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Rome’s traditionalists strike back

26 September 2007

Recent Vatican statements reflect a more general RC position, says Quentin de la Bédoyère

When my wife, as a young woman, became a Roman Catholic, she said her reason was straightforward: “It’s a simple matter of history. Clearly, Christ founded one Church, and, equally clearly, the Catholic Church was the only one which qualified. So I joined it.”

That reasoning lies at the heart of Roman Catholic orthodoxy. The Church is not one among many, not even a primus inter pares, but the Church that Christ founded. There is none other.

This is the nub of the statement issued by Cardinal Levada, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and issued in July with the formal approval of Pope Benedict (News, 13 July).

Cardinal Levada made three points: the Church that Christ founded “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church; the separated oriental Churches, although defective through lack of communion with Rome, nevertheless merit the title of sister Churches; the churches of the Reformation are more properly called ecclesial communities, because, although they may be de facto channels of grace, they lack the vital apostolic succession.

These statements will be hurtful to many Anglicans, and I put them into context so that they can be seen not as gratuitous slights, but as being deep in Roman Catholic belief. In our mutual, if bumpy, quest for Christian unity, we should all know where we stand. The motivation and timing of Cardinal Levada’s message reflected a perceived need to steady a wavering tiller.

At the heart of Catholic catechesis lies the concept of the visible Church — a structured community, overseen by the bishops, as successors to the Apostles, in communion with the pope, the successor to St Peter, to whom Christ gave the office of oversight of his Church.

This basic structure has, of course, historically harboured gross abuses, but it has a proven resilience, in contrast to the proliferation of Reformation churches arising from its abandonment. Without this structure, there would have been no Church to be reformed.

In this context, the question of the celebration of the eucharist is central. In September 1896, the bull Apostolicae Curae was published. It declared that Anglican orders were invalid, essentially because their ordinations were judged to be defective for a sufficiently long period at the Reformation to break the succession.

This contention, inevitably based on historical interpretation as related to doctrine, has been attacked on various grounds. I do not intend to argue it here, but merely to note that it remains a definitive ruling today, and is reflected in Cardinal Levada’s statement, as well as in the Vatican’s reservations about ARCIC (News, 21 September).

THE statement in July must be seen in terms of a growing movement to curb what are seen by Rome as over-liberal interpretations of Vatican II (1962-1965), which the Magisterium sees as threatening the authority of the structure as I have described it. This can be seen in the uncompromising teaching on faith and morals from the reign of John Paul II, and, most recently, in Benedict’s thumb-print on Cardinal Levada’s statement. It can be seen, too, in the censures on theologians who are judged as having overstepped the mark.

It is also apparent in checks on the autonomy of bishops, for example in the lack of full consultation with them on questions of doctrine and discipline; the removal of responsibility for the new translation of the liturgy from the English-speaking bishops; and the general right, without need for episcopal permission, of groups of Catholics to hear mass in the Latin liturgy in the version promulgated in 1962 by John XXIII. This last came into force this month (News, 13 July).

This movement, which underlines traditional doctrines, has a following in all levels of the Church. Its champions may be a minority, both here and in the United States, but it has a large and growing influence. It is not in essence anti-Protestant, but is a positive declaration that the Church will not compromise with secularism, and will proclaim its unique mission without dilution.

Against this, admittedly, there is a large body of Roman Catholics who believe that many historical and contemporary abuses in the Church originate in over-centralisation and a medieval attitude towards the use of authority.

A tension between the maintenance of essential doctrines and the greater flexibility of the Church, as introduced by Vatican II, has been inevitable. Such a tension is a sign of the Church as a community attempting to grow towards fullness, without losing its all-important patrimony.

Pope Benedict has already shown signs of managing this tension. His inspiring encyclical on divine and human love, Deus Caritas Est, and his insistence, in his speech at Regensburg, on the power of reason, has moved our thinking forward, while his confirmation of Cardinal Levada shows his firmness on essentials.

Cardinal Levada’s statement is focused on the fraying of the borders of ecumenism. He states that “the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities . . . on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.”

Yet he is making it equally clear that, while we should continue to seek unity, and to co-operate with the Reformation churches in manifold ways to bring Christ to a secular world, everyone should be aware that, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint, rooted in its concept of tradition, this is not a collaboration of equals.

Quentin de la Bédoyère is the author of Autonomy and Obedience in the Catholic Church (T & T Clark, 2002).

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