On April 18, about fifty clergymen from the Church of England participated in a service of Holy Communion celebrated at the high altar of the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. These Anglican ministers belong to a tiny, quasi-traditionalist organization called “The Society.” They oppose the ordination of women, they have a high view of the sacraments and ritual, and they participate in a system of pastoral oversight that allows clergy and congregations to get around the authority of unorthodox or otherwise unsuitable diocesan bishops. Some of them even use the Roman Missal instead of Anglican liturgical books.
Nonetheless, these Anglicans, like all Anglicans, are Protestants. They are not in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church and are not entitled to worship in a Catholic Church, let alone the cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome, the pope’s own ecclesiastical home base.
Mercifully, Rome has acknowledged that the service should never have happened. Bishop Guerino Di Tora, vicar of the archpriest of St. John Lateran, called it a “contravention of canonical norms,” as well as “a regrettable episode” resulting from a “failure in communication.”
The personnel at St. John Lateran must not have understood that the group was not Catholic (no doubt they looked legitimate), but the Anglicans certainly knew better. Indeed, the whole affair is a display of extreme arrogance and is a scandal to the ecumenical movement.
Why? A little history may help us understand.
Beginning with King Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534, being English meant being Anglican, and being Anglican meant, above all, not being Roman Catholic. Indeed, being Catholic was illegal in England for more than two hundred years, and the piety of secret Catholics was policed by a network of government spies. Finally, in a series of laws passed by Parliament in the late eighteenth century, Catholicism was allowed again in England, although being outside the Church of England remained a serious social handicap. A few decades later, English cities began to grow rapidly as the nation industrialized, and Irish-Catholic immigrants began to come to the manufacturing and commercial areas in large numbers. Catholic diocesan and parochial structures were finally re-established.
By the 1820s, being Anglican was no longer a de facto part of almost every Englishman’s identity, and the old High Church party within the Protestant establishment became an “Anglo-Catholic” movement within “Anglicanism,” one of the many new –isms of the age. Led by the future St. John Henry Newman and several Oxford colleagues, the movement produced written tracts that proposed a “branch” theory of the Church, where Anglicans occupy one arm of a large tree of faith whose trunk is the Roman Catholic Church. It was providential, they argued, that the orders of bishop, priest, and deacon had endured. Communion was still celebrated. Dioceses and parishes still existed to organize the faithful. Catholicism had not died, they said, but changed, and not unrecognizably to the ancient Faith.
And so, there arose a curious situation in which a significant group of Protestants came to believe they were actually Catholics by virtue of being Anglican, even though actual Roman Catholics now lived openly alongside them for the first time in centuries.
Newman concluded that the situation was untenable, and he left behind Anglicanism for the Catholic Church in 1845. Pope Leo XIII tackled the problem in his 1896 encyclical Apostolicae Curae: On the Nullity of Anglican Orders. Though acknowledging the positive signs of grace “stirring up men’s hearts,” the pope adduced evidence showing that in different eras, there were defects both of form and of intent in ordination rites, rendering Anglican orders to the episcopate, presbyterate, and diaconate “absolutely null and utterly void.” At the Reformation, there had not been a growth of branches, but the severing of limbs.
Nonetheless, the language of the Second Vatican Council’s document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, offers a refreshing way to think about the Church’s teaching about non-Catholics, using the conciliatory term “separated brethren” to describe a common identity in Christ by virtue of baptism. In 1994, Pope St. John Paul II elaborated further in his encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, singling out Anglicans and describing “the elements of sanctification and truth present in the other Christian Communities” and “a recognition of the degree of communion already present.”
Anglicans aren’t nothing, and they may even be more Catholic than a lot of other Protestants . . . but being close to Catholic still means being not Catholic. There is no escaping that. In a 1982 article called “Problems and Prospects of the Anglican-Catholic Dialogue,” then-cardinal Ratzinger warned against the “transfer of ecumenism into an artificial world,” which ignored truth for the sake of false unity. In other words, if you want to be a Catholic, you cannot just say you are one. To do so puts you in a position of ultimate authority; and to become your own pope is the most un-Catholic practice there could be! Christ prays for our unity (John 17), but it must be real, and rightly ordered.
True both to the theological bluntness of Apostolicae Curae and the pastoral generosity of Ut Unum Sint, Pope Benedict XVI issued the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (“On Groups of Anglicans”) in 2009, creating personal ordinariates—structures akin to dioceses based on liturgical and pastoral heritage rather than mere geography. There are now three ordinariates (one in North America, one in Britain, and one in Australia), and each is designed to welcome Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church not only as individuals, but also as groups.
With Anglicanorum Coetibus, Benedict sought to provide for former Anglicans’ long-term flourishing by allowing them “to maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.”
And this brings us back to the group of Anglicans at St. John Lateran. Clearly, these men desire the Catholic faith, but instead of respecting the obstacles to unity that remain, they entered a space that was not theirs and acted like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears—not giving Anglican gifts, but taking Catholic ones. Their behavior should therefore remind us of what ecumenism should be: on the one side, it allows us to make room in the household of faith for new people; but on the other side, it requires that the newcomers adopt the family’s values and practices before moving in.
On April 18, these Anglicans were interlopers at the pope’s altar, but they would be welcome there any time as real Catholics, and Catholics with a distinct Anglican identity at that. Let us pray that they may soon come, as Newman said, “out of the shadows and into the light of Truth.”
But until then, no more playing pretend. The Catholic Church requires more of all of us, and the ecumenical vision of Christians everywhere deserves our best.