Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Five Hundred Years After St. John Fisher: Benedict’s Ecumenical Initiatives to Anglicans

by Cardinal William J. Levada


Cardinal William Joseph Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith delivered this address on Anglicanorum coetibus, on March 6, 2010, at at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.

Publisher & Date

Salt & Light Television, March 8, 2010

Thank you very much Fr. de Souza for the invitation to Kingston—my first visit—and to deliver this St. John Fisher visitor lecture. Thank you for introducing me to CCO. I’m delighted, I feel it a great privilege to be a part of this evening of testimony and partnership and, we hope, ongoing support. Of the fifty or so English Cardinals, only one was a martyr: St. John Fisher. As I mentioned, I am honoured to deliver this lecture named for St. John Fisher to this assembly sponsored by Newman House and by CCO.

I’m reminded of the prayer with which our Holy Father imposed the cardinal’s biretta, or hat, on my head, some four years ago this month. The prayer reads: “Receive this red biretta as a sign of the dignity of the Cardinalate, by which you must be strong even to the shedding of your blood, in working for the increase of the Christian faith, for the peace and tranquility of the people of God, and for the freedom and progress of the Holy Roman Church.”

I can’t say that I pray daily to be a martyr. I wish I were stronger. But it’s a good reminder for me to be here at this lecture in honour of the great martyr-Cardinal of the English Church. As a way of celebrating these 500 years since the time of St. John Fisher’s saintly and intrepid life, which brought him the martyr’s crown, and of celebrating as well this year’s promised beatification of the venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, whose search for the fullness of truth led him to Rome without requiring that he abandon the spiritual heritage that had nurtured him in the Anglican communion, I entitled my presentation today: “500 Years After St. John Fisher: Pope Benedict’s Initiatives Regarding the Anglican Communion.”

The recent Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, establishing—I don’t need to translate this, I suppose, it won’t come out so well in translation: “groups of Anglicans”—establishing personal ordinariates for groups of Anglicans seeking full communion with the Catholic Church, was not created in a vacuum. For many Anglicans, the possibility opened by this initiative has seemed to be a logical development of the official dialogues between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church during the 45 year period since the end of the Second Vatican Council. Any discussion of Pope Benedict’s initiatives regarding Anglicans might therefore begin with a glance at this important history.

Just a few years after the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the first Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, commonly referred to by a short-hard term “ARCIC”, was established in 1969, with the mandate to produce agreed statements on three issues: Eucharistic doctrine, ministry and ordination, and authority in the Church. One notes immediately that these questions move from areas of greater supposed agreement—the Eucharist—to that of greater challenge, such as authority, which included discussions about papal primacy and infallibility.

The commission worked rapidly to produce its agreed statements. There was a statement on Eucharist in 1971, on ministry and ordination in 1973, and on authority in the Church in 1976. With the further clarification on various points that were needed, ARCIC I, the first commission, prepared its responses called “elucidations”, which were published in 1979 and 1981, and produced a second agreed statement on “Authority in the Church II” in 1981. The work of ARCIC I was thus completed and received a largely favourable judgement both within the Anglican Communion and from the Catholic authorities. The Holy See would later approve the agreed statements on Eucharist and ministry with their elucidations. The ARCIC statements on authority in the Church stated that full agreement on certain issues, for example primacy and infallibility, had not yet been achieved and asked and recommended that these issues be addressed by a new ARCIC commission.

The only outstanding question on ministry and ordination that remained was the ordination of women, an issue that was new. I note here that the ARCIC statement on ministry was published in 1973 and only in 1976 did the first ordination of a woman priest occur in the Episcopal Church in the United States. In spite of the request of the Holy See for further elucidation on this question, the commission maintained that its mandate to examine the classical teaching on ministry and orders had been accomplished, and asked that the question of the ordination of women be remanded for consideration by its successive commission. Until now this issue has not been examined by ARCIC.

As a result of the work of ARCIC I, hopes ran high in ecumenical circles. Many Anglicans and Catholics saw in the agreed statements a path leading to the recognition of a common expression of their own faith. Such has been the testimony of the Anglican members of the working group with whom the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith consulted in the preparation of Anglicanorum coetibus, who see Pope Benedict’s apostolic constitution as one of the fruits of the ARCIC agreed statements. For many Anglicans, however, the question of women’s ordination remains a source of tension and disagreement, particularly in the Church of England, where more than 300 parishes have refused the ministry of bishops who ordain women, and for whom alternative episcopal oversight in the form of what are called “flying bishops”, suffragans to the Archbishop of Canterbury, have provided supplemental ministry throughout England.

