The Roman Catholic Church is famous for its hospitality. Its arms are always wide open to receive converts or repentant schismatics, and it is ready to make all sorts of compromises to make them feel welcome. But there are limits to this accommodation. In its issue of May 27, 2011, the National Catholic Reporter published three stories which, taken together, provide a good picture of both the hospitality and its limits.
The first story takes most space. Last October the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (known in darker times as the Holy Office or the Inquisition) announced the establishment of a so-called Personal Ordinariate, supposed to ease the entry into the Church by refugees from the Anglican Communion with its women priests and homosexual bishops. Since the Congregation was headed by the present Pope Benedict XVI when he was still plain Cardinal Ratzinger, one may assume that he has been taking a special interest in this particular exercise of Roman hospitality. Early this year the Ordinariate started to operate in England (American Episcopalians still have to wait a while). About one thousand ex-Anglicans, with sixty-four of their clergy, were solemnly accepted into the Ordinariate at a ceremony in Westminster Cathedral. The concessions made to them are considerable. They are allowed to use important parts of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Their priests are allowed to remain married. Their bishops get the title of “monsignor” which suggests an Italianate elegance and may compensate for the loss of episcopal status. All of this has been accompanied by statements from the Roman authorities expressing respect and appreciation for the Anglican “patrimony of piety and usage”. NCR spells this out in terms of the liturgy of the Church of England—“the ordered dignity and rhythm of the ceremonial, the poetry of the words, the very English expression of restrained emotion”. There is a distinctive mellowness to this piety. It is understandable that those who feel constrained to emigrate from its original ecclesial locale do not want to abandon completely this expression of the Christian faith, and the Roman authorities deserve credit for being sensitive to this attachment.
A few weeks ago I had an Anglican experience. I attended a conference at St. George’s House, a center located on the grounds of Windsor Castle. That locale reminds one forcefully about the far-from-mellow origins of the Church of England amidst the barbarities of the Tudor era. The entrance through which one gets to the conference center is actually called Henry VIII Gate. But then, on one day during the conference, I attended Evensong in St. George’s Chapel—in my opinion the most beautiful service in the Anglican liturgy—an apotheosis (literally) of mellowness. The service was somewhat marred by the music director’s ambition to show off, but the power of the Book of Common Prayer broke through in full force. I have no inclination whatever to “swim in the Tiber” (that nice term to denote surrender to the embrace of Rome), but if I were one of those Anglican refugees, I too would want to carry along some bits and pieces of the “patrimony”—even if I now answered to the title of monsignore.
The accommodation to Anglican converts has a superficial resemblance to the arrangements established long ago for Eastern Orthodox Christians who recognize the authority of the Pope—the so-called Uniat churches, who use traditional Orthodox rituals and whose priests are married. But Rome has always recognized the validity of Orthodox hierarchies, while it never did so with regard to Anglican ones. Beginning in the 1830s the so-called Anglo-Catholic movement claimed authentic “apostolic succession” for the Church of England and, therefore, validity for Anglican orders (that is, of priests ordained by Anglican bishops). Rome never agreed with this. Anglo-Catholic hopes in this regard were decisively squashed in 1896, when Pope Leo X issued the Bull Apostolicae Curae authoritatively declaring Anglican orders to be invalid. But ever since Anglo-Catholics have been debating whether they could continue to assert their catholicity in the face of its rejection by Rome, or whether they should give in and become Roman Catholics—as did one of their most illustrious figures, John Henry Newman, who converted in 1845 and ended up as a cardinal. In any case, the Personal Ordinariate is not an Anglican Uniat church. Also, there was no similarity with the motives that led to Uniat churches in places like Ukraine—as far as I know, in Ukraine there were no “south of the navel” motives like those agitating conservative Anglicans today.
There is some irony here. Anglicans become Roman Catholics to protest against women priests and homosexual bishops. At the same time Roman Catholics become Anglicans (and Protestants in general) because they believe that Rome discriminates against women and homosexuals. I don’t know of data that could tell us the respective numbers going this way or that way in what is a two-way traffic. Be this as it may, the Anglican leadership was not amused by the recent Roman move. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was only informed about it two weeks before the establishment of the Personal Ordinariate. He was very definitely not amused by this violation of ecumenical etiquette. Of course there are two interpretations of the event—as an expression of genuine pastoral concern for individuals, or as a Machiavellian action of fishing in troubled waters. The two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.
