November 5, 2009
In one sense, it's all about sex. In another, it's not about sex at all.
On October 20, Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced that the Roman Catholic Church would provide a unique home for Anglican converts, a "personal ordinariate" — in effect, a separate "Anglican rite" similar to the Catholic Eastern rites, allowing them to retain their own liturgical practices, parish structures, and married clergy. They would, of course, be obliged to accept the totality of Catholic doctrine and recognize the pope as their chief shepherd.
Cardinal Levada explained that this initiative had come in response to requests by traditionalist Anglican groups to enter the Catholic Church while "preserving elements of their distinctive Anglican spiritual patrimony."
Though he did not mention it, the principal reason for the traditionalists' movement to Rome is their objection to the Anglican Church's ordination of women as priests and bishops. To many both inside and outside the Anglican Communion, this seems like just another example of misogyny, and in some cases it probably is. But underlying the controversy is a significant theological issue: the role of tradition in the Christian faith.
If many Anglicans turn to Rome, it will not be the first time. In 1845, Anglican clergyman John Henry Newman converted to Catholicism. For over a decade, he and a group of other theologians at Oxford University had undertaken a systematic study of the traditions of the Christian churches. Examining the writings of the early Fathers, they concluded that the Roman and Orthodox churches had maintained an unbroken link with the ancient Church in doctrine and liturgical practice. They came to believe, as Newman put it, that Catholicism in its broad sense was "a real religion — not a mere opinion" as he found so much of Anglican preaching and theology to be, "but an external objective substantive creed and worship."
Through their publications and preaching, these first "Anglo-Catholics" encouraged their church to reject the Protestant evangelical model dominant since Elizabethan times and reshape it on the orthodox model, following its traditions of belief, hierarchical structure, and ritualized worship while retaining its independence and distinctive features such as the Book of Common Prayer and married clergy.
This "Oxford Movement," as it came to be called, faced vociferous opposition from the established Church of England, forcing Newman and many of his colleagues reluctantly to abandon it and be received by Rome.
The conversions continued for well over a century, mostly among intellectuals, and for similar reasons as Newman's. G. K. Chesterton embraced Catholicism in 1922 at age 48, asserting that it was the only "creed that could not be satisfied with a truth, but only with the Truth, which is made of a million such truths and yet is one." Graham Greene, many of whose novels are extended meditations on the paradox of saintly sinners, converted at the behest of his wife and rarely practiced the faith, but was "convinced by specific arguments in the probability of its creed."
In America, Thomas Merton, who was baptized a Catholic while a grad student at Columbia in the 1930's and then became a Trappist monk, wrote about his initial contact with Catholicism in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain: "How clear and solid the doctrine was: ... you felt the full force not only of Scripture but of centuries of a unified and continuous and consistent tradition."
It was this "Catholic Synthesis," a comprehensive worldview that integrated faith and reason, history and contemporaneity, that attracted these thinkers troubled by a purposeless, fragmented modernity.
James Joyce, who gave up on Catholicism in his youth, ironically summarized this attraction in his autobiographical novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When Stephen Dedalus, tormented by religious doubt, is asked by his friend Cranley if he was thinking of becoming a Protestant, he replies: "I said that I had lost the faith, not that I had lost self- respect. What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?"
Those Anglicans seeking union with Rome today come with convictions much like Newman's — that the traditions of the Church rank alongside Scripture as windows to God's revelation. The male clergy is part of that tradition.
However, there is another aspect of Newman's thought that eventually may come into play: that the tradition is not static but develops, and that the development is articulated by the Church's bishops gathered in ecumenical council. There may well be some traditionalist Anglicans, soon to align with Rome, who desire the ordination of women but believe that it must be accomplished collegially, as every other clarification of doctrine has been since apostolic times.
The infusion of Anglo-Catholics into the Roman Church may hasten a doctrinal development among Catholics and Orthodox that is long overdue.
And of this, Newman would surely be proud.