Justice in the Church
A Million Voices
Conscience, Dissent, and the Non-Ordination of Women

"Whether or not the sanctions work depends on whether or not people accede to them. I believe it is not sanctions, but rather the fear of sanctions and our consequent self-silencing, that enables the institution to have power over our lives and effect its desires. We need to inspire our Catholics to speak up courageously for, if they do not, their own moral adulthood will be dwarfed and our Church will be the poorer." Sr. Jeannine Gramick

Conscience, Dissent and The Non-Ordination of Women

This information is meant to summarize important considerations from Catholic teaching for those who are committed to continuing the discussion of women’s ordination in the Catholic Church.

Pope John Paul II’s 1994 encyclical on the non-ordination of women (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis) prompted both deep soul searching and extended debate by theologians, canon lawyers, laity and clergy. This teaching led to intense examination of what is meant by the “infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium” (teaching office of the Church) and to what extent it is possible for a Pope on his own authority to invoke it without consulting the world’s bishops. (Gaillardetz, Coriden) The theological debate is ongoing and not likely to end any time soon. This is because documents from the Second Vatican Council (Lumen Gentium 25 d-e) make clear that five conditions must be fulfilled before the “universal ordinary magisterium” can be considered to have exercised infallible teaching:

The bishops of the world must be involved in a collegial exercise of teaching authority.

The bishops must be free to express their own considered opinion.

The bishops must listen to the Word of God and the sensus fidelium.

The teaching must concern matters relating to the object of faith.

The bishops must want to impose the doctrine as definitely to be held.

None of these five conditions were fulfilled in the attempt to designate the non-ordination of women as being infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. (Wijngaards) Nevertheless on May18, 1998, Pope John Paul II signed into law Ad Tuendam Fidem (To Defend the Faith), an apostolic letter designating canonical punishments for those who do not assent to this and other “definitively proposed” teachings. This document extended juridical rule in the Church far beyond what had heretofore been the case. According to renowned canonist Fr. James Coriden:

The [Ad Tuendam Fidem] letter inserted into the canons a category of "definitively proposed" teachings about faith or morals which must be "accepted and held," and a provision to permit the punishment of anyone who "pertinaciouslyrejects" such teachings and fails to make a retraction after being admonished to do so. The precise punishment is not specified, but excommunicationis not excluded. (Coriden)

Even though the category of “definitively proposed” teachings had been included in the official profession of faith since 1989, Coriden says: it had not been included in the Church's canons, and, more importantly, the rejection of these teachings was not a punishable offense until now. (Coriden)

It is probably not surprising then, that cardinals, bishops and pastors soon began to silence or otherwise sanction Catholic laity, members of religious orders, priests and theologians who, in conscience, continued to discuss the possibility that God may be calling women to ordained ministry as well as men. Since Church officials in Rome now had canonical punishments available, they undoubtedly hoped the discussion of women’s ordination would end once and for all. But such hopes proved premature.

Widespread Support For The Ordination of Catholic Women

Since 1998, surveys have regularly shown a significant majority of Catholics (58-75% depending on the poll) believe the Church should open ordination to women. Academic research has continued unabated. Two significant books, Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History (Madigan, Osiek) and The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West (Macy) were published by Catholic scholars in 2005 and 2008 respectively. These works document the history of ordained women deacons in the early Church and publicize newly discovered ordination rituals for women that date to the Middle Ages.

Taken together with the expanding numbers of women serving in pastoral roles in the Church worldwide, not to mention the unprecedented ordination of some 100 Catholic women as priests, deacons and bishops against the laws of the Catholic Church, it is clear that the issue of Catholic women’s ordination is far from resolved. It is a fact that women in the twenty first century serve in the same vocational and professional roles that men do. This means that Catholic parents are increasingly at a loss to explain to their daughters and sons why women are excluded from the priesthood. Many Catholics feel guilty or disloyal to the Church if they speak up about issues that trouble their consciences as the teaching on the non-ordination of women frequently does.

