Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pope Benedict Goes Fishing...

I have been following this debate as an interested Episcopalian. Just to lay out all my credentials on the table: I consider myself a liberal in both politics and religion, and (though some may see this as a paradox) a traditionalist on matters of faith and scripture. I am perfectly happy with the Episcopal church’s actions (including the ordination of Gene Robinson), but somewhat distressed by the words of some of its other leaders.

So, the current pope would like to facilitate the entrance of disgruntled Anglicans into some sort of branch office of the Catholic church. What does that actually mean? Well, for one thing, said Anglicans can keep their liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer (for the benefit of all you non-Anglicans out there, this is a really big deal. Sentimentally speaking, the BCP is for Anglicans what Ikons are for the Eastern Church). Besides being a little more archaic in places than the Catholic English Liturgies typically are (think 1560’s vs 1960’s), in substance this difference is beyond trivial and symbolic. Oh, and by the way, this change also means that that dissident Anglican priests can switch over to this new Anglo-Catholic church even if they are married.

This has been controversial, because (as everyone on the news points out) [1] regular Catholic priests cannot marry, and [2] there is a global shortage of Catholic priests which (many claim) could be obviated if celibacy were chucked as a requirement. This has led to a charge of opportunism on the part of the Roman See, seeking to gather wealthy first world discontents into its fold, even if it comes at the expense of doctrinal principle.

I am not so sure that this is really true; it certainly isn’t a novelty. I would point the interested reader to the so-called “Eastern Catholic Churches.” These churches (there are 22 of them) were gradually incorporated, with their “rites” (that is both liturgy and canon law) intact, over a period starting in the sixteenth century and continuing to the 20th. Of course, the various Orthodox Churches of the East cried foul (and sometimes worse), but—in the case of the Ukraine, for example—such compromises have probably avoided the kind of bloodshed that can often accompany religious divisions. Here is what Pope Leo XIII had to say on the subject in 1894:

that the ancient Eastern rites are a witness to the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church, that their diversity, consistent with unity of the faith, is itself a witness to the unity of the Church, that they add to her dignity and honour. He says that the Catholic Church does not possess one rite only, but that she embraces all the ancient rites of Christendom; her unity consists not in a mechanical uniformity of all her parts, but on the contrary, in their variety, according in one principle and vivified by it.”

It is a beautiful thought, one that I have had before…

It may seem strange, but I am pretty happy about the Pope’s move. I would much rather see dissident Anglicans be accommodated within another church, than see the Anglican Communion (or the Episcopal Church USA) riven by a schism. Pope Benedict isn’t high on my list of people I want to hang around and discuss gender issues with; but I would rather talk with him—about anything at all—than Peter Akinola, the hate-mongering archbishop of Nigeria, who is one of the Anglican prelates that disgruntled American Episcopalians have been turning to.

In the meantime, American Episcopalians like me have some discerning to do. It is easy to castigate the dissidents as prudish and intolerant. In fact they are, themselves, uncomfortably aware of this and have been trying to shift the terms of the debate onto the Episcopal Church’s apparent wishy-washiness on much more fundamental doctrinal issues than who gets to be a bishop. It is easy to read statements of the most theologically liberal Episcopalians as a kind of Crypto-Unitarianism. Unitarians are fine, of course, if that’s what you want for a religious life. But there already is a Unitarian church, and it is hard to see why we need another one. If you can’t recite the creed, and really mean it, then what is the point? I am not saying that one needs to be certain on every point of it, or clear about the meaning of each and every assertion. But the good Christian, I think, has to have hope and faith that it is true, that the Gospel really is the truth, not just a truth. Because frankly, if it is just a truth, who wouldn’t rather just sleep in on Sundays?


  1. To the extent any of this concerns (fallen) liberal Catholics like me, I'm just bothered that Ratzinger is after more kooky right-wingers to expand his flock. What, you don't like a nice Vatican 2 guitar mass?

  2. A really thoughtful piece. It's strikes me that after 450 years of schism, it's a shared opposition to gay and female bishops that can finally bring Anglicans and Catholics back together.