When my mother was a young woman, in the 1930s, Cousin Lily, then in her 80s, gave her some sound advice: “Wherever you go, join the Episcopal Church and you will meet all the best people in town.” “Best” in this instance referred not to the Book of Life but the Social Register. The staid, proper, elevated Episcopal Church, the Republican Party at prayer, was respectability’s keep.
Starting sometime in the 1960s, God’s frozen people melted, generating the mother of all theological mud puddles. From the abandonment of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer to the introduction of priestesses in the 1970s and the ongoing election of homosexual bishops, the Episcopal Church forsook traditional Christian doctrine in favor of its own invented religion. Not surprisingly, this apostasy fractured both the Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican Communion. The upshot has been a variety of continuing churches that maintain historic ties to Anglicanism, multiple movements within the Episcopal Church to restore orthodoxy, and the breaking away of many Anglican churches in the Third World, where most Anglicans now live.
On Oct. 20, Rome parachuted into this dogfight like a division of Fallschirmjager. In a move that stunned the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anglicanism’s titular leader, Pope Benedict XVI, opened the Roman Catholic Church’s door to Anglicans as Anglicans. He invited them to move in—individuals, parishes, whole dioceses—while retaining their Anglican identity. They could keep their Book of Common Prayer, their liturgies, their priests—even married ones.
Importantly, Anglican parishes affiliating with Rome would not come under the authority of local Roman Catholic bishops. In the U.S. and UK, most of those bishops are liberals. They dislike traditional Anglicans as much as they dislike traditional Roman Catholics and the Latin Mass. Given the chance, they would simply close down any Anglican parish that swam the Tiber, telling the congregation to go to Roman Catholic churches. This would leave most former Anglicans unchurched, as few could stomach the snakebelly-low post-Vatican II vernacular Roman Mass. To Anglicans, no sin is more grievous than bad taste.
Not to worry: Anglicans rallying to Rome will stay under their own bishops, or priests acting as bishops, known as “ordinaries.” Pope Benedict knows his American and British bishops all too well. His whole package is neatly wrapped up just in time for Christmas in an Apostolic Constitution, the most definitive form of papal legislation. The rough American equivalent would be a constitutional amendment. It’s not just a bon-bon.
How Anglicans will react to Rome’s offer has yet to be seen. Many details remain unclear. One problem is likely to be the doctrine of papal infallibility, a 19th-century Roman innovation. The Apostolic Constitution stipulates that Anglicans would have to accept “The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church as the authoritative expression of the Catholic faith professed by members of the ordinariate.” This could mean accepting papal infallibility as expressed in the catechism, and if Rome remains inflexible on that point, Pope Benedict’s initiative seems likely to fail.
But should it succeed, Rome’s offer has implications far beyond Anglicanism. Pope Benedict just might have taken the first step toward a second Counter-Reformation. The split within Anglicanism between those who believe the Christian faith was revealed and is to be received and those who think you just make it up to accord with the temper of the times is duplicated within virtually every other denomination.
The root cause is the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt School, commonly known as political correctness. Following Antonio Gramsci’s plan for a “long march through the institutions,” cultural Marxists have penetrated every mainline church. Their driving force is political ideology, not theology. They view the church as just one more venue for radical politics.
Their goal is Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values,” where the old sins become virtues and the old virtues, sins. In churches where they take power, the Holy Trinity is replaced by a trio of bogeymen: racism, sexism, and homophobia. Every denomination so afflicted is bitterly split between remaining Christians and the politically correct. (No, you can’t be both, as Marxists would agree.)
What is now happening, and what Rome may have discerned, is that the people on each side of this division find they have more in common with those in other denominations who share their basic faith, Christianity or cultural Marxism, than with the people on the other side of that divide within their own churches. A potential is emerging for a vast realignment, one transcending the divisions that came out of the Reformation. That realignment, in which the remaining Christians in every church would gather in a single, new (small “c”) catholic church, needs a leader. Who better than Rome? Indeed, who other than Rome could possibly pull it off?
Seen in that light, the Pope’s offer to the Anglicans takes on broader meaning. Some observers have seen a parallel with the arrangement a number of Eastern Catholic Churches have had with Rome since 1595. Those Churches recognize their own liturgical rites, systems of canon law, and procedures for ordination. Immediately after the announcement of the constitution—before the document was published—Father Dwight Longenecker, a former Anglican now Roman Catholic priest, wrote on the Inside Catholic website:
It has always been Benedict’s view that the way forward ecumenically is to replicate the existing structures that the Eastern Rite churches enjoy, and that this can be done with new flexibility and creativity.
He is willing to take risks to welcome those who follow the historic Christian faith, although separated from full communion with Rome. On the other hand, he sees those who prefer the modern gospel of relativism, sexual license, and a denial of the historic Christian faith that have taken over the mainstream Protestant churches. He knows there are plenty of them in the Catholic Church, and to them Benedict is quietly saying, “There’s the door.”
