ROME -- Pope John Paul II told the world's Roman Catholics yesterday to abandon any thought of women being ordained as priests, saying that the issue was not open to debate and that his views must be "definitively held by all the church's faithful."
Although the pope's words fell just short of a formal statement of infallible doctrine, the particularly severe and authoritative tone of his letter to bishops suggested that he was seeking to remove the idea from the Catholic agenda for decades to come.
Coming only three days after the Vatican unveiled the English translation of its new universal catechism -- originally submitted with gender-neutral language, but altered to refer to "man," for example, instead of "humanity" -- the statement seemed certain to reinforce the impression of a papacy wary of feminist intrusion.
"Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal tradition of the church and firmly taught by the magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force," the letter said.
"Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren 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," it said.
Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a comment reflecting an awareness that the papal letter might cause turmoil in important segments of the American church.
He emphasized that "the Catholic Church affirms the fundamental equality of women and men" in leadership as well as in basic dignity, although leadership of different sorts.
Archbishop Keeler addressed "all those who might find this further affirmation of the church's authentic teaching difficult to accept." He asked them "to receive it lovingly" and "pray for understanding."
The pope's apostolic letter was entitled "On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone."
The Vatican says that the priesthood should be reserved for men on the scriptural grounds that Jesus Christ chose only male apostles.
"The church has always acknowledged as a perennial norm her Lord's way of acting in choosing the 12 men whom he made the foundations of his church," the pope said yesterday.
He also referred to statements issued by Pope Paul VI that linked Christ's choice of men with the symbolic role of the priest in representing Jesus at the altar.
Women should accept this "as the faithful observance of a plan to be ascribed to the wisdom of the Lord of the universe," the pope said.
An official statement accompanying the papal letter described the teaching excluding women from the priesthood as "certainly true."
"Therefore, since it does not belong to matters freely open to dispute, it always requires the full and unconditional assent of the faithful, and to teach the contrary is equivalent to leading consciences into error," the statement said.
Inos Biffi, a theologian in Milan, Italy, said that the document's significance lay "not so much in the content as the form."
"The doctrine of reserving the ordination of priests for men is part of the patrimony of the church," he said. "But in declaring it, that is, in defining it, the pope has brought to bear all his special authority," which the theologian described as "nonfallible" to indicate that it was just short of "infallible."
While the letter represented no departure from the pope's long-held views, its sweeping injunction against discussion of female priests coincided with a wider debate among Christians about the role of women.
In March, the Anglican Church admitted women priests for the first time, dividing its own ranks and sending a chill over its relations with Rome. Yesterday's letter, some Vatican officials suggested, may have been designed in part to tell Anglican priests opposed to the ordination of women that they would find a long-term spiritual home in the Catholic Church.
Last month, the Vatican formally allowed women to become altar-servers, but made clear at the time that this was not a step toward women becoming priests.