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David Gibson -- Pope Benedict XVI and the Anglican outreach
Of course a "reformed reform" doesn't equal a return to the past, even if that were the goal. Indeed, Benedict's reforms are rapidly creating something entirely new in Catholicism. For example, when the pope restored the old Latin Mass, he also restored the use of the old Good Friday prayer, which spoke of the "blindness" of the Jews and called for their conversion. That prayer was often a spur to anti-Jewish pogroms in the past, so its revival appalled Jewish leaders. After months of protests, the pope agreed to modify the language of the prayer; that change and other modifications made the "traditional" Mass more a hybrid than a restoration.
More important, with the latest accommodation to Anglicans, Benedict has signaled that the standards for what it means to be Catholic -- such as the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Mass as celebrated by a validly ordained priest -- are changing or, some might argue, falling. The Vatican is in effect saying that disagreements over gay priests and female bishops are the main issues dividing Catholics and Anglicans, rather than, say, the sacraments and the papacy and infallible dogmas on the Virgin Mary, to name just a few past points of contention.
That is revolutionary -- and unexpected from a pope like Benedict. It could encourage the view, which he and other conservatives say they reject, that all Christians are pretty much the same when it comes to beliefs, and the differences are just arguments over details.
And that could be the final irony. For all the hue and cry over last week's developments, Benedict's innovations may have glossed too lightly over the really tough issues: namely, the theological differences that traditional Anglicans say have kept them from converting, as they could always do.
"If I believed everything that the Roman Catholic Church teaches as dogma, I would be one and I would have been one years ago," Bishop William Ilgenfritz, of the recently formed Anglican Church in North America, a conservative splinter group, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week.
"I don't want to be a Roman Catholic," Bishop Martyn Minns, leader of a group of conservative Episcopalians, told the New York Times. "There was a Reformation, you remember."
Others, from England to Africa, have echoed that sentiment in the days since the Vatican's announcement.
In short, it may be premature to declare the Reformation over -- or to try to figure out which side is winning.
David Gibson covers religion for PoliticsDaily.com and is the author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World."
Gibson's previous Outlook essay, "Who Is a Real Catholic?", addressed the controversies surrounding President Obama's speaking at the University of Notre Dame and the indiscretions of Father Alberto Cutié of Miami. For further discussion of the Vatican's outreach to Anglicans, go to "On Faith" at http:/