The recent news of Pope Francis’s surprise motu proprio Spiritus Domini inflamed old debates about feminism and women’s ordination. Responses in Catholic media have ranged from rather bland “nothing to see here” commentary focused on the historical development of the minor orders to more colorful and vociferous criticism from both progressive and traditionalist camps—the former for not doing enough to push women into the priesthood, the latter for doing too much to nudge women towards the diaconate. In reality, this motu proprio—which opens up the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte to women that had been previously restricted to men—reflects a significant theological development and is worth considering at a deeper level.

Among the Francis-skeptical or traditionalist commentariat, it appears that a certain reading of the document—perhaps with what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI would call a “hermeneutic of suspicion”—has prevailed and sown confusion. Peter Kwasniewski framed his first piece on the motu proprio on LifeSiteNews with the suggestion that it “fits snugly into this larger pattern of rupture from Catholic tradition.” Foreclosing any possibility for assent to this papal teaching, Kwasniewski said, “There has been no adequate explanation and there will not be, because any attempt at explanation would expose the latent confusion about baptismal dignity and the underlying clericalism, feminism, and activism of the project.” The next day, the English translation of the explanatory letter from Pope Francis to Cardinal Ladaria of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was made available on the Vatican website.

Over on YouTube, Timothy Gordon, in a livestreamed video recorded on January 11th, told his audience that “Francis, as you and I know, likes to sneak around the rules and use ‘death by 1000 cuts’-style incrementalism,” and characterized the motu proprio as “that spirit of Vatican II gobbledygook nonsense.” Using terminology familiar to conspiracy theorists, Gordon suggested that although Pope Francis did not move forward with admitting women to the diaconate in some form following the Amazon Synod in 2019 (Francis instead referred the matter for theological consideration by a new commission), this was a “psyop.” He suggested that instituting women as acolytes or lectors is a covert way for Francis to provide the “powers” of a deacon to women.

On OnePeterFive, contributor Dan Millette takes the news as merely one more tragedy to add to the list for 2021, noting that “This motu proprio was released mere days following the collapse of hope in the United States and much of the world” and tying women reading at Mass to the end of Christian civilization. Fr. Peter Stravinskas writes in Catholic World Report that the motu proprio “eviscerates the clear teaching” of Pope John Paul II Christifidelis Laici, illustrating rupture in another form. He ignores that the concept of the “lay minister” (in addition to the sacred ministry of ordained clergy) is well-established—even taken for granted—by numerous Vatican documents and bishops’ conferences. Fr. Stravinskas finds it difficult to believe that the current pope might have taken into account the opinions and teaching of recent popes as part of his process of rendering judgment for the Church today, while also demanding to know what “consultative process” Francis followed before changing canon law.

Unsurprisingly, there is a not-so-subtle sexism which seems to animate much of this commentary. Gordon dwells on the notion that if women are serving on the altar, “There will be separate garments for these lay women who act as lector and who act as acolyte. So if you think this is just no big deal, then think again.” Rather than echo even some small measure of thanks for the tireless service many women have offered to their parishes for decades, Fr. Stravinskas waves women’s participation away as mere liturgical abuse, condescendingly noting that “Lord knows just about everyone has a grandmother who has been distributing Holy Communion for years on end.” (Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a grandmother who took Holy Communion to homebound parishioners every week for years, until she no longer could, and thankfully her pastor knows how to say ‘thank you’ rather than to mock her service to the Church.)

Perhaps it is Pope Francis’s overt expression of gratitude for the contributions of women to the daily running of the Church that is so “triggering”? In 2020 Pope Francis seemed to lay the groundwork for Spiritus Domini in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia, which reflected on the role of women in the Church in the Amazon: “For centuries, women have kept the Church alive…through their remarkable devotion and deep faith.” (QA 99). In contrast to his critics, Francis recognizes the contributions women have made to the Church and this motivates his desire to continue to make space for women to do more. In October 2020 he said after an Angelus address that “none of us was baptized neither priest nor bishop: we were all baptized as lay persons, male and female.” Calling for “a more vivid feminine presence in the Church,” he prayed that “by virtue of baptism, the lay faithful, especially women, may participate more in the institutions of responsibility in the Church, without falling into the clericalisms that nullify the lay charism and also tarnish the face of Holy Mother Church.”

There is not much use in arguing against oppositional commentaries on Spiritus Domini, as they are built upon the sands of logical fallacy, fear and anger, but they should be exposed to some testing winds. All of these responses rest upon the basic assumption that the pope—whose duty is to serve the Church and who is fully authorized to make changes to canon law “on his own initiative”—is not only acting in bad faith and against the Faith of the Church, but that this is indisputable.

All of them take for granted that this is a deliberate step on the path to women’s priestly ordination, something Francis has specifically and repeatedly reiterated is an “impossibility,” including in this text. Indeed, the declaration in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis that “the Church ‘does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination’” forms the very basis for Francis’s change to canon law governing instituted ministries. Speaking of the prior reservation of non-ordained ministries of lector and acolyte “to men alone,” he writes: “for non-ordained ministries it is possible, and today it seems opportune, to overcome this reservation.”

