Infallibility & Ordination by Patrick Henry Reardon

Infallibility & Ordination

In using the adjective “ecumenical” to describe the mission of this journal, the editors of Touchstone intend no endorsement of the ecumenical movement as such, and certainly no recommendation of specific ecumenical programs and proposals. In fact, all of us find ourselves burdened with varying measures of misgiving on both scores. What we mean to affirm by “ecumenical” is, rather, our simple conviction that it is important for differing Christians to talk with one another intelligently about their faith. We also hope that our pages can provide a modest forum for this.

We believe, furthermore, that this ecumenical discussion, here or elsewhere, should be characterized by honest love. Because all of us find our Christian faith itself under sustained attack on every front today, an urgent charity demands that we take special pains not to exaggerate nor exploit our confessional differences by caricatures, distortions and cheap shots. The Touchstone editorials themselves have endeavored to point out some of these from time to time.

In our last issue, for example, I noted in passing that Eastern Orthodox criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church are “not always just nor invariably accurate.” Then, within mere days of posting that opinion, I stumbled across its almost perfect illustration in a Commonweal column (January 26, 1996: “Gender and Priesthood: The Orthodox Keep Talking”) by an Orthodox priest, Fr. John Garvey.

His essay took aim at last year’s Vatican declaration that Roman Catholics must regard the prohibition of women from ordination as “infallible” and part of the “deposit of faith.” That attempt to close off a proper airing of the question, wrote Fr. Garvey, was unwise and will certainly produce the opposite result.

There is plenty of evidence that he was right. In popular journals like America, for instance, one scarcely perceives the slightest remorse among some Roman Catholics writers about continuing the discussion of women’s ordination, even challenging the very legitimacy of the Vatican’s doctrinal declaration. Immediately after Fr. Garvey’s column, indeed, Commonweal itself presented a symposium in which there were heard such voices of dissent. To us it sometimes appears that the proper inference to be drawn from the premise Roma locuta est nowadays is causa disputanda est.

Had Fr. Garvey’s column restricted itself to such comments, I would have no quarrel with it. He expanded his observations in two objectionable directions, however, one of which strikes me as unfair, and the other as merely muddleheaded.

First, the unfair part. Why did his column need to drag up Vatican I and rehearse Orthodoxy’s objections to papal infallibility? Roman Catholics justifiably may feel that his doing so was a cheap shot, inasmuch as papal infallibility was deliberately not invoked to settle this matter of women’s ordination. Last year’s Vatican decree was explicit on the point, saying that the “infallible” quality of the doctrine under discussion was derived from Holy Scripture and the universal Tradition of the Church.

But instead of observing that the sentiments of that truly modest doctrinal statement were not entirely alien to the spirit of Orthodoxy itself, Fr. Harvey used it as an occasion to rail against papal infallibility. Now had Pope John Paul II actually invoked papal infallibility in the case, such comments would at least be understandable from an Orthodox perspective. But since he didn’t, Fr. Garvey’s remarks served chiefly to exaggerate and exploit Orthodox differences with Roman Catholicism at the latter’s expense. That was not fair play.

Second, the muddleheaded part. Fr. Garvey implicitly contrasted the Vatican’s attempt to squelch discussion of women’s ordination with an alleged great freedom of speech on this point enjoyed by Eastern Orthodox Christians. Having dismissed papal infallibility explicitly as “heresy,” he went on to list some pros and cons of ordaining women to the priesthood as though the latter were an open question. I find his leap of logic breathtaking, frankly, at least in the sense that no oxygen seems to be reaching his brain.

Just what is going on here? When he called papal infallibility “heresy,” Fr. Garvey said that he did so “as an Orthodox.” Fair enough; probably most Orthodox would buy that. But let us consider what sorts of reasons would compel an Orthodox to object to papal infallibility. Since the notion has never been condemned by an ecumenical council, why would an Orthodox Christian be disposed to call papal infallibility a heresy?

Doubtless it would be on a pure and strict appeal to Tradition. To the Orthodox, papal infallibility appears to be at odds with the ecclesiology of the Fathers of the Church, not easily reconciled with certain known facts of conciliar history, reliant on a distortion and misreading of certain other facts, and derived from a biblical exegesis largely inspired by novel and unfounded theories. (Salva reverentia to my Roman Catholic friends, I am not arguing Orthodoxy’s case here but only describing it. I most emphatically do not want to start a new controversy about papal infallibility.) These considerations always have formed the gist of Orthodoxy’s objections to the teaching of Vatican I. So much so, that Fr. Garvey is surely right in assuming that, for the Orthodox, it is a closed question.


Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).

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