David Gibson -- Pope Benedict XVI and the Anglican outreach

By David Gibson
Sunday, October 25, 2009

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope in April 2005, all the world rejoiced -- or recoiled -- with the certain knowledge that the cardinals had settled on the one man who would be more conservative than John Paul II.

For those who weren't so enthused about the Holy Spirit's selection, there was grim consolation in the fact that Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, was 78 years old and was himself predicting a brief papacy that would serve as a transition to whatever came next.

Some transition. In less than five years Benedict has shown himself to be quietly yet deliberately engaged in reshaping Catholicism. Even more surprising are the remarkably liberal means he has used to achieve his ends -- means that could lead to places the pontiff may not intend to go.

A case in point is last week's stunning announcement (it took even the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, by surprise) that the pope is creating a novel "church within a church" so that Anglicans can join with Catholics without giving up their rites and traditions. The goal is to accommodate traditionalist Anglicans around the globe and conservative Episcopalians in the United States who are upset about the acceptance of openly gay clergy in North America and female bishops in the Church of England, and with what they see as the failure of their leadership to discipline the transgressors.

Under Benedict's unprecedented arrangement, bishops and whole dioceses and parishes could go Roman, and married clergy could bring their wives along and remain priests. Cardinal William Levada, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- and Rome's point man in the secret negotiations with disaffected Anglicans that preceded the move -- said 20 to 30 Anglican bishops have asked the Vatican about joining up.

But much uncertainty remains, for both Anglicans and Catholics. As Father Thomas Reese of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington has pointed out, allowing a separate Anglican rite in the Catholic Church -- complete with married priests and seminarians, new hymnals and good music (finally, many Catholics might say!) -- could alter Catholic views on celibacy and liturgy as much as it changes the Anglican Communion.

What this move confirms, however, is that change is the paradoxical mantra of Benedict's papacy. In another development last week, one that drew far less notice but could have a profound impact, the Vatican opened a dialogue with the leadership of a traditionalist, right-wing sect that split with Rome in 1988 over what its members saw as dangerous and even heretical trends resulting from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Among other things, Vatican II affirmed the principle of religious liberty, launched dialogue with other churches and religions, expanded the role of lay Catholics and promoted liturgical changes that overhauled the Mass for the first time since the counter-Reformation Council of Trent in the 16th century.

Many observers say a rapprochement could require Benedict to make compromises on some of those issues, which could further encourage a critical reinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council and its modernizing reforms.

In 1988, under the direction of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican had already created a special provision to allow the schismatic group (called Lefebvrists after their late leader, rebel Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) to continue to use the old Latin Mass and other pre-Vatican II rites if they would stay connected to Rome in some fashion.

But Ratzinger has always wanted to do more to bring the remaining schismatics back into the fold, and as pope he has made extraordinary concessions to achieve that end. The principal innovation was his personal order, in 2007, to allow the old Latin Mass to be celebrated anywhere in the world, whether the local bishop likes it or not. That created, for the first time in Catholic history, two parallel rites in the Western church -- one in Latin, the Tridentine rite (after the Council of Trent); another in a newer form, which is almost always celebrated in the vernacular, or local language.

Now, with the new provision for Anglicans, there could be three versions of the Roman Catholic Mass for different constituencies. As Reese says, "Once we have three versions, it is more difficult to argue against more."

Thus far, Benedict's papacy has been one of constant movement and change, the sort of dynamic that liberal Catholics -- or Protestants -- are usually criticized for pursuing. In Benedict's case, this liberalism serves a conservative agenda. But his activism should not be surprising: As a sharp critic of the reforms of Vatican II, Ratzinger has long pushed for what he calls a "reform of the reform" to correct what he considers the excesses or abuses of the time.

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