Vatican Welcomes Traditional Anglicans

October 27, 2009 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments
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Well, Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement that traditionalist Anglicans–including married priests, bishops (sort of), parishes and dioceses–will soon be welcomed into the Roman Catholic communion is certainly getting a lot of press.  For Ross Douthat, in the October 25  New York Times, “Benedict’s Gambit,” as he calls it, may be geared to a deeper conflict than the presenting intra-Christian one ( sex)–“Christianity’s global encounter with a resurgent Islam.”

For the British novelist A.N. Wilson, in the Op-Ed section of that same issue of the Times, the Pope’s gambit may be a good thing, despite its conservative motivation. By weakening Anglicanism in Britian, the overture may bring about the demise of the Established Church there,  a “move toward the complete secularization of Britain, and an acceptance of its new multicultural identity.”   

And in response to Bob Abernathy’s question on Religion and Ethics Newsweekly about whether the Vatican is “fishing” for converts here,  John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter  replied that “the Vatican’s line is that even though we didn’t solicit them, when people knock on our door we have a responsibility to open it up.”  If Allen’s personal interpretation of these developments deviates at all from this Vatican “line,” he certainly doesn’t share it in this interview.

I don’t want to waste my time reiterating what these and many other commentators have said about the pope’s “gambit,” but I do want to make two ponts of my own:

The first is that I am deeply ashamed of the actions of the leaders of my church. To my many Episcopal friends and former students, I apologize. Commentators can talk till hell freezes about how none of this was the Vatican’s idea, but it’s hard to deny that the Roman Catholic Church is interfering here in the affairs of another Christian communion at a time when that sister-church is confronting great internal conflict. This I believe is a violation of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. To suggest that it is somehow the culmination of years of ecumenical dialogue seems to me a travesty.  With this in mind, I look forward to reading soon some analyses of the Vatican’s actions in light of the Vatican II document on ecumenism.

Secondly, that the particular Christians ostensibly to be welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church are Anglicans is of some significance to me.  I am a second generation Irish Catholic; my father’s parents emigrated to the US sometime before the 1916 Easter uprising in part at least to escape English (and Anglican) oppression. (Also poverty, for sure.)

One of the reasons I have remained a Catholic over these many less than easy years is because of my loyalty to Irish Catholicism (and to the working class culture to which that Catholicism was linked for more than a century). As a Catholic women’s ordination activist I am often asked why I don’t just become an Episcopalian; because, I respond, my grandparents would turn over in their graves.

Now, however, it would seem that not just Anglicans, but extremely traditional (misogynist, homophobic) Anglicans are going to be welcomed into the Church to which I and many other Irish American Catholics have remained loyal for a century and a half. So here’s my question: are these guys going to become pastors of Catholic parishes, the ones my ancestors built with their 25-cent-a-week contributions over entire lifetimes , the ones Protestant mobs in Philadelphia tried and is some cases succeeded in burning down in the 1840s because we didn’t want to read the (Anglican) King James Bible in the public schools?

In an article in the National Catholic Reporter,  the optimistic John Allen suggests that this will not be the case.  Instead,  “bishops’ conferences around the world can create personal ordinariates, a special structure that’s tantamount to a non-territorial diocese, to accept Anglicans under the leadership of a former Anglican minister who would be designated a bishop.” Such “personal ordinariates” are “similar to the structures created throughout the world to provide pastoral care for members of the military and their families. The structures are in effect separate dioceses, presided over by a bishop and with their own priests, seminarians, and faithful. They are also similar to “the canonical status of a ‘personal prelature,’ currently held by only one Catholic group: Opus Dei.”

I note, however, that the current bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio–the one who kept wondering in public, before the 2008 election, how good Catholics could possibly vote for Obama–is a member of Opus Dei. So “personal prelatures” aren’t all that separate. And since some commentators have hypothesized that this move by the Vatican is at least in part an attempt to solve the priest shortage, I guess it all remains to be seen, doesn’t it?



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  1. Marian, this is so right on. I hope you send it to NCR or Religion and Ethichs Newsweekly or the NY Times because some of their less perceptive writers might value the fresh air you bring.


  2. Will Thomas More now be removed from the saints’ list? “Aw, it was all a mistake, nothing to lose your head over” ?


  3. I quite agree with you, Marian. As a member of my parish’s RCIA team, I find my self embarassed as I face people choosing as adults to enter the church. How do I condone what seems to me a transparent grab for conservative, homophobic and misogynistic members? If the Roman church weren’t so wealthy, one could almost laugh and say it’s trying to get some of the property back from Henry VIII’s time. The only small hope I see in this is perhaps this influx of married clergy will somehow crack the celibacy wall in our church.


  4. I’ll never forget the time – about ten years ago -I was in a big suburban Dallas church and the presider was a tall, silverhaired, man with a beautiful voice and elegant manner. I asked my neighbor in the pew if he was new, and she said yes – and he had come over from the Anglican church AND he was married. Somehow I knew that before she told me. And this is partly a “class” thing, Marian. Not many Anglicans from working class or immigrant backgrounds.


