I thought that I would make a few remarks about a current event in the life of the Catholic Church before posting a few pictures of life here on the West Side of San Antonio.
The event I have in mind is the Pope’s recent decision to establish what is called a “personal ordinariate” for Anglicans who desire to unite themselves with the Roman Church. The Vatican has been fielding numerous requests from individual Anglicans for many years — requests which demonstrate that inter-Christian conversions are sometimes more delicate and difficult than conversions from less intimately related religious structures where all that is called for is a more or less clear-cut symbolic break from the past and a triumphal baptism into the new. Many Anglicans who wish to convert, for instance, are married ministers — the Vatican’s approach is to approve these men on a case-by-case basis and normally to allow them to take orders as married Catholic priests. (Contrary to popular understanding, the ban against married priests — which doesn’t apply to all priests in the various non-Orthodox Eastern Catholic rites, either — is a “discipline,” a rule which is binding yet subject to historical and geographical contingencies, not a “dogma,” which would describe a truth held to be non-negotiable for all places and all times.) In some places, the Church has allowed whole parishes of “Tiber-swimming” Anglicans to take their place in the line of apostolic succession with full communion with Rome (with all that that implies: cleaving to the Pope and the bishops on all matters of dogma) and to practice modified versions of the liturgical rites incorporating Anglican texts and traditions. This “personal ordinariate” would create a universal structure for large volumes of such conversions: an ordinary (priest or bishop) will be recognized as the head of a global network of Catholics who will practice something like an “Anglican rite.” (Such ordinariates exist already in small numbers — the US, for instance, has a “military archdiocese” which is not bound geographically, like the Boston or San Antonio archdioceses, but exists wherever the military is.)
Some Anglicans understandably feel slighted even though the Vatican insists it has no interest in “poaching.” Many others are rejoicing (such as an Anglican coworker of my housemate’s who works with her at Catholic Charities). Most Catholics just tend to quote Jesus on this one (and why not?): “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me.” (John 17)
Much of the buzz in the mainstream media has focused on two interesting questions: first, whether this is a victory for, or a blow to, ecumenical dialogue (the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have cooperated with the Vatican’s announcement, although he wasn’t given much notice of it and does seem in an awkward position given his church’s struggles to preserve its own unity lately); and secondly, whether this represents a move towards a more “conservative” or a more “liberal” Catholic Church.
I detest the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in relation to Church matters, but it’s easy to see what they mean here. The supposed liberalization would come if an increase in the number of married Catholic priests would prompt the hierarchy or the faithful to reconsider the necessity of a ban on married Roman Catholic priests, at all. Far more worrisome to, say, two thirds of the readership of the New York Times, is that the Anglicans who will join the Church could be those who are disgruntled by the Anglican communion’s acceptance of women’s episcopal ordination and gay marriage: in other words, of course, crazy arch-conservative bigots.
A word on this charge before considering a few other notable aspects of the Vatican’s decision. I have no clue whether the Anglican Church’s “conservatives” are anything like my own Church’s (whose really scary variety certainly exists, but, in my view, in sufficiently small numbers). Perhaps there is reason to fear these converts will usher in xenophobia (ironically), exclusivism (also ironically), a condemnatory attitude, and anti-intellectualism. But I object to the shorthand I’ve seen columnist after columnist using for those who believe that Jesus’ example of distinguishing between the ministerial roles of men and women is to be upheld or who believe that procreative heterosexual marriage has a social function which not even the most loving homosexual marriage can perform: these people aren’t only “conservatives,” according to some journalists; they are “bigots” and “homophobes,” and they’re being welcomed with open arms by an “uber-conservative” pope.
I’ve scrutinized Pope Benedict as carefully as I’ve ever scrutinized any other public or historical figure and I really believe anyone who clings to this cliche of the Pope’s “conservatism” (unless their standard of comparison is Sean Penn) needs to understand the man a little better. More difficult, for me, is this idea that anyone who takes a “conservative” position on women’s ordination is a bigot and anyone who takes a “conservative” position on gay marriage is a homophobe. I don’t mean this to sound too defensive, since the question about the ideological leanings (and merits) of the Catholic Church is certainly fair game; I wouldn’t even call such rhetoric as I’ve described “fear-mongering.” I just don’t think it’s precise or fair.
