November 5, 2009
A Limited Ecumenism
— Ryan McCarl
As reported in Sightings last Monday, the Vatican announced two weeks ago that it was setting up a new canonical structure, or Apostolic Constitution, to facilitate the conversion of disaffected Anglican traditionalists to Catholicism; the converts will be able to “enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” in the Vatican’s words. Married former Anglican clergy will be allowed to become Catholic Priests, though not Bishops.
The Vatican portrayed the move as a response to requests from Anglicans and as representative of its broader “commitment to ecumenical dialogue.” Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and symbolic leader of the Anglican Church, and Vincent Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, released a statement confirming the Vatican’s narrative: “The Apostolic Constitution is further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition.”
But what leaders of the two churches depicted as an historic, ecumenical move toward Christian unity, others saw as something considerably more complex. Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic writer who has often been critical of Pope Benedict XVI’s leadership, used economic analogies in describing the move as a power grab. “Married priests are fine…as long as they help build market share,” he wrote, paraphrasing what he sees as the Vatican’s new position on clerical chastity. The move “essentially junks an entire tradition of ecumenical dialogue in favor of a quick and sudden merger and acquisition.”
Such analogies, while jarring, may be worth exploring further. Organizations and societies learn from each other’s successful practices, and religious organizations are no exception. The language and efficiency of the Vatican’s announcement made the policy appear to be as carefully scripted and “rolled-out” as a new product by an electronics manufacturer or a new policy by a political leader.
The Holy See demonstrated that it, too, can masterfully employ the techniques of “spin,” omnipresent in both consumer and political marketing. And still other political analogies may apply: Is the Vatican practicing religious realpolitik, strengthening itself at the expense of a weakened and divided adversary?
In short, this development may tell us more about the contemporary Catholic Church than about divisions in the Anglican Church. Perhaps most interestingly, the Vatican's plan suggests that current Catholic leadership sees liturgical procedures and even the chastity of priests as somewhat flexible, but its stands against homosexuality and the ordainment of women as fixed and beyond debate – indeed, even as a source of common ground with other socially conservative Christian groups.
Many of the Christian churches place a high value on reconciliation and unity. But few see unification as an aim that trumps the aims of conscience, that is, of right doctrine and right orientation toward God. In evaluating the Vatican’s move, observers will have to ask themselves whether reconciliation ought to come at the price of continuing and even strengthening the exclusion of women and gays from full and equal membership in the Church.
Donadio, Rachel and Laurie Goodstein, “Vatican Bidding to Get Anglicans to Join Its Fold,” New York Times, 10/21/09. Online at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/21/world/europe/21pope.html.
Holy See Press Office, “Note of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering the Catholic Church,” 10/20/09. Online at http://126.96.36.199/news_services/bulletin/news/24513.php?index=24513&po_date=20.10.2009&lang=en.
Nichols, Vincent and Rowan Williams, “Joint Statement by The Archbishop of Westminster and The Archbishop of Canterbury,” 10/20/09. Online at http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/2572#.
Sullivan, Andrew, “Married Priests Are Fine…,” The Daily Dish, 10/20/09. Online at http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/10/married-priests-are-fine-.html.
Ryan McCarl is a writer and educator. He has an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago, and he maintains a blog at www.wideawakeminds.com.