Most of our blog readers by now should be familiar
with the interchange between our bloggers and Vicar General, Fr. Richard Erikson.  You’ll find a record-setting 70 comments on our last post, Response from Boston Archdiocese’s Vicar General. where we shared how the Archdiocese feels much about our posts has been “untrue,” “inappropriate,” and “harmful to the Body of Christ.”  Though we disagree in the strongest of terms with that assessment and still are waiting for the Archdiocese to tell us about any inaccuracies, we are going to try in the next few posts to communicate in a different way regarding some of the things Fr. Hehir has said and done, and we’ll see how that goes.

Today we pick up on a topic that has been in the news recently, namely the Vatican’s new rules that make attempts at ordaining women among the “most serious crimes.”  Women attempting to be priests, and those who try to ordain them, already faced automatic excommunication but the new decree goes further and enshrines the action as “a crime against sacraments.”  In view of this new decree, and the fact that Catholic Church’s position on women priests has been crystal clear for a very long time, we thought we would feature for you a short video clip with Fr. Bryan Hehir’s comments on the subject of women priests.  The issue of women priests may not be one of the biggest ones facing this archdiocese or society today, so why highlight it on ths blog?  Because a) the Vatican thought it important enough to further clarify and b) we see it as yet another unambigous example of what we have been saying since March.

Just as background, in his 1994 apostolic letter on ordination, “On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone “, Pope John Paul II said the church’s ban on women priests is definitive and not open to debate among Catholics.  “The all-male priesthood does not represent discrimination against women, but fidelity to Christ’s actions and his plan for the church. The pope’s document reaffirmed the basis for ordaining only men: “Christ chose only men to be his Apostles, it has been the constant practice of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and the Magisterium’s teaching on the matter has been consistent.”

On November 18, 1995, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith reinforced this by releasing a letter signed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, saying the  Church’s traditional ban on women priests “requires definitive assent…(and) has been  set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.  The teaching that the Church possesses no authority to ordain women, is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of faith.” (It’s a short letter–you can read it in just one minute)

The letter from the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was accompanied by a cover letter insisting that bishops “will do everything possible  to ensure its distribution and favourable reception, taking particular care that, above  all on the part of theologians, pastors of souls, and religious, ambiguous and contrary positions will not again be proposed.”

Invoking the word “infallible” in the letter, explained Father Augustine DeNoia,  a theological advisor to the US Bishops, means that “to teach the contrary is  equivalent to leading consciences into error.”

Against that backdrop, here is a video clip of a September 18, 2003 Boston College forum, held as part of BC’s “Catholic Church in the 21st Century” series, where Fr. Hehir was a panelist.  In one segment, after several consecutive panelists spoke in favor of women priests (including one who favored ordaining women deacons, and another who supported homosexual or women priests), Fr Hehir shared his opinion.  (Listen from 3:15 to 3:45 for Tim Russert’s question and Fr. Hehir’s response about women priests at 3:35-3:45).  Fr. Hehir said, “The ordination of women raises doctrinal questions that have to be worked through in a Church that takes doctrine seriously.”

In case you don’t have time to play the whole clip, allow me to restate what was said before Fr. Hehir speaks. Panelist and theology major, Liz Paulhus, said “as a young woman, as a theology major, I certainly would like to see women ordained. There’s not a lot that can be said against women’s ordination. The problem is that this is an area where conversation is basically closed with the Vatican. Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter on the ordination of women was unequivocal: We’re not discussing it.”

Then Peter Steinsfels said, “There should be an effort to open the question of ordaining women to the diaconate. The roles that women in the diaconate played in the early centuries were not exactly parallel to the roles played by men deacons, but historical studies show that the ordination rituals were quite similar.”

Then Catalina Mones ’98 said, “I feel that women can make tremendous contributions to the Catholic church, and women are often overlooked and treated like a different class of citizen.”

Then student, Patrick Downes, said if a “woman, homosexual, or male felt the presence of God is within them, who is the church to limit their potential to grow in the church?