I do think the questions of episcopal ordination are far more meaningful for the Anglican Church (which is nowadays, as Austin Ivereigh and others have pointed out, essentially having to ask itself not about the rules of its episcopacy but whether to adopt a Catholic-style ecclesiology in the light of any disagreement or potential schism, or whether it should let its diverse “Protest-ant” constituents peacefully decentralize the communion) than they are for Pope Benedict. What, then, if not the chance to fill his Church with bigots and homophobes, may have been the Pope’s motivation in all this?
First of all, he signaled in his first papal addresses that the primary goal of his pontificate was Christian unity. Here’s a snippet from a very important speech to the College of Cardinals a day or two after his election (emphasis mine) which is very difficult to describe in terms of a conservative-liberal opposition:
….In full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current Successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition, this is his compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.
Theological dialogue is necessary. A profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices is also indispensable. But even more urgent is that ‘purification of memory,’ which was so often evoked by John Paul II, and which alone can dispose souls to welcome the full truth of Christ. It is before Him, supreme Judge of all living things, that each of us must stand, in the awareness that one day we must explain to Him what we did and what we did not do for the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples.
The current Successor of Peter feels himself to be personally implicated in this question and is disposed to do all in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism. In the wake of his predecessors, he is fully determined to cultivate any initiative that may seem appropriate to promote contact and agreement with representatives from the various Churches and ecclesial communities. Indeed, on this occasion too, he sends them his most cordial greetings in Christ, the one Lord of all.
With this awareness, I address myself to everyone, even to those who follow other religions or who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found it. I address everyone with simplicity and affection, to assure them that the Church wants to continue to build an open and sincere dialogue with them, in a search for the true good of mankind and of society.
Obviously we have in the current situation precisely the question of whether this is a respectful or, rather, a harmful gesture towards Christian ecumenism; but putting that very practical question aside, in my heart I believe that the Pope is someone who, rather than scour the world’s situations for opportunities to win unilateral victories for Christian conversion, meditates on a set of first principles and then scours the world for situations which may help him to make moral progress on them. These principles are often preeminently intellectual. One need only read his writings to see how readily he admits that “perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures” (Salt of the Earth), of Christianity as a majority religion, and that we should instead appraise the Church’s influence according to the strength of its ideas as a Toquevillean minority institution which represents, like it did in its early days, a rebellious and principled counter-cultural force radiating news of salvation like light in a darkened world.
And maybe he does want for that intellectual, minority Church to be more conservative than liberal, but when you examine his writings and speeches I think it’s clear that he is more interested in the questions of 1) liturgical propriety and 2) unified rational resistance to Islam (Ross Douthat has written a very good piece to this effect) and to the New Atheism that is taking root (as I think Benedict’s critics these days have universally failed to note) precisely in England, than he is in the questions of 1) women’s ordination and 2) resistance to gay marriage…which he hardly ever mentions at all. (In Salt of the Earth he dismisses the idea that people’s rejection of Catholicism is attributable to its stances on women’s ordination, contraception, and the like, pointing to Lutheran churches in Germany which are far more permissive in questions of personal morality but have experienced a similarly vertiginous drop in popularity in the twentieth century. This frees the Pope to reaffirm traditional moral teachings while denying that they’re the most important battle to be fought in this world.)
One last, tangentially related thought: another major theme of Benedict’s intellectual life is the need to insist on the exclusivity and non-relativity of the Christian truth at the same time as we acknowledge the radical diversity among cultures that is necessary for humanity to have any personality — or, more profoundly put, for the traditional Christian emphasis on the importance and dignity of the Other to be at all coherent. (These are questions he takes up in his book Truth and Tolerance, et passim.) I think that this move is a brilliant example of the balancing act he desires to see: he is quite open to the unity among Churches on matters of dogma and also to diversity among Churches on non-doctrinal matters of history and tradition, and I’ll bet he saw this Anglican thing as an opportunity to forge an example of how that balance might look in the light of an authentic Christian ecumenism.
On a personal note, I was gladdened by this news, and additionally, I welcome the liturgical conservatism the Anglicans may bring to our Church. Increased attention to the beauty of liturgy is always a good — “conservative” or not, call it what you will.