A statement on ecclesial authority was published in May by the Second Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. The panel oversees continuing ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Register correspondent Raymond de Souza interviewed Father Richard John Neuhaus on the statement, called “The Gift of Authority.” Father Neuhaus, a convert from Lutheranism, is editor of First Things.

De Souza: What is the significance of this statement “The Gift of Authority”?

Father Neuhaus: As signaled by the title, the document is addressing a crucially important set of questions and it is to be warmly welcomed. First of all, it addresses the question of authority in terms of the ecclesial understanding of the Church as apostolically constituted, particularly in terms of the Petrine ministry. To speak of authority as a gift is a courageously Christian thing to do in a culture that is radically anti-authority in the name of being anti-authoritarian. Our culture in the West is incapable, for the most part, of making the distinction between what is authoritative, on the one hand, and authoritarianism, on the other. For most intellectuals, these two terms are synonymous; authority is by definition authoritarian. In the Christian understanding, authority, far from being an authoritarian repression, is an opening to the truth, to the Author of reality, which of course is related to the very word authority. So in that sense it is a most welcome turn in the ARCIC course.

Is this noteworthy coming from the Anglicans, where the question of authority was the central issue of the English Reformation?

It is noteworthy that the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has supplemented this document with a public statement very affirmative of the primacy of Rome. In this he came down strongly on one side of what has always been the Anglican ambivalence about whether it is a national church in some sense, headed by the monarch, as Henry VIII originally proclaimed, or whether it is part of the one Church of Christ which is centered in the apostolic authority of Peter. That has always been the ambivalence, some would say schizophrenia, of Anglicanism. So this document and the subsequent statement of the Archbishop of Canterbury are certainly a tilt in the Catholic direction. And that is certainly to be welcomed.

How does this practically advance the prospect of unity?

Catholics understand the uncompromisable goal of all ecumenical engagement to be the establishment of full communion. That's the Catholic position - not just simply more cooperative relations, better understanding, or friendliness. All those things are important of course, but the goal of ecumenism is full communion. Does this move toward that?

We have to hope that it does. There is a great disconnect - a gap, a disjunction - between what happens in formal theological dialogue, and what happens on the ground in those churches with which we are in dialogue - and this is not only the case with the Anglicans.

The people who are appointed to be official participants in the dialogue seem in many cases to be at least in conversation with us - much, much more Catholic than the churches that they presumably represent. This is a major problem with such dialogues.

What then is the value of continuing such dialogues?

As the Holy Father has said many times, we place no schedule on the ecumenical project. It is in the very nature of the Catholic Church that we must be in continuing dialogue with all other Christians, regardless of whether we can see any payoff in terms of actual achievement toward full communion. The reason for that is our own understanding of the Church, which is that all Christians who are baptized and believe in Jesus Christ, are, as Vatican II says, truly but imperfectly in communion with the Catholic Church. So these are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are not trying to create a unity that is not there.

Our ecumenical engagement is created by the fact that we are brothers and sisters. Therefore the fuller expression of the unity that already exists as the gift of God is a task that is permanently and organically part of Catholic Christianity.

So one can look upon this statement and give three cheers. But then you could ask about the ordination of women, or about a long list of those things in which it seems that the Church of England and the Anglican communion are not only indifferent to the leadership of the Petrine ministry, but are actually opposed and hostile to that leadership.

If one raises such objections, then the only response that one can make is that it is all true. But if we believe that the ecumenical encounter is being led by the Holy Spirit, those disagreements are also in some ways irrelevant to what our continuing task is. Within the context of Catholic ecclesiology and the necessary entanglement therefore with all other Christians, this document is to be unequivocally welcomed and built upon - deposited in a savings account, that some day, some day, in ways in which we cannot envision, the Holy Spirit will create an opening for this to result in demonstrable advances toward full communion.

Raymond de Souza is Rome correspondent for the Register.