Cardinal Piacenza on Women Priests, Celibacy and the Power of Rome (Part 1)

Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy Speaks on Service and Unity

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By Antonio Gaspari

ROME, SEPT. 18, 2011 ( Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, rarely intervenes in public debates. He is known, rather, for his quiet and untiring work and his insightful observations on contemporary culture.

The 67-year-old Italian will next month complete his first year as head of the Vatican’s clergy congregation.

He spoke with ZENIT about what power in the Church really is and what women could be doing to offer their feminine genius to Church leadership.

Part 2 of this interview, on celibacy and increasing vocations to the priesthood, will be published Monday. 

ZENIT: Your Eminence, over the past decades, with surprising regularity, the same set of ecclesial questions resurface in public debate like clockwork. How can we explain this?

Cardinal Piacenza: There have always been in the history of the Church «centrifugal movements,» attempts to «normalize» the extraordinary Event of Christ and of his Living Body in history, the Church. A «normalized Church» would lose all of its prophetic force; she would no longer say anything to man and to the world and, in fact, she would betray her Lord. The major difference in the contemporary age is media-related and, at the same time, doctrinal.

Doctrinally, there is an effort to justify sin, not entrusting oneself to mercy, but trusting in a dangerous autonomy that has the odor of practical atheism. With regard to the media, in recent decades, the physiological «centrifugal forces» receive attention and inappropriate amplification from the media, which in a certain way, lives on conflict.

ZENIT: Is women’s ordination to be understood as a doctrinal question?

Cardinal Piacenza: Certainly, and — as everyone knows — the question was clearly confronted by both Paul VI and Blessed John Paul II and, the latter, with the Apostolic Letter «Ordinatio Sacerdotalis" of 1994 definitively closed the question. Indeed there it is stated: «Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.» Some, grasping at straws, have spoken since then of a «relative definitiveness» of the doctrine, but frankly, the thesis is so odd as to lack any foundation.

ZENIT: So, is there no place for women in the Church?

Cardinal Piacenza: On the contrary, women have a most important place in the ecclesial Body and they could have one that is even more evident. The Church is founded by Christ and we human beings cannot decide on its form; therefore the hierarchical constitution is linked to the ministerial priesthood, which is reserved to men. But there is absolutely nothing to prevent the valuing of the feminine genius is roles that are not linked with the exercise of Holy Orders. Who would stop, for example, a great woman economist from being head of the administration of the Holy See? Who would prevent a competent woman journalist from being the spokesman of the Vatican press office? The examples could be multiplied for all the offices that are not connected with Holy Orders. There are tasks in which the feminine genius could make a specific contribution! 

It is another thing to think of service as power and try, as the world does, to meet the quota for this power. I maintain, furthermore, that the devaluation of the great mystery of maternity, which has been the modus operandi of the dominant culture, has a related role in the general disorientation of women. The ideology of profit has stooped to the instrumentalization of women, not recognizing the greatest contribution that — incontrovertibly — they can make to society and to the world. 

Also, the Church is not a political government in which it is right to demand adequate representation. The Church is something quite different; the Church is the Body of Christ and, in her, each one is a part according to what Christ established. Moreover, in the Church it is not a question of masculine and feminine roles but rather of roles that by divine will do or do not entail ordination. Whatever a layman can do, so can a laywoman. What is important is having the specific and proper formation, then being a man or a woman does not matter.

ZENIT: But can someone really participate in the life of the Church without having effective power and responsibility?

Cardinal Piacenza: Who said that participation in the life of the Church is a question of power? If this were the case, we would unmask the real equivocation in conceiving the Church herself not as she is — human and divine — but simply as one of the many human associations, maybe the greatest and most noble, given her history; she would then have to be «administered» by a division of power. Nothing is further from reality! The hierarchy in the Church, besides being of divine institution, is always to be understood as a service to communion. Only an equivocation, historically stemming from the experience of dictatorships, could make one think of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as an exercise in «absolute power.» This is known to be false by those who, every day, are called to assist the Pope in his personal responsibility for the universal Church! So many and such are the mediations, the consultations, the expressions of real collegiality that practically no act of governance is the fruit of an individual will, but always the outcome of a long process, listening to the Holy Spirit and the precious contributions of many people. First of all the bishops and bishops’ conferences of the world. Collegiality is not a socio-historical concept, but derives from the common Eucharist, from the «affectus» that is born from taking the one Bread and from living the one faith; from being united to Christ: Way, Truth and Life; and Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever!

ZENIT: Doesn’t Rome have too much power?

Cardinal Piacenza: To say «Rome» is simply to say «catholicity» and «collegiality.» Rome is the city chosen by providence as the place of the martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul and communion with this Church has always historically meant communion with the universal Church, unity, mission and doctrinal certainty. Rome is at the service of all the Churches, she loves all the Churches and, not infrequently, she protects the Churches most threatened by the power of the world and of governments who are not completely respectful of that inalienable human and natural right that is freedom of religion. 

The Church must be seen from the perspective of the dogmatic constitution of Vatican Council II «Lumen Gentium,» obviously including the note attached to the document. There the early Church is described, the Church of the Fathers, the Church of all ages, which is our Church of today, without discontinuity; which is the Church of Christ. Rome is called to preside in Charity and in Truth, the sole sources of authentic Christian peace. The Church’s unity is not compromise with the world and its mentality, rather it is the result, given by Christ, of our fidelity to truth and to charity that we will be capable of living. 

I think that it is indicative, in this regard, that today only the Church, as no other, defends man and his reason, his capacity to know the real and to enter into relationship with it, in sum man in his totality. Rome is at the service of the whole Church of God that is in the world and that is an «open window» on the world. A window that gives a voice to all those who do not have a voice, that calls everyone to a continual conversion and through this contributes — often in silence and in suffering, paying the price herself, even being unpopular — to building a better world, the civilization of love.

Doesn’t this role that Rome plays hinder unity and ecumenism?

Cardinal Piacenza: On the contrary, it is their necessary presupposition. Ecumenism is a priority for the life of the Church and it is an absolute exigency that flows from the prayer itself of the Lord: «Ut unum sint,» which becomes for every true Christian the «commandment of unity.» In sincere prayer and in the spirit of continual interior conversion, in fidelity to one’s own identity and in the common striving for the perfect charity bestowed by God, it is necessary to commit oneself with conviction to seeing to it that there are no setbacks on the journey of the ecumenical movement. The world needs our unity; it is therefore urgent that we continue to engage in the dialogue of faith with all our Christian brothers, so that Christ be a leaven in society. It is also urgent that we work together with non-Christians, that is, in intercultural dialogue to contribute together to the building of a better world, collaborating in good works and making a new and more human society possible. Even in that task Rome has a unique role of propulsion. There is no time for division; our time and energies must be spent in seeking unity.

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic] [Part 2 of this interview will be published Monday]
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