By Frank Wessling
This is an unusually interesting time to be a Catholic. It’s becoming very clear that our church is not the rigid, one-way, monoculture many people have assumed. The variety, the diversity possible under the Catholic banner keeps expanding, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI.
In the past month we’ve heard about the new openness toward Episcopalians and other members of the worldwide Anglican communion who dislike what’s happening in their church. We also hear that the pope is determined to woo back reactionary Catholics who set up their own little church called the Society of St. Pius X. He had their leaders in for dialogue this week even as they keep insisting that we must first repudiate the Second Vatican Council, get rid of our “errors” and “return to the past.”
This is all very good news for the education of Roman Catholics. Most of us think that our way is the only way to be Catholic. We don’t know about the Eastern rites of the church, those historic varieties of Christianity that use forms of worship closer to that of the Orthodox Church than the Roman form of the Mass. We don’t know that a married priesthood has continued in the Catholic Church because those Eastern rites — just as much Catholic as any of us Romans — ordain married men today.
And married priests function in our own Roman Catholic jurisdictions. They are former Episcopalian priests or Lutheran ministers who joined the Catholic Church and received special permission to be ordained as Catholic priests.
The recent news that we’re trying to “lure Anglicans,” as one newspaper headline put it, means more married priests can be expected.
They could be pastors of new parishes made up of former Episcopalians who become Catholic in a group. They will have more liberty to be creative in the liturgy because they are authorized to “preserve the worthy Anglican liturgical … patrimony.” And since these would be places as Catholic as any other American parish, they will be open for any of us Romans to join in their liturgy, as well.
It’s not so clear what might be expected from a reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X. That group is referred to above as reactionary because the term is accurate. They are also frequently called “conservative,” but it’s a selective conservatism focused on a small part of European Catholic history and culture they choose to make normative for all time. With them the universal character, the catholic character, of the church fades almost away.
But we seem to have a pope who has a robust confidence in his ability to dialogue with anyone. While Benedict may be more welcoming on the conservative side, as some Catholics complain, he is not one-dimensional. It should be remembered that when he was the church’s chief watchdog over doctrine he spent several years going back and forth with Catholic missioners and theologians in Asia trying to find concepts and language that would allow Christianity to reach the hearts of people rooted in radically different traditions. It was his job to caution those missioners and theologians, and in some ways trim some of their adventurousness, but they were not altogether stopped.
And he has not stopped the movement to let some elements of Confucian piety back into the Catholicism of China. If the “Chinese rites” controversy is quietly laid to rest, and the church regains a unified legitimacy in the culture of China, Benedict should get some credit.
So, this is quite a teachable moment for us as American Catholics who tend to think of our way and time as the only way for the church. Not so. If this is God’s church it has to feel like being in a mystery as big and varied and surprising as creation itself.
Married men still aren’t going to be ordained priests in the Roman rite, at least for now, but it is more obvious these days that a married priesthood is part of the greater Catholic family. And we also see more clearly that variety in ways of worship and prayer is part of our tradition.
It’s unfortunate that the new Anglican arrangement was apparently done with some secrecy inside the Vatican, keeping what should have been the most engaged officials out of the loop. According to the Rev. William Franklin of the Anglican Centre in Rome, all his office had were rumors of former Anglicans meeting with representatives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Nor was the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the pope’s ecumenical relations office, consulted or even informed. The Archbishop of Canterbury said he was told “at a very late stage” that an announcement was coming, and the Anglican church leader’s representative to the papacy said he was “taken aback by the Vatican’s decision.”
Anglican leaders made the expected positive public comments when the announcement came Oct. 20, but such action behind the scenes is hardly designed to move Christian unity forward in charity and truth.