“Rome goes fishing in Anglican pond” was the BBC News headline on October 21, 2009, announcing the Holy See’s decision to establish “personal ordinariates” for Anglicans wishing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. In anticipation of such a reading, Cardinal William Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, strove to clarify the intent behind the Vatican’s action: It is an effort to honor the legitimate liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of Anglicans who themselves have sought full communion with the Catholic Church on precisely those terms. In other words, the Holy See is not fishing for Anglicans. Rather, it is moving to answer a knock at its door with pastoral sensitivity.

Despite the cardinal’s assurances, the matter can easily appear otherwise. By means of such personal ordinariates, subsequently established by the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, the Holy See has essentially changed the way the Catholic Church receives Anglicans into full communion. In this light, one may ask whether this change signals a shift in the Catholic Church’s methodology for ecumenical engagement, and, as a possible consequence of this shift, whether the Catholic Church will eventually alter the very goal of this engagement.

The fundamental concept that has guided the Catholic Church’s participation in the ecumenical movement since the Second Vatican Council has been communion. In its Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio), the council departed from the preconciliar attitude of “Come home to Rome,” declaring that all who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are already in communion with the Catholic Church. Certainly, differences exist, some serious enough to be considered obstacles to full communion. Nevertheless, “it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in baptism are members of Christ’s body, and are correctly accepted as brothers [and sisters] by the children of the Catholic Church.” With this understanding, the Catholic Church committed itself to defining its relationship with other Christian communities not as a matter of full unity or no communion, but as a distinction between full and incomplete communion.

This sense of communion is directly related to the council’s fundamental understanding of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the church of Christ, that of subsistence. As the council stated in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), “The one church of Christ...subsists in the Catholic Church.” Although debate continues over the exact meaning of the term “subsists in,” two conclusions may confidently be drawn from its use in Lumen gentium. The first of these was given by the council itself: Many essential elements of the church of Christ exist outside the institutional boundaries of the Catholic Church. In other words, the church of Christ is not exclusively coextensive with the Catholic Church; it is also found, albeit in lesser degrees, within other Christian communities.

The second conclusion follows from the first: The Catholic Church relates to other Christians not merely as individuals, but also as faithful members of institutionally identifiable communities. As the council itself testified, to say that is not to deny the fullness with which the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Rather, it is to acknowledge, first, that there is no ecclesial vacuum outside the Catholic Church, and, second, that the present state of visible ecclesial division adversely affects the ability of the Catholic Church “to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings.” Thus, the Catholic Church engages other Christian communities in bilateral and multilateral dialogues in which all participants “are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform,” until at last all Christians, “in a common celebration of the Eucharist, [are] gathered into the one and only church in that unity which Christ bestowed on his church from the beginning.”

This is a major departure from the anti-ecumenism of Pius XI’s 1928 encyclical Mortalium animos. That document rejected the developing ecumenical movement of the 1920s and insisted that the sole path to Christian unity was, in effect, for non-Catholics to “come home to Rome.” With Unitatis redintegratio, the council endorsed the ecumenism of unity without absorption, achieved through mutual dialogue and common prayer. Such dialogue, guided by the concept of communion and founded on the principle of subsistence, has been the Catholic Church’s ecumenical methodology since the council. In light of the establishment of the personal ordinariates described in Anglicanorum coetibus, does this methodology remain intact? I do not see how. For these ordinariates would have less in common with the military ordinariates that Cardinal Levada likened them to than with the structure once used to receive Orthodox Christians into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, that of uniatism.

Uniatism denotes the establishment of ecclesial bridgeheads among Orthodox faithful as a means toward re-establishing full communion between their churches and the Catholic Church. These bridgeheads occasionally resulted from Catholic “missionary” activity, but they were also occasioned by internal disputes and divisions within Orthodox churches themselves. While today the resultant Eastern Catholic churches are related to the Holy See through various canonical formulas, they are generally characterized by the fact that their faithful live their communion with the Catholic Church in their own parishes, served by their own hierarchy, and in accordance with their own proper liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions. That is precisely what the Holy See is offering Anglicans who desire full communion with the Catholic Church—and this despite assurances to the contrary, such as that offered by Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, in the explanatory document that accompanied the release of Anglicanorum coetibus: “These personal ordinariates cannot be considered as particular ritual churches since the Anglican liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral tradition is a particular reality within the Latin Church. The creation of a ritual church might have created ecumenical difficulties.”