A Right and Duty to Speak

Too often, Catholics raised in the “pay, pray and obey” culture of Catholicism are unaware that Church law tells us it is not only our right but sometimes our duty to speak out about matters which concern the good of the Church. (Canon 212.3) Most Catholics are surprised to learn the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church is that whenever there is conflict between one’s conscience and Church teaching, one must always obey one’s conscience. In fact two giants of Catholic thought, St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal John Henry Newman strongly supported the rights of conscience:

Anyone upon whom the ecclesiastical authority, in ignorance of the true facts, imposes a demand that offends against his clear conscience, should perish in excommunication rather than violate his conscience. (Thomas Aquinas quoted in Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism. Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1980 p.1003)

Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-diner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink, --to the Pope, if you please, --still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards” (John Henry Newman: Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, quoted in John T. Ford, Dancing the Tight Rope: Newman’s view of Theology. CTSA Proceedings 40, 1985, p.133.)

What follows is a brief summary of Church teaching about conscience and responsible dissent. I offer it with the hope of helping ordinary Catholics reclaim a rich tradition that not only values the voice of God “echoing in their depths” but respects their freedom, indeed their responsibility to act upon it.

Catholic Teaching on Conscience

Two documents from Vatican II shape contemporary Catholic teaching on conscience, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Guadium et Spes GS) and The Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitates Humanae DH ).

Gaudium et Spes tells us: Deep within their consciences men and women discover a law which they have not laid upon themselves and which they must obey....to do what is good and to avoid evil….Their dignity rests in observing this law and by it they will be judged. Their conscience is people’s most sacred core and their sanctuary… There they are alone with God whose voice echoes in their depths. (GS 16)

Dignitatis Humanae says: … the human person has a right to religious freedom … no men or women are forced to act against their convictions nor are any persons to be restrained from acting in accordance with their convictions in religious matters… It is in accordance with their dignity that all human being… are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. (DH 2)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has an excellent summary of how Catholic teaching views conscience. For our purposes, the following two paragraphs, based on the preceding Vatican II documents, are most pertinent:

Man [sic] has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters. (CCC 1782)

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed. (CCC 1790)

Of course, Catholic teaching emphasizes that an individual’s conscience does not exist in a vacuum but requires one to educate or “form” his or her conscience:

The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. (CCC 1784) Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. (CCC 1783)

Moral theologians delineate three levels on which conscience operates:

  1. Conscience desires to do good: This is general human knowledge within which we desire to do good and avoid evil (see GS above). (O’ Connell)
  2. Conscience searches for what is good. It is in this area of conscience that the Church plays its greatest role. However this search is not accountable to the Church per se, but to the truth, and so conscience at this level consults authorities outside of and in addition to the Church. It seeks to discover concretely what is good or evil about any given issue. (O’ Connell)
  3. Conscience chooses to do good according to what one believes to be good. This is the concrete judgment on the part of a person about what to do in a particular situation. Conscience urges us to do or act according to what we believe to be right and avoid what we believe to be evil. At this level of practicality, one must obey one’s conscience even if it is in conflict with Church teaching. (O’ Connell)

Responsible Dissent

If one finds one’s educated and carefully formed conscience in conflict with Church teaching, how is one to act? In 1968, in response to widespread public rejection of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical banning contraception, the U.S. Catholic bishops proposed three norms for theological dissent in their pastoral letter "Human Life in Our Day." The bishops stated, "The expression of theological dissent from the magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and is such as not to give scandal."

The following expanded criteria build on what the bishops’ articulated. They are quoted from an article by theologian Sr. Elisabeth Johnson published in Commonweal on January 26, 1996. (Johnson)

  1. Responsible dissent begins as an act of conscience and continues as part of a committed life in the Church. It is not habitual but arises in particular instances out of concern for the truth. It requires a certain discipline in order to be done well. The value guiding it in all cases should be the common good. Differing with institutional authorities in the Church must always be for the Church, for the present and future growth of the whole community in truth and love. With that controlling value in place, several discrete norms shape individual and corporate dissent.
  2. Responsible dissent takes place in the context of a deep and abiding assent to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the Church's tradition which interprets it.
  3. At the outset, the presumption is in favor of the particular teaching. One should try through prayer and study with an open mind to appreciate the reasons for the present position. If, through this effort, serious and well-founded reasons for holding a contrary opinion persist so that it is impossible in integrity of mind and heart to agree, then one must disagree.
  4. There should be self-criticism about motivation, testing whether dissent is driven by innate hostility or some other hidden agenda, rather than by sincere conviction of the truth.
  5. Since public dissent can detract from certain community values, it must be weighed and decided that the good to be accomplished is in proportion to the possible harm that might result.
  6. The manner of dissent should be respectful of the leadership office in the Church, not impugning it although disagreeing in this instance.
  7. Presentation of one's views should also respect the consciences of others in the community who disagree, and the situation of those who have not investigated or cannot investigate complex issues.
  8. While clear in resistance, the voice of dissent should be inviting a dialogue, rather than competitive in a win-lose way. The overall purpose is to promote the truth in love by urging the teaching office of the Church to deeper listening and reflection.

