Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Vatican's Cynical Gesture to Episcopalians

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Vatican's Cynical Gesture to Episcopalians

Article excerpt

The depth of cynicism behind the Vatican's invitation last month to right-wing Episcopalians "to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony" is best understood through one of Rome's most high-profile converts, a certain John Henry Newman.

Pope Benedict XVI's long-running admiration of the 19th century English theologian is well-documented; this summer, he even cleared the way for his accession to sainthood. Clearly, nothing would please him more than to see a new generation of latter-day Newmans streaming through the gates of the One True Faith. But far from perpetuating his legacy, Benedict's proposed brand of Catholocism- lite would have deeply troubled Newman and the intellectual honesty he stood for.

Newman's transit from firebrand Protestant to Roman Catholic cardinal took place in the mid-19th century, a time when the very notion of Christian belief was under unprecedented existential threat. In the year before Newman's conversion, Marx declared religion the opium of the people, while the publication of "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" - a precursor to Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species" - set in motion the gradual erosion of belief in the literal truth of the Bible.

It was an age of doubt, a time when British poet Matthew Arnold depicted the decline in religious faith as a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar." If many Christian denominations are struggling today - and the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey suggests they are - it must have seemed to Newman's contemporaries that the entire edifice of faith was collapsing about their ears, exposing beyond it a turbulent void of doubt.

In his days as an Episcopalian, Newman had been at the forefront of the so-called Oxford Movement. From their headquarters at Oxford University, this group of young religious hot-shots sought to roll back the liberal secularization of the church, hoping as they did so to restore an element of ritual and mystery to religious practise. …

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