In the space that opens up when we close the possibility of women’s ordination to the priesthood, we can examine and even dream creatively with Francis about the ways to bring women organically into the life of the Church—in ways that acknowledge the significance of their contributions to the life of the Church. Additionally, formally admitting women to lay ministerial roles enriches our understanding of ordained ministry and how lay and ordained ministers cooperate to build up the Church. In this decision, Pope Francis echoes past magisterial teaching on the need for women to “participate more widely also in the various sectors of the Church’s apostolate,” and is a response to the Church’s desire to have its understanding of the apostolic commitment of women to “come to maturity.” The complaints of a “hermeneutic of rupture” conceal the real continuity of Spiritus Domini in its development of the doctrine of the baptismal priesthood within the very theological categories Francis’s critics suggest he has tossed out.

In his explanatory letter, the pope provides a concise sketch of the process of a true development of doctrine that has taken place in the Catholic Church in the 20th and 21st centuries. Pope Francis frames this change to canon 230 as a doctrinal development and provides a positive argument for this development. He situates it within the context of the teaching on the baptismal priesthood, on instituted “lay ministries” that are based upon it, and on a growing appreciation for the roles of women in the Church.

The change implemented in Spiritus Domini—the admission of women to the instituted ministries of lector and acolyte—is the result of theological reflection that has woven together distinctly developing theological threads from the past fifty years.

The first thread is the Church’s advancement in the theology of women and Francis’s own appreciation for women’s contributions at all levels. The second thread is the understanding of the “common priesthood of the faithful,” rooted in baptism, which is described in Lumen Gentium as “in its own special way…a participation in the one priesthood of Christ” (para. 10). The final thread, closely tied to the second, is the Church’s understanding of ecclesial ministries, which are instituted by the Church and may be entrusted to a person who has received baptism and confirmation on that basis alone. The result is that it is now clear to the Church that “these lay ministries, since they are based on the Sacrament of Baptism, may be entrusted to all suitable faithful, whether male or female.”

Francis frames Spiritus Domini in terms of the development of doctrine not only because this is a mode of explanation for “changes” in Church teaching, but because the Church since Vatican II has specifically called for theological reflection and further development on the matter of baptismal priesthood, the ministries rooted in it, and the role of women in the Church. A fundamental development in the Church’s understanding of the baptismal priesthood since the Council is the commitment to its universality: both men and women share equally in it.

Subsequent reflection on this reality has reaffirmed that women and men share in Christ’s priestly office. In his 1988 letter on women, Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II stated unequivocally that “all the baptized share in the one priesthood of Christ, both men and women” (para. 27). Recognizing this reality as “of fundamental importance for understanding the Church in her essence,” John Paul reiterated that “all in the Church are ‘a kingdom of priests,’” and reflected with gratitude on the contributions of many women to the Church throughout Christian history.

Francis, in continuity with the Council and his recent predecessors, insists on growing the Church’s understanding of the baptismal priesthood. This is not a way for the laity to seize spaces of power and to occupy them alongside the clergy, but is a way to nourish the Body of Christ. This nourishment comes from the interrelatedness of all members of the Body who participate in the one priesthood of Christ. “Ecclesial life is nourished by this reciprocal reference and is nourished by the fruitful tension between these two poles of the priesthood, ministerial and baptismal, which despite their distinction are rooted in the one priesthood of Christ.” Referring to Lumen Gentium, Francis says: “In the context of renewal outlined by the Second Vatican Council, there is an increasing sense of urgency today to rediscover the co-responsibility of all the baptized in the Church.” In this he echoes John Paul II, who identifies the ministries of service exercised by the lay faithful in Christifidelis Laici as “treasures that complement one another for the good of all,” a way of the Holy Spirit’s guiding of the Church, “calling them to be, each in an individual way, active and coresponsible” (para 20-21).

Pope Francis has decided with this declaration that now is the time to draw all these threads together to continue weaving the tapestry of the Church. He has acted with hope that it will be constructive, fruitful, and ultimately beautiful. For Francis, Vatican II and Paul VI’s revisions to the recognition of non-ordained ministries that followed must always be read through lenses of dynamic continuity, and “should not be interpreted as a substitution of previous doctrine.” It is an “implementation of the dynamism that typifies the nature of the Church, always called with the help of the Spirit of Truth to respond to the challenges of every age, in obedience to Revelation.”

The Church has much more to explore in her theological understanding of the role of the laity—and specifically lay ministry—in her mission, and Francis is eager for that work to continue. This is the mission Francis now seeks to carry out. Envisioning a “fruitful synergy born of the mutual ordination of the ordained priesthood and the baptismal priesthood,” he expresses an optimistic vision of the reciprocal service of the ordained and non-ordained ministries that prevents the Church “from being wrapped up in the barren logic aimed above all at claiming spaces of power, and helping her to experience herself a spiritual community” which is always “outward” bound, on mission.


Image: Adobe Stock, by ChiccoDodiFC


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Rachel Amiri is a graduate from the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science. Formerly Editor-in-Chief of a campus newspaper, Rachel has worked in the areas of publishing and as an Creighton Model practioner.

Spiritus Domini: Development in Continuity
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