Papal Infallibility and Women Deacons

Suppose that Pope Francis decides he would like to permit the ordination of women as deacons. How would he go about it? He knows that his conservative Catholic critics will oppose this decision, which relates to both doctrine and discipline. He knows that he has already been called a heretic by some conservatives. A decision on women deacons would only increase the number of persons making this claim. So he really has only one option. If Pope Francis decides to ordain women deacons, he will have to use Papal Infallibility.

What if he merely teaches, under the ordinary papal magisterium, which is non-infallible, that the Church has the authority to ordain women as deacons? He will be challenged by conservatives. They will proclaim that any such attempted ordinations are invalid, as the teaching is an example of an error possible in non-infallible magisterial teachings. And they will also accuse him of heresy. In reply, he will be forced by these circumstances to use Papal Infallibility. So, if he begins without exercising infallibility, he will have to do so subsequently.

Now the consensus among orthodox theologians is that no Roman Pontiff can teach heresy when defining a doctrine infallibly. A papal teaching which meets all of the conditions for Papal Infallibility is necessarily not an heretical teaching. The conditions for a teaching to be infallible under the papal magisterium do not include an evaluation as to whether or not the teaching is true, or false, or heretical. If the teaching meets all the conditions, then it is guaranteed by God not to be false or heretical, regardless of the majority opinion among any group of fallen sinners on earth.

But already the conservative Catholic subculture has issued many varied statements, from Cardinals, Bishops, theologians, and bloggers, asserting that women absolutely cannot be ordained as deacons. It is as if the subculture had its own gift to teach infallibly. And this pseudo-dogmatic assertion ignores the fact that the infallible teaching of Pope Saint John Paul II on the subject, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, specifically proclaims that the Church lacks the authority to confer priestly ordination on women — not ordination more generally, but only ordination to the priesthood. Since a Bishop is a kind of priest, and a Pope must always be a Bishop, women cannot be priest, bishop, or Pope. But there is in fact no magisterial teaching, even at the level of the ordinary magisterium, saying women can never be ordained as deacons.

Knowing all this, it is likely that Pope Francis will begin with an infallible papal teaching that the Church possesses the authority to ordain women as deacons. So, how will the conservative Catholic subculture respond? They could and should respond with faith in the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the one true Church. The Church is indefectible, so She cannot each any grave error. But they have so far shown no willingness to believe what the Roman Pontiff teaches, if it is in any way different from their own understanding.

They will most likely accuse Pope Francis of teaching heresy, even though the teaching will meet the conditions for Papal Infallibility. Perhaps they will try to claim that the teaching does not meet those conditions. I suspect that argument will be quite weak. The conditions taught by Vatican I and reiterated by Vatican II are very clear. Perhaps they will try to add an implied condition, that the teaching must not be heretical for it to fall under Papal Infallibility. But that is also a weak argument.

They will likely settle on accusing Pope Francis of having lost the validity of his papacy by previous heretical teachings, so that, as an automatically excommunicated person, he is no longer a member of the Church, and therefore no longer a valid Pope. They will claim that he cannot exercise Papal Infallibility because the first condition is that the teaching be issued by the Roman Pontiff, and the second condition is that the teaching be issued under his authority as Supreme Teacher of the Church. If he is not a valid Pope, because he supposedly committed formal heresy and was automatically excommunicated, then he can’t exercise Papal Infallibility.

So the position of Pope Francis will be that the teaching is infallible under Papal Infallibility. But the response of his critics will be that he is an automatically excommunicated former Pontiff, who cannot teach under Papal Infallibility. They will also assert that women can never be ordained, even as deacons, for various claimed theological reasons.

The result will be the conservative schism. Any Catholic who asserts that Pope Francis was never, or is no longer, the Roman Pontiff (prior to his death or valid resignation) thereby commits formal schism. And in rejecting the teaching of the Pontiff under Papal Infallibility, they also commit the sin of formal heresy. Both of these sins carry the penalty of automatic excommunication. So, while many conservatives will claim that the Pope himself is an excommunicated heretic, the truth will be that they themselves have been automatically excommunicated for the sins of schism and heresy.

Then women will be ordained as deacons, in dioceses throughout the world. Those Bishops who refuse to ordain women as deacons, and who refuse to recognize the truth of this teaching under Papal Infallibility, will be automatically excommunicated themselves for heresy, in denying an infallible teaching, and for schism in rejecting the authority of the Pope. We will then see many schismatic dioceses throughout the world.

What should priests, deacons, religious, and the laity do, if they live in a diocese with a schismatic Bishop? I would suggest they remain in their parish and diocese. Go to Confession and Mass, as usual. Believe what the Church and the Pope teaches; submit to the authority of the Pope. Do not make a point of opposing or obstructing your schismatic Bishop. Cooperate with him to whatever extent is possible without sin. Priests and deacons can continue to live and work in the diocese, despite the grave sin of the Bishop. They need not oppose him in any substantial way, except that they should make a clear public statement of faith in all that the Church and the Pope teaches, and of submission to papal authority.

It may happen that schismatic priests and deacons will flee from faithful Bishops and faithful dioceses, and that faithful priests and deacons will flee from schismatic Bishops. There might be a hideous reorganization of the Church, such that schismatic Bishops will only tolerate other schismatics among their priests and deacons. Then it will be much more difficult for the faithful who are in a schismatic diocese. They might still quietly attend Mass, despite the schism of their Bishop, priests, and deacons.

