Pope Benedict and Anglicans: Problems and Hopes

Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Rowan Williams in 2008 (ACNS photo)

By Richard J. Mammana Jr.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry, and the Guild of All Souls led Anglican responses to the New Year’s Eve death of His Holiness Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria in 1927. The late pope’s long life and relatively brief pontificate of eight years close a chapter of Church life and theological writing that will continue as a rich seam of study for centuries.

As both a cardinal and later as pope, Benedict brought a profound ecumenical and interreligious mindset to bear on questions throughout the 20th century. A regular conversation partner for Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict was the Anglican tradition, which he described in 2009 as a “precious gift nourishing the faith of [Roman Catholics] and as a treasure to be shared.”

As Cardinal

Cardinal Ratzinger’s longest sustained comment on relations with Anglicans was “Anglican-Catholic Dialogue: Its Problems and Hopes” (1983), a 33-page essay on the first cycle of the common statements (1970-81) by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) on the Eucharist, ministry, and ordination, and authority in the Church.

The cardinal’s assessment was mainly critical, including the words meagre, unsolved, and unsuitable, but affirming that “what has been achieved in the way of agreements is precious and must not be lost but must be deepened and extended.” He praised the dialogue’s “openness to factual data,” through which “old prejudices lose their power; [and] a new impartiality arises that is able to see and to understand others’ ideas.”

The essay is a durable statement on the nature and possibilities of ecumenical dialogue, written at the very beginning of the cardinal’s tenure (1981-2005) as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), when Ratzinger gained a high international profile as a doctrinal traditionalist. The cardinal’s frustration with the ARCIC reports was that they “left [him] completely in the dark as to the concrete structure of authority in the Anglican community.” He was also uncertain about the usually decennial Lambeth Conference: “what sort of teaching authority belongs or does not belong to this assembly of bishops?”

One immediate piece of background for Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1983 essay was the 1981 establishment “of a pastoral provision which will provide, for those who desire it, a common identity reflecting certain elements of their own heritage” in response to requests “on behalf of some clergy and laity formerly or actually belonging to the Episcopal (Anglican) Church for full communion with the Catholic Church.”

Known as the Pastoral Provision, this undertaking met needs expressed by individuals who wished to retain aspects of Anglican culture while entering into the Roman Catholic Church. It also addressed the matter of married clergy and a future of seminary formation, and developed an Anglican Use liturgical tradition that took root especially in Texas and Massachusetts:

In accepting former Episcopalian clergy who are married into the Catholic priesthood, the Holy See has specified that this exception to the rule of celibacy is granted in favor of these individual persons, and should not be understood as implying any change in the Church’s conviction of the value of priestly celibacy, which will remain the rule for future candidates for the priesthood from this group.

During his work with the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote voluminously in periodical literature and book-length on topics of common Christian concern, as well as specific Roman Catholic topics. He also wrote official commentary on the doctrinal writings of Pope John Paul II, notably for Anglicans in connection with the 1998 apostolic letter Ad tuendam fidem that modified codes of canon law and specified a form of the profession of faith to be used by office-holders in the Roman Catholic Church.

The cardinal’s commentary noted that official teaching includes “dogmatic facts” such as canonizations, papal elections, and the 1896 bull by Leo XIII, Apostolicae curae, with its famous condemnation of Anglican ordinations as “absolutely null and utterly void.” Cardinal Ratzinger’s affirmation of the continuing authority of Apostolicae curae a full century after its promulgation — notwithstanding Old Catholic participation in Anglican ordinations throughout the 20th century — was received with confusion inside and outside of his church. Editor David Kalvelage, editor of TLC in that era, opined:

Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have made significant strides toward unity, especially in local dialogues and agreements in a number of dioceses. While this seems to be primarily an internal matter for the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans all over the world who long for improved relations with the Church of Rome will be watching closely to see what effect the latest pronouncements may have.

A 2000 commentary by Cardinal Ratzinger on the John Paul II declaration Dominus Iesus “on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church” further emphasized Roman exclusiveness and the “gravely deficient” nature of non-Christian religions, whose rituals constitute “an obstacle to salvation.” It also clarified that “sister church” may not be applied to the Roman Catholic Church in its relations to other churches, because it is exclusively the mother of all other churches. Dominus Iesus and its commentary had little effect on Anglican-Roman Catholic relations.

One of Cardinal Ratzinger’s last interactions with Anglicans before his April 2005 election to the papacy was an October 9, 2003, open letter to the Plano, Texas, gathering of orthodox Anglicans responding to General Convention’s Resolution C051 (2003) recognizing liturgies for same-sex marriages as “within the bounds of our common life”:

I hasten to assure you of my heartfelt prayers for all those taking part in this convocation. The significance of your meeting is sensed far beyond Plano, and even in this City from which Saint Augustine of Canterbury was sent to confirm and strengthen the preaching of Christ’s Gospel in England. Nor can I fail to recall that barely 120 years later, Saint Boniface brought that same Christian faith from England to my own forebears in Germany.

The lives of these saints show us how in the Church of Christ there is a unity in truth and a communion of grace which transcend the borders of any nation. With this in mind, I pray in particular that God’s will may be done by all those who seek that unity in the truth, the gift of Christ himself.

The letter was most significant in that it bypassed Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, who was then co-chair of ARCIC. That body would be dormant for several years after the November 2, 2003, consecration of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

As Pope

Bishop Robinson welcomed the 2005 election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI in an offhand comment that took on a life of its own: “Pope Ratzinger may be the best thing that ever happened to the Episcopal Church.” Bishop Robinson said he had made the comment in response to a question from a gay Roman Catholic struggling with his place in his church, adding that Catholic moral teaching is an “act of violence against gay folk.”

