A number of folks have asked me directly, or posed the question in other forums: Why should we as Anglicans be at all interested in what the Roman Catholic Church has said about us recently. There is, as I have noted, absolutely nothing new in what they have said. They are simply reaffirming a position that has its roots in the middle ages, reasserted at the Counter-Reformation, restated with abundant clarity at Vatican I, and reaffirmed before and after by Pius IX, Leo XIII and Pius XII, and only very lightly nuanced by Vatican II and the pontiffs since.
So, it is true that there is nothing new here. Which makes it all the more important to ask, Then why did they issue this statement? I gave a partial answer to that question in a previous post. This statement addresses some Roman Catholic ecumenists, to say, as Larry David might, “Curb your enthusiasm.” It is a reminder to them that the old rules are still in place, and the CDF is acting in the role of a chaperone who has found her charge cozying up a bit too close with her date.
But again, what does this have to do with us other than recognizing that some of our Roman Catholic ecumenical friends may find themselves having to be a bit more stand-offish than they may have been over the last few years?
While I do not think this document was specifically aimed at the Anglican Communion, I would not want to underestimate Pope Benedict’s ability to hit more than one bird with a stone. He is certainly well aware of the current tensions in Anglicanism, and has gone so far as to comment upon them. He has also observed, if I recall correctly, that these tensions make it difficult to know who to talk to in ecumenical dialogue: if one Anglican “Church” (let’s remember the invisibles scare-quotes) can say this, and another can say that — whose authority are We to accept? Who is in charge? How can you really be in communion with each other and still disagree? Some kind of central authority would surely be helpful to settle these differences, not just so We will have someone to talk to, but for your own good order, don’t you think? You can’t really be even a “church” in scare quotes without some central government or headship.
I hope you can see where I am heading with this, and I am not, I think, misreading what the document may be saying to us; not so much as a shot across the bow, but as a reminder of how Roman Catholics understand the structures of the Church.
And that is by always combining communion with governance. Thus, as Vatican II said, the One Church of Christ, “constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him.” The only thing new in this statement from Vatican II was the word subsists. The linkage of governance with communion goes well back into the roots of Roman Catholic self-understanding, from the medieval period through the Renaissance and up through Vatican I. It received probably its most eloquent theological exposition in the thought of Pius XII, in his encyclical Mystici Corporis — which even in its title expresses the concept of body joined with spirit, and which focuses explicitly upon the episcopate of the Catholic Church as the means by which the faithful are united in subordination to the authority of the Roman Pontiff. Towards the end of this document the Holy Father turns a bit stern:
We, therefore, deplore and condemn the pernicious error of those who conjure up from their fancies an imaginary Church, a kind of Society that finds its origin and growth in charity, to which they somewhat contemptuously oppose another which they call juridical. To draw such a distinction is utterly futile. For they fail to understand that the divine Redeemer had one single purpose in view when He wanted the community of men of which He was the founder to be established as a society perfect in its own order and possessing all juridical and social elements — the purpose, namely, of perpetuating the salutary work of the redemption here on earth.
In short, no body of charity without a body of law. Vatican II nuanced this language, as I have noted. But it did not contradict it: the linkage of communion and governance is still the defining self understanding of the Catholic Church, focused upon the person of the Bishop of Rome. Let me close here with a quotation from the post-conciliar period, lest one think Vatican II undid all that went before. Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, writes:
Let us, however, be very careful not to conceive of the universal Church as the sum or, if one can say so, the more or less heterogenous federation of essentially different particular Churches.... Each particular Church that would voluntarily cut itself off from the universal Church would lose its relationship to God’s plan and would be impoverished in its ecclesial dimension... But at the same time a Church which is spread all over the world would become an abstraction if she did not take body and life precisely through the particular Churches. Only continuous attention to these two poles of the church will enable us to perceive the richness of this relationship between the universal Church and the particular Churches. (emphasis mine.)
Now, does that sound familiar? Isn’t this in part the very discussion that is taking place in the Anglican Communion in the movement towards an Anglican Covenant — a form of government to go along with the spirit of communion? “More than a mere federation,” and not simply all the churches spread around, but juridically bound, particular to particular, in a single government?
Implications and Possibilities
Obviously the church must have some form of government. You will get no argument from me on that. But, contrary to the Roman assertion, that government need not follow an imperial model of particular churches ultimately answerable to a single individual governor.
It seems that churches, like other human entities — and yes, I will dare say that the church as institution is at least as much the work of human hands as it is of God, just like the Eucharistic bread — churches often get stuck with the models of government available to them at the time of their foundation. Rome has inherited the imperial model. Anglicanism, which came to birth under an absolute monarch (with imperial ambitions, to be sure), came to maturity out of the fires of a civil war, influenced by the concept of a parliamentarianism. And the Episcopal Church, as is evident, was surely influenced in its form of government by the simultaneous national developments.
I would suggest that contrary to Paul VI’s vision, and the hopes of some Anglican Covenanters, that the Anglican Communion can do quite well as “a federation of essentially similar particular churches.” We have survived this far without any central government to bind us together; and ultimately those who wish to stay together will do so without constraint. That is, in large part, what communion means.
But how will conflicts be settled? some might ask. Let me ask in return, Who says that conflicts have to be settled? Who is in charge? some ask. Let me ask, Why does anyone have to be in charge? Didn’t Jesus tell the disciples, when they asked who would join him in running the world to come, “The kings of the gentiles exercise authority... but with you it shall not be so.” He rose from his seat to wash their feet, by way of example. Yet, he is the head of the church, not any one of us, nor even the whole collegial bunch of us.
So, while the current Roman Catholic document has no immediate bearing upon us, it does offer food for thought. The church of Christ can be governed quite well in and by a communion of churches, in service and charity to one another, under the only law required: Serve one another as I have served you; Love one another as I have loved you. And I have no opposition to a Covenant, so long as it is a Covenant of love and service.
Tobias Haller BSG