William Oddie: A daring decision fulfils a Newman Prayer

11 10 2011

This article first appeared in Faith Magazine in January 2010. It doesn’t appear to have been posted on this blog before, and so is reproduced here:

I very much hope that Catholics in this country and elsewhere will warmly welcome into our communion the members of the new ordinariates. Nevertheless, in terms of the relations between Rome and the bishops’ conferences affected, the way in which these ordinariates have been invented is disgraceful.

Thus, Nicholas Lash – in, of course, The Tablet – on the Apostolic constitution which has authorised and enabled the setting up of jurisdictions under which Anglicans may become Roman Catholics not individually but collectively. The Tabletatura, of course, hate the whole thing; and they object particularly to the reception of communities rather than individuals, quite simply because far more will come, numerically, under this dispensation than under what previously obtained: i.e., special fast-track arrangements for clergy wanting reordination (this has helped substantially with the shortage of priests) but the old business of “individual submission” for the laity, and off with them to some denatured liturgy at the ghastly concrete Catholic barracks down the road. Quite simply, the Spirit-of-Vatican-ll boys don’t want the converts at all, because they know that they are coming not for the English bishops, and certainly not for The Tablet, which they loathe and despise, but for the Pope. The Tablet would like smaller numbers to come, one by one, in a way which provides the opportunity to acclimatise them into the kind of reductionist belief-system they favour. Thus The Tablet’s weaselly suggestion that

They do have an alternative …. they could, as countless converts to Roman Catholicism have done before them including many former Anglo-Catholics, apply to enter into full communion through the normal processes. Nowadays that usually means enrolling in the parish-based scheme called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, which includes a rite for baptised Christians who want to become Catholic.

After a journey of faith involving instruction from a parish catechist, candidates follow a series of public steps leading to a ceremony of admission, with others who have made the same journey. … A simple formula of doctrinal assent is required … far less elaborate than adherence to every one of the Catholic catechism’s 2,865 paragraphs which the apostolic constitution envisages.

Well, there you have it: what The Tablet wants for any convert is the half-cock reprocessed seventies Catholicism you get in RCIA (I speak from personal experience) rather than the full-blooded total Catholicism of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (which many of them already know far better than most cradle Catholics).

But you can understand The Tablet’s hostility and confusion. The fact is that the whole thing has been an enormous shock: not only to those who hate it all but to those who are still glowing with delight, for whom the words “personal ordinariate” induce not the slightest irritation at the usual graceless Vaticanese but on the contrary, sheer joy at the generous fulfilment the Pope has granted of their deepest hopes : these include many former Anglicans like myself and many more now preparing for the journey they have always longed to make, together with their whole ecclesial community. Of that, more in a while: but first, we need to get back to that extraordinary announcement: extraordinary both in its content and in its timing, as well as in its modus operand!. Why so very unexpected?

This was a question asked by more than one journalist. Robert Moynihan, of Inside the Vatican was by no means hostile. But he had questions. “I must say”, he began,

… that today’s press conference was among the strangest I have ever attended at the Vatican. Why? Because many things either didn’t make sense, or were not explained. For example, the “missing person.”… German Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Council for Christian Unity, the man who has been nominally in charge for many years now of the decades-long Catholic-Anglican dialogue.

According to all usual protocol, Kasper should have been at this conference, but was not (he is in Cyprus for a few days carrying on a dialogue with the Orthodox). … Levada added that the matter has increasingly come under his doctrinal congregation, and less under the ecumenism office headed by Kasper.

Another oddity was the strange haste to hold this press conference. Why do I say “strange haste”? Because the normal time-frame for advising all journalists of an upcoming Vatican press conference was not respected. Normally, the Vatican gives a week’s advance notice for a major press conference. … But today’s conference was announced via a cell phone text message from Press Director Father Federico Lombardi, S.J, sent to journalists’ cell phones at only 5 pm yesterday….

Finally, it seemed quite odd that the text of the document that the press conference was held to present was… not presented!

I have a theory which explains it all. The former Cardinal Ratzinger has been deeply concerned with this question ever since the former Bishop of London, now Mgr Graham Leonard, first asked for the possibility of receiving communities into the Church together with their priests, a request the then prefect of the CDF supported (as, at first, did Cardinal Hume). The whole thing was prevented by bitter opposition from two sources. Firstly and most decisively, from the English bishops.

The second source of opposition, predictably, was the Council for Ecumenism, who were still clinging to the unreal fantasy – despite women-priests and what that issue revealed about Anglican ecclesiology – of Anglican-Catholic unity.

