Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

'A priest must be a baptised man.' QED

FAITH & REASON Ludmila Javorova says she was ordained a Roman Catholic priest. You could as easily consecrate a potato, declares another Catholic. Andrew Brown investigates.
There are delightful parallels between the ordination of Florence Li Tim Oi, in Hong Kong in 1942, and that of Ludmila Javorova, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, some time after 1970. Both were acts of bishops cut off from central authority, suffering under anti-Christian foreign invaders and worried about their flocks. Both women believed from an early age that they had a vocation; both, when the emergency was over, returned to obscurity and stopped functioning as priests.

There, however, the parallels diverge. Li and her bishop never concealed that she had been ordained. Ms Javorova's obscurity was so great that she has only recently admitted what happened. Li was an Anglican and Ms Javorova is a Roman Catholic. The bishops of the Anglican Communion, meeting at the Lambeth Conference in 1948, could not utterly repudiate Florence Li Tim Oi. Reason suggested there might be two sides to the case, and that the bishop who had ordained her might have made an understandable mistake. Pope John Paul II has been solicitous to spare Catholics any such painful confusion. "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, . . . 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," he announced, on 22 May 1994.

It is of course the last phrase which gives the real difference between the Anglican and Catholic cases: "I declare . . . that this judgement is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." This shows the superiority of authority over mere reason. In relying on authority in this way the Pope is surely right, for what the Anglican experience showed is that neither scripture nor tradition nor reason can be relied on to prove women priests impossible.

The tragedy of most Anglican opponents of women priests is that they did not realise this until too late. They believed that tradition and scripture, understood reasonably, made their case unassailable. They failed to grasp that reason is a human activity, and not a faculty exercised according to wholly independent rules. The bishops of the Lambeth Conference in 1948, examining scripture and tradition in the light of reason, concluded almost unanimously that women priests were probably impossible and certainly undesirable; the bishops of the Lambeth Conference in 1988, embarked on the same exercise, were deeply divided, and next time they meet, in 1998, the supporters of women's ordination will be in a clear majority. Not many of them have abandoned the use of reason, tradition, or scripture. What has changed is their definition of rationality: their understanding of what may reasonably be argued.

It is notable that this process took place among a largely married clergy. Few of the classic arguments against women priests can be comfortably made across a table, at breakfast, to a woman of less than about 60 in this country. If reason is a human faculty, shared between men and women, then an argument that cannot convince a well-disposed woman is unreasonable. From the standpoint of most Western women, most of the arguments against women priests are based on an assumption of women's natural inferiority to men, and so are unreasonable. A celibate clergy does not suffer from such constraints.

The difference between Catholic and Anglican reasoning on this matter is not merely cultural. There is also the profound Catholic faith in the reliability of dogma to consider. To a properly educated Catholic theologian, the efficacy of the sacraments is as little in doubt as Ohm's law. One, to whom I broke the news of Ms Javorova's ordination, compared it spontaneously to an attempt to consecrate a potato. Then he realised that he had said something apparently offensive and rephrased himself. None the less, Canon 1024 of the code of Canon Law says that a priest must be a baptised man. QED.

Yet, however watertight this reasoning may be; however clear the Pope's directions are; however far the Catholic mind diverges from the Anglican or Protestant, one cannot help wondering whether they will once more converge. From the ordination of Florence Li Tim Oi in 1942 to the decision of the Church of England to ordain women took 50 years. I wonder what the Vatican will be doing in 2022.