Benedict the Ecumenist

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In his play A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt described the Church of England thus: “The Church of England, that finest flower of our Island genius for compromise; that system, peculiar to these shores, the despair of foreign observers, which deflects the torrents of religious passion down the canals of moderation.”

This has been the story of the Church of England for a long time. Its lack of a central magisterial authority and its historical wavering between Catholicism and Protestantism resulted in a faith that accepted as legitimate a wide variety of creedal positions, a built-in system of relativism.

It was this sort of relativism that led Bl. John Henry Newman, a prominent 19th-century Anglican divine and intellectual, to abandon the Church of England for the Catholic Church, in which he was ordained a priest. On the occasion of his nomination to the College of Cardinals by Pope Pius IX in 1879, Newman wrote the following:

“For thirty, forty, fifty years, I have resisted to the best of my powers the spirit of Liberalism in religion…Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily.”

This liberalism infected the Church of England so much that its teachings changed at exactly the same pace as the dominant culture changed. It was the first Christian body to accept the morality of contraception, at the 1930 Lambeth Conference. It shifted its positions on the all-male priesthood, and then (in the Episcopal Church, and soon in the Church of England) on the all-male episcopate, breaking with nearly 2,000 years of Christian practice. Many Anglicans have even come to accept the morality of abortion and the blessing of homosexual unions; the Episcopal Church even went so far as to embrace the openly homosexual Eugene Robinson as a bishop in good standing.

For the past 45 years, Catholics have been involved in ecumenical discussions with this increasingly liberal group through the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), in attempts to foster greater “unity” between the two bodies. Much of this dialogue seemed to involve elaborate conferences, fancy dinners paid for by folks in the pews, and the drafting of wishy-washy, ambiguous statements that both parties could accept by interpreting them differently.

Cardinal Ratzinger was not very enthusiastic about these fake shows. He put a stop to the worst of these “joint statements,” a ludicrous betrayal of the Catholic faith known as the ARCIC Final Report. It was actually a series of joint documents on the Eucharist, authority in the Church, and a variety of other subjects. As the late British Catholic author Michael Davies put it, they basically tried to agree that the English Reformation was just a little semantic misunderstanding. Against the wishes of the ecumaniacal British Catholic bishops, Ratzinger refused to sign off on the document, which effectively killed the negotiations in 1991.

Fast-forward to 2009. At the urging of sizable groups of Anglicans who truly desired unity with the Catholic Church but wished to preserve some aspects of their Anglican identity, Pope Benedict issued Anglicanorum Coetibus, a legislative document that would facilitate the conversion of Anglicans to the Church on a corporate level. It would give them their own diocese-like structures (called “ordinariates”) and allow them to have liturgical rights more consistent with their Anglican traditions. Essentially, instead of talking about ecumenism, Benedict actually put in place practical structures to help bring about unity between Catholics and Anglicans who wish to join the Church.

The first of these ordinariates has just been established in the United Kingdom. Its first members were three Anglican bishops who were just accepted into the Catholic Church and ordained to the Catholic priesthood this month: Fathers Keith Newton (who will lead the ordinariate), Andrew Burnham, and John Broadhurst. Many thousands of Anglican laity and clergy are expected to follow the path towards unity, with further ordinariates to be established in Canada, the United States, and Australia. The Holy Father’s actions have opened a new era in Anglican-Catholic relations.

And yet the liberals are unhappy. It was widely thought that the old lefty lion of the Catholic Church in England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, delayed the publication of Anglicanorum Coetibus, which was not published until seven months after the cardinal retired. Many of the ecumaniacs were aghast that the Holy Father seemed to be “fishing in the Anglican pond,” “proselytizing,” and “destroying ecumenical relations.”

It’s the same old religious liberalism from which Newman fled in the 19th century. The point of ecumenism for the modern liberals is “unity,” but not a unity based on accepting objective truth. Benedict wants to save souls by giving them the truth of the Gospel, which (he believes) can only be found in the Catholic religion. Between Anglicanism and Catholicism, one creed is not as good as another — Benedict recognizes this, and in so doing, he has shown himself to be an actual lover of unity, the true ecumenist.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.