After it was all over, Cardinal Ratzinger sadly asked a group of Romeward-bound North American Anglicans, “what are the English bishops afraid of?” The Pope asked one of the most senior converts an even more damning question: “why are the English bishops so unapostolic?” (Many of them, including Cardinal Hume, were enraged, when I revealed this – as well as the details of the secret negotiations with Bishop Leonard and others – in my book, The Roman Option. My book was published on a Tuesday: the Bishops, who happened to be meeting at the time, issued a statement condemning it only two days later – something of a distinction, though an uncomfortable one at the time).

So, the Pope was determined that those who had stopped it all in the early nineties would, this time, be left entirely out of the loop. The operation was put under the authority of the CDF. But why was it all done so suddenly? And why when it was – before the relevant document was even ready? I suspect the answer is that the Pope was determined to pre-empt any political manoeuvrings that might get under way if the existence of the plan should leak, or even, if the usual notice were given, during the week’s speculation that usually precedes Vatican Press conferences. He may even have heard that a leak had already taken place. So, I suspect, he acted quickly. He called a Press conference with less than 24 hours notice; and he presented the English bishops with a fait accompli.

I cannot resist quoting at this point -not for the first time – what John Henry Newman once said about the decisiveness of the great Popes. Though they are conservative, Newman says, it is not in any bad sense: they are conservative because they are “detached from everything save the deposit of faith”, which it is their special province to preserve and also to proclaim. And although “the Popes have been old men”, says Newman, they “have never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary. And, thus independent of times and places, the Popes have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy… of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene”.

Of course, many of the English bishops, and their house journal, The Tablet, didn’t like it one little bit: that all added to the gaiety of nations. Others did, however, including Damian Thompson, in his Telegraph blog:

This is astonishing news. … The Pope is now offering Anglicans worldwide “corporate reunion” on terms that will delight Anglo-Catholics. In theory, they can have their own married priests, parishes and bishops – and they will be free of liturgical interference by liberal Catholic bishops who are unsympathetic to their conservative stance.

He was wrong about married bishops, but dead right to home in on the fact that those within the ordinariates “will be free of liturgical interference by liberal Catholic bishops who are unsympathetic to their conservative stance”. One must, surely, chuckle with delight at the wonderfully ironic thought of the physical overlap of all those deliberately liturgically impoverished South coast dioceses with all those currently Anglo-Catholic parishes, soon to be safely in the Catholic Church but barricaded against the local Catholic bishop within their ordinariate, South coast parishes so renowned for reverent, sumptuous and utterly numinous liturgy, often with wonderful music sung by professional choirs, and glorious antique vestments, saved from the scrap heap as they were thrown out of Catholic churches by the Spirit-of-Vatican-ll.

Two weeks after the announcement, I was present at the 125th anniversary of what is a kind of unofficial Anglo-Catholic chaplaincy to Oxford University, Pusey House, (where I was once one of the clergy). Oxford was where I discovered the Catholic faith in its Anglican manifestation, when I went up to be trained for the Anglican priesthood at St Stephen’s House, the most unambiguously papalist of the seminaries of the Church of England. It was the beginning of a sometimes difficult road. At the ordination retreat which St Stephen’s House always organised for its ordinands (mistrusting the official diocesan retreats they would be going to later) we were told that the greatest challenge we would have to face would be “to be faithful priests in an apostate Church”: and so it proved.

So when I saw the faces once again of so many with whom thirty years before and in the decades that followed I had – so often bitterly embattled against the Establishment – faced that challenge, men from whom inevitably I had become separated on my own conversion to Rome; and when I saw their profound happiness at the Pope’s great and apostolic act, and their excitement at the prospect before them, I could not fail to remember once more a famous passage from the Apologia pro Vita Sua, which the agnostic George Eliot said she could not read without tears; and certainly, I cannot:

… I gather up and bear in memory those familiar affectionate companions and counsellors, who in Oxford were given to me, one after another, to be my daily solace and relief; and all those others, of great name and high example, who were my thorough friends, and showed me true attachment in times long past….

And I earnestly pray for this whole company, with a hope against hope, that all of us, who once were so united, and so happy in our union, may even now be brought at length, by the Power of the Divine Will, into One Fold and under One Shepherd.

The miracle of the Apostolic Constitution is that for a later generation, that hope is no longer “against hope”. It is almost too much for the mind to absorb: but it has happened. And for tens of thousands, life will never be the same again.


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