Friday, February 5, 2010


The initial surprise came when the Vatican announced that it would welcome dissident Anglican dioceses and parishes to enter the Catholic Church en masse. In the sensitive world of ecumenical relations this was like poaching in a neighbor’s field. Unhappy Anglicans and Catholics have frequently converted individually in both directions, but this corporate overture has opened up new territory.

Evidently the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, Cardinal Walter Kasper, was also surprised because he was out of town when the announcement was made and, apparently, out of the loop. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams is titular head of Anglicans worldwide. At a press conference after the event, he seemed dazed, like a man whose pocket had been picked by a friend.

One of the biggest surprises awaited the dissident Anglicans themselves. Rome’s original welcome included a generous provision that they could maintain their traditional forms of worship, governance and orders. However, the devil is often in the details. Weeks later the fine print included the proviso that pastors and bishops
would be appointed by Rome henceforth rather than called or elected by those being served. Moreover, while the Vatican accepted married Anglican priests, they did not accept married bishops. Thus current Anglican bishops could continue wearing their scarlet garb and pectoral crosses, and they would be welcome guests at meetings of Catholic prelates, but they would no longer be considered real bishops, unless they chose to shed their spouses. Furthermore, future Anglican seminarians would have to remain celibate. Those preparing to swim the Tiber suddenly realized that the water was colder than they had thought.

Another surprise is the fact that Pope Benedict himself seemed surprised at the reactions to his overture. Having welcomed the schismatic Pius X Society, only to discover that one of their leaders was a loquacious Holocaust denier, and having alienated large swaths of Muslims and Jews in previous months, he might have been alert to the law of unintended consequences.

Moderate and progressive Catholics have ceased to be surprised that the hierarchy regularly dismiss their concerns. Serious issues like the shortage of priests, the need for substantive reforms in the wake of the pedophilia scandals, and the treatment of women in the church, especially in view of the Vatican’s investigation of American nuns, are routinely ignored. Dissident Anglicans are welcome because they pass the litmus test on women priests and gays. Dissident Catholics are discounted because “we need a purer Church.” So the final surprise is that so many of us stay. Perhaps there’s someone out there who will invite us to swim the Tiber en masse in the opposite direction. If so, be sure to read the fine print.