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The Great Consolidator

Benedict XVI is finding ways to allow all roads to lead to Rome again.

By From the December 2009 - January 2010 issue

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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.

Less attention was focused on Benedict's first homily as pope, at a Mass of the College of Cardinals. He opened with the usual boilerplate. "Catholics cannot but feel encouraged to strive for the full unity for which Christ expressed so ardent a hope," he said. He promised to be "especially responsible" for promoting that unity. Benedict acknowledged that he had been "entrusted with the task" of strengthening his "brethren" -- a word that is fraught with meaning in ecumenical circles as Rome has taken to referring to non-Catholic Christians as "separated brethren."

Then he said something extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented: "With full awareness...at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome which Peter bathed in his blood, Peter's current Successor" -- that is, I, Pope Benedict XVI -- "takes on as his primary task the duty to work tirelessly to rebuild the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. This is his ambition, his impelling duty." These words were brought to my attention by Keith Fournier, an ordained Catholic deacon who enthused on Catholic Online that "What happened [in October] is just the beginning."

THE ONLY THING IS, it wasn't the beginning. Far from it. The present pope may not go down as the Great Unifier, exactly. He's likely what people today call "too divisive" to pull that off, and it's hard to see why he would want to. Benedict knows how to use divisions to great effect. He takes Christ's statement from the Gospel of Matthew, "I did not come to bring peace but a sword," quite seriously.

When a group of traditionalist Episcopalians held a conference in Dallas in 2003 to talk about breaking away from the U.S. Episcopal Church over its increasing liberal drift, then Cardinal Ratzinger sent them a message egging them on. He assured them of his "heartfelt prayers" and said that the "significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond [Dallas] and even in this city, from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ's Gospel in England." According to Dairmaid MacCulloch, writing in the Guardian, when the delegates heard this, "There was wild applause."

In fact, the pope's recent actions with the Anglicans mirrored an earlier act of his papacy that was also hugely controversial but that was seen by outsiders mostly as a family squabble with some ugly repercussions. It involved the Society of Saint Pius X. These were traditionalist Catholic priests who, because of the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council and especially the de facto suppression of the Latin Mass, formed a rebel sect within the Church.

The Society's late founder, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, was eventually excommunicated when the aging prince of the Church ordained four new bishops to continue his work in 1988, in defiance of the explicit orders of John Paul II. Millions of otherwise loyal Catholics, especially in France, attended the Society's beautiful, ancient Mass because they had a hard time finding it anywhere else.

As head of the CDF, Benedict pleaded with Lefebvre not to ordain more rebel bishops, but didn't succeed. As pope, he moved to reincorporate the Society into the Church, first, by issuing a universal indult in July 2008 mandating that bishops allow the Latin Mass in their dioceses, and, second, in January 2009, by lifting the excommunications of the four men that Lefebvre ordained bishops. This wouldn't have raised too many eyebrows outside the Church but for the fact that one of those men, Richard Williamson, turned out to be a Holocaust denier and a 9/11 "truther" conspiracy theorist.

The press had a field day with that one. But there was another story lurking beneath the obvious scandal. Benedict's Latin Mass decree greatly increased the rights of the faithful against their sometimes imperious bishops. Now, a bishop has to explicitly prohibit the Latin Mass, give a good reason for doing so, and risk losing an appeal to Rome. That ended the need for a Society of Pius X as an outside agitator.

Now, Rome wants more priests trained to perform the Latin Mass, and it wants those parishioners back who had turned to the Society for its ceremony. So it swallowed hard and lifted those excommunications and is in talks to bring the Society's priests back in. If talks stall, expect Benedict to personally intervene.

