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Re-ordination an option for secret Czech priests

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In an effort to end a communist-era split between underground and official clergy, the Vatican has demanded that secretly ordained Czech priests obtain official recognition in order to continue their ministries. For some, the requirement will mean being re-ordained.

The instruction came in a Feb. 14 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

The communist assault on religion was especially aggressive in the Czech regions of the former Czechoslovakia. Some 150 to 250 Catholic priests and a number of bishops were ordained clandestinely during 40 years of communist rule under special powers granted by Pope Pius XII.

One underground Czech bishop also ordained a small number of female priests and deacons. The statement makes no mention of their situation, and observers say there is virtually no possibility that the Vatican will recognize their ordinations.

The situation of former underground priests has been controversial since the collapse of communism in 1989. Many have accepted offers from Rome to regularize their status, but others have insisted that their suffering provides all the legitimacy they require.

Some of these secretly ordained priests are married, as are four of the underground bishops.

A church spokesman in the Czech Republic said the new document signaled an “open dialogue rather than an ultimatum,” and said the presence of married clergy would be “interesting and helpful” in wider discussions of celibacy.

The statement -- released during a Prague visit by the congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone -- said the Holy See respects the courage shown by communist-era church leaders and understands the “psychological motives” of priests who resent suspicions about their ordinations.

Nevertheless, it demanded that the priests not celebrate the sacraments without Vatican authorization. “Whoever refuses the authority of the pope and bishops celebrates illicitly,” it said.

In its new statement, the congregation said church law in both the Eastern and Latin rites does not allow for married bishops, but offered no specific suggestions for resolving the status of four married Czech prelates.

In an NCR interview, the spokesman for the Czech Republic’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Fr. Daniel Herman, said he believed the actual number of undocumented priests was closer to 150 than the 250 cited in some press reports, adding that most had accepted the Vatican’s “conditional re-ordination” demand. That includes, he said, 22 married priests now exercising various functions in the Czech Republic’s 50,000-member Greek Catholic rite.

Although the church had no “secret service” for calculating precisely how many priests had refused, Herman said, 22 had accepted invitations to a Feb. 14 meeting with Bertone in the Vatican’s Prague nunciature, and these were believed to represent “almost all.”

Herman said particular problems had been posed by priests who were unsure who had ordained them, adding that some had been ordained in parks or private apartments without rituals or witnesses, and been given the names of bishops who were already dead as the ordaining bishop.

“This may have been justifiable as a security measure, to protect clergy during interrogation, but it also created grave complications,” Herman said. “Secret police archives show the communists attempted to destroy the church’s canonical order by infiltrating their own agents and creating false priests.”

In 1997, the Prague Post cited evidence that Czechoslovakia’s Catholic and Protestant clergy had been the most infiltrated of all professional groups, with 800 out of 6000 priests and pastors, 13 percent of the total, acting as informers.

The Vatican statement said nothing about the women ordained in the underground church. Bishop Felix Davidek, who died in 1988, ordained approximately six women as priests or deacons. His motive, according to sources, was to provide pastoral care for women in Czech prisons, which were segregated by gender.

The best-known woman ordained as a priest by Davidek, Ludmilla Javorova, today lives in Brno in the Czech Republic and works as a catechist.

According to the 1999 book Skryta Cirkev (The Secret Church), Davidek also consecrated 17 bishops without Vatican approval between 1967 and 1987.

The Vatican statement did mention Davidek. It said that “serious doubts” exist about the validity of some ordinations, “in particular those performed by Bishop Felix Maria Davidek.”

Herman told NCR that witnesses testified that Davidek suffered schizophrenia and had re-ordained several priests after doubting the validity of his previous acts.

Herman said the challenge of integrating married priests could provide valuable lessons for the broader church.

“Though we aren’t the only country with married priests, I think our experiences can be interesting and helpful for wider discussions on priestly celibacy. This isn’t a dogmatic question: It’s merely the praxis of the Roman Catholic church. And it’s under discussion today.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000