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Unity in spring

31 March 2017

ECUMENISM is never the main crop of church endeavour. Instead it springs up in the margins like wild poppies. Because of its delicate and peripheral nature, it is often unwise to examine its shoots too closely. On the other hand, when there are those who regard these flowers as weeds and try to trample them down, it is worth paying them some heed. The Pope’s re­­marks in All Saints’, Rome, last month, are thus worth mention­ing, if tentatively. He described approvingly the situation in northern Argentina where An­­glicans and Roman Catholics are engaged in mission together. As a consequence of their friendli­ness, he said, “when people can’t go on Sunday to the Catholic celebration they go to the Anglican, and the Anglicans go to the Catholic, because they don’t want to spend Sunday without a celebration.” These were young Churches, he admitted, and theology was more mature in places such as Europe; but this was not a critic­ism, but rather the reverse: theologians would do well to visit, he said, and “learn from the young Churches”.

It is no wonder that such radical talk has set Pope Francis at loggerheads with arch-conservatives in the Vatican and else­where. Eighteen months ago, in a similar vein, the Pope was asked by a Lutheran woman about receiving communion with her Roman Catholic husband. Pope Francis said he was scared to answer the question “in front of a theologian like Cardinal Kasper”, but went on to make light of doctrinal differences: “I ask myself: but don’t we have the same baptism? And if we have the same baptism, shouldn’t we be walking together?” He con­cluded by telling the woman: “I would never dare to give per­mission for this, because it’s not my jurisdiction. ‘One bap­tism, one Lord, one faith.’ Talk to the Lord and then go for­ward. I don’t dare to say anything more.” In response, Cardinal Robert Sarah, appointed Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Wor­ship and Discipline of the Sacraments by the Pope the previous year, stated: “A non-Catholic cannot receive communion. That is very, very clear. . . It’s not that I have to talk to the Lord in order to know if I should go to communion. . . No. A person cannot decide if he is able to receive communion. He has to have the rule of the Church.” Relations between the Pope and Cardinal Sarah are said not to be warm.

It would be easy to depict the Pope as a blundering amateur theologian, not least because this is how he presents himself. But his habit of ignoring critics and doctrines with which he dis­agrees stems from an alternative and well-developed theological vein, one that gives the individual conscience greater weight than is customary outside Protestant circles. This is not new, though, even for the RC Church: Pope John XXIII wrote: “Among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience” (Pacem in terris). This places a greater responsibility on the individual to attend to God, which ought to be applauded. If there are those who fear that this entails attending a little less to the priest, then so be it. The poppy seeds are in the wind.

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