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Davidek: Mad or a genius

Davidek: Mad or a genius

by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt
The Tablet, March 8th, 2003
Published with permission

The underground Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia ordained married men and at least one woman. Our Vienna correspondent reflects on a new study I HAVE been absorbed in a new book on the clandestine Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, and how its clergy have fared since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Every Time is God’s Time: the underground Church in Czechoslovakia – which is how I translate the German title – is by Ondrej Liska, a young graduate who studied political science and comparative religion at Brno University. It is mainly concerned with Bishop Felix Maria Davidek, one of the most disputed and controversial figures in the underground Church, who not only ordained married men and consecrated married bishops, but also ordained at least one woman.

The German translation of the Czech original, which was presented in Berlin in January, has two prefaces, one by the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, and the other by Cardinal Karl Lehmann, president of the German bishops’ conference, which sponsored the German translation. Both cardinals are highly appreciative, which gives the book a certain stamp of authority. Such approval is the more unexpected as the author comes to the conclusion that Davidek was not mad, as many have insisted up to now, but rather a charismatic, extraordinarily gifted personality who recognised the signs of the times and had some prophetic things to say. (Almost all the bishops in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria I have spoken to about Davidek since the demise of Communism have until now been quick to emphasise that he was “quite mad” and that therefore nothing he said or did should be taken seriously.) Liska’s book thus throws an important new light on a man who believed that the Church’s pastoral methods, not only in Czechoslovakia but generally, had outlived themselves and needed reforming.

Liska says that in the light of new revelations about the former underground Church, he has attempted to place Davidek and the clandestine circle he founded in a broader spectrum than previous publications were able to. He has shown how Davidek’s group compared and interacted with other clandestine associations in Czechoslovakia, how they variously assessed Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” which brought to birth the “Prague spring”, how they viewed the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, or policy towards the Eastern bloc, and how they reacted to the fall of the Soviet empire. In this way Liska has indeed succeeded in filling in a few more, but by no means all, of the missing pieces.

Most of what Liska tells us about Davidek’s early life is not new. At school he was known for his remarkable memory. As a seminarian in the Second World War, he frequently clashed with his superiors and found it difficult to conform. He was ordained in 1945, and despite protests from his bishop, who thought he ought to concentrate more on parish work, he continued to study medicine, philosophy and psychology, acquiring his doctorate in the latter in 1948. Liska says his intellectual powers were extraordinary and “bordered on genius”. It was Davidek’s dream to found a Catholic university. By this time, however, the Communists had taken over Czechoslovakia.

Davidek was soon in trouble with the authorities, and in 1952 was sentenced to 24 years in prison. There he made plans for the survival of the Church, jotting them down on bits of lavatory paper.

As soon as he was released in 1964, Davidek began to implement his plans for an underground university. Now his clandestine circle, “Koinotes”, was born. The only two seminaries in the country were controlled by the Communists, and several bishops had forbidden seminarians to attend.

Davidek organised regular evening, night and weekend clandestine seminars, chiefly, but not exclusively, for candidates for the priesthood, where he taught a wide range of subjects, and was often able to obtain prominent churchmen as guest lecturers. Although it was exceedingly difficult to get hold of contemporary theological works, Davidek managed to keep up to date. He obtained the decrees of the Second Vatican Council and works by Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Raimundo Panikkar and Karl Rahner from friends who smuggled them in from abroad.

In his earlier years, Liska tells us, Davidek was a convinced Thomist, but was later greatly influenced by the work of Teilhard de Chardin. Those of Davidek’s writings that have been published up to now have received very conflicting appraisals. As Liska rightly points out, a proper assessment by qualified theologians will not be possible until all his work has been edited and published.

The structure of Koinotes was meticulously planned. Davidek worked out in minute detail how the small cells could communicate with the centre, and how news of meetings and liturgies could be efficiently spread in absolute secrecy so that it would not fall into the wrong hands. This system of “maximum rationalisation” was also applied to the spiritual life of the community, with each member required to direct every action towards the realisation of God’s kingdom. Liska says that from Davidek’s lectures and pastoral letters it is clear that he regarded the Koinotes community as a part of his vision of the Church of the future, a model on the local level of what he thought the universal Church should be like.

For Davidek, hesitation of any kind was counterproductive, as it allowed evil to take command. This is one explanation, Liska says, why he was so quick to put radical ideas – such as ordaining married men and even women – into practice. He wanted to speed up church reform, as he was convinced that the Church’s pastoral structure was outdated and could not cope with the threat of total secularisation. “The Church, although it has the keys, just rattles them like a jailer but won’t open up. It must open up, however, even if this means that it might make mistakes”, he wrote in the Sixties.

Towards the end of that decade, several of Davidek’s seminarians were ready to proceed, but he could not find a bishop in Czechoslovakia who was prepared to ordain them clandestinely. He managed to send five candidates to Eastern Germany for the purpose, but it was exceedingly difficult for any of them to leave Czechoslovakia. So he made plans to have one of his own men consecrated as bishop. As he could not leave the country himself at the time, he sent Jan Blaha, a young Koinotes layman, to Germany in 1967 to be ordained priest by Bishop Josef Stimpfle of Augsburg. The circumstances under which Blaha was consecrated bishop later that year at the hands of Bishop Peter Dubovsky, a Slovak who had himself been clandestinely consecrated, are still not completely clear and probably never will be, but the ceremony took place in Prague on 28 October 1967. Liska says that it is “not improbable that certain people in the Vatican indirectly supported Blaha’s consecration”. Only one day later Blaha consecrated Davidek. Liska tries to shed a little more light on what exactly the Vatican knew or did not know about Davidek, a matter that has been the subject of heated debate since the demise of Communism, but as it is so often the case of one person’s word against another’s, it all remains very confused. What is important is that the Vatican eventually, even if possibly reluctantly, recognised both Blaha’s and Davidek’s consecrations.