    • And race as well, my dear. Though there are certainly many Anglican people of color in other parts of the world–the Anglican church in Nigeria is a huge percentage of the Anglican Communion (I’m terrible at remembering figures, but maybe 25%?) in this country the percentage of caucasians in the Episcopal church is high up in the 90 percent range. This is another reason why I remain RC, despite all; my parish here in Brooklyn is 1/3 West Indian, 1/3 Haitian and 1/3 Latino/a (with a few of us white folks!!)


  5. Thoughtful and incisive comments, Marian. For my part, I’m inclined to think that the Vatican move is more a clumsy effort to keep implementing a partly outdated world-view than the outcome of shrewd and well-informed strategic thinking. (Partly outdated: the emphasis on global economic justice and reconciliation is first-rate, but the presumptiousness about having exhaustive and definitive answers to sexual questions drives me nuts, not to mention the tendency to view those questions as right up there with the Trinity in importance.)


    • Thanks, Mike. I hope you’re right! I have often said that conspiracy theories imply that somebody somewhere is thinking… And of course, subordinating everything to sexual teaching drives me “nuts” as well!


  6. I tend to think that John Allen’s column is well-informed. I’ve spent a lot of time reading him, and more than a little with him. He gets Vaticanisti to talk because he prints what they say and carefully separates his interpretations and opinions from what they actually say. His abiding sin, if sin it be, is that he often shows that “conservative” church leaders can be smart and reasonable. So, if he says the Vatican policiy is a response to to questions, I believe him. And if, in essence, it is the first step in applying to dioceses, parishes, bishops, and priests what has long been applied to individuals, I believe that, too. Under those regulations Richard John Neuhaus came in.

    When I was in the process of leaving the priesthood and religious life nearly twenty-five years ago, an Anglican bishop in Michigan gave me a large chunk of his time to discuss my becoming an Episcopal priest. My point. Transfers happen. We celebrate today (30 October 2009) the centenary of Father Paul Watson and the Graymoor Friars of the Atonement being received into the Catholic church — as a congregation.

    The real question is whether the Vatican can hold the line over the long haul on issues like the non-ordination of women and not recognizing the morality of homosexual activity between adults in a covenantal (marriage !) relationship. My bet is that over time, neither policy can stand, unless the Roman leadership wants to relegate the church to the status of an “anti-cultural” organization as opposed to what theologian Steve Bevans calls a “counter-cultural” organization.

    It’s anti-cultural to resist legitimate cultural change after the point at which the case for the legitimacy of the change has been made — on inner-Christian grounds — beyond a reasonable doubt.

    It is “counter-cultural,” on the other hand, to resist the winds of cultural change before that legitimacy has been tested. Cultural vogues come and go. The role of ecclesial leaders is to discern among conflicting opinions, not lead.

    Such discernment is not easy, nor is it merely a matter of counting the opinions of the six percent of the world’s Catholics, who happen to be United Statesians — who are themselves divided!

    In other words, are we dealing with an historical issue like changing the church’s doctrine on slavery in the question of women’s non-ordination and the legitimacy of homosexuality within the context of committed, covenantal relations? I think we are. But I think it’s a fair guesstimate to recognize that upwards of 75% to 85% of the world’s Catholics will disagree. On the face of it, after all, the text of scripture backs the conservatives. It will be a number of generations, I suspect, before we have virtual consensus that the world church needs to change positions on this because data from sociology, biology, and the psychology of sex and gender make it clear that Scripture and Tradition on women priests and public homosexual unions need to be reinterpreted. In a similar way, data from geology, astronomy, and physics, led us to reinterpret the doctrine of creation in Genesis.

    Till then, I think the rhetoric about Vatican motives ought to be rooted in data that show they’ve reached these decisions in bad faith. I just don’t see bad faith. In any case, most Anglicans are also Protestants. Mass transfers to Catholicism will not, I think, be attractive … unless there is also conviction that Catholic leadership and authority structures are divinely willed.

    Anyone want to take a bet on that occurring?

    My suspicion is that Catholics are going to re-think those doctrines on grounds like those advanced by John Paul II in “Ut unum sint” — and approved by Joseph Ratzinger. Does Benedict XVI agree with Ratzinger?


    • Bill:

      John Allen is widely admired. But he’s bad on ecumenism. If you read him carefully, he really does think that the Catholic Church is the One True Church. And that influences his interpretation of this development.

      The real issue not only for me but for a considerable number of Catholic theologians involved in ecumenical dialogue, some at the highest level, is timing. The Anglican communion is in crisis, so the Vatican makes this move now. It’s deeply troubling. In addition, it’s a violation of true ecumenism–there’s no mutual repentance and reunion in this move at all.

      But many commentators agree with you–Philip Jenkins, for example–that the practical effect will not be widespread. The effect on ecumenical dialogue between the Catholic church and the Anglican communion is likely to be disastrous, however.


  7. Marian, thanks for the thoughtful, informative, and sensitive posting. It’s hard for me to see how this action does NOT strike a blow to ecumenism. And what astounds me further is the relative absence of comments from Anglicans/Episcopalians. On the New York Times website, for example, they conducted a roundtable discussion of the matter — with four Catholics and precisely zero Anglicans/Episcopalians!


  8. Marian, enjoyed your funny post about those Troglodyte Anglicans! How’s that spirit of the Second Vatican Council project going?

    Mike, I guess Blessed Bernie had his own scotosis about contraception, no?


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