OR TAKE THAT OTHER great flashpoint of Benedict's papacy, the speech delivered at his old college, the University of Regensburg, on September 12, 2006. The line that set the world on fire was Benedict's quotation of Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who said, "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Benedict teed up the quote by warning of its "startling brusqueness...that we find unacceptable" today, he reminded people of that Koran's sura that counsels "there is no compulsion in religion," and he never agreed with Paleologus's assessment ("expressed...so forcefully") of Islam, and he quickly apologized for having caused offense. That did little to prevent churches from being firebombed in Palestine, a nun being killed in Somalia, Christians being attacked in Iraq, riots from breaking out all over the Middle East, or the militant Muslim group Lashkar-e-Taiba from issuing a fatwa calling on faithful followers of Allah to kill the pope. In a direct challenge to these violent Islamists, the pope then visited Turkey -- a nominally Muslim nation whose entrance into the European Union he had opposed.

Most attention was focused on the Muslim rage that the pope's quote provoked but very few people stopped to consider what Benedict was doing quoting Paleologus at all. He was the kind of person previous popes would have been wary of, at the very least. Paleologus, recall, was a Byzantine emperor from well after the Great Schism, and thus Orthodox, and not exactly an exemplar of ecumenism.

In good times, Paleologus worked to conquer the Latin part of the old Roman empire, or the pope's own backyard. In bad times, the emperor was forced to contemplate the nature of Islam, because the Turks packed a pretty good wallop. As Benedict said, "It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue [that was quoted], during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402."

We cannot know all the reasons why Benedict chose to quote that particular authority, but it is consistent with his view of a faith that is beset by constant threats, secular and religious. And it sure didn't hurt Vatican relations with Orthodox churches, which had been icy in the past. When John Paul II tried to visit Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church vetoed it. In October, the same month as the Anglican overture, the AP reported that Benedict may soon meet with the Russian patriarch, and that a papal visit to Moscow in the next few years is likely. Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said, "We have overcome all the tensions in recent years." Not "some tensions"-- all of them.

The Orthodox would be a tougher nut to crack than disaffected Protestants. The schism is much older and the Orthodox have done a better job with church governance and holding the line against theological innovation. Benedict wouldn't dare issue the sort of unilateral open-ended invitation that he did with Anglicans, because it wouldn't work.

Yet if he can bring the two ancient churches together, my sense is that he will do nearly anything, including placing new limits on his own powers, including editing the Nicene Creed to remove the so-called filioque clause (which states that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son"), which drives the Eastern half of the ancient Church to distraction.

BENEDICT'S CONSUMING INSIGHT as pope seems to be that time has made a lot of old theological differences matter less and brought new ones to the fore. Anglicans used to want Catholic tradition but not the pope. Now they may need him to hold on to their tradition. The Orthodox must contend with
a demographic decline, but wouldn't have to if they grafted themselves onto Rome. Traditionalists wanted iron-clad protection for the Latin Mass, and got it.

His message will not appeal to everyone, as well he knows. In her book Ratzinger's Faith, philosopher and theologian Tracey Rowlands points out how utterly opposed he is to feminism. At some level, he just can't bring himself to take it seriously. Against calls for female ordination, he "cited the judgment of feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza that ‘true feminists' should actually oppose the ordination of women and work to abolish the phenomenon of ordination itself" -- since ordination is a product of patriarchy and thus, by their logic, bad. In other words, good luck with that, ladies.

Benedict thinks that his Church has got the basics all right and that it is well positioned to hold out against current trends and decide, in the fullness of time, whether innovations are wise. He's willing to extend that protection to Christians of other communions, to consolidate the faithful under a rule of faith that is both flexible and at the same time unyielding.

That makes him a conservative but a radical one. The easiest way to change a church is to drastically change her membership, and that is exactly what the pope is calling for with his impatient prodding to bring whole communions into the flock. Yesterday the traditionalists, today the Anglicans, tomorrow the Orthodox, and the day after, oh, let's say the Lutherans. After all, this pope is from Germany, there has been centuries of ecumenical spadework, and Lutherans are sacramentally inclined Christians who are currently experiencing tremors over issues of sexuality.

If he succeeds, the moniker that future generations should use for him -- the only really accurate one -- is the Great Consolidator.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.