A salutary blast from the past – on the Ordinariate and Vatican II

A bad cold has knocked me out these last 5 days, but now some clear-headedness is returning. Two issues have been in the Catholic press (and beyond) lately have caught my attention. One is the continuing momentum of the Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham for Anglicans who wish to enter collectively into full communion with the Catholic Church; the other is a call by a Catholic bishop for a new syllabus of errors focused on erroneous interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.

Professor Tina BeattieThe Ordinariate has been picking up pace, and all over England Ordinariate groups are forming in which Anglicans can discuss the implications and desirability of taking up the Holy Father’s offer to return to the Church by means of the Ordinariate. Also there has been coverage of Professor Tina Beattie’s negative remarks about the Ordinariate on Radio 4 (and her blog). Of particular interest to me were her comments on Radio 4 regarding the Ordinariate. The first were that “many of us are perplexed about what this means in terms of the Catholic Communion, and indeed obviously for relations between our two Churches” (and here she seems to make the Anglican communion into a “Church” of equal validity with the Catholic Church).

The second comments were in answer to the question “And is your objection partly to do with the fact that you don’t like what they stand for? Particularly on the question of women’s role in the Church?” Her answer is revealing:

I’m not happy about that, no. And I think actually, dare I say it, it’s a peculiarly Protestant thing to join a church because of what one doesn’t like, as a gesture of protest – that’s where the word comes from. It would be wonderful if they were coming in for the positives, and the joy, and the wonders of being part of this worldwide Communion.

To be honest, with regard to the first comments, I do not understand her perplexity. It seems quite simple: it means that a goodly number of Anglicans and their clergy will be entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. Moreover, surely their arrival will only enrich the diversity of the Catholic Church, as they bring their own traditions, or “patrimony”, of liturgical worthiness, pastoral sensitivity and biblical engagement. They will speak an idiom clearly understood by Anglicans, who may then, we pray, feel moved to explore further the path to full communion by means of this familiar idiom.

Here, one suspects, is her problem. The Ordinariate reveals clearly that for the Catholic Church ecumenism is not about ongoing “dialogue” for its own sake. It is about encouraging and convincing Christians to enter into full communion with the Church, from which they are estranged due to actions centuries ago. If it means anything regarding the relations between the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church it is that the Church has only one goal, ultimately, for ecumenical dialogue with Anglicans: that they return to the Church. This may disturb many Anglicans, for sure, but that is no reason to stop the progress of ecumenism.

Her second comments raised the eyebrows as she describes the actions of Ordinariate Catholics as “Protestant”. How it can be Protestant to enter into Communion with the Catholic Church is beyond me! Perhaps it has something to do with her description of the Catholic Church as “a church”, as if it were equivalent to one of the multitude of Protestant denominations. That she sees the Ordinariate as merely a group of refugees protesting against women’s ordination is an unfortunate refusal to engage with these people beyond her own narrowly-defined limits. These are people who have long considered the Roman option, and baulked at its consequences. For them, women’s ordination is not the only issue, but it is something of a litmus test for the validity of the claims of the Anglican communion. The Ordinariate has removed some of the sting of leaving their long-time spiritual home. And why should they not join the Church which they know will not ordain women, not because of prejudice, but because it has no power to do so? Perhaps here is the real problem for Professor Beattie: the Ordinariate increases the majority of Catholics who do not countenance women’s ordination.

Bishop Athanasius SchneiderThe second issue in recent weeks has been the call by Bishop Athanasius Schneider for a new syllabus of errors focused on the interpretation of the Second Vatican Council. It is arguable whether a “syllabus of errors” in the style of Pope Bl. Pius IX’s original would speak to the people of today. But this is really the latest development in the ongoing debate about the Council, and whether it should be interpreted as creating a whole new vision for the Church (the “hermeneutic of rupture” with the past), or whether it is to be interpreted within the tradition of the Church (the “hermeneutic of continuity” with the past). The term “hermeneutic of continuity” became an established part of ecclesial vocabulary in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the Roman Curia in December, 2005, when he quite clearly stated the Council, like all councils, stands within the tradition of the Church and only within that tradition can it be validly interpreted.

So it was a curious thing when I stumbled upon an address made by Pope John Paul II to a conference of bishops, theologians, historians and catechists held in Rome in 2000 on the implementation of the Council. Here we find the hermeneutic of continuity presented in everything but that exact phrase; and we also find some reflections on the Council’s teaching on the Church as communion. It is a wonderful blast from the past.

Regarding the interpretation of the Council Pope John Paul II says:

The Church has always known the rules for a correct hermeneutic of the contents of dogma. These rules are set within the fabric of faith and not outside it. To interpret the Council on the supposition that it marks a break with the past, when in reality it stands in continuity with the faith of all times, is a definite mistake.

When Pope Benedict addressed the Curia in 2005, he was not re-orienting the Church according to an approach peculiar to himself. He was picking up on the teaching set forth by his predecessor. It is itself an act that exemplifies the hermeneutic of continuity, in this case particular continuity with the pope who preceded him. It is this principle of continuity that in part explains why the ordination of women is not possible – it would be a rupture in the theology of both the eastern and western Churches.

Regarding communion Pope John Paul, in the same speech, says:

Communio is the foundation on which the Church’s reality is based. It is a koinonia that has its source in the very mystery of the Triune God and extends to all the baptized, who are therefore called to full unity in Christ. This communion becomes evident in the various institutional forms in which the ecclesial ministry is carried out and in the role of the Successor of Peter as the visible sign of the unity of all believers. Everyone knows that the Second Vatican Council enthusiastically made the “ecumenical” yearning its own. The movement of encounter and clarification, which has been carried out with all the baptized brethren, is irreversible. It is the power of the Spirit who calls all believers to obedience, so that unity may be an effective source of evangelization.

Pope John Paul IIThis is a rich text. Pope John Paul holds communion – communio in Latin or koinonia in Greek – to be not only the foundation of the Church’s identity but also the goal of the ecumenical “movement of encounter and clarification” that has been part of the Church’s mission in especially strong terms since the Council, and which is “irreversible”. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the true “spirit of Vatican II”. Pope John Paul shows that since the visible sign of the Church’s communion is the Pope himself, as successor to St Peter, then communion with the Church gathered around the Pope is the end-game of ecumenism. He further teaches that only when that unity, that full communion, is realised will the Church be able to complete her mission of evangelising the world.

Pope John Paul’s speech led me to see that the Ordinariate is itself only able to be understood within the hermeneutic of continuity. It is a logical fruit of the renewed ecumenical endeavour inspired by the Council. This ecumenical endeavour is not something new, and itself must be seen in the context of the history and teaching of the Church, the hermeneutic of continuity. The Ordinariate is the fruit of this endeavour because it brings many more into full communion with the Church centred on Peter’s successor. It is the fruit of the irreversible work of the Holy Spirit. And it brings closer the day when the Church will be able to fulfill its mission from Christ himself, to proclaim the good news to all the world – a mission that is an essential part of the continuity of the Church. Until then, its evangelisation of the world is impeded by the divisions among Christians. In a world of increasing militant secularism and an even more militant Islam, the Church’s mission is ever more urgent, and thus so too is the ecumenism which will fully enable this mission.

Come back to the Church, and save the world. It is not so silly as it might sound.

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