Benedict’s Generosity

Is it sheep stealing?

The Vatican’s historic announcement Oct. 20 that a structure will be established in the Church to streamline the process for Anglican groups and individuals seeking union with Rome was greeted by celebratory cheers and derogatory jeers.

“It was unclear why the Vatican made the announcement now,” The New York Times stated Oct. 21. “But it seemed a rare opportunity, audaciously executed, to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church to attract new members at a time when the Catholic Church has been trying to reinvigorate itself in Europe.”

Though that sounds like it was from a Times editorial, it was actually from a news story — the lead story on page one, in fact, which carried the phrase “Luring Conservatives” in its headline.

“Rome Goes Fishing in Anglican Pond,” blared a BBC website headline.

Other reactions showed similar suspicions. While a Kansas City Star opinion writer spoke of it as “poaching,” a columnist in The Baltimore Sun scored the “brewing hypocrisy” he finds in the Church accepting possibly hundreds of married Anglican priests while continuing to impose celibacy on regular Latin-rite Catholic priests. The writer, Dan Rodricks, dismissed the new Vatican plan as merely a “way to deal with the shortage of priests.”

“Reaching out to pull in those who oppose female priests, or openly gay prelates or same-sex ‘marriage’: This is Vatican marketing at its best. Disgruntled, conservative Anglicans represent a potentially rich customer base for the Roman Catholic Church,” he wrote Oct. 22. “But there’s stunning irony in the ‘apostolic constitution.’ According to a Vatican official, the new process will allow Anglicans ‘to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.’ That includes the married priesthood.”

This kind of criticism ignores the generous spirit that has driven the Vatican’s hard work over the past few years to develop the forthcoming apostolic constitution concerning “Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering the Catholic Church.”

The move was announced in a meeting with journalists in the Holy See Press Office Oct. 20. As the Register’s Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, reported at that day (and on page one of this issue), the apostolic constitution was prepared in response to “many requests” from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful wanting to enter into full communion with the Church. Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at that meeting that the constitution “provides a reasonable and even necessary response to a worldwide phenomenon.”

It’s no secret that many Anglicans have expressed wishes to become Catholic particularly as that church continues to take steps toward opening its priesthood and episcopate to women and active homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions. Reportedly, between 20 and 30 Anglican bishops have made such a request.

So is the Vatican action sheep stealing? To call it that would be to insult the Anglicans who have thought long and hard about the trends in their church and the best thing for them to do to save their souls.

It’s not as if the Church has to lure or deceive Anglicans who feel shepherdless in a church that has lost its own moorings in many ways.

These sheep can clearly decide for themselves.

The Holy See’s gesture might better be characterized as shepherding — concern for the flock, opening the gate of the sheepfold.

Granted, not all Anglicans disenchanted with the theologically splintering Anglican Communion will flock to the Catholic Church. Many still have theological difficulties over Marian questions, for example. They reportedly plan to continue being Anglicans in newly formed offshoots of the Anglican Church that refuse to have women priests or bishops or openly homosexual clergymen.

And, it must be admitted, conversion is rightly a matter of coming to acknowledge the truth of doctrine, rather than the result of being disgruntled over particular practices in one’s church.

The sort of graciousness with which the Catholic Church is welcoming traditional Anglicans is not new. Many centuries ago, Rome welcomed home many Orthodox, allowing them to retain their own liturgical traditions and practices, such as a married priesthood. More recently, this graciousness has fed Pope Benedict’s openness to traditionalist Latin-rite Catholics, many of whom find spiritual fruitfulness in the Mass of Pope John XXIII (the traditional Latin Mass). Some of them even continue to have theological difficulties with certain pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council. Benedict, like the Good Shepherd, still feels it’s important to find a way to heal those divisions. He feels the necessity to go out to carry home the lost sheep.

Thus it is that, in addition to the possibility that Anglican priests who are married will be able to petition for holy orders when they become Catholic, Anglicans taking advantage of the Vatican’s new offer will be allowed to retain their liturgical traditions.

Such a gesture certainly doesn’t support the stereotype that the Catholic Church is a “monolith.” Yes, we all believe alike in essential matters of faith — summed up in the Creed — but our ways of worship run the gamut from the whispered prayers of consecration during the extraordinary form of the Mass to the impassioned preaching of a charismatic pastor, from the Arabic chants of a Maronite choir in Lebanon to the frenzied hand clapping of Gospel music in Harlem.

Now we are poised to welcome another style of worship, characterized by stately language in its well-honed prayers, crisp English chant and stirring anthems, reasoned and eloquent preaching, and incense-filled processions.

The Church, the mother of many and diverse siblings in Christ, smiles on all of us as we find our way to truth and happiness.

Sheep stealing? Hardly.