Pope bans British nun's book about female priests

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The Independent Online
A BOOK on women priests written by a British Catholic nun, who is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, has been banned and 1,300 copies of it confiscated on the orders of the Vatican.

Woman at the Altar by Sister Lavinia Byrne, a theologian, has been removed from the shelves of her American publishers the Liturgical Press, a firm run by Benedictine monks.

The monks are storing the books in a warehouse until they decide whether to burn them or have them pulped.

Kieran Conry, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said he had never come across an incident like it. "Apparently something like this happened 70 years ago but I have never seen it happen," said Mr Conry.

"The Church cannot ban the sale of a book. It can only put pressure on bishops to say that publishers can't sell it. The publishers in this case were obviously under real pressure from the Church."

The books were taken from the Liturgical Press in Collegeville, Minnesota, after the local bishop received an order from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The demand to remove the book follows an earlier request from the superiors of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of which Sister Byrne is a member, for the theologian not to speak in public about the subject of women and ordination.

The request for silence was made after publication of the Pope's apostolic letter, On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone.

Mark Twomey, managing editor of Liturgical Press, said: "Our bishop, Bishop John Kinney, received a letter from the office at the Vatican, complaining that we had sold the book, and so we were asked to remove them." He said the book did not follow the current teachings of the Pope, which prohibits the discussion of women's ordination.

"We have decided to act on the Vatican's request. The books are in the warehouse until we decide what to do with them. They could be incinerated or they could be pulped." If the books are to be incinerated, they will be fed into the company's recycling centre where waste material is burned to provide heat and light at the plant. "We are an official Church publisher and we must follow what the Church teaches," he said.

Sister Lavinia said: "I find it very distressing that any publication should be burned in the 1990s, but there is nothing I can do."

She was asked to write the book by Mowbray's, a secular imprint, when she was working at the Council of Churches for Britain as associate secretary for the Community of Women and Men in the Church.

Sister Lavinia, whose job required her to reflect and comment on the place of women in the Church and society, had previously edited three collections of women's writings. She also received an honourary doctorate from the University of Birmingham which recognises the importance of her research into women and the Church.

"The book was retroactive and was submitted in good faith," she said. "I had fulfilled my contract and achieved the task expected of me."

Woman at the Altar was completed by October 1993, seven months before the Pope issued his apostolic letter, Sister Lavinia stressed. "The really crucial point is that the book was completed by 1993. By May 1994 the manuscript had already gone to press," she said.

"At considerable inconvenience the publishers accepted my request to publish the apostolic letter at the end of the book, ensuring the Pope's teaching should feature as the `last word' in this debate."

She said Woman at the Altar was "a book of the moment". "There is no way in which I or any other theologian could write it nowadays and I have not spoken in public or lectured about it since I was asked not to by my legitimate religious superiors in July 1995."

A spokeswoman for Mowbray's said that they would continue to stock the book. The publishers were even considering reprinting it in the light of the incident in America, she added. "Should orders come in from the States we will be supplying America and, should interest grow in the book following the events there, we will be reprinting it."

Mr Conry said he thought events in Minnesota would definitely renew interest in the book in the UK. "They should re-advertise it under the slogan `Read the book banned by the Church'."