The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, demanded 'clarification' from the Vatican after Pope John Paul II denied the possibility of ordaining women.
'At the present time, in some places, it is considered still open to debate,' the Pope wrote in a letter to all his brother bishops published yesterday. 'Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance . . . I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.'
This is the strongest restatement of Catholic opposition since the Church of England decided to ordain women. That decision has led to the departure of at least 100 Anglican priests, most of them to the Roman Catholic Church.
The question splits both churches. A deputation of Belgian Catholics appeared when the first women were ordained in Britain on
12 April and prayed publicly that their church abandon its 'ossified' refusal to do the same.
Dr Carey, in his response to the Pope's letter, says: 'The arguments it advances have been fully considered during discussions within the Church of England and other Christian churches, and were not found convincing.'
The letter 'appears to deny the Church's continuing responsibility to discern the mind of Christ,' Dr Carey said. 'The Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church have already reached substantial agreement on a number of matters which previously divided us. However, this statement . . . seems to call into question continuing dialogue on this issue, and some clarification is required of the Roman Catholic Church as to how it sees the future of ecumenical endeavour.'
The Pope's letter is 'as authoritative as it can be without being infallible' according to Mgr Phillip Carroll, general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. Though it does no more than restate a position argued by successive Popes in 1977, 1988 and 1992, it is clearly an attempt to end the dispute for ever. The fundamental Vatican argument is that when Jesus chose only men for his Apostles he was acting with divine free will, not in conformity with the culture of his time. That, the Pope claims, shows women have no place in God's plan as priests.
However, the Pope's letter also says: 'The presence and role of women in the life and mission of the Church remains absolutely indispensable . . . The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints.'
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