Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's guardian of orthodoxy, made the remarks in a private conversation, against a background of rumours that Dr Graham Leonard, the Anglican former Bishop of London who led the struggle against women priests in the Church of England, will be recognised as a bishop when he finally becomes a Roman Catholic.
Cardinal Basil Hume, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, will have talks in Rome next week with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger on how best to absorb those Anglicans who cannot accept women priests.
If Dr Leonard were recognised as a Roman Catholic bishop, he would become the first married Catholic bishop in England. For this reason, most Roman Catholic observers discount the possibility, pointing out that Pope John Paul II is a fierce defender of priestly celibacy.
However, Cardinal Hume said: 'There has never been any question of Dr Leonard acting as a bishop in the Catholic Church.' The speculation has centred on whether he will become a bishop without duties, a sort of beacon to other Anglicans.
Cardinal Ratzinger's comments were made as part of a high-stakes game in which elements of the Catholic Church in this country and in Rome are trying to persuade disaffected Anglicans to convert.
The stumbling block has always been the refusal of the Church of Rome to recognise that Anglican vicars are priests at all. This means that any priests who convert must be re-ordained, a point re-emphasised by Cardinal Hume last week.
This policy is based on the Papal bull Apostolicae Curae, of 1896, which pronounced Anglican orders 'utterly null and void'. However, a number of Anglican bishops, among them Dr Leonard, have been consecrated by members of a schismatic Catholic grouping, the Old Catholics, as well as by Anglican bishops. This, they believe, makes them indubitably bishops.
The Old Catholics are largely composed of European churches which broke away from Rome over the declaration of papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council in 1870. They permit priests and bishops to marry. It is not clear whether Old Catholic Orders are considered valid by the Vatican. If they were, the consequences would be immense, since there is hardly a priest in the Church of England who has not in some degree inherited the Old Catholic Orders that have entered the church since the 1930s.
It was long believed that this would supply the Vatican with a way around the difficulties of Apostolicae Curae if the negotiations for unity between the two Churches had concluded successfully.
Cardinal Ratzinger told visitors that there would have been no problem with married priests and bishops. Rome blames the shipwreck of negotiations on the Anglican decision to ordain women. When he was asked why the Vatican was now making difficulties about married clergy, the cardinal replied that the problem was one of proportionality: in other words the prize was not worth the price.
Officially, only 156 Anglican priests have approached Roman Catholic bishops with a view to converting, but some opponents of women priests are still predicting that up to 1,000 will leave over the next 10 years. After that there will be no more compensation available from the Church Commissioners for those who leave to escape from women priests.Reuse content