For me at least, the most dismaying thing about criticism of Pope Benedict’s plan for easing the way for Anglicans who seek to enter the Roman Catholic Church is the critics’ apparent indifference to the spiritual welfare of these Anglicans. As a consequence, a compassionate gesture by Rome is smeared as something sinister.
Clueless as usual where Catholicism is concerned, the secular media have tended to treat Benedict XVI’s action in political terms, as a power grab. This interpretation ignores the fact that the Anglican traditionalists most likely to take advantage of the new provision for “personal ordinariates” have been pleading for something like this for years. The Pope has simply responded to those pleas.
But secular journalists aren’t the only ones to get it wrong. Catholic voices also have been raised in this chorus of callousness. Consider the final paragraph of an article in the London Tablet, a reliable platform for progressive Catholic views: “It is hard to see how this new development will do anything but further sow division in the Anglican Communion and confusion among Catholics who have long been committed to the work of ecumenism.”
As to Anglican “division”: the departure of Anglicans who’ve anguished for a long time over the direction of their fractured communion is much more likely to restore a semblance of unity to that deeply troubled body than it is to create more division.
As to Catholic “confusion”: the confusion admittedly felt by many Catholics about the nature and intent of ecumenism is largely a product of a post-Vatican II interpretation that reduces the ecumenical enterprise to endless dialogue leading—God knows how—to some sort of corporate merger in an unimaginable future. Confusion is a mild word for it.
Most of all, though, such critical comments miss the fundamental point—the relief potentially afforded to those Anglican groups most directly affected by Benedict’s generous gesture. That is best understood in human terms.
A year ago in Rome I had a substantial chat with an Anglican woman who is a member of one of these groups. Moved by her faith and her ardent desire for communion with the Holy See, I told her at the end of our conversation: “I can only hope and pray that you get what you want—and get it soon.”
It’s often said that conservative Anglicans are upset about things like women bishops and openly homosexual bishops. No doubt they are. But much else is involved.
Several years ago an American woman—a contented member of the Episcopal Church—told me an anecdote concerning an Episcopal clergyman which she insisted was true. It seems that this gentleman, in a fit of whimsy, was seen one day to give communion to a dog. The lady seemed to think that was just fine. I was appalled—at what had happened, at her approval of it, and at what it disclosed concerning the state of Episcopalian belief in the Eucharist.
A man who’d been an Episcopalian for years but finally came over to Rome once shared a useful insight with me. “The trouble with those people,” he said of his former co-religionists, “is that they’re sentimental.”
A number of present Anglicans seem to agree. I am glad that Pope Benedict has offered these troubled believers a congenial way out of the dilemma in which their sentimental Anglican brethren placed them. As for those who don’t like what the Pope has done, I suggest they remove their blinders and congratulate him on an act of Christian charity.