But if anyone is required by a Bishop, priest, or deacon to make a schismatic declaration or to believe an heretical doctrine, they cannot do so. That is the breaking point. That is the line that the faithful cannot cross, in attempting to remain in a diocese or parish that has unfortunately departed from communion with the Pope. If you cannot go to Mass because Mass-goers are required to recite a declaration that is schismatic or heretical, then you are excused from the duty to attend Mass.

Things are going to get really bad, very soon. The faithful will be put to the test. Do you believe and trust in Jesus Christ and His Church? Or do you only believe what is taught by the culture around you, whether it is the secular culture, or a religious subculture within the Church?

The sin of the papal critics is essentially the sin of pride. They are absolutely certain in their own understanding of Catholicism. So much so that they will even accuse the Roman Pontiff of heresy, if his teaching is contrary to their own understanding. And the case of the ordination of women deacons is a perfect example. There exists no definitive teaching of the Magisterium on ordination to the diaconate. Yet they claim that the matter is closed, as if they themselves could teach infallibly.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

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13 Responses to Papal Infallibility and Women Deacons

  1. Jack Gallagher says:

    But what if His Holiness ups the ante and teaches infallibly that women can be ordained as Priests? How would this change your analysis? Or, would it change your analysis?

    • Ron Conte says:

      Pope Francis has already said women cannot be ordained as priests. Also, that point has been decided infallibly, so the Pope cannot teach the contrary under papal infallibility.

  2. Tom Mazanec says:

    Perhaps they will try to add an implied condition, that the teaching must not be heretical for it to fall under Papal Infallibility. But that is also a weak argument.

    This is beyond weak…it is absurd. It is like saying a requirement of a true statement be that it is true…a tautology at best.

    • Marco says:

      Tom, that’s their way to get around the dogma of papal infallibility: they deprive said dogma of its true content, leaving only an empty carcass behind them.

  3. Paul M. says:

    Personally, I would be astonished if things came to pass as you suggest. There is no precedent by Pope Francis to make his intentions clear on matters of faith or discipline. (He is only clear on social justice issues such as the environment and immigration.) Perhaps if he taught clearly, fewer Catholics who are honestly seeking to understand his pontificate would be troubled when he speaks or writes incongruently, invites or appoints controversial figures, or ignores or sidesteps when people ask for clarifications.

    Instead, I would expect no official, succinct statements; rather, if his intention is to allow women to become deacons (which is hypothetical) it might be done in such a way that individual bishops or conferences are compelled to take a lead while Francis says nothing about it that could be considered authoritative.

    If a schism is on the horizon, this would be just as likely to cause it as your predicted scenario.

  4. Matt Z. says:

    Maybe this is only a hypothetical situation you are making and if so, I see your point. Although, I believe the nature of ordination can only be conferred on the male sex as I pointed out in one of your previous posts on this citing an article by Fr.Chad Ripperger and Fumdamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ott. Still I do not know enough about this so I would submit to the Church and the Pope if this were true but according to Pope Francis he will not ordain woman deacons. See here:

    There couldn’t be other roles for women in the Liturgy but not ordination, still I’m not in favor of that in today’s climate of radical feminism.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is an open question. You don’t cite a magisterial document saying women can’t be deacons. The Pope was only upset that the news story was getting ahead of the reality. He did not say that women can’t be deacons. My article is a hypothetical, but one which I think is fairly likely.

  5. sircliges says:

    Mm, you are picturing a portrait of conservatives that is a tiny bit misleading. You seem to have a bias or something. Forgive my “parresia”.

    I think 99% it’s not possible to ordain women deacon. But it is an open question.
    If Pope Francis will declare that is possible, using infallibility (clearly, without any sort of ambiguity), I will accept it.

    And what if he declares that is not possible? Do you think modernist people in the Church would bend the knee with the same obedience? The same people that spit on JP2 and B16 for decades?

    • Ron Conte says:

      I think two schisms are approaching, one of conservatives and the other of liberals. So there is unfaithfulness on both sides. Your position is faithful. But I see many indications among some conservatives, especially the papal critics, that they will not follow your example and accept an infallible teaching contrary to their own understanding. But then neither will many liberal Catholics, once they are put to the test (by the next Pope).

  6. Jack Gallagher says:

    It is still an open question whether or not JP II actually taught infallibly on this issue.

    It is not a matter of doctrine, is it?

    • Ron Conte says:

      It is an infallible teaching. The dispute is whether it falls under papal infallibility (I say Yes) or the ordinary and universal magisterium, which is also infallible. (The link you gave was broken)

  7. Dora says:

    So the big question is “why now?” The pope has a committee looking into the ordination of women deacons, and he must know it will upset many people. Truly holy women seem never to be in plain sight, especially nowadays. However, they are here, in the shadows, holding up their families. But to bolster faith in the power of the Virgin, you need human role models in plain sight. Women deacons can help with this, just as priests are models of Christ.
    Francis has suggested that he will only serve for “a few years.” If the ordination of women is appropriate, he will make the call, or better yet, leave it to his successor, to confirm it is not just a Francis thing. Our Lady has a pivotal role in the latter days. I can imagine women deacons as a critical step toward faith in the woman who battles the dragon in this critical time.

  8. Matt Z. says:

    Here is a writing that’s deserves consideration(he talks about Scripture, Exumenical Councils, and the history of deaconesses:

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