Benedict XVI is finding ways to allow all roads to lead to Rome again.
For all the sturm und drang that rolled off the British newspaper presses in late October, you’d think the Limey scribblers were sounding the alarm over an imminent threat to the realm rather than reporting on a pair of religion news conferences. It was as if the bishop of Rome had scrambled a new Spanish Armada and personally set sail for Canterbury — guns at the ready, popemobile retrofitted for a water landing.
“An Unholy Battle for the Market Share of Our Souls” complained the normally pro-market Financial Times. “Pope Benedict Opens New Front in Battle for the Soul of Two Churches,” observed the Observer. “Desperate Bishops Invited Rome to Park Its Tanks on Archbishop’s Lawn,” said those crack armchair generals at the Times. It’s all about “Un-leashing the Counter-Reformation,” figured the Economist. “Former Archbishop Attacks Pope for Anglican Overtures” whinged the Independent. “The End of the Anglican Communion” was ominously announced by the Guardian. But not to worry, old boy, said the Telegraph, “The Queen Will Stand Up to Pope Benedict.”
What really happened, on October 20, is that the Vatican…made an announcement. Nothing changed immediately; nobody was hired, fired, promoted, pilloried, or even excommunicated; and no new dogmas were propounded. It’s not clear that any change whatsoever will have been undertaken by press time, because Rome’s gears do grind slowly. But the world moved that day because the Vatican let us all in, with press conferences in both Vatican City and London, on the broad outline of its thinking about what to do with the great number of conservative Anglicans who no longer feel at home in their own church.
Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said that there were still a few details to be hammered out but here’s the short of it: Anglicans and Episcopalians will be allowed to convert en masse, if they so desire. The Catholic Church will also set up a special governance structure so that the newcomers can retain most of those things that they deem distinctive, and so that Anglican and Episcopal clerics don’t get the short end of the shepherd’s crook.
(Married priests will be able to retain their titles, duties, and congregations. Because the new Anglican Apostolic Constitution will pattern things after the flat organizational structure of the military chaplaincy, married bishops will lose their titles but still retain much of their authority, and married priests will be able to be promoted to these not-quite-bishop positions.)
Levada talked a lot about “cultural diversity” and the Anglican “faith journey.” When that failed to do the job, he quoted Scripture. The cardinal provided historic context for this decision by saying that the “many diverse traditions present in the Catholic Church today are all rooted in the principle articulated by Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: ‘There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’ ” And these add up to: one Church.
That was a huge departure from the Vatican bureaucracy’s previous stubborn, almost snobbish position on Anglican conversion. In July, the CDF had sent a letter to the conservative Church of England splinter group called the Traditional Anglican Communion, promising to give the proposal for group incorporation “serious attention.” Monsignor Mark Langham of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which is nominally tasked with overseeing Anglican relations, dismissed it in an AP story as a “standard Vatican holding letter.” “Conversion is an individual process, ” he sniffed.
Not anymore, it’s not. Several press accounts accused the pope of “fishing” for converts or attempting to “poach” himself a four-egg Anglican omelet. These stories implied an opportunistic power play, with headlines like “The Pope’s Power Grab” and “The Pope’s Anglican Blitzkrieg.” More accurate assessments made note of the fact that disaffected parishioners from the Church of England and its various offshoots have been banging on Rome’s door for years, trying to get in. Rome finally decided to let them for some reason.
In the American press, the timing of the announcement was mostly reduced to the usual boring cluster of sex-related issues. Rome had moved “quickly,” we were told, because conservative Anglicans live in waking fear of female bishops and gay nuptials. The Vatican would now have to deal with the supposedly explosive issue of married priests, even though Eastern Rite Catholics have had married priests for centuries and married clerics from other Christian communions are grandfathered in when they convert through the so-called “pastor’s option.”
A little more creativity could have made the accusations so much more damning, or at least interesting. Given the international politics of the Catholic Church, a better reason to finger for the timing would have been the closing of the synod of African Catholic Bishops the same week. It ended with a message — aimed at politicians and, indirectly, priests — to either repent of the ceaseless corruption and change their ways or else resign. There are about 38 million Anglicans on the African continent and the Catholic Church is looking to grow there.
Or, how about sowing the seeds for the grandest of all dramatic papal visits? The pontiff is scheduled next year to visit the UK for the beatification ceremony — the first step toward saint-hood — of the famed Anglican to Catholic convert Cardinal John Henry Newman. King Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 16th century fractured the Church in the English-speaking world. Imagine the atmospherics of a pope returning to British soil with hundreds of thousands of Anglicans well along in the process of repairing that old rift, and the old religious establishment straining to deal with the mass exodus. And you thought John Paul II was a rock star.
THERE IS ANOTHER EXPLANATION that cuts to the heart of the issue. Rome is a bureaucracy but it is also a monarchy, and this monarch is of far more than ceremonial importance. Pope Benedict XVI had heard enough, had made up his mind, and was sick of the delays that accompany the curia’s slow deliberations about vital matters. As David Gardner rightly noted in the Financial Times, the pope intentionally “side-stepped…the Vatican officials who do ecumenical work” and worked through the CDF, the teaching arm of the Church, which he used to run.
Announcing the Catholic Church’s tentative plans in advance would speed up the process and send a message the pope believes the world needs to hear about the Church. It’s a message that he’s been preaching since he was elected pope in April 2005, but now he has our undivided attention. The Wall Street Journal posed the question: Could this most unlikely man become “The Great Unifier”?
After Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s election as the 265th bishop of Rome, most attention focused on his biography and the sharp-edged message that he had delivered to the conclave of cardinals before the vote. He had been called “God’s Rottweiler” as the head of the CDF not because of his personal demeanor — he rarely snarls — but because he censured several theologians and priests for heresy. In his message to fellow cardinals at the last Mass before they locked themselves into the Vatican Palace to choose the next pope, he warned against the “trivialization of evil” that is often promoted by ideological fashions.
In that homily, Ratzinger denounced Marxism, liberalism, libertinism, collectivism, radical individualism, atheism, vague religious mysticism, agnosticism, syncretism, and relativism — all by name — and spoke up for what “is often labeled today as fundamentalism.” Liberals inside and outside of the church tended to take his message as some sort of a personal attack, even though that “radical individualism” bit could have been construed as a dig at political conservatives as well.
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