Religious Affairs Correspondent
Britain's leading Roman Catholic theologian yesterday accused Pope John Paul II of a "quite scandalous abuse of power" in his attempts to close off forever discussion of the ordination of women by claiming his ban on them is infallible.
Professor Nicholas Lash, the Norris-Hulse professor of divinity at Cambridge, said: "This kind of high-handed insensitivity is likely to provoke tensions within the Roman Catholic Church as great as those which the ordination of women has produced within the Anglican Communion."
The immediate cause of Professor Lash's outburst was a document issued a fortnight ago by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body which oversees doctrinal purity and sacks theologians who stray from it. This claimed that the Pope's encyclical of last year, which announced that the faithful must believe "definitively" that women cannot be priests, was part of the Church's infallible teaching, since it was proclaimed by the Pope and bishops together.
The letter appeared two days after the publication of a petition signed by 1.5 million German Catholics, calling for women priests. It has infuriated Catholics who see it as an attempt to introduce infallibility by the back door, since the bishops have not even discussed the matter.
Papal infallibility, defined at the first Vatican council in 1870, when it caused a schism in the Church, has only once been formally invoked, in 1950, when it was used to proclaim that the Virgin Mary had been transported bodily to heaven. The conditions under which it may be exercised are narrowly defined and do not cover the ordination of women.
In an article in the Tablet, Professor Lash writes: "The attempt to use the doctrine of infallibility ... is a quite scandalous abuse of power, the most likely consequence of which will be further to undermine the very authority the Pope seeks to sustain."