Pronouncements are never read just by ‘our own’

By on September 4, 2007

The Vatican caused a bit of a stir in the otherwise quiet summer by issuing two statements that gave some readers concern that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were being rolled back. One is the reauthorization of a form of the Roman eucharistic rite that had been replaced in 1970. The other is the publication by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church (see related story).

Canadian Anglicans, in dialogue with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for more than 35 years, are looking forward to learning more about the nuances of these documents at their next meeting in mid-September. However, since the second document speaks about ecumenical relations, I would like to comment on it.

The CDF document says nothing new; it is a reiteration of what the Vatican has held for centuries, that the true church of Christ only ‘subsists’ in its entirety in the church of Rome. More positively, it also affirms “that the church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.”

The document is addressed to Catholics, and appears intended to speak in two directions: to rein in those who would precipitously recognize other “ecclesial communities” as being equal to the Roman Catholic church without being in communion with it, but also to rebuke those who want to say that there is nothing of Christ’s grace outside of the Catholic church.

Anglicans might well have some sense of disappointment with the tone and substance of the article. While this statement was addressed to Catholics, in an ecumenical world we do not live in isolation. We all read each other’s pronouncements and they are interpreted in both the religious and the secular press. When we communicate, we are never just communicating to “our own.” We would all be wise to think about how our “inner” speech sounds to others.

As to substance, the CDF says “those Christian communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century” are defective because they lack apostolic succession and a true eucharist, and “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense.” Are Anglicans intended to be included in this group? If so, then the CDF has ignored 35 years of work on these questions by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. This is not nuanced ecumenical language: it is a negative judgment that ignores all the ways in which our dialogue has unpacked mutual misunderstandings about eucharist and ministry and found common language in agreed statements.

There will never be ecumenical breakthroughs until we are honest with one another; the CDF is being honest. Anglicans might say with equal candour that all the church of Christ is defective until we are all reformed into one Body that humbly recognizes its need of repentance and grace.

There will never be ecumenical breakthroughs until we listen to one another: back to the table, please, for it is Christ’s table and he has called us all.

Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan is ecumenical officer and director of the faith, worship and ministry department of General Synod.

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