Yet what the Apostolic Constitution actually offers Anglicans is substantially less accommodating than Rome’s deal with the Eastern Rite churches. While Anglicans could keep their historic liturgical rite, Anglican churches affiliating with Rome would come under what are in effect non-geographical dioceses. That is a long way from the independence of the Eastern Rite Catholic Churches.
Here we come to the crux of the matter: is Rome’s offer final, or is it negotiable, an opening gambit? If it is final, it is not likely to draw many Anglicans and would have virtually no appeal to other Protestants. Papal infallibility alone might doom it, and as a vehicle for Christian unity, it would prove, well, fallible. But let us hopefully assume that the Apostolic Constitution is not Rome’s last offer, that something closer to the arrangement given to the Eastern Rite churches could prove acceptable to Rome.
What then? It is possible to visualize not only Anglicans but all Protestants, in a new Counter-Reformation, leaving behind the cultural Marxists in the husks of their denominational institutions and joining in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. They could do so while remaining what they are—Lutherans and Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, even some evangelicals—just as Greek Catholics remain in their Eastern rite. To Rome, they would give formal allegiance, recognizing the Pope as the titular and symbolic head of the Church. What both would gain would be a reunion of Christendom in the West in a church free of cultural Marxism—no small thing.
It is obvious that we are talking about a big leap for the Protestants. While few still speak openly of the “tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities,” that attitude has shaped their histories. Interestingly, however, one of the more enthusiastic responses to the constitution came from the Methodists. A senior official told the Methodist Recorder that “[the constitution] may open up ways in which Methodism, whose origins were as a movement in the Church rather than a separate denomination, may find its place in future, as a Church, alongside others within the universal Church.”
Protestants’ usual Sunday services would have to alter little, if at all, except for communion services, which are infrequent. Less obvious, perhaps, is the height of the wall the Roman Catholic Church would have to vault. That barrier is built largely of beliefs that, in the Ultramontane years of the 19th century, were turned into formal doctrines. Neither Anglicans nor Protestants are likely to swear to any of them, although they ought to be willing to accept them as what they were before the 1800s, long-standing traditions that were widely believed. (Papal infallibility is an exception; it was an invention rammed through Vatican I in 1870.)
For Rome, there is a possible way around this wall rather than over it: status quo ante. Anglican and Protestant congregations and jurisdictions joining in full communion with Rome would not be required to accept as doctrine anything postdating their split from Rome. The Catholic Church would lead a second Counter-Reformation by backing away from some of the first.
Before the Council of Trent (1545-63), which begat the Counter-Reformation, Rome’s hand rested lightly on national churches. For example, we think of the Roman Catholic Church as having a single rite, after Trent the Tridentine Rite and following Vatican II the sad and dispiriting Novus Ordo. Before Trent, Rome allowed a vast variety of rites, as she would again. England alone had three major rites and a host of minor ones in a country of 4 million people. Rome saw no problem as long as the rites for communion services followed what Dom Gregory Dix called “the shape of the liturgy.” Anglicans might again chant in the litany, “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”
Pre-Trent, the same decentralization reigned in other matters as well. Kings generally had a good deal of say in who became a bishop. The Church might “volunteer” to pay some form of tax to a needy monarch. (After all, Church lands might make up a third of his kingdom.) When, occasionally, a Pope would overreach, king and bishops would come together to oppose him.
If Rome’s ambitions for a reunited Western Church go beyond Anglicans, and the Vatican is willing to bend beyond what the Apostolic Constitution currently offers, it may be time for Vatican III. The goal of such a council would be twofold: to sweep away obstacles to Christian unity stemming from the Council of Trent and Vatican I and reverse the disastrous consequences of Vatican II, including the vandalization of the liturgy and abandonment of practices (such as fish on Friday) that buttressed Roman Catholic identity among laymen. Ultramontane doctrinal innovations would all have to be on the table; they might remain for Roman Catholics but would not be required of others seeking full communion with Rome.
Is all this just wishful thinking? The division between Christians and cultural Marxists in every denomination is certainly real: it screams from the religion page of every newspaper. With that division comes the potential for realignment and Christian reunion. Understanding the mind of the Curia is more difficult than penetrating North Korea, but Rome’s offer to the Anglicans suggests that Pope Benedict XVI is looking beyond the usual games. The ice has cracked, and a new spring may be coming.
Pope Benedict is a good German. Perhaps the question he could put to himself is this: who do I want to be, Kaiser Wilhelm II or Bismarck? Kaiser Wilhelm II was a bright and well-intentioned fellow. He was almost always right in what he wanted to do (including not going to war in 1914). But over and over he deferred to his advisers, who were almost always wrong. Bismarck, in contrast, knew exactly what he wanted—the reunification of Germany—and was both opportunistic and ruthless in making it happen. He brooked no opposition. As Kaiser Wilhem I once said, “Sometimes it is a hard thing, being a Kaiser under Bismarck.”
Now there’s a vision to gladden the heart: a German Pope proclaiming the reunion of the Western Church in the hall of mirrors at Versailles. Be a Bismarck, Benedict, be a Bismarck.
William S. Lind is author, with Paul Weyrich, of The Next Conservatism.
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: [email protected]