Davidek began to ordain priests that same year. After Soviet tanks had put an end to the Prague spring in 1968, Davidek feared that persecution of the Church would once again increase and that priests might be thrown into prison or deported.

Now in 1968 he ordained the first married members of Koinotes. Although he was in favour of keeping mandatory celibacy for the Latin rite, he saw no reason why there should not be an alternative path, as there was in the Greek-Catholic Church. For him, ordaining married men was a “creative, further development of tradition”. Moreover, pastoral help for the Greek-Catholic Church, which was severely persecuted under the Communists and most of whose priests were in prison, had been on the Koinotes programme from the beginning. Such ordinations of married men – and, as we shall see, of women – were also convenient because their priestly identity would be less suspected by the Communist authorities and police. Davidek’s married priests were first incardinated into the Greek-Catholic rite. Normally Vatican permission is required for a change of rites, but under special circumstances (the so-called “special faculties” authorised by Pius XII in the Fifties and sometimes practised in Czechoslovakia since then), bishops could allow it. Blaha and Davidek were convinced that their mandate included such special faculties. “We understood that the papal faculties gave us complete authorisation to permit people to change from one rite to another. We – that is, Davidek and myself”, Blaha told the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1991.

Liska devotes several pages to the synod on the position of women in the Church which Davidek held in 1970. He says that in his lectures Davidek had already for a considerable time been paying special attention to women’s role in the Church, convinced that women were only excluded from the priesthood for historical and not dogmatic reasons. For him women had the same right to become priests as men, and the Church should not prevent this development but encourage it.

Another reason for ordaining women was that they would be able to administer the sacraments to women prisoners – hundreds of nuns were imprisoned in Czechoslovakia at the time. When he put women’s ordination to the vote, however, half the synod members voted against it. The issue split the community and was a benchmark in its history. This did not prevent Davidek from ordaining Ludmila Javorova, a prominent member of Koinotes, to the priesthood. She later became his vicar general.

Liska and both cardinals in their prefaces regret that Davidek’s ordinations and consecrations, particularly those of married men, married bishops and women, have always been sensationalised, especially by the “the foreign press”, when in fact they were not the chief focus of his activities. That is surely a little harsh. What adjective other than “sensational” should one have applied to the news that a Roman Catholic bishop, whose consecration has been declared valid by the Vatican, ordained married men, consecrated married bishops and ordained women? As to why the media concentrated chiefly on this aspect of Davidek’s activities, it must be said in their defence that very few details about Davidek other than his ordinations and consecrations were available until recently. As Liska himself emphasises, his writings have yet to be edited and published. So how could the foreign press know what role the ordinations played ?

In the late Seventies, Davidek was approached by members of the Dvorak clandestine group, a community about which little has come to light up to now, who were also convinced that the Church’s pastoral methods were in urgent need of updating worldwide. One of the most important and urgent reforms in their eyes was for priests everywhere to have civilian jobs so that they could reach out to more people. Their priests were ordained clandestinely in Germany by Bishop Joachim Meisner (now Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne), among others. They asked Davidek to ordain six of their married men, and later he consecrated two bishops for them. This led to protests not only from within the Dvorak group but also from Meisner and other bishops in Germany, and those who did not approve left.

Like many priests in Czechoslovakia at the time, Davidek was deeply suspicious of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, sure that there were now Communist spies in the Vatican. Liska describes in considerable detail various efforts on the part of the Vatican authorities to contact Davidek at this time. It would seem that while certain people were convinced that his consecration as bishop was invalid and that he must be stopped from ordaining and consecrating, others had been told by Pope Paul VI personally that his consecration was valid. Again it was a case of one person’s word against another’s. Davidek himself always insisted that the Pope knew how things stood as far as he was concerned. His consecration was in fact declared valid by the Vatican in writing in 1992, but he did not live to see that. He died in 1988.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, many clandestine priests and bishops hoped that their ordinations and consecrations would be recognised by the Vatican, and some even hoped that they would get permission to form a personal prelature like Opus Dei. It took years to sort out their ordination status and most of them had to agree to be conditionally “re-ordained” – in case their ordinations were not valid.

Permission to form a personal prelature was refused by the Vatican, on the ground, according to Liska, that such a step would deepen divisions in the Czech Catholic Church and that moreover no suitable leader for a personal prelature could be found.

When he presented the German translation of Liska’s book in Berlin in January, Cardinal Vlk said the problems of the former clandestine Church had now to a large extent been solved. Solved as far as canon law is concerned, perhaps, but from the human point of view? I remember talking to a married priest in the mid-Nineties who said the Church had told him that he could only remain a priest if he left his wife and four children, moved to a parish where it was not known that he had been married, and proceeded to live a celibate life. He was a broken man.

One day, perhaps, when further material on the clandestines is published, we will learn more about the multiple charisms that seem to have been at work in the Czechoslovak Catholic Church under Communist rule. It is to be hoped that those priests who were prepared to be conditionally “re-ordained” and are now working as clergy in the Latin-rite or Greek-Catholic Church have been able to make use of the invaluable experience they gained in their pastoral work in the underground. They need it. For today the Czech Republic is one of the most secularised countries in eastern Europe.

Read also:

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Six options for Catholic women who feel called to the priesthood?

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