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Pope's stern letter removes any doubt by closing the door on women priests


VATICAN CITY -- In a stern veto, Pope John Paul II has reasserted a ban against women priests, ordering Catholics to end internal debate and obey historic teachings.

In a righteous, authoritarian, apostolic letter addressed to his bishops, Pope John Paul marked his first day back in the office after four weeks in a hospital for a broken leg.

His resounding "no" to any possibility of a greater religious role for Catholic women in their church was the second time in a week that the Vatican has crossed swords with assertive Catholic women. Before returning to the Vatican Friday, Pope John Paul accepted an English translation of the church's new catechism that women's groups have denounced as sexist for its language.

Yesterday's 1,000-word letter, "On Reserving Priestly Ordination To Men Alone," is remarkable for its bluntness and the absolute authority that Pope John Paul asserts "in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance.

"I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women, and that this judgment is to be definitively held for all the Church's faithful," Pope John Paul writes in the letter.

Fundamentals of their faith make it impossible to ordain women as priests, the pope tells his bishops, noting that Christ "acted in a completely free and sovereign manner" in selecting only men as his apostles -- the first priests. Still, Pope John Paul laments, despite an all-male priesthood unbroken across two millennia, "in some places it is nonetheless considered open to debate."

No more, in the pope's view. An accompanying Vatican commentary said the letter "confirms a certainty which has been constantly held and lived by the church." As such, the pope's views are not to be regarded as new, or an opinion, or a matter of discipline, "but as certainly true."

"Therefore, since it does not belong to matters freely open to dispute, it always requires the full and unconditional assent of the faithful, and to teach the contrary is equivalent to leading consciences into error," his commentary says.

Pope John Paul, 74, who has been increasingly outspoken in recent months, will host a private meeting at the Vatican Thursday with President Clinton, who may get a papal lecture for his support for abortion.

In a debate the Vatican no longer wants to hear among Catholics, advocates of women priests say Christ's choice of disciples was determined by customs and laws of the time, not because he sought a unisex ministry.

Pope John Paul's vigorous restatement of the ban may have been prompted in part by the ordination of the Church of England's first women priests in March, an innovation that effectively scuttled reunification talks between the two churches. Thousands of Anglicans and hundreds of Anglican priests have turned to Catholicism. The Vatican is accepting even married Anglican priests as converts -- and priests.

Lobbying among Catholic activists for women priests has increased since the Anglican ordinations, a Vatican official noted.

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