The decisions of the recent Synod of the Church of England to permit the ordination of women bishops and the refusal to authorize continued episcopal oversight have made the problem for this minority of Anglicans even more acute. For its part, the Catholic Church has clearly articulated its position on the ordination of women. In 1975, Pope Paul VI issued a formal appeal to the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Fredrick Donald Coggan, to avoid taking a step which would have a serious negative impact on ecumenical relations. Just to say, parenthetically, that an appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury, though, is probably frustrating for him, because unlike the Catholic Church, there is no central authority in the Anglican Communion and, thus, the various provinces—some 39, I believe—have made their own decisions about such questions of practice and even doctrine.

In 1976, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its declaration Inter insigniores, stating that the Church does not consider herself authorized to ordain women, not on account of socio-cultural reasons, but rather because of the “unbroken tradition throughout the history of the Church, universal in the East and in the West”, which must be “considered to conform to God’s plan for his Church.” (I’m quoting there from the document.) This position was reiterated in 1992 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and again in 1994 with the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio sacerdotalis. In October of 1995, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a response affirming that the doctrine stating that the Church has no power to confer sacred orders on women is definitive tenenda—it must be held definitively and is to be considered part of the infallible, ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church. For Catholics, the issue of the reservation of priestly ordination to men is not merely a matter of praxis, or discipline, but is, rather, doctrinal in nature and touches the heart of the doctrine of the Eucharist itself and the sacramental nature, or constitution, of the Church. It is therefore a question which cannot be relegated to the periphery of ecumenical conversations, but needs to be engaged directly in honesty and charity by dialogue partners who desire Christian unity, which, by its very nature, is Eucharistic.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, current President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addressed this point in an intervention given in June 2006 to the House of Bishops of the Church of England during its discussions on the ordination of women to the episcopate. In his talk he said this: “Because the Episcopal office is a ministry of unity, the decision you face would immediately impact on the question of the unity of the Church and with it the goal of ecumenical dialogue. It would be a decision against the common goal we have until now pursued in our dialogue: full ecclesial communion, which cannot exist without full communion in the episcopal office.”

Returning briefly to the ARCIC process, in 1983 ARCIC II, the second commission, was established by the authorities of both communions, with a new group of representative theologians from each side. A list of the agreed statements produced by ARCIC II can give an idea of the broadened scope of the commission’s mandate. “Salvation and the Church” in 1987, “The Church as Communion” in 1991, “Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church” in 1994, “The Gift of Authority: Authority in the Church III” in 1989, and “Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ” in 2005. These documents, although rich in content, have not received the widespread attention of the statements of ARCIC I, nor, as far as I know, have they been submitted for the evaluation of authorities of the two Communions, as were the previous statements.

A more general analysis of the work of ARCIC II goes beyond the scope of this talk, not to mention the time available. But there’s one statement, “Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church”, that addresses the question of homosexuality, which, in the past decade, has become another church-dividing issue in the Anglican Communion and potentially between the two Communions, and thus also touches our topic, since it motivated the need seen by some Anglicans to request the possibility of corporate union with the Catholic Church, to which Anglicanorum coetibus is a response.

In “Life in Christ”, we read the following conclusions offered by the commission members, as a statement of doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Anglicans on the question of homosexuality. And here I quote number 87 of that agreed statement—that is, it’s an agreed statement of the Catholic and Anglican theologians, as their agreement was never officially authorized by either of the Communions.

“Both our Communions affirm the importance and significance of human friendship and affection among men and women, whether married or single. Both affirm that all persons, including those of homosexual orientation, are made in the divine image and share the full dignity of human creatureliness. Both affirm that a faithful and lifelong marriage between a man and a woman provides the normative context for a fully sexual relationship. Both appeal to Scripture and the natural order as the sources of their teaching on this issue. Both reject, therefore, the claim, sometimes made that homosexual relationships and married relationships are morally equivalent, and equally capable of expressing the right ordering and use of the sexual drive. Such ordering and use, we believe, are an essential aspect of life in Christ.” (Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church, Second Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission, 87.)

