In April 1976 the Pontifical Biblical Commission concluded unanimously: “It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.” In further deliberation, the commission voted 12-5 in favour of the view that Scripture alone does not exclude the ordination of women, and 12-5 in favour of the view that the church could ordain women to the priesthood without going against Christ’s original intentions.
As is well known, this was ignored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (aka CDF), which promulgated few months later the infamous document “Inter Insigniores – On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood,” arguing that “the Church” (sic: they are referring to the episcopal hierarchy, i.e. themselves), cannot ordain women to the priesthood.
People may not know it, but something similar – indeed even worse – happened with regard to the question of women deacons. That is, the original study commissioned to the International Theological Commission by Paul VI on the subject was suppressed, and never officially published. No surprise there: the evidence that women deacons were indeed ordained – and in a way understood to be identical to that of their male counterparts – for more than a thousand years is both abundant and incontrovertible. But successive Popes have apparently found that very difficult to accept.
Interestingly, most observers believe that the suppressed study was later published as an article in Orientalia Christiana Periodica in 1974 by Cipriano Vagaggini. Vagaggini was then member of the International Theological Commission to which Paul VI had commissioned the study, and while no radical, that article makes it clear that he was a conscientious scholar: the amount of evidence assessed in it is truly remarkable. Its conclusion was that the ordination of women deacons for more than a thousand years was as sacramental as that of their male colleagues. Below I quote one of the final paragraphs of the study:
If one accepts what has been said thus far, one must also acknowledge the following conclusion: theologically, in virtue of the use of the Byzantine Church, it appears that women can receive diaconal ordination, which, by nature and dignity, is equated to the ordination of the deacons, and not simply to that of the subdeacons or lectors, and much less, to use the terminology of today, to that of some lesser ministry constituted by what today one would call a simple benediction.
A similar dismissal of uncomfortable theological findings had happened before, with regard to the Humanae Vitae affair on contraception: the Pope first established his own commission of experts, the famed “Pontifical Commission on Birth Control,” only to completely disregard its findings on the basis that they would have required them to admit that their predecessors had been wrong.
So it is important to notice that what’s happened repeatedly since Vatican II: namely, that while the principle was accepted in theory that doctrinal statements need to be based on the relevant (exegetical, theological, etc) evidence/expertise, such a principle has in fact been disregarded whenever the findings run counter to ingrained beliefs and opinions of the hierarchy – and the more so when such findings would threaten the current power-structure of the church, as the admission of women to the ordained ministry would do.
But as Father Thomas Reese SJ has been fond of repeating, any multinational in which the CEOs routinely ignore, or are in no speaking terms with, the R&D department is doomed to perform very poorly indeed. QED.