We’ve had plenty of discussion about the recent apostolic constitution from Rome regarding the admission of Anglo-Catholics into communion. Clearly there has been a lot of less than informed commentary from a variety of news outlets in the whole discussion. If there’s anything I’ve learned about Anglo-Catholicism from all this its that they are one bizarre group. Indeed, if you ask me this whole thing says far more about the nature of Anglo-Catholicism than it does about the Roman church. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Rome wants as many people as possible to become Roman Catholic. This has always been true. To be sure there are voices of ecumenical opposition from within the ranks, like Walter Kasper and Hans Kung who would like to see mutual recognition and reconciliation between Roman and Protestant churches, but in the main, the Vatican has always and unapologetically desired and sought the integration of all other Christians into itself. That’s simply business as usual. A traditional Catholic self-understanding seems to require an orientation such as this. Nobody should be shocked by this.
However, pause and consider for a moment what this whole thing says about the nature of Anglo-Catholicism (or at least the sort of Anglo-Catholics who are likely to convert to Rome through this recent pronouncement). Apparently Anglo-Catholics desire union with Rome because they truly believe everything that Rome teaches. Ok. But if that’s the case one wonders why they haven’t joined up with the throne of Peter long before now. After all, if I really truly believed that in order to be a part of Jesus’s church I needed to be submitted to the Pope, I’m pretty sure I’d get right on that.
But what we actually see here is an intricate process of making sure that any Anglo-Catholic parishes that come into the Roman fold are able to maintain their polity and liturgical practice. Being able to have their cake and eat it too is at the center of this whole arrangement. Now none of this is to say that the Anglican rite that will be preserved in these churches is somehow silly or irrelevant or worthless. I’m sure its a rich tradition that should be preserved. All I’m saying is that the level of priority it seems to be being accorded by the Anglo-Catholics is pretty crazy. If they really believe that the Pope is the successor of Peter and that all Christians must be in communion with him to be fully catholic, why the hell would they insist that they get their liturgical guarantees beforehand? If being Roman Catholic is as important to them as it seems to be to most Roman Catholics, why does this whole thing turn on them getting to make sure they can run their parishes and liturgies the way they want to?
It all seems to come down to an attitude of, “Well, we’d like to be Catholic, as long as we can still basically do our own Anglo-centric thing.” I suppose I get that and everything, and I’m definitely a fan of enculturated forms of liturgy, but there seems to be something pathological here. The bottom of this whole thing seems to be an issue of sentimentality rather than theology. The Anglo-Catholics seem desperate to preserve their distinctly Anglo nature more than anything else. If Rome is up for accommodating them, they seems happy to jump on board. But one wonders, would the Anglo-Catholics end up converting without these concessions? Would they want to be part of a Roman Catholic church that didn’t give them all their demands in advance? Would they want to be part of a Roman Catholic church that stuck by their doctrine and practice and required them to do so as well, rather than making special arrangements to accommodate their national and cultural sensibilities?
In short, the way this whole issue turns on liturgical preferences and being able to keep married priests says a lot about what sort of mass conversion this would really be if it happened. By bowing to the aesthetic and cultural sentimentalities of Anglo-Catholicism, Rome has made sure that any conversions that come from this will be of an utterly Protestant nature. The sort of Catholic longing that we see in Anglo-Catholicism seems to me to be little more than a sort of sublimity. What we have here is an aestheticization of catholicity which ultimately undermines the credibility of any Anglo-Catholic claim to really take catholicity itself seriously. If this whole debacle showcases anything it is that the “Anglo” designation is far more determinative of Anglo-Catholicism than the “Catholic” one.