While not an official doctrinal statement, this formulation is one that the Anglican and Catholic members of ARCIC II in 1994 proposed as a correct common formulation of the moral doctrine accepted by both Communions. No wonder, then, that the ordination of a bishop in a homosexual partnership in New Hampshire, with subsequent approval by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the United States in 2003, and the authorization of rituals for the blessing of gay unions and marriages by the Anglican Church in Canada, have caused an enormous upheaval within the Anglican communion.

The fundamental issue here, as many have noted, is the question of authority. This may be briefly summed up in the following two points. Does the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and in Scripture intend to let us know God’s will in a way that requires our obedience (for example, the imitation of Christ, the Ten Commandments)? And secondly, has God, in Christ, left His Church, founded on the Apostles, an authority by which it can assure that can know the correct meaning of the revelation, amidst sometimes varying human interpretations (for example, the sensus fidei, the ecumenical councils, the Magisterium of the Pope and bishops)?

Notwithstanding the tensions created, not only within the Anglican Communion but for ecumenical relations with the Catholic Church, the abovementioned two issues, last November, on the occasion of the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI approved the establishment of ARCIC III, which has for its mandate to continue the bilateral dialogue, with the theme “Church as Communion – Local and Universal”, including the discernment of ethical questions on these two levels and the interaction between them.

Such a step is a sign of hope and a commitment to pursuing the path to full corporate union on the part of our two Communions. I think mention should also be made of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an ecumenical initiative—Fr. de Souza mentioned it earlier in introducing me. It was promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1992 and prepared by a commission headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, then the prefect of our congregation. I served on the editorial committee of seven bishops, as he mentioned, and I personally witnessed the commitment of time and of his own theological resources on the part of Cardinal Ratzinger to this important task, which was proposed by the Synod of Bishops in 1985, in which all the presidents of the bishops conferences participated to review the implementation of Vatican II up to that point.

Pope John Paul’s Apostolic Constitution Fidei depositum promulgating the Catechism, points out that, “It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith.”

As we met with Anglican consultants in the preparation of Anglicanorum coetibus, these bishops and theologians themselves proposed the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the norm of faith for the corporate groups of Anglicans who might avail themselves this new instrument for full corporate union with the Catholic Church. Thus, I would also characterize the Catechism as an ecumenical initiative of Pope Benedict XVI and of his predecessor.

To conclude this first section of my talk—just to let you know that there will be an end eventually, but not right now—I want to introduce the musical image that I will use subsequently. In speaking of the extensive consultation of bishops, synods and episcopal conferences by which the Catechism was enriched, Pope John Paul said, “This response elicits in me a deep feeling of joy, because the harmony of so many voices truly expresses what could be called the symphony of the faith.”

The logic, the second part of the talk, that last part, is titled “The Logic of Anglicanorum Coetibus.” We turn our attention now to the most recent of the Holy Father’s initiatives, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, which is itself in continuity with the serious and longstanding engagement with Anglicans exemplified by the ARCIC process that I have just described. The Apostolic Constitution provides for the reception into the Catholic Church of communities of Anglican faithful, which can retain distinctive features of their Anglican spiritual, liturgical and disciplinary heritage.

Union with the Catholic Church is the goal of ecumenism—one could put, “we phrase it that way”. Yet the very process of working towards union works a change in churches and ecclesial communities that engage one another in dialogue, in actual instances of entering into communion do indeed transform the Catholic Church by way of enrichment. Let me add right away that when I say enrichment I am referring not to any addition of essential elements of sanctification and truth to the Catholic Church. Christ has endowed her with all the essential elements. I am referring to the addition of modes of expression of these essential elements, modes which enhance everyone’s appreciation of the inexhaustible treasures bestowed on the Church by her divine founder.

The new reality of visible unity among Christians should not thought of as the coming together of disparate elements that previously had not existed in any one community. The Second Vatican Council clearly teaches that all the elements of sanctification and truth which Christ bestowed on the Church are found in the Catholic Church. What is new then is not the acquisition of something essential which had hitherto been absent. Instead, what is new is that perennial truths and elements of holiness already found in the Catholic Church are given new focus, or a different stress by the way they are lived by various groups of the faithful who are called by Christ to come together in perfect communion with one another, enjoying the bonds of creed, code, cult and charity, in diverse ways that blend harmoniously.

