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Rowan Williams’ Ego Meets the Catholic Thing

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 24, 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury was obviously deeply annoyed by the Pope’s unilateral announcement that the Church would welcome Anglican congregations under a new Ordinariate. It could hardly be otherwise. And while he has retained the proverbial stiff upper lip throughout, and has uniformly responded with characteristic British understatement, it remains true that when he was eventually able to get a meeting with Pope Benedict, the Anglican Archbishop expressed his discomfiture. As he later admitted in an interview with Vatican Radio, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus left him with a “sore ego” and put him in an “awkward position.”

He also explained to reporters that, once he heard about the Apostolic Constitution, he had very little time to react, and he had to make an emergency call to Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity at the eleventh hour to find out what was going on. Cardinal Kasper uttered the usual ecumenical assurances, but he was not himself a key player. I do not say he was completely out of the loop. The official explanation is that, since doctrinal questions were involved, he had already referred the whole matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Whatever the case, the matter of Anglican entry into the Church was not proceeding under his authority nor, apparently, was he regularly consulted.

Why were both Canterbury and Christian Unity left out?

There are two reasons why the Pope would not want to discuss this in advance either with the head of the Anglican Church or the head of his own Council for Christian Unity. The first reason is by far the most important, and is the only one necessary. It is simply because the decision to welcome Anglican congregations into the Church was not an ecumenical affair.

Please follow this carefully. The Church’s only possible positive relationship with the Anglican Communion is an ecumenical relationship and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity exists for the purpose of pursuing ecumenical relationships. But the decision to admit under a special jurisdiction those Anglican congregations which want to enter the Church is not a decision about an ecumenical process; it is rather an internal Catholic decision that, for any such congregations, the progress of ecumenism has come to an end. Good relations have been maintained; growth in mutual understanding has taken place; now many Anglicans wish to end their ecumenical relationship with the Church and actually become Catholic.

The second reason is sketchier, though I think it likely that it was at least in the back of the Pope’s mind. It is a theological reason. Neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor, in some respects, Cardinal Walter Kasper shares Pope Benedict’s theological understanding of what the Church is. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion has become a dynamic balancing of disparate factions without a central doctrine or morality. He is, after all, trying to make the best of what he’s got, and he hasn’t got much. Cardinal Kasper’s case is similar in some degree, but I do not wish to push this too far. He is the Pope’s appointee, and it does make sense to appoint a Cardinal with Kasper’s theological predispositions to an ecumenical post, but as a matter of theological study and emphasis, Cardinal Kasper holds an idea of “Church” which locates universality more or less in the accumulation of individual congregations. In contrast, Benedict XVI emphasizes that universality is a distinctive note of the Catholic Church already present in Peter, and present in the local churches only by virtue of their union with the Bishop of Rome.

Moreover, Cardinal Kasper has, over the past few years, made several statements to the effect that the Church is not interested in receiving Anglicans in large numbers. Whether this was mere ecumenical posturing or represents his own view of what’s best, we may never know. In any case, all things considered, any sort of formal process of consultation with either Canterbury or Christian Unity could only have resulted in discussions and debates between opposing points of view which would have forced the entire process back into an ecumenical mode. Since the Pope had obviously determined upon a course of action internal to the Catholic Church herself, debates and discussions of this kind were nothing to the purpose.

Therefore, when Archbishop Rowan Williams finally did meet with Pope Benedict on Saturday, they confined themselves pretty much to a brief discussion of the Archbishop’s bruised ego and a bland mutual commitment to continued ecumenical relations, both of which are essentially irrelevant to the matter at hand. The bottom line is that Anglicanorum Coetibus is a singularly Catholic thing, not an ecumenical overture. It is therefore off-limits to Rowan Williams. Accordingly and with complete consistency, even at this latest meeting, Anglicanorum Coetibus was not discussed.

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Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Nov. 26, 2009 3:49 PM ET USA

    "Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you" is not an empty phrase. Many, many Anglicans groups had come to Rome to relate that they had indeed sought and wished to seek no longer;and that they were knocking! How much longer could Peter put them off?

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - Nov. 26, 2009 12:03 PM ET USA

    I am surprised that there are no references to Newman's writings on the Anglican Church, and particularly of theological matters. He was quite clear that the Anglican church is a branch of the English civil service. This is undoubtedly what has occurred to many thoughtful Anglicans - that theirs is not a church. It is a collection of lovely prose prayers and hymns and empty rituals.

  • Posted by: Mary8163 - Nov. 25, 2009 3:21 PM ET USA

    I love these faith-full, truth-full relections/reports! You are my most trusted source for gaining understanding of the myriad happenings within our beloved Church.

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