the most ravening French Existentialist could deny that Thomas Aquinas was the greatest theological mind that ever lived. They may think he’s wrong, of course, but they could never seriously accuse him of being some Podunk Bible-thumper.
They may reject Aquinas’s “moderate realism” because they think he’s wrong. More often than not, however, they probably reject Thomism because they are not the eponymous Thomas.
What’s so glorious and so awful about Aquinas is that he basically said everything there is to be said. There will never be another Thomas, because we’ll never need one. The modern philosopher is in much the same position as the modern cartographer: all the maps have been drawn, all the frontiers closed.
Yet even Thomas was only a teacher, not an explorer. He didn’t invent any theories or maxims. Everything he taught, he learned from the Church Fathers. My good buddy Dominic Cassella, an up-and-coming theologian in the Eastern Catholic tradition, has devoted much of his academic work to showing Thomas’s deep debt to earlier thinkers like Gregory the Great and John Chrysostom—which is considerable indeed.
So, Aquinas himself wasn’t an original thinker. And that was his virtue. He wasn’t a great theorist, but a great teacher. His ideas were old, but he elaborated and systematized them more efficiently than anyone ever has or ever will.
Don’t get me wrong: his intellectual gifts were considerable, even supernatural. Had he not been the Church’s most brilliant champion, he would’ve been history’s most formidable heretic. There could have been no in-between. And precisely because he resisted the temptation to be a novel thinker, he’s remembered as the greatest philosophical mind in history. His glory increased in proportion to his humility.
Which brings us back to the womenpriests. The Commonweal article laments that “the Roman Catholic Womenpriests (RCWP) movement remains poorly understood today.” It says that the “question” these womenpriests pose “is especially urgent now, as Pope Francis continues to call for synodality, a ‘journeying together’ that requires parrhesia, or frank, honest discussion. How can that happen when certain questions are already declared off-limits?”
The answer is that… well, it’s not. We can discuss the problem of women’s ordination until we’re blue in the face. But the question has been settled: women cannot be priests. It’s like asking, “Why can’t we have a frank and honest discussion about the possibility that 2+2=5?” By all means, let’s have at it! But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t equal five. It equals four. No amount of “parrhesia” will change that fact.
Of course, this is the same language heretics have used throughout history. They’ve always been more interested in teaching than in being taught. They’re not actually interested in “parrhesia” at all, because they can’t accept the possibility that they’re just… well, wrong. They premise all debate on the assumption that they’re right, because they’re smarter than everyone else, and then proceed from there. If the sensus fidelium doesn’t agree, it’s because the rest of us are stupid or sexist or whatever.
So, you seen, it’s not a question of reason vs. authority or progressive vs. conservative, No: it’s a question of their authority as Very Smart People vs. the Church’s authority as the Bride of Christ.
This is in stark contrast with someone like Sean Cardinal O’Malley, who’s admitted his own sympathy with the womenpriest movement… and yet he’s not a proponent of women’s ordination. “If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests,” says O’Malley. “But Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different.”
Many orthodox Catholics use that quote to bag on His Eminence. I think it’s brilliant. It’s a testament to his humility—and to his own profound understanding of what the Church is for.
Look: you don’t have to like the Church’s teachings in order to accept them. I wish drunkenness wasn’t a sin. I wish I could go to a party and knock back eight or nine G&Ts with reckless abandon. But I can’t. Because drunkenness is a sin. And regardless of the clever arguments I might concoct to “prove” that it isn’t a sin, it will still be a sin. Truth is objective; it doesn’t need our permission to be true.
Nor does the Church need our permission to be right. When we lose sight of that fact, the game’s already up, and we’ve lost.