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Publisher destroys book on Vatican’s order

NCR Staff

Liturgical Press of Collegeville, Minn., has destroyed 1,300 copies of a book that promotes ordaining women as Catholic priests. The publisher was acting on a request from Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., who, in turn, was acting on a directive from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The book, Woman at the Altar by Sr. Lavinia Byrne of Cambridge, England, was published in 1994 by Mowbray in Dorset, England, shortly before Pope John Paul II insisted that the church’s ban on women priests be “definitively held” by all Catholics. Liturgical Press bought North American rights and began distributing the book in 1995.

Jesuit Fr. Michael Barnes, editor of The Way in London, said Byrne is under Vatican investigation and has been asked to retract arguments in the book that violate church teaching.

Byrne, well known in theological circles in England, is a member of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is a former coeditor of The Way, a quarterly journal of Christian spirituality, and a regular contributor to The Tablet of London. Byrne is refusing interviews. Barnes said she has been “considering her position” in relation to the Vatican investigation.

Editors at Liturgical Press said the Vatican congregation for doctrine, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had received complaints about the book. Liturgical Press is owned by Benedictine monks at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Byrne’s book remains in distribution in England because Mowbray, a division of Cassell, is a secular publishing house.

Mark Twohey, managing editor of Liturgical Press, said the company had acquiesced to Kinney’s request because “we are one of the publishers of the church ... not a private business. We agree that the book is against the stated policy of the church. We want to be in compliance, so we removed the book from sale,” he said.

A spokeswoman at the chancery in St. Cloud said Bishop Kinney was out of town and unavailable for interviews. No other diocesan officials were able to discuss the matter, because Kinney had handled it alone, she said.

Although the Vatican has occasionally ordered a book removed from distribution in recent years, editors and publishers say such direct interventions in U.S. publishing affairs have been rare. In one prominent case, Paulist Press of Mahwah, N.J., withdrew its best-selling catechism Christ Among Us by Anthony Wilhelm from the market in 1984 after the Vatican demanded that the imprimatur -- the church’s stamp of approval -- be withdrawn. Harper & Row (now HarperCollins), a secular publisher, took over publication.

Imprimaturs, given by local bishops, have been removed under Vatican directive from several other books in recent years, most often books about sexuality. Since the book-banning began in the 1980s, according to sources in academia, many scholars do not seek the imprimatur.

Peter Dwyer, marketing director for Liturgical Press, said the directive to remove books from circulation was a first for his company. “Certainly this is the first book currently in print that we’ve withdrawn,” he said.

Dwyer said the book had sold only about 100 copies a year for the past couple of years. “If we’d felt a strong reason to pursue a dialogue about this particular book we would have, but this is not a book that our marketplace indicated we should fight for.”

Don Brophy, managing editor of Paulist Press, said the company had previously published material on women’s ordination but would no longer do so, given the pope’s adamant stance against it.

Paulist is “a church-owned publisher” and “has to represent the church’s position,” he said. “We don’t publish books in some areas because we feel we couldn’t handle them the way we would like to. There are plenty of things we can talk about. We just focus on those.”

Robert Ellsberg, editor-in-chief of Orbis Books in Ossining, N.Y., said the company, which is owned by Maryknoll Fathers, has published controversial books but never one promoting women’s ordination. He said Orbis had never been subjected to direct external intervention but engages in self-censorship.

“We have published books that have met with displeasure in Rome, and that has been communicated to us,” he said, “but we have never been told to remove a book from publication.” One of the most sensitive subjects for Orbis, as far as Vatican officials are concerned, is interreligious dialogue, he said.

“The sense we’ve had is that we should try to exercise responsibility to try to avoid books that invite scrutiny,” he said. “I assume a certain amount of internal selection in any house subject to ecclesiastical discipline.”

Officials at two independent publishers of Catholic books, Crossroad and Twenty-Third Publications, said they had so far been free of outside pressures though many of their books on feminist theology deal with women’s ordination.

“We never worry about it,” Michael Leach, publisher at Crossroad said. He described the Vatican’s concern over Woman at the Altar as a “tempest in a teapot, drawing attention to a book” that was already at the end of its sales cycle.

Neil Kluepfel, president of Twenty-Third Publications -- named for Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council -- said the chill in publishing is on. “Fewer and fewer publishers want to take manuscripts that stretch the envelope,” he said. Nevertheless, he said, his company’s goal is to publish authors who “open minds.”

“We want to make sure that the authors are well qualified on a subject, then allow them to present their case. If they contradict official church teaching, they understand they need to offer a reasoned, balanced argument. Our intention is not to play on the controversy but to open people’s minds.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998