VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican's doctrinal congregation has decreed formally that a woman who attempts to be ordained a Catholic priest and the person attempting to ordain her are automatically excommunicated.
"Both the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the woman who attempts to receive a sacred order, incur an excommunication latae sententiae," or automatically, said a decree from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The brief "General Decree Regarding the Delict of Attempted Sacred Ordination of a Woman" was published on the front page of the May 30 edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. It said it "comes into force immediately."
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U.S. Cardinal William J. Levada, prefect of the congregation, who signed the decree, said it was published "in order to protect the nature and validity" of the sacrament of holy orders.
While only a handful of cases of the attempted ordination of women occur each year, the ceremonies themselves are given widespread publicity as are the decrees of excommunication that have been pronounced by the bishop of the place where the ceremonies are held.
Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the doctrinal congregation, told Catholic News Service May 30 that the decree explicitly applies what canon law says about the offense of attempting to enact a sacrament.
"The problem is not that all of a sudden there was a tsunami of attempted ordinations of women," Di Noia said, but that the Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches "never anticipated that such a thing would happen."
The decree was needed "for the good of the church and to ensure bishops have a common way of responding" when such ceremonies are held in their dioceses, he said.
Di Noia said the decree makes clear the fact that the people directly involved in an attempted ordination of a woman excommunicate themselves automatically; it is not a penalty imposed by the local bishop or the universal church.
Since the excommunication is not imposed, there is no possibility of appeal, he said: "The only recourse is repentance.
"The church has said it is authorized to ordain only baptized men and in that way is following the example of Christ," he said.
In a 1994 apostolic letter, "On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone," Pope John Paul II said the church's ban on women priests is definitive and not open to debate among Catholics.
The all-male priesthood does not represent discrimination against women, but fidelity to Christ's example and his plan for the church, the pope said.
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"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," he wrote.
A few months later, during one of his weekly general audiences, Pope John Paul said, "one cannot contest the permanent and normative value" of the church's practice of ordaining only men by arguing that Jesus simply acted in accord with "the prevailing mentality of his age and the prejudices which then and later existed to the detriment of women."
"In reality," the pope had said, "Jesus never conformed to a mentality unfavorable to women and, in fact, he reacted against inequalities."
Ordination, like the other sacraments, must be conferred in obedience to the will of Christ, the pope said at the audience. "Jesus entrusted the task of ministerial priesthood only to persons of the male sex."
Less than a year later, the doctrinal congregation -- headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI -- issued a declaration saying the church teaching that women cannot be ordained priests belongs "to the deposit of faith" and has been taught "infallibly."