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Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Catholics wary of woman bishop

By Ladka Bauerova

Cardinal warns that first woman in post could hurt dialogue

The Czech branch of the Roman Catholic Church tried to downplay comments by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk that indicate he is resisting the election of the first female bishop in Czech history.

Jana Silerova, 49, a priest in the Protestant Czechoslovak Hussite Church, is among four candidates seeking to replace the retiring Olomouc bishop in mid-April. During a Jan. 12 meeting of all Czech church leaders, Vlk, the archbishop of Prague, questioned Silerova's candidacy and said a female bishop would stir tensions within ecumenical circles.

"It is an intervention into the internal affairs of another church," commented Jiri Vanicek, the press spokesman of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. "We hope things will be cleared up."

Silerova, currently a vicar in the north Moravian town of Rychvald, told The Prague Post she wasn't a bit surprised by Vlk's reaction. "If you know the Catholic concept of priesthood, you couldn't expect anything else," she said. In her opinion, there is a lack of well-grounded, rational and objective dialogue in ecumenical circles. "So far, the arguments have been based largely on tradition," she said. "But I depend upon the cardinal's generosity."

Vlk's spokesman Daniel Herman confirmed that the traditional Catholic approach to priesthood, based on the assumption that Jesus chose 12 men as his disciples, excludes the possibility of women being ordained. There is no other reason whatsoever, and it certainly isn't discrimination against women," he said.

Herman claimed that Vlk had not intended to intervene in the affairs of the Hussite Church. "The cardinal personally has absolutely no problem with it. Even if he wanted to, he does not have the right or the power to intervene with another church."

Herman claimed that Vlk, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Czech Republic, expressed his concern that Silerova's possible appointment might generally worsen relations among various churches. As an example he mentioned the Eastern Orthodox Church, which has a worldwide history of fierce opposition to women in the clergy.

The Czechoslovak Hussite Church, established in 1920, currently has over 50 percent female priests. "For us, it was logical that sooner or later one of them would become a bishop," said Vlastimil Zitek, the incumbent Bishop of Olomouc whose term will run out in mid-April. "Our statutes make absolutely no difference between a man and a woman," he said. Zitek, 79, who has known Silerova since her student years, described her as a terrific priest, very intelligent, educated and expressive, if "somewhat flamboyant." Thanks to her tremendous popularity, she was twice elected the mayor of Rychvald. Although she refused the title, Silerova remains a very active member of the town council. Zitek said, "I have only one vote, and she is the one who will get it."

Unlike the Catholic Church, where bishops are consecrated and hold the office for life, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church elects its bishops every seven years. Every bishop can be elected for a maximum of two terms.

The Hussite Church allows its male and female priests to marry and have children. The church has five bishoprics: Prague, Plzen (Pilsen), Hradec Kralove, Olomouc and Brno.

Describing past relations as good, both churches expressed their hope in maintaining them. According to Herman, Vlk's statement, not made for the public, was intentionally misinterpreted by an as-yet unidentified person present at the meeting of the Ecumenical Council. "Certain individuals may be troubled by the possibility of a settlement between the churches and the state," he said, referring to the ongoing debate about the restitution of church property. "It was an attempt to create some tension," Herman said. "The cardinal doesn't want any tensions."

The Prague Post Online contains a selection of articles that have been printed in The Prague Post, a weekly newspaper published in the Czech Republic. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited.

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