Last month, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Luis Ladaria SJ, took to the pages of L’Osservatore Romano to reiterate and clarify the position of the Church regarding the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood.

His comments were unsolicited and came out of the blue. Why did the archbishop (soon to be a cardinal) feel the need to reaffirm such a well-known teaching, set out with magisterial authority by St John Paul II in 1994? And why now?

To some commentators it looked like a veiled rebuke to the hugely influential Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who had remarked to Die Presse in an Eastertide interview: “Ordination [of women] is a question that surely can only be settled by a Council. A pope cannot decide this by himself. This is too large a question for it to be settled from the desk of a pope.”

Cardinal Schönborn’s carefully chosen words referred ostensibly – though not explicitly – to the ordination of women as priests. They could, however, be taken to encompass another question: the ordination of women as deacons, which, as Cardinal Schönborn indicated in the interview, has not been ruled out as impossible. The subject is now back on the Church’s agenda after Pope Francis appointed a commission to study the question in 2016.

The topic is both delicate and complex. The intervention of two such senior Church figures shows that it is also pressing.

In a nutshell, the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, reaffirmed by John Paul II in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, is that the Church will never confer priestly ordination on women. Even if she wanted to, she cannot. The divine constitution of the Church given by Christ is such that the Church can confer priestly ordination only on men.

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