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Wednesday, 12 January, 2000, 15:51 GMT
A nun on the run from Rome

An Anglican priest - but the Catholic church will not ordain women

A 52-year-old nun's decision to leave her religious order over the issue of women priests because of alleged "bullying" has sparked deep unease about justice in some quarters of the Catholic church.

Dr Lavinia Byrne resigned her religious orders in protest at the church's insistence that she publicly support its traditional stand on contraception and the ordination of women priests.

A doctor of theology, a frequent contributor to BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day slot, and a self-confessed internet enthusiast, Dr Byrne has accused the Vatican of a campaign of intimidation by what used to be called the Inquisition.

With "great regret" she has decided to sever her links, not with the church, she says, but with Rome.

Fundamental issues

In 1994 Lavinia Byrne published Women at the Altar, supporting the arguments in favour of women priests - initially without provoking controversy.

Lavinia Byrne: Her books have been impounded
But when the book was published in the United States by the Liturgical Press of St John's Abbey in Minnesota the local bishop, with the support of Rome, demanded its withdrawal.

Thirteen-hundred copies now languish in the publishers' warehouse awaiting a decision on whether they should be pulped.

Dr Byrne's book offended by presenting a feminist plea that Catholic woman should be allowed to administer the sacrament, a view that conflicts with the Pope's 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, that the Catholic church cannot and will not ordain women.

The work attracted the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - formally known as the Inquisition.

The CDF demanded that Dr Byrne make a public statement supporting the Humanae Vitae, the Papal encyclical on birth control, and the church's opposition to the ordination of women. For Dr Bryne it was one bridge of faith too far.

"I am resigning because of the pressure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. I'm being silenced as a member of a religious order. The CDF won't to talk me directly but to my religious superiors, and that strategy of not dialoguing with me has become untenable," she said.

Touchy subject

By its own lights, the Catholic church's refusal to talk directly to Sister Byrne is not unusual. Where a member of a religious order steps out of line, it is normal procedure for Rome to deal with the head of the order and not the member concerned.

If the church is to be a witness for justice, it must be transparent
Dr Ian Linden
But it's the church's refusal to allow Dr Byrne to mount any defence of her position that is causing fault lines to open across the body of the church.

Dr Byrne is a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, widely considered to be the women's equivalent of the Jesuits, the intellectual crème de la crème of the church. Debate among clerics is broadly accepted, even if it involves fundamental issues of faith.

But the issue of women priests is a particularly touchy one, and a touchstone of orthodoxy.

Dr Byrne accused the Vatican of bullying
The Vatican watched with consternation the effect the issue of women priests had on the Anglican church. Powerful conservatives feared the effect a similar debate could have on the unity of the Catholic order.

For an organisation now in its third millennium, any threat to its unity is more important than a passing debate on matters of theological interpretation. Anybody who rocks the boat has to be brought into line.

But the crackdown, and the fact the Dr Byrne has not been given the chance to discuss or negotiate her position, has provoked deep unease in some sections.

"This case seems to involve a fundamental issue of justice. If the church is to be a witness for justice in the world, it must be seen to be transparently just in dealing with its own affairs," says Dr Ian Linden, Director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations.

Unless the Vatican loosens on the core issue of women priests it is unlikely there can be any compromise between Dr Byrne and the mandarins of Rome. She maintains the issue is one of conscience.

"If I kept quiet about what I really believed there would be no problems. Why should I?" she says.

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12 Jan 00 |  UK
Nun 'bullied' by Vatican

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