Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door of the Roman Catholic Church to those in the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopal Church in the US, the Church of England, and others) who are disaffected over issues of ordaining gays and women, same-sex marriage, etc. He has even said that these disaffected Anglicans, including married priests, can form their own congregations under the aegis of the Catholic Church and go on as if nothing had happened. Oh -- married clergy can’t become Catholic Bishops, but that’s probably unlikely even for unmarried clergy. (Presumably, given the issues involved, they won’t have to deal with what to do with female Anglican Priests, but it would be fun if they did.)
On the face of it, this sounds good – the Pope is willing to have the Catholic Church be a “big tent” to take in those who feel disenfranchised by the progressive views of, particularly, the Episcopal Church in the US. But this is the same Pope who, thus far in his short reign, has on numerous occasions emphasized that while the Roman Catholic Church is willing to co-exist with other Christian denominations, his commitment that the Catholic way is the only right way is unwavering. So why would he not only reach out to disaffected Anglicans, but even tacitly endorse one of the practices that most distinguishes the two churches, that of allowing clergy to marry?
OK -- time out for a credentials check. I’m a Jew who is married to an Episcopalian and who teaches and writes with my close friend Jim Beebe, an Episcopal Priest. I’ve made an avocational study of how the first century Jewish group called “followers of the way” came to be a new religion called Christianity and how that new religion and its mother religion came to be persecutor and victim, respectively. We are currently working on a book on this subject. None of that makes me an expert on Catholicism, Anglicanism, or much of anything, but I’ve probably studied more about the two (plus Judaism) than many, so you can take my views for what you think they’re worth.
So to the question I raised at the end of the second paragraph. I think the answer is simple -- the Pope’s move seems to me transparently calculated to sow dissension in the Anglican Communion and to further polarize it. The leaders in the Anglican debate are the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has taken on the role of trying to resolve it for the benefit of the worldwide Communion, the Presiding Bishop of the United States, Katherine Jefferts Schori, and a number of Anglican Bishops in the US and particularly in Africa. Beginning in the 2008 Lambeth Conference (an every 10 years conference of bishops convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury -- 2008 had 800 bishops in attendance and was boycotted by a number of the aforementioned conservative bishops), Williams began to take steps toward finding a solution.
I don’t know if a solution can be found. Even if we take the case that the two sides of the Anglican debate are both people of good faith, the polarization is so great that it seems unlikely. Add to that that, in my opinion, the conservative position smells suspiciously of homophobia and sexism cloaked in dubious scripture, and it makes it even less likely. But one of the principles of negotiation is that the more difficult and polarized the parties are, the more you need to cut off alternatives to a solution. If Williams can appeal to both sides as Anglicans and to their commitment to the integrity of the Anglican Communion, he at least has a chance of starting with something both sides can agree on. If the Conservatives in the debate have a place to go and leave the Communion, the chances diminish.
But back to the Pope -- why would he do this? Well, maybe, just maybe, he gets two benefits from it -- he undermines the integrity of the Anglican Communion and possibly he has a place to move from to bring these disaffected Anglicans gradually into the arms of the Roman Catholic Church.
In our book, Jim Beebe and I take the view that the institutionalization of Jesus’ teachings in dogma and church politics has distorted those teachings beyond recognition. I can’t help but find the Pope’s “generous” gesture suspect in its piety and more likely to be cynically political.