Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fourteen months later

The release of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus has stirred up enormous controversy, allowing for the reception of Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church through a newly-formed ecclesiastical structure (the "Personal Ordinariate"). The Ordinariate is currently in the process of formation in Britain, with a major landmark being today's ordination to the priesthood of three former Church of England bishops.

The media, as one might expect, have been all over this story: the ongoing bitter theological disputes, Byzantine power struggles and financial woes of the worldwide Anglican Church have been an entertaining sideshow in the news for years. It's always interesting to guess at the reasons why the general public might find these stories worth following. Perhaps the public takes a certain half-spiteful, voyeuristic interest in the proceedings, the sort of interest one might have in a messy celebrity divorce; perhaps with the popularity of such ecclesiastically-themed like Dan Brown's ridiculous The Da Vinci Code, any Church matter now has an air of exotic mystery; or perhaps the public intuitively understands that the fate of Britain's state church and its worldwide offshoots will go some way towards determining the political future of the English-speaking world.

Whatever the reason for this sudden interest in Anglican affairs, coverage of the Apostolic Constitution in the traditional media and in the blogosphere has been extensive and fascinating. Figures in both the Anglican and Catholic communities have weighed in on the subject, representing church jurisdictions that I never knew existed and an extraordinarily wide range of theological opinion. If anyone believes that either the Anglican or Catholic Church is a monolithic bloc with no room for individual opinion, they need look no further than the blog debates about the Ordinariate, if they dare.

The perspective that has been least represented in this discussion, however, is also probably the most important. What do you do if you're an Anglican layman with limited theological knowledge and erudition, one who is concerned about the future of the Anglican church but not currently prepared to accept the entirety of Roman Catholic doctrine? Doesn't it imply a lack of moral seriousness to jump from one church tradition to another simply because the process of doing so is now slightly easier?

This is, of course, exactly my own position, and I would be surprised if many others aren't in the same situation. The nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, which instigated a resurgence of catholic tradition within the Anglican Church, nevertheless maintained a certain distance from the Church of Rome; the great Anglo-Catholic theologians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century differed on many points from the teaching of the Roman Magisterium. Thus, anyone who moves from the Anglican Church to the Roman Catholic Church is entering an ecclesial body with a substantially different body of teaching. Indeed, if any Anglican genuinely accepted every statement in the Catholic Catechism they would have no choice but to convert to Catholicism immediately. It is hard to imagine why any person who truly believed that the apostolic Church founded by Christ subsists solely in the Church of Rome (CCC 816) would refuse to submit to the authority of that Church; inconsistency is by no means the worst thing that can be said for such an position.

Joining the Roman Catholic Church thus represents much more than a change of leadership; it represents an assent to a clearly defined body of dogma, maintained and updated by a teaching authority that identifies itself as infallible. To point this out is not necessarily to deprecate the Church, as a certain modern sensibility might suggest; it is clearly better than to have well-defined principles than to allow whim and fashion to determine doctrine. It does mean, however, that the content of Catholic dogma should receive the closest possible scrutiny. It makes not a whit of difference to the Methodist churches if John Wesley turns out to have been wrong about some detail of doctrine; it makes a great deal of difference if the Roman Catholic Church has taught error on any doctrinal point, since this would undermine the Church's entire self-understanding. A prospective convert to Catholicism should thus be persuaded not only that the Roman Church is wholly correct on every doctrinal matter on which it has officially spoken, but also that the official organs of that Church will continue to speak with infallibility on all matters of faith and morals in the future. The stakes are enormously high. If Rome is correct in its claims, then accepting the authority of the Pope is the best decision one could ever make, and indeed the duty of every Christian. If Rome is incorrect in its claims, then the authority of the Pope is illegitimate, and to join his Church would be to embrace error.

This may seem melodramatic, but I have done no more than to point out that Roman Catholic dogma must be either true or false, and that the truth or falsity of our beliefs has important consequences. Unfortunately, it is precisely this aspect that seems to have been least stressed in the discussions of the forthcoming Ordinariate; advocates of the Ordinariate have tried to demonstrate that the situation in the Anglican Communion has become untenable, and that the best aspects of Anglicanism will be preserved under the new power structure. All of this is wholly irrelevant. The only reason to accept Catholicism would be that it is true; the rest is only logistics.

So is Catholic doctrine true or false? The short answer is that I don't know. I have never been convinced by arguments that Catholicism is evil, anti-Scriptural or whatever, but neither have I been fully persuaded by the standard apologetics for Catholic doctrine. My reading on the subject has taught me a lot of facts about comparative theology, but hasn't really clarified matters. It seems obvious that the Catholic understanding of the Christian faith is in many ways compatible with my Anglican understanding, but it is less clear how to judge between us in the cases where we differ. And so I withhold judgment. In the absence of some clear sign one way or the other, it seems wisest to serve God by remaining where he has placed me.

It is, then, with mixed feelings that I observe the formation of the Ordinariate. I am pleased, of course, that some part of the liturgical and pastoral heritage of Anglicanism will now be accessible to the wider Church, and hopeful that this will represent an opportunity for richer ecumenical dialogue. And I can only be pleased for those Anglo-Catholics for whom the Apostolic Constitution is an answer to decades of prayer. Yet I am concerned that many will join the Ordinariate without fully considering the implications of their decision, pushed along by stronger-willed members of their parish, weakening an already fragile Anglo-Catholic community without fully commiting to Roman Catholicism. Certainly in the blogosphere a certain amount of bullying has taken place, with advocates of the Ordinariate painting the bleakest possible future for any Anglicans who choose to stay put. On a more wistful note: many Anglo-Catholics had hoped that the process of theological dialogue would one day make possible a scheme of intercommunion with Roman Catholicism; for a variety of reasons, this is now increasingly unlikely ever to come to pass, but the existence of the Ordinariate likely represents the final nail in the coffin for that dream.

This post was over a year in the making; I have avoided commenting on the Ordinariate up until now because the issues involved are so complicated and controversial. Yet, for all that, what I've written above still seems fragmentary and inadequate. It's painfully obvious that I don't have the answers, and that what we need now more than anything else is careful study and prayer.


Anonymous said...

Although I would parse this statement with different emphases and nuances, I believe that it represents one of the most reflective responses on this issue to date. Thank you for posting this.

cnb said...

I agree with the previous commenter; this is one of the most sober and just responses to the Ordinariate that I have seen. More than that, what you have said is exactly right: in the end, it doesn't really matter how bad things may be outside the Catholic Church; any positive move toward Catholicism has to be made on the strength of its own merits.

Since I am a Catholic -- and, indeed, a convert -- it will not be surprising to hear me say that I believe the Catholic Church is what she says she is, and that she is worthy of faith. It was a long process, however, for me to reach that point, and I am not sure I could say exactly how I got there.

I will try to remember to pray for you as you deliberate about these important matters.