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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 June, 2005, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Catholic woman in secret ordination
Julian Pettifer
By Julian Pettifer
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

A woman has been ordained as a priest in a secret ceremony in central Europe as an act of defiance against the Roman Catholic Church.

The woman who was "ordained" does not want to be identified

Three years ago, the Vatican moved decisively against an international movement for the ordination of women when it excommunicated the so-called Danube Seven.

Seven women had claimed the status of priests after a form of ordination ceremony held on a boat moored on the river Danube.

Now a similar ceremony has taken place in a private chapel in central Europe.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents Crossing Europe witnessed the event but only on condition the programme does not reveal the exact location or the identity of the young woman.

The unofficial ordination comes just two months after the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI who is known for his traditional views.

In the case of the Danube Seven, it was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now Pope Benedict - who declared that since the women gave no indication of repentance "for the most serious offence they have committed, they have incurred excommunication".

But his stern admonitions have been ignored. Among those conducting the ordination the BBC witnessed, were women from the Danube Seven who now describe themselves as bishops.

Act of protest

The most recent ceremony took place in an improvised chapel in the upper room of a private house.

Woman being ordained
The woman will not be able publicly to admit to her priestly status

Only about a dozen men and women attended the ceremony including those conducting it.

The programme was told the ceremony and the words used were almost identical to those laid down by the Roman Catholic Church, including a number of vows taken by the ordinand, promising to take on the responsibilities of priesthood.

Before the service, the young woman at the centre of it all spoke about her act of defiance.

She admitted it worried her, but said: "I hope that in five years, in 10 years, things will change because there are many women who would like to go the same way, and the way will be a little better prepared for them".

She said she did not wish to be identified because she feared losing her job teaching religious education.

She was not able to explain why it was worth going through all this, when at the end of the day, she would still be unable legitimately to perform any of the duties of a priest or even admit to her alleged priestly status.

We must assume it was primarily an act of protest.

Church law

That impression was confirmed by talking to Patricia, one of those conducting the ceremony, who had been ordained in a similar way.

Patricia has impeccable Catholic credentials. For 45 years she was a Dominican sister, nun and an academic, who trained with men destined for the priesthood.

Patricia, also "ordained" in a similar ceremony
An unjust law need not be adhered to
Patricia, an "ordained" Catholic
"My first feeling was: I'm doing the same study as the men, and I'm being excluded from the priesthood. It's so damned unfair," she said.

Patricia's staunch opinions are informed by her background.

She grew up in South Africa under apartheid laws that denied black people their human rights "and one of the ways to break an unjust law is to break it", she said.

I put it to her that the Church would argue that you may not challenge God's law.

But Patricia insisted there is nothing in scripture to exclude women from the priesthood: "It's a human law, a Church law, and this has been changed a number of times over the centuries. And an unjust law need not be adhered to."

'Theologically impossible'

I put some of these arguments to the President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in Rome, Archbishop John Paul Foley.

He first of all stated that the ceremony of ordination we had witnessed was "not just illicit but invalid".

Singing From a New Hymn Sheet will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 23 June, at 1102 BST
When I also put it to him that it is unfair to exclude women from the priesthood, he argued: "As a man I cannot conceive... is that unfair? By divine decision... there is this difference."

The archbishop continued that just as it is biologically impossible for a man to conceive, it is theologically impossible for a woman to be a priest.

The day following the "ordination", I attended mass at a local church and talked to the congregation about women priests.

I made no mention of the ceremony I had witnessed, but every person questioned, male and female, young and old, said they would welcome women into the Roman Catholic priesthood.

When I put this to Archbishop Foley, he said: "I don't think you win a war by surrender. The question is, what did Jesus want? What did he reveal? And what does the Church authoritatively teach?

"That's the norm by which we must judge, not by opinion polls."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents Crossing Europe was broadcast on Thursday, 23 June, 2005, at 1102 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 27 June, 2005, at 2030 BST.

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