Then Fr. Hehir spoke.  In our humble opinion as anonymous bloggers, what he did not say to set the record straight for the faithful, is as important as what he did say.  He did not affirm that Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter was indeed unequivocal. He did not correct Peter Steinsfels’ erroneous statement about women having a role in the “diaconate” in early centuries or explain how the role of “deaconess” in the early centuries was one of a servant, not at all a woman “deacon.”  (Women who assisted other women in full emersion of Baptism were referred to as “deaconesses”).  He did not say that the Roman Catholic Church cannot ordain women because Jesus specifically chose men for apostolic succession. He did not say this teaching was infallible as set forth by the Magisterium.  He did not say he agreed with this infallible teaching.  He did not avoid say anything ambiguous or avoid taking a contrary position.  What Fr. Bryan Hehir said is,

The ordination of women raises doctrinal questions that have to be worked through in a Church that takes doctrine seriously.”

Nine days later, on September 27, 2003, then-Archbishop O’Malley announced the appointment of Fr. Hehir as Cabinet Secretary for Social Services.

Before we ask some questions about what Fr. Hehir said and the implications of this, let’s just revisit what people said at the time of Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1996 letter:

For, as those on both sides of the battle agree, the essence of this recent statement is that those who will not accept Church teaching on ordination are not Catholic.” (Paul Likoudis, Challenge Magazine, Jan 1996)

The Pope is not only “aiming to shut the door on debate about women’s ordination” but he has made it clear that dissenters on the issue are out of the Church.” Catholic New Service reporter John Thavis

Father Richard McBrien at Notre Dame told the New York  Times: “If the pope wants us to believe that the prohibition against the ordination of  women is a matter of divine law and divine faith such that the denial of this teaching  is a heresy, then that puts everyone who disagrees outside the Church.  Is that what is being said?”  Precisely, said Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver.

We are well aware that Fr. Hehir was not working for the Boston Archdiocese on the exact day he made this statement, but we are focusing on what he said.  So, we have a few questions for Vicar General Erikson, Fr. Hehir, Cardinal O’Malley and anyone from the Archdiocese or Holy See who is reading this post, and welcome their response:

1) Do we objectively agree that women priests are forbidden, and this teaching is infallible and non-negotiable?

2) Is there something unclear or ambigious about the CDF’s statement that “the Church’s position is set forth infallibly by the…Magisterium, and “the teaching that the Church possesses no authority to ordain women is to be held always, everywhere, and by all”?

3) Did we hear Fr. Hehir correct any of the previous speakers for the benefit of the audience at the event and clearly state that the Pope and CDF had declared that women priests in the Catholic Church are never allowed?

4) Do we agree that Fr. Hehir’s failure to correct the previous speakers and most importantly, his assertion “womens ordination raises doctrinal questions that have to be worked through”  suggests this issue remains open for reconsideration and contradicts the Vatican’s unambigious teaching on this matter?

5) What should the consequences be for such action, namely publicly contradicting infallible Vatican teachings?

6) Did Fr. Hehir potentially lead “consciences into error” with his comment?

7) Is it reasonable for people to conclude that Fr. Hehir’s comments are an objective example of undermining Church teachings?

8) If someone undermines Church teachings or leads consciences into error, does that harm the Body of Christ?

9) Would it be beneficial for the Church to not have priests publicly undermining Church teachings, especially those considered infallible and ones where the CDF specifically called for priests and theologians to avoid taking ambiguous, contrary positions?

10) Hypothetically speaking, if a priest or church official were to make statements or act in such a way as to undermine Church teachings repeatedly over a period of time, what should the remedy and consequences be to prevent a repeat of those actions?

11) If people complain to their archbishop about such public comments (or similar actions) and see nothing done over a period of months or years that addresses the problem, is it reasonable for them to utilize new media to make these complaints more public?  Is it reasonable for them to escalate those complaints to the Holy See so as to ensure that further undermining of Church teachings by that person and harm to the Body of Christ is prevented?

12) If Fr. Hehir makes comments like this about women priests in a public forum, is it reasonable for people to question Fr. Hehir ‘s judgement and beliefs?  Is it reasonable for people to question what he is saying and doing in less public settings?

13) If then-Archbishop O’Malley picked someone with this judgment for a key cabinet role after what that person said in public, is it reasonable to question the judgment of both the Archbishop as well as Fr. Hehir?

14) Is there anything about this specific post objectively calling attention to Fr. Hehir’s public comments on women priests that is considered to be “untrue,” “cruel,” “inappropriate,” “disparaging,” or would be ” harmful to the Body of Christ”?

We welcome comments from anyone, especially the Archdiocese, Fr. Erikson, Fr. Hehir, blog reader “Bill,” or others below to the questions we have raised.

Ps. You can watch the entire session here, , but it’s 110 minutes long.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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