Saturday, January 2, 2010

When the Ordinary is Extraordinary

I spent much time during the last half of 2009 getting to know Dante and his era. Dante saw his times with anguish. The universal state (the Holy Roman Empire) just would not take hold over the secular sphere. And Dante thought that the Church had fallen into corruption. Indeed, the poet wrote two centuries before the unity of Christendom formally fell apart beginning in 1517 when Luther wrote The 95 Theses.

With this as background, I was oddly surprised yesterday to learn of an event that had taken place on November 4. We were in the sunroom, Brigitte reading aloud from The American Conservative (February 2010 issue). She came to an article that made us both sit up. The article, by William S. Lind, was titled “Come All Ye Faithful, Benedict’s Counter-Reformation.” As the story unfolded, it struck me that the tide Dante saw receding might now be returning after centuries—and what I might be hearing is news of a change with possibly far-reaching cultural consequences. I’d label this “A Ray of Sunlight” if it were not, at this point, extremely tentative.

In brief. Pope Benedict XVI published an Apostolic Constitution on November 4, 2009. Such a “constitution” is a change in church law. In this one, entitled Anglicorum Coetibus (Groups of Anglicans), Benedict announces that entire Anglican congregations—people, clergy, parishes, dioceses—may enter the Catholic communion at their initiative while retaining their Anglican rites, liturgy, identity, and self-governance. The constitution is available here. It is subtitled “Providing for personal ordinariates for Anglicans entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.”

Those who follow the trials and tribulations of churches know why the Pope may have acted and why some Anglicans may respond to his invitation. The mainstream Protestant churches have been secularizing, so to say, embracing a social gospel while letting the traditional faith erode. And in implementing changes pleasing to Modernity these churches have alienated large elements of the traditionally devout within them. Anglicanism is already cleaving into parts.

A brief look taught me that I’m inadequate to understand fully, or fast enough, the vast complexities in canon law and history involved here, but Lind’s interesting article seems to be on target, and I recommend it. It isn’t available online, but a subscription may be obtained here and I’ve seen The American Conservative on sale at Borders, for instance. Here I will merely cite three points that Lind himself highlights (among many others)—and are in the linked constitution in much dryer language. First, existing married clergy would be eligible for ordination under Anglicorum Coetibus. Second, all Anglicans who rejoin the Catholic Church at Benedict’s invitation would be required to profess the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism contains the doctrine of papal infallibility. Lind sees problems here but hopes that ways may be found to ease that pain, especially in light of the fact that the Anglican break with the Church predated that doctrine's promulgation (in 1870). Third, the incoming Anglicans would be under the rule of their own ordinaries, not subjected to existing bishops.

So what is an ordinary and what is an ordinariate? An ordinariate, I discovered, corresponds to a diocese, but one without a geographical boundary. The Church already has many such ordinariates to serve far-flung military commands. The ordinary, consequently, is the person responsible for such groupings. Webster’s definition: “a prelate exercising original jurisdiction over a specified territory or group.” He may be a priest or a bishop. Every bishop is thus an ordinary, but not every ordinary is a bishop. A personal ordinariate (in the language of the constitution) means one without a geographically-defined territory.

All this, of course, is Extraordinary! Brigitte and I grew quite lively at the prospect that some kind of unification of the faithful may eventually emerge from all this, the Anglicans representing the tip of a melting iceberg. Global Warming in a new sense. If it happens it will take a long time, no doubt as long as the breakup of Christendom took from the time when Dante noted the appearance of ugly cracks. Brigitte and I will long be gone. Lind sketches the possibilities of this in sufficient detail so that possible, even plausible, paths leading to unification of the faithful become thinkable.


  1. Very interesting. I read too the follow-up post in which you analyze further your positive feelings about this news. Rays of sunshine indeed.

    I will read the article for sure. Based on your summary, and in combination with the first chapter of Hawkens' new book, Natural Capitalism, (well, new to me as it was actually published in 1999) a very interesting and positive picture of a possible future emerges. And that, in these times of darkness in Motown, is most welcome!

    It is also interesting that Pope Benedict XVI should be the one to... open things up a bit since he was introduced to us as being ever so strict... A case, perhaps, of Nixon in China?

  2. Being only an at-a-distance observer of the Church, when Cardinal Ratzinger looked like he'd become the new Pope, I began researching his background with some anxiety, influenced as I had been by the bad-mouthing over the years I'd also heard only at a distance. I was very pleasantly surprised. I discovered, among other things, that he came from roughly the same neck of the woods where we'd lived in Germany immediately after the war, a region with a still vital and vibrant Catholicism. And this man was a deep scholar--and, it turned out, a deep kindness. Well! I thought. Well, well, well. And these days I say it again. Well, well, well!

  3. And, oh yes! Nice observation, that: Nixon in China. Odd, isn't it...

  4. Yes, I look forward to seeing how the Catholic Church leads in our times of turmoil...


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