Uniatism proved a major stumbling block to dialogue with the Orthodox churches, so one can appreciate the Holy See’s eagerness to contend that this is precisely not what it is offering Anglicans—and not merely for the sake of continued dialogue with the Anglican Communion. Anglicans have not been alone in their concern that the provisions established by Anglicanorum coetibus constitute a new instance of uniatism, and Ghirlanda’s assurances do not seem to me a sufficient response. It is highly debatable whether Anglicanism can be considered “a particular reality within the Latin Church,” given that the development of its liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions was determinatively affected by the English Reformation. Therefore, one cannot just dismiss the comparison with uniatism. (Oddly, Ghirlanda himself seems to understand this, given his statement that the decision not to establish some form of Anglican Catholic Church was due to the “ecumenical difficulties” this might have created, and not to Anglicanism’s inherent dignity as part of the patrimony of the “Latin Church.”)

Certainly, uniatism arose at a specific time and among a specific community of Christians, but as the history of uniatism itself witnesses, its application has never been restricted by the historical circumstances of its genesis. And while the juridical structures established by Anglicanorum coetibus do not exactly parallel those governing the Ukrainian Catholic Church, for example, their resonance was sufficient for representatives of the Orthodox churches to question whether uniatism was again being promoted by the Holy See—and for the Holy See to dismiss precisely that question before it was asked.

What is most striking about this new application of the methodology of uniatism is not simply that the Holy See has chosen to employ it after four decades of dialogue aimed at full communion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but that it has done so after having repudiated uniatism as ecumenically illegitimate. This occurred in 1993 via an agreement with representatives from the Orthodox churches, the “Balamand Statement”: While the “inviolable freedom of persons and their obligation to follow the requirements of their conscience remain secure, in the search for re-establishing unity there is no question of conversion of people from one church to the other.” Rather, the re-establishment of ecclesial unity—of full communion—is a question of realizing together the will of Christ for his church by means of “a common quest by the churches for a full accord on the content of the faith and its implications.”

I doubt neither the pastoral concern of the Holy See nor its respect for the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of Anglicanism, which it seeks to preserve by means of these new ordinariates. Rather, I contend that the personal ordinariates established by Anglicanorum coetibus are, canonical issues notwithstanding, tenuously related to those already established for military personnel and their dependents, which draw their clergy from local churches and religious communities with their own proper ordinaries. Still less are they a development of the 1980 “Pastoral Provision” that created “Anglican-use” parishes in the United States. A parish is one thing; a de facto extraterritorial diocese in the form of a personal ordinariate is another. The personal ordinariates will be a new instance of the methodology of uniatism, which is a wineskin for the ecclesiology of Mortalium animos, not that of Unitatis redintegratio.

If it is the case that the Holy See has changed the Catholic Church’s methodology for ecumenical engagement, is it also the case that the Holy See has changed the goal of such engagement itself—at least implicitly? Instead of pursuing a “common quest” for unity, are we again seeking simply to bring others back into Rome’s embrace? For the moment, it is impossible to say. It remains to be seen whether personal ordinariates will be offered to other Christians currently undergoing struggles not unlike those affecting Anglicans—for example, to Lutherans. Should that happen, it would behoove all those committed to the ecumenical movement to check the doors of the Apostolic Palace for a sign that reads “Gone Fishing.”


Readers respond: Letters, March 12, 2010 and April 9, 2010

More reactions to 'Anglicanorum coetibus': The Editors, "Business As Usual?"
John Garvey, "Anglican Annex"
Jack Miles, "Trading Places"


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Published in the ??? 2010 issue: View Contents
Russel Murray, OFM, is assistant professor of systematic theology at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C.
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