Recently I received a video of Clifford Longley speaking in Australia. Clifford Longley is a leading English Catholic who was invited to Australia by the Catholic organization Catalyst for Renewal to deliver a series of lectures on the legacy of Vatican II, which opened fifty years ago in 1962.
Longley has had a distinguished career as a journalist and columnist, specializing in religious affairs. Since 1994 he has been a columnist and leader writer for the well-known English Catholic weekly, The Tablet. In the particular video which I received he speaks about the developing maturity of the Catholic laity in the light of the teaching of Vatican II.
The second Vatican Council taught the Catholic laity to see the Church and themselves in a new light. The Church is not just the Pope and the bishops, but all the baptized, the People of God. The new laity see it as their right and duty to take part in Church policy decisions based on their knowledge and their experience of trying to live their Faith in a challenging world.
It is a challenge for Church authorities to live with this new laity empowered and emboldened by Vatican II. The authorities know that they can no longer govern simply by issuing decrees from on high. They know that they cannot speak authentically for all the Church if the laity have not been part of the debate.
Clifford Longley insists that the Church authorities must learn that they cannot stifle debate. He points to Pope John Paul II’s letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (May 22, 1994) which decreed that all debate on the ordination of women must cease. With that inimitable British intonation of indignation and disbelief Longley declared “You can’t do that. You can’t suppress debate”.
In that same letter Pope John Paul II stated in a most definitive way that the Church has no authority to admit women to the ministerial priesthood. The Pope based his statement on an argumentation which seemed to me inconclusive and open to debate. He quoted Pope Paul VI’s explanation for excluding women from the ministerial priesthood: “The true reason is that, based on the fundamental constitution of the Church and theological anthropology, this is the way Christ arranged it to be and the way ecclesial tradition has always followed” (The Angelus 30 Jan. 1977).
But despite the ban on the debate, the issue has not gone away. As recently as June 2011 the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon in an interview with the magazine “OA” stated that while there is a tradition of exclusion there are no theological reasons for excluding women from the priesthood. He added that we are forbidden to talk about it, but that the matter cannot be resolved like that.
Last week there was interesting news from the Vatican. It was reported in Asian Catholic News that the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official newspaper has a new editor, Lucetta Scaraffia, who is an historian journalist and a campaigner for women’s rights. She maintains that if women had been in positions of authority in the Vatican, many of the scandals in the Church would have been avoided.
The Osservatore Romano was founded in 1861, but had no women journalists until four years ago. Despite the Pope’s backing, Ms Scaraffia knows there are many who are against her. She says there is a lot of fear of women in the Church.
It is understandable that Ms Scaraffia is meeting fear and opposition in her job. Pope Benedict has shown courage in appointing her to the post, but those who oppose her have reason to be fearful. The male stranglehold on power in the Church is a seamless robe. To share power in the tiniest way with any outsider could lead to the unraveling of the whole garment.
If Benedict XVI could appoint Lucetta as editor of the Osservatore Romano, some future Pope may nominate a woman to be Vatican Secretary of State. If the most powerful country in the world can have a woman Secretary of State who is both efficient and effective, it is not beyond imagining that the Vatican could have a competent woman Secretary of State at the Pope’s right hand.
Clifford Longley suggests that the Church is coming to the end of an era, the era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I think Benedict has been a bit more flexible than his predecessor, and that may make it less difficult for another Pope to loosen the male clerical stranglehold on power in the Church.
The primary duty of everyone in the Church, lay or clerical is to respond wholeheartedly to the universal call to holiness. But Catholic lay men and women must also take their rightful place in decision-making bodies at all levels in the Church. Only when that happens will the Church truly be the People of God that Vatican II proclaimed it to be.