The Vatican’s recent statement that it will create a special ordinariate for Anglicans who want to become Catholics, presumably because of their dissatisfaction with the ordination of women and the elevation of gay bishops, reminds me of a conversation I had with a very conservative Catholic. Following the sex scandals in the Catholic Church, he wanted to become Orthodox. He didn’t for a moment want to give up his belief in papal infallibility or any other central Catholic doctrine; he wanted to leave behind an institution that allowed bishops to protect priests who had been guilty of abuse.
I told the man that if he wanted to be part of a church where bad things never happened, he had come to the wrong place. I also realized that if he were to become Orthodox, he would bring with him a trail of negative attitudes and distorted expectations. I have known some former Catholics who joined the Orthodox Church because it is not the post-Vatican II church. I have met former Anglicans who became Orthodox because the Orthodox Church does not ordain women. There are not many such people, and I think not many will now move from Anglicanism to Catholicism, at least in the United States. But I know that those who enter the Orthodox Church for negative reasons are always disappointed when our bishops don’t act like Lefebvrists, or are less dogmatic than Rome in saying that women’s ordination cannot be discussed. They seem to be enlivened less by the idea of apostolic Christianity than by having joined a church that doesn’t do something, or is against something.
Pope Benedict has spoken of the need to see the Catholic Church as something that is not always about no, about negative injunctions, and he has a positive view of the depth of tradition that may not be as appreciated as it should be. The late church historian Jaroslav Pelikan spoke of tradition as the living faith of the dead, and not the dead faith of the living.
We can be shockingly insensitive about the limitations of our own sense of what is acceptable. I am sure that there were compassionate Aztecs who really thought human sacrifice was necessary to the continuing life of the cosmos. One important aspect of tradition is that it can present a counterweight to “what everyone knows.” Today the dominant ethos in much of the West suggests that there is nothing wrong with abortion or euthanasia; early in the twentieth century, the best liberal opinion favored the sterilization of people considered by the dominant society to be unfit or inferior. In ancient Rome unwanted infants (usually girls) were routinely abandoned and left to die. It was Christian tradition that resisted (and continues to resist) the common wisdom.
I think Pope Benedict shares this sensibility and what Pelikan had in mind concerning tradition. The pope’s invitation is more than an offering to the right wing of the culture wars, which is the way it has been presented in many news stories. When he encounters either Orthodox theology, with which he is more familiar than was John Paul II, or Anglican traditionalism, he feels a sympathy many Western Christians do not. It really must be said that when we are speaking of a two-thousand-year-old tradition, those who want to challenge fundamental and long-standing parts of the tradition have the burden of proof on their shoulders. This is not to say that questions like the ordination of women cannot be discussed. They must be, whatever Rome says. Still, proponents and opponents must be theologically serious. One Orthodox bishop has said, “I don’t think it’s a matter of whether there are good theological arguments against it. I don’t think we’ve ever really thought about it.” If that is true of women’s ordination, I think it is even truer of the Catholic discipline of mandatory celibacy, which Rome has reopened with its acceptance of Anglican clergy as married priests.
Sometimes a theology follows a practice. Although half of Christian history passed before the Western church denied married men ordination, once this happened theologies sprang up to make sense of it (the priest is married to the church, etc.), despite the originally mundane reasons for the rule. And the same sorts of justifications sprang up when the possibility of women’s ordination was first broached: Jesus was male, therefore the priest must be male, even though his being Jewish was arguably more central than his maleness—but we don’t insist that priests be Jewish.
In any event, what Rome has done reawakens a number of raw arguments about married priesthood and clerical celibacy. In parts of the world where Catholic priests are extremely few on the ground (Latin America and Africa in particular), Rome will not allow bishops to ordain married men, though many bishops would like to. At the same time, by refusing to allow most priests to marry—though it continues the tradition of an Eastern-rite married priesthood and welcomes married clergy from the Anglican Communion—Rome seems to be saying that its own canons matter more than the command of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me.” Millions of Catholics are denied the Eucharist because of this legalism. Perhaps the introduction of an Anglican rite will begin the erosion of a barrier to the grace of the Eucharist for many Catholic Christians.