Over the years, informed, responsible disagreement has been a gift to the Church whereby the criticism born of love has empowered growth. In my view, the recent non-infallible statement about the alleged infallibility of the tradition about women's ordination calls for just this sort of response.


While present Catholic teaching on the non-ordination of women frequently gives rise to conflicts of conscience for many faithful Catholics, there are other serious concerns today about the way authority is exercised about matters completely unrelated to Catholic teaching. These include, for example, decisions to close solvent, vibrant parishes against the will of the people, cover up of clergy sex abuse, unjust treatment of Church employees, failure to appropriately involve parishioners in decisions to terminate apostolically fruitful programs and in the selection of their pastors and bishops.

Too often Catholics cede unwarranted levels of authority to Church officials in ordinary things and this can lead to the aforementioned abuses of power. This brochure is meant to provide Catholics with an understanding of both the sacredness of their consciences and their sacred duty to educate, inform, and yes, follow their conscience even when it disagrees with Church teaching. If it also encourages Catholics to act when they experience an inappropriate exercise of authority in their parishes and dioceses, so much the better.

This brochure was written Christine Schenk CSJ, who has Masters degrees in Midwifery and Theology and is the Executive Director Emerita of FutureChurch.

For tools to discuss pressing issues facing the Catholic Church and to resist unjust suppression of that discussion by some Church officials, download FutureChurch’s free A Million Voices resource at www.futurechurch.org. The free download includes reprints of many of the article listed above.


Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994.

Coriden, Fr. James A. “Punishing Dissent: Coralling Theologians, Containing Bishops,” Commonweal, 1998.

Documents of Vatican II. Walter M. Abbott, SJ, editor. Piscataway, New Jersey: America Press (New Century Publishers), 1966.

Fessio, Fr. Joseph and Fiedler, Sr. Maureen. Can Women Receive the Sacrament of Orders? 1998 debate at Georgetown University with an introduction by Fr. Augustin DiNoia. CD audio available at www.futurechurch.org.

Gaillardetz, Richard R.Note on the CDF Responsum ad Dubium regarding the Authoritative Status of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.” Louvain Studies 21 (1996) pp. 3-24; re-published at http://www.ministryforwomen.org/theology/gaill2.asp with permission from the author and the editor of Louvain Studies.

Gramick, Sr. Jeannine. The Place of Silencing in the Teaching of the Church. Presentation delivered at Haverford College, Philadelphia, PA, Sept. 16, 2000. Available at http://www.womenpriests.org/teaching/gramick.asp.

Johnson, Elizabeth A. “Disputed questions: authority, priesthood, women.” Commonweal, 123, (1996) pp. 8-10.

Lakeland, Paul. Catholicism at the Crossroads: How the Laity Can Save the Church. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Macy, Gary. The Hidden History of Women’s Ordination: Female Clergy in the Medieval West. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Madigan, Kevin and Osiek, Carolyn. Ordained Women in the Early Church: A Documentary History. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

McBrien, Richard P. Catholicism. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981.

O’Connell, Timothy E. Principles for a Catholic Morality. New York: Seabury (Crossroad), 1978.

Orsy, Ladislas. Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009.

Taylor, Richard K. Love in Action: A Direct-Action Handbook for Catholics Using Gospel Nonviolence to Reform and Renew the Church. Philadelphia: R.K. Taylor, 2007. Available for purchase at www.futurechurch.org.

Thavis, John. Ratzinger- Supporting Women’s Ordination Called Serious Error But Not Heresy Catholic News Service, January 30, 1997.

US Conference of Catholic Bishops Ten Frequently Asked Questions About the Reservation of Priestly Ordination to Men http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/priesthood/ten-frequently-asked-questions-about-the-reservation-of-priestly-ordination-to-men.cfm)

Wijngaards, J.N. The Ordinary Universal Magisterium http://www.womenpriests.org/teaching/mag_ord.asp

Women’s Ordination Conference. Top Ten Reasons to Ordain Women. Available from the (http://www.womensordination.org/resources/top-ten-reasons-to-ordain-women/)