The second story in NCR concerns an “instruction” (a papal statement less than a “bull” or an “encyclical”, as far as I understand it). The document published this May by Pope Benedict XVI, under the title Universae Ecclesiae, further liberalizes the use of the so-called Tridentine Rite, the old Latin mass favored by Catholic traditionalists who never liked the vernacular languages imposed by the Second Vatican Council. This had already been approved in a 2007 ruling, but there had been complaints that some bishops lagged with the implementation. The new instruction urges bishops to follow the earlier ruling, allows priests to celebrate the Latin mass in private without asking anyone’s permission, and orders that the Latin mass be provided if a “stable group” of Catholics demands it. But the instruction also warns traditionalists against joining “breakaway groups”. This is clearly referring to the Society of St. Pius X, which was launched by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and was declared to be schismatic in 1988. However, in another hospitable gesture in 2009, Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of the group’s bishops (which turned out to be rather embarrassing, because one of the bishops, the Englishman Richard Williamson, had expressed doubts about the Holocaust—the Vatican, rather credibly, said that the Pope did not know about this). In any case, NCR, staunchly progressive as ever, rather approved of both hospitable gestures, the one toward nostalgic ex-Anglicans and the one toward nostalgic Latinists. With some reservations, a NCR editorial entitled “Charity as guide to church unity” implies that both actions constitute an embrace of inclusiveness (the core progressive virtue). The editorial refers to the work of the late progressive French theologian Yves Congar, who had taught the primacy of pastoral over doctrinal concerns in actions of the Church.
NCR is decidedly less approving of the third story, which concerns a much less inclusive action of the Pope. Benedict XVI ordered early retirement for William Morris, the Bishop of Toowoomba in Australia (I love those Australian place names!). The reason for this was a pastoral letter written by Morris in 2006. He deplored the shortage of priests in his diocese—which is huge, about the size of Germany, with a scattered population of 66,000 Catholics served by forty-two priests. Given this situation, which is by no means unique in the Catholic world, Morris said that there should be discussion about ordaining women and married men. Note: He did not advocate such a step; he said that it ought to be discussed. The Pope asserted in his order to Morris that John Paul II had defined the ban on women priests “irrevocably and infallibly”. Thus there was nothing more to discuss—as the old maxim put it, “Roma locuta, causa finita”—“Rome has spoken, the matter is finished”. No one has accused Benedict of being overly progressive.
This papal action clearly upset Catholic progressives, many if not most of whom would happily take the offending steps rather than just discussing them. There have been wide expressions of support for Bishop Morris in Australia and internationally. The controversy has focused on the question of whether John Paul’s statement about women priests was really infallible. Infallibility is a tricky topic, and Catholic theologians differ on the criteria which must be met for a papal statement to be deemed infallible. Morris spoke of “creeping infallibility”. NCR, in another editorial, agreed with him. Progressive Catholics are notoriously reluctant to admit a causa to be finita.
To use the American idiom, I have no dog in these fights. It is not for me to decide whether ex-Anglicans should be allowed to use the Book of Common Prayer or whether traditionalist Catholics may again say prayers in Latin, or whether women in clerical collars should celebrate mass in the Australian bush. But these three episodes teach a useful lesson about a central truth concerning the Roman Catholic Church. The latter can make any number of compromises. It always has. It has transformed pagan deities into Christian saints, pagan temples into centers for Christian pilgrimage. It has allowed African drums into Catholic worship, Asian techniques of meditation into Catholic spirituality. Today it is compromising with Pentecostal ecstasies all over the Global South. What the Church cannot do is allow any challenge to the authority of its hierarchy, from the Pope on down. It is that authority, I would propose, that is the very core of Roman Catholicism. To give it up would be to give itself up. It seems to me that progressive Catholics and their Protestant friends have never quite understood this.
My late friend Richard John Neuhaus, while he was still a Lutheran getting ready to move to Rome, said something very insightful. He said that there was a basic division between two groups of Christians—those who regarded the church as a vehicle for faith, and those who regarded it as an object of faith. When he was clear in his mind that he belonged to the latter group, he was ready to plunge into the Tiber.