Catholic-Anglican Unity Hampered by Anglicans’ Internal Problems

VATICAN CITY — The leaders of the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion have pledged to continue on a journey of friendship despite serious obstacles which are blocking the path to full communion.

But some observers openly question if further progress towards unity is possible, given the deep divisions among Anglicans.

The Anglican Communion is currently at risk of becoming permanently divided over the decisions in some Anglican provinces to ordain women priests and bishops, to ordain openly homosexual men and to bless homosexual “unions.”

Wrapping up a six-day visit to Rome by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said Nov. 24 that the Anglican delegation had shown its courage to overcome current problems and its desire to continue dialogue with Catholics.

Speaking at the same Nov. 24 press conference, Archbishop Williams said the visit had achieved all three of his goals: to build a “real relationship” with Pope Benedict XVI, to confirm the continuation of dialogue and to establish contacts with various Vatican offices as part of a shared mission.

In a joint “Common Declaration” signed Nov. 23, the Pope and Archbishop Williams said that with the historic 1966 meeting between then-Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI, “centuries of estrangement between Anglicans and Catholics were replaced by a new desire for partnership and cooperation.”

“We celebrate the good that has come from these four decades of dialogue,” the statement said. “At the same time, our long journey together makes it necessary to acknowledge publicly the challenge presented by new developments that, besides being divisive for Anglicans, present serious obstacles to our ecumenical progress.”

Earlier at the Vatican, Archbishop Williams and the Holy Father held “wide-ranging” talks in which the Holy Father gave thanks for 40 years of dialogue that began “with great promise.”

But Benedict also noted the “strains and difficulties” confronting the Anglican Communion. The Pope stressed that these internal divisions revolve around matters “of vital importance to the preaching of the Gospel in its integrity” and added that the Anglicans’ current discussions “will shape the future of our relations.”

Later that day, the two leaders held a midday prayer service together in the Redemptoris Mater Chapel before having lunch in the Apostolic Palace.

As the visit ended, the archbishop and Cardinal Kasper announced a third phase of the Anglican and Roman Catholic International Commission (Arcic), a theological dialogue body, will begin in 2007. They also said a new document on shared mission will be published next year.

Canon Gregory Cameron, director of the Ecumenical Affairs Department of the Anglican Communion Office, said the Anglican delegation welcomed the “honesty and frankness” in the discussions.

“The Pope didn’t pull any punches,” he said.

But further advancement towards unity may be difficult. While the joint document outlined what has been achieved in 40 years of dialogue, it appeared to do little in terms of reconciling the two churches with respect to their key differences on doctrinal and moral issues.

And although it cited a number of areas where Catholics and Anglicans can work together, it also advocated collaboration to promote respect for life from conception until natural death and to protect the sanctity of marriage — despite the fact that many top Anglican leaders have consistently failed to condemn abortion and support same-sex “marriage.”

“Before Anglicans can hold any meaningful talks with us, they must first discover whether there is any unity among themselves,” said Viscount Christopher Monckton, a former Catholic newspaper editor and specialist in Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

One Vatican official familiar with ecumenical issues acknowledged that there are tremendous strains on dialogue with the Anglicans. But a process now under way in the Anglican Communion, grounded in the Anglicans’ 2004 Windsor Report, that seeks to resolve the Anglicans’ internal differences “has the potential to strengthen the Anglican Communion as a dialogue partner,” the official suggested.

Lord Monckton is not convinced.

“If the Anglicans do not believe as we do in the Real Presence or in the sacramentality of holy orders — and the Holy See’s observations on the previous documents of Arcic show the differences politely but clearly — then we still have no useful starting point from which to build towards that unity for which our Blessed Lord prayed,” he said.

Others question whether closer ties with the Anglican Communion, which has steadily moved away from the Catholic Church’s moral teachings in recent decades, are actually in the interests of the Church’s evangelical mission.

Father Charles Whittaker, an English priest living in Rome who has extensive experience in ecumenical relations with Anglican clergy, suggested it was time Catholics “stopped giving the impression that we will ever find real agreement (with Anglicans) and instead get on with having cups of tea together and holding joint soup runs — anything else is going to end in tears.”

Canon Cameron, however, believes that if the Catholic Church reverts to a pre-Second Vatican Council approach in its dealings with Anglicans, it could injure its own Christian witness by appearing uncharitable.

“There is a reality of our life in Christ which enhances the lives you have as Roman Catholics,” he said.

But in the view of Lord Monckton, while the Catholic-Anglican dialogue should continue, Catholics shouldn’t harbor illusions that it will yield deeper unity so long as the Anglicans’ internal problems remain unresolved.

“It remains our duty to try to work towards the unity for which our Blessed Lord himself prayed,” said Lord Monckton. “But with the Anglican Communion about to blow itself into several pieces, don’t hold your breath.”

Edward Pentin writes

 from Rome.