Bridging the Tiber

By Guarino, Thomas G. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Tiber


Guarino, Thomas G., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Unsurprisingly, when in November 2009 the Holy See announced the establishment of personal Ordinariates (similar to dioceses) for those Anglicans and Episcopalians entering into full communion with the Catholic Church, the standard journalistic account cast Pope Benedict's outreach in political terms, as nothing more than a naked attempt to lure conservative members of the Anglican Communion into union with Rome, thereby consolidating right-wing opposition to women priests and to a homosexual lifestyle.

While it is true that Benedict welcomes Christians who embrace biblical standards rather than the Promethean and protean morality pursued by much of the Western world, reading the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus as simply another skirmish in the culture wars is to misunderstand its theological context and pastoral intent. In the Ordinariates, one sees the palpable fruit of Vatican IPs marked accent on legitimate pluralism. Indeed, Anglicanorum Coetibus may be the most tangible fruit of the conciliar emphasis on authentic diversity since the celebration of the liturgy in the vernacular.

But the story of the Ordinariates begins long before the council, in the "Malines Conversations" between Catholics and Anglicans in the early 1920s, when Catholic and Anglican theologians met in Belgium to discuss unity between Rome and Canterbury on the initiative of Cardinal Mercier (a churchman widely known for his learning in Thomist philosophy) and Lord Halifax (a well-known English aristocrat and devout AngloCatholic).

Mercier was known for the claim that the fundamental goal of the conversations was to unite Anglicanism with Catholicism but not to absorb it. This phrase, "united not absorbed," was incorporated into the title of a famous article ("The Anglican Church, United Not Absorbed") written by the Benedictine theologian Dom Lambert Beauduin in 1925.

The point of the maxim was that any reunion would respect and preserve certain Anglican traditions and rituals of the Anglican Communion even as it restored the "large measure of self-government and fidelity to the Roman See" that characterized the English church before the Reformation. Unfortunately, the energy impelling the Malines Conversations died with Mercier in 1926.

But the memory of Malines lived. In 1937, the great ecumenist Yves Congar, one of the principal theologians at Vatican II, examined the Malines Conversations in his Divided Christendom. He noted that some ideas floated at Malines, such as a patriarchate of Canterbury, were ill-founded historically and theologically and, further, that the very idea of corporate reunion was difficult to entertain since one found in the Anglican Communion not homogeneity in faith but "a great variety of irreconcilable beliefs."

He insisted nonetheless that reunion with Anglicanism need not mean complete uniformity or absorption. And he maintained that accenting merely individual conversions to Catholicism was insufficient: "It is clear that something more is needed and that we must hope some day for a widespread movement towards reunion."

While acknowledging that he could not foresee exactly which form reunion would take, he believed that such an event was "by no means chimerical," and he presciently noted that, while the Holy See will brook no compromise in matters of faith, "in matters of discipline it will be broad and comprehensive." In fact, the Vatican's latitude in disciplinary matters had already been demonstrated by Malines itself, in Rome's tacit approval of the conversations.

In the end, Congar concluded, the Anglican-Catholic dialogue, despite all the doctrinal difficulties, "showed a concrete, psychological, and human possibility of return." Malines had revealed an impasse, certainly, but it had also "sown a seed of which no one can yet estimate the fertility."

In the decades that followed Congar's groundbreaking book, the issue of authentic pluralism and legitimate diversity continued to germinate in Catholic thought. …

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