“Womenpriests” and Sola Scraptura

Judith Levitt is a photojournalist based in Brooklyn, but she also, apparently, fancies herself a messenger for those she describes as “[r]eformers within the Roman Catholic Church [who] have been calling for the ordination of women as priests.” Her reasons for this supposedly courageous postiion cover the usual dubious ground, but with an extra bit of recent, super-dubious dust tossed on the pile:

Karen L. King’s recent discovery of a scrap of papyrus making reference to Jesus’ wife, and to a female disciple, adds weight to the charge that the Vatican’s opposition to the ordination of women is theologically and historically flawed. The Vatican, however, argues that the document was forged.

Consider, if you will, that the Protestant revolution of nearly five hundred years ago was based on a handful of assertions and beliefs, including sola scriptura, the notion that Scripture alone contains all that is necessary for faith and salvation, possessing final authority for believers. Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957), himself a former Anglican, summarized how the Reformation’s appeal to inspired Scripture as a final and sufficient authority was based on a serious fallacy:

The Bible, it appeared, was common ground between the combatants, the Bible, therefore, was the arena of the struggle; from it the controversialist, like David at the brook, must pick up texts to sling at his adversary. In fact, of course, the Protestant had no conceivable right to base any arguments on the inspiration of the Bible, for the inspiration of the Bible was a doctrine which had been believed, before the Reformation, on the mere authority of the Church; it rested on exactly the same basis as the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Protestantism repudiated Transubstantiation, and in doing so repudiated the authority of the Church; and then, without a shred of logic, calmly went on believing in the inspiration of the Bible, as if nothing had happened! (The Belief of Catholics, orig. 1927; Ignatius Press, 2000)

Yet, however faulty the logic of sola scriptura, it at least appealed to something (the Bible) possessing real authority and being rooted in early (and constant) Christian life, practice, and belief. Its logic fails ultimately, but it is not entirely illogical. Not so the beliefs and dogmas, so to speak, of the “Womenpriests” and folks such as Levitt, whose assertions are about as grounded in reality as the traps and trickery employed by the hapless Wile E. Coyote in his endless quest to capture, harm, and kill the Road Runner.

Back in July 2010, I wrote of “the hypocrisy of those who whine and complain perpetually about the woman-hating Vatican, the misogynous bishops, and the narrow-minded popes who won’t ‘get with the times” and allow them to be priestettes. They thumb their nose at Church authority, but then demand that Church authority rubber stamps their little priestette passes. They want it both ways: Church authority is meaningless; Church authority is necessary.” Levitt provides a perfect example of this schizophrenic approach to both history and theology:

In the last 10 years the Vatican has had to contend with a particularly indomitable group of women who seem to be unaffected by excommunication or other punishment offered by the church. The movement started when seven women were ordained by three Roman Catholic bishops aboard a ship on the Danube River in 2002. The women claimed their ordinations were valid because they conformed to the doctrine of “apostolic succession.” The group that grew out of that occasion calls itself Roman Catholic Womenpriests. There are now more than 100 ordained women priests and 11 bishops.

Thus, the ordinations are valid (the claim goes) because said ordinations conform to Church teaching about Topic A (apostolic succession). But Church teaching regarding Topic B (ordination of men only to the priesthood) is wrong because, um, a small group of Catholics say so.

Based on what authority? Supposedly the authority of the Church. Which means, if you can follow the Escher-like edifice of illusion, the Church is correct to hold to the ancient teaching about apostolic succession, but wrong to hold to the ancient teaching about who can be ordained, which happens to come to down to us through (wait for it) the writings (Gospels, Epistles, etc.) bearing apostolic origins and authority, And safeguarded by the successors of the apostles, that is, the bishops, including the bishop of Rome. Oh, and don’t forget the consistent apostolic teaching that any attempt to ordain a woman will always fail because only men can be ordained. (I flesh out the bad thinking behind the usual calls for women’s ordination in this September 2010 post on Insight Scoop.)

What Levitt and Company are saying, when taken to the bitter end, is that they—not the Pope, nor the Magisterium, nor Scripture, nor Jesus Christ himself—are the final authority on this matter. No, this supposed authority rests, ultimately, not on historical evidence (which are beyond flimsy) or theological arguments (which are pure whimsy and faddishness), but on feelings. Emotions. Of certain women only. Levitt writes:

I grew up as a Catholic, although I don’t practice now. The first time I saw a female Roman Catholic priest on the church altar, dressed in traditional robes, performing the Eucharist and all of the rituals that I grew up with, I was amazed at how deeply it affected me emotionally. It had simply never occurred to me that a woman could preside over the church.

So, the emotions and desires of a photojournalist who no longer is a practicing Catholic are supposed to trump two thousand years of teaching and Tradition, as well as a wealth of theological reflection drawing upon the differences between men and women, the relationship between Creator and creation, the nuptial mystery of Christ and his bride the Church, and so forth. One thinks of Wile E. Coyote dragging an anvil to the edge of a cliff. (We know how that ends!) But at least adults and children alike know that Wile is a cartoon, funny and farcical.

Sola scraptura is also farcical, but not nearly as funny. At least Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli recognized that their core beliefs put them outside of communion with the Catholic Church. But the Womenpriests, these self-described “reformers”, want to have it both ways: wearing the mantle of Catholicism while shredding the whole cloth of Catholic dogma and doctrine, authority and Tradition. They are not reformers, but rebels—and badly confused and sadly arrogant ones at that. 

One final note: the authenticity of the so-called, sensationalist-titled “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” has been questioned by a wide range of scholars. As far as I know, the Vatican, properly understood, has not directly commented on the scrap of papyrus and its decidedly gnostic verbiage.  Rather, Gian Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano, stated in an editorial: “Substantial reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus is indeed a clumsy forgery. In any case, it’s a fake.” A Reuters’ piece that reported Vian’s words also had quotes from University of Durham Professor Francis Watson, who said,”It’s really pretty unlikely that it’s authentic,” arguing that it “was likely to be an ancient blank fragment that was written over in the 20th or 21st century by a forger seeking to make money.” And so forthAnd so on. Beep, beep!

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.