Since the Church is like a sacrament, she bears within herself the truth and grace of Christ. When we say that Christ reveals God, and that the Church bears the revelation of Christ in the world, we are admitting that the unenlightened human intellect is not up to the task of knowing God’s ways perfectly. We humans need revelation, enlightenment. Baptism as the foundational sacrament of Christian faith is the normal means for that enlightenment to begin to penetrate our intellects. Even so, while God in Christ has revealed as much about Himself and about our relationship to Him as we need, revealed truths about the infinite God still exceed our finite intelligence. There is always an element of mystery in our knowledge of God and God’s work. Therefore, we fully expect that, while we may accurately know what can be truthfully said, the full knowledge of what that means is enhanced by the contemplation of many groups of people on the same mystery.

This contemplation is not just an academic exercise. It is also a necessarily an exercise of worship. That is why the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, closely associates elements of truth with elements of sanctification. Worship enables one to penetrate divine truth with the clarity of lovers, who have gotten to know their beloved, through his love of them. And worship thus impels believers to study, just as their sturdy strengthens their love of the God whose goodness they have come to learn.

Visible union with the Catholic Church does not mean absorption into a monolith, with the absorbed body being lost to the greater whole, the way a teaspoon of sugar would be lost if dissolved in a gallon of coffee. Rather, visible union with the Catholic Church can be compared to an orchestral ensemble. Some instruments can play all the notes, like a piano. There is no note that a piano has that a violin or a harp or a flute or a tuba does not have. But when all these instruments play the notes that the piano has, the notes are enriched and enhanced. The result is symphonic, full communion. One can perhaps say that the ecumenical movement wishes to move from cacophony to symphony, with all playing the same notes of doctrinal clarity, the same euphonic chords of sanctifying activity, observing the rhythm of Christian conduct in charity, and filling the world with the beautiful and inviting sound of the Word of God. While the other instruments may tune themselves according to the piano, when playing in concert there is no mistaking them for the piano. It is God’s will that those to whom the Word of God is addressed, the world, that is, should hear one pleasing melody made splendid by the contributions of many different instruments.

The Catholic Church approaches ecumenical dialogue convincedm as the Second Vatican Council’s degree of ecumenism states, that, and I quote here: “Our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth to which all should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the people of God.” (Decree on Ecumenism: Unitatis Redintegratio)

She believes that she is the mystical body of Christ and she is convinced that the Church of Christ subsists in her because she recognizes that, while she is like the piano that has all of the notes, that is, all of the elements of sanctification and truth, many of those notes are shared with other communities and those communities often have beautiful ways of sounding the notes that can lead to a heightened appreciation of truth and holiness, both within the Catholic Church and within her partners in the ecumenical endeavour.

Many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, for example, design their church buildings and the liturgies that are celebrated in them with an accent of the eschaton—the life hereafter. One who walks into a building shaped like a Greek cross and surrounded by a dome covered in mosaics, filled with icons that depict our brothers and sisters in Heaven, breathe in the incense, that heavenly air, listen to the chants, is expected to think that he or she is already experiencing the Kingdom of Heaven. No wonder Pope John Paul used the image of the Church breathing with two lungs. For Latin Catholics, the Eastern Church liturgies can seem to provide a rich new timbre to the notes in which our common praise of God is lifted up.

Other ecclesial communities formed from the Reformation encourage their members to base their prayers lives on the written Word of God. This biblical focus—here I am not referring to the errors that underlie the Protestant phrase sola scriptura—is perhaps more intense outside of the visible confines of the Catholic Church. The Church plays the right note, but other communities give it more volume.

Turning to the Anglican Communion, we can see the many elements that impel toward full unity: regard for the unifying role of the episcopate, an esteem for the sacramental life, a similar sense of catholicity as a mark of the Church, and a vibrant missionary impulse, to name but a few. These are by no means absent from the Catholic Church, but the particular manner in which they are found in Anglicanism adds to the Catholic understanding of a common gift. These considerations help us appreciate the Catholic Church’s insistence that there is no opposition between ecumenical action and the preparation of people for full reception into Catholic communion.

Indeed, the first ecumenical action logically leads to the second: reception into full communion. Unitatis Redintegratio, that is, the decree on ecumenism, asserts that almost all people long for the one visible church of God, that truly Universal Church whose mission is to convert the whole world to the Gospel so that the world may be saved to the glory of God.