As Benedict XVI, the Bishop of Rome intensified his engagement with Anglicans by reactivating stalled ARCIC’s discussions and encouraging the work of the practically oriented International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission.

Pope Benedict found common ground with Archbishop Rowan Williams, another international head of communion who was a distinguished scholar with a decade in his leadership position. Archbishop Williams attended the pope’s inaugural Mass at the Vatican, thus becoming the first holder of his see to participate in that event in modern times.

The archbishop addressed the pope in German and gave him a pectoral cross. Some commentators noted at the time that the new pontiff welcomed the archbishop with a handshake, while he had greeted Orthodox bishops with open-armed embraces. The men would have ample opportunities during their overlapping reigns to improve upon the initial gesture.

The November 23, 2006, Common Declaration of Pope Benedict and the Archbishop of Canterbury drew on the 40th anniversary of a historic meeting between their predecessors, Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Arthur Michael Ramsey. They commended the ARCIC documents The Gift of Authority (1999) and Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ (2005) for further study and offered a carefully worded commitment to full, visible unity:

our long journey together makes it necessary to acknowledge publicly the challenge represented by new developments which, besides being divisive for Anglicans, present serious obstacles to our ecumenical progress. It is a matter of urgency, therefore, that in renewing our commitment to pursue the path towards full visible communion in the truth and love of Christ, we also commit ourselves in our continuing dialogue to address the important issues involved in the emerging ecclesiological and ethical factors making that journey more difficult and arduous.

They ended the Common Declaration with confidence and hopefulness:

Confident of the apostolic hope “that he who has begun this good work in you will bring it to completion” (cf. Phil 1:6), we believe that if we can together be God’s instruments in calling all Christians to a deeper obedience to our Lord, we will also draw closer to each other, finding in his will the fullness of unity and common life to which he invites us.

Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict next met in Rome in 2008 for a half-hour private visit to discuss American matters and Christian-Muslim dialogue.

The next year saw the creation of personal ordinariates through the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus “for Anglicans entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.” This document was responsive to requests from Anglicans and Episcopalians from as early as 1894 for a canonical structure that offered cultural, liturgical, and ecclesial continuity for groups leaving their home churches.

Syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly noted in his On Religion column that 400,000 Anglicans would join the Ordinariate structures in England, Wales, and Scotland (Our Lady of Walsingham); the Chair of Saint Peter for Canada and the United States; and Our Lady of the Southern Cross (Japan and Australia). To date, about 9,000 members have affiliated with these robust communities that continue specific traditions of musical excellence, liturgical language, pastoral culture, and dress. The clear statement of Anglicanorum coetibus, signed by Pope Benedict, is that the Holy Spirit is at work within Anglicanism:

In recent times the Holy Spirit has moved groups of Anglicans to petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately. The Apostolic See has responded favourably to such petitions. Indeed, the successor of Peter, mandated by the Lord Jesus to guarantee the unity of the episcopate and to preside over and safeguard the universal communion of all the Churches, could not fail to make available the means necessary to bring this holy desire to realization.

The pope’s beatification of John Henry Newman in Birmingham on September 19, 2010, at an open-air Mass was the culmination of a process begun in 1958; he had been declared venerable in 1991 by Pope John Paul II and would be canonized by Benedict’s successor, Francis, on October 13, 2019. Ratzinger had worked closely with Newman in his scholarly career, and noted in his 2010 address at Lambeth Palace:

In the figure of John Henry Newman we celebrate a churchman whose ecclesial vision was nurtured by his Anglican background and matured during his many years of ordained ministry in the Church of England. He can teach us the virtues that ecumenism demands: on the one hand, he was moved to follow his conscience, even at great personal cost; and on the other hand, the warmth of his continued friendship with his former colleagues led him to explore with them, in a truly eirenical spirit, the questions on which they differed, driven by a deep longing for unity in faith.

Pope Benedict was one of five popes to meet with Queen Elizabeth II, the temporal head of the Church of England, during her reign. The queen sent her husband, the late Prince Philip of Edinburgh, to meet the pope at the airport. The queen and the Vicar of Christ walked together in the gardens at the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, where he made a speech at a reception that began his four-day visit to the United Kingdom:

Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society.

A summary of Pope Benedict’s attitude toward Anglicanism can be seen in an interview when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:

Much of Catholicism remained in Anglicanism, as a matter of fact. On the one hand, England separated itself from Rome, distanced itself very resolutely from Rome. … [O]n the other hand, there is a firm adherence to the Catholic tradition. In Anglicanism there have always been vital currents that have strengthened the Catholic inheritance. A strong Catholic potency has always remained within Anglicanism. (Salt of the Earth, 145).

He tempered this with an important awareness of the church party system in Anglicanism:

Jesus did not found a Catholic party in a cosmopolitan debating society, but a Catholic Church to which he promised the fullness of truth. A body which reduces its Catholics to a party within a religious parliament can hardly deserve to be called a branch of the Catholic Church, but a national religion, dominated by and structured on the principles of liberal tolerance, in which the authority of revelation is subordinate to democracy and private opinion.

As both pope and cardinal, Benedict, the servant of the servants of God, combined personal warmth toward Anglicans with his rigorist theological method. The “elements of sanctification and of truth” he found in Anglican writings and communities are ultimately defective and preparatory for full communion with the see he held and in which he lived in brave retirement since 2013.


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