To return to our earlier metaphor, people long for discordant tones and voices to be harmonized, united, and when an individual or, indeed, a community, is ready for unity with the Church of Christ that subsists in the Catholic Church, it would be a betrayal of Catholic ecumenical principles and goals to refuse to embrace them and to embrace them with all the distinctive gifts that enrich the Church, that help her approach the world symphonically, sounding together or united. Just as there is one Saviour, so there is one universal sacrament of Salvation, the Church. The Eastern Churches that are united to Rome are enjoined to preserve their distinct institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and way of Christian life. By so doing, the Second Vatican Council teaches they do not harm the Church’s unity, but rather, make it manifest.

The experience we are embarking on with Anglicanorum coetibus promises also to make the Church’s fundamental unity manifest by adding to her life distinctive expressions of Christ’s gifts of holiness and truth. Nevertheless, a strict comparison between the Anglicans and the Eastern Church and Catholic Churches would not be correct, I hasten to add. The Eastern Churches, like the Ukrainian Catholic Church so numerous in Canada, are in the fullest sense of the term “Churches” since they have valid apostolic succession and thus valid Eucharist. They are therefore called Churches “sui juris” because they have their own legal structures of governance, all while maintaining bonds of hierarchical communion with the Bishop of Rome. The term Church is applied differently to the Anglican Communion for reasons rehearsed over a century ago by Pope Leo XIII in Apostolicae curae. So the legal framework for Anglican communities seeking full communion precisely as communities would be different from that of Eastern Churches. They remain a part of the Western Latin Church tradition. That is why the Holy Father has decided to erect personal ordinarities in order to provide pastoral care for such groups who wish to share their gifts corporately with their Catholic sisters and brothers and with whom they have shared a long history before the Reformation in the 16th century.

The Apostolic Constitution of Pope Benedict XVI is a courageous way of seeking to ensure that distinctive elements in the Anglican world which foster Catholic unity can remain distinctive when groups of Anglicans enter into full communion. This is to the enrichment of everyone, even though their distinctive elements are to be lived ordinarily by those who come from an Anglican background. Already in 2003, “The Book of Divine Worship: Being elements of the Book of Common Prayer revised and adapted according to the Roman Rite for use by Roman Catholics coming from the Anglican tradition”—that’s a long title—was published with the approval of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States and the confirmation of the Apostolic See for use in those few parishes who have come in as corporate entities into the Catholic Church from the Episcopal Church of the United States. Anglicanorum coetibus envisages not only the inclusion of significant elements of Anglican ritual for groups coming into full communion, but also certain pastoral practices that are a part of their heritage in order to provide a new continuity for enriching their spiritual and ecclesial life in the future. Moreover, among the distinctive elements of Anglican heritage should be included the spiritual and intellectual gifts of the Oxford movement in the 19th century, the then-Anglican cleric Newman together with his fellows Tractarians have left a legacy that still enriches a common Catholic patrimony.

This is the first time that the Catholic Church has reached out in response to men and women of Western Christianity who desire full communion and accorded them not just a place among many, but a distinctive place. This is not surprising. Twenty-eight years ago, the great historian of ecumenism, Fr. Yves Congar, wrote that if we take seriously that the Holy Spirit has been working among our fellow Christians, we have to take seriously the ways they express their beliefs. When their particular expression of faith adds harmony to ours, and ours add harmony to theirs, the logical step is to pass from talking longingly about unity to living in unity, a unity whose essence is revealed in harmonious diversity. The unity Christ desires is visible; it is not elusive or even unreachable. Likewise, the totality that Christ desires is visible. These assertions lie behind the famous teachings of Lumen gentium that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, but it is equally true to say that the unity Christ desires for His Church can always be added to, just as there is room for another instrument in the orchestra. The totality that Christ desires does exist in terms of the elements of sanctification and truth that the Church possesses, but the sharing of those elements, then the manner of celebrating them, is still far from complete. We sometimes do not know the value of what we possess and we need the spirit-filled insights of others to recognize the treasures we have.

I conclude by saying that the Eucharist is the summit and the source of Christian life. It is celebrated in notably different ways in the various Churches that make up the Catholic world. Each liturgical rite sheds light on the mystery of the Eucharist, its representation of the Sacrifice at Calvary, its strengthening of the mystical body, the Church, the real presence of our Saviour, the foretaste of the heavenly banquet and so on. May the diversity and unity that is the Eucharist—Joseph Ratzinger said that there is really just one Eucharist with many altars—be a model for the Christian unity to which we are all committed. Thank you very much.

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