Pope Francis’s visit Sunday to a Church of England parish in his diocese of Rome — the first time a pope has done so — notches another step forward in the Catholic-Anglican relationship.
It follows the common declaration in Rome in October last year committing pairs of bishops from both Churches to collaborate in joint works of mercy and justice. It will be followed on March 13, the anniversary of Francis’s election, by another first — an Anglican choral evensong at the altar of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica.
As Francis put it while answering questions at All Saints, relations between the two Churches are good, and advancing — “two steps forward, half a step backwards.”
In fact, the Church of England’s decision in the early 1990s to ordain women and more recently to consecrate female bishops was not so much a half-step back as a double-flip somersault. It was a decision that moved the dialogue away from great declarations of theological agreement of the 1970s-80s, and into the realm of common prayer, witness and action, albeit backed up by highly meaningful gestures.
The pope attending All Saints to mark the 200th anniversary of the first Anglican liturgy in Rome will be remembered as one of those gestures, along with previous popes giving fisherman’s rings and croziers to archbishops of Canterbury.
The gestures are an attempt to give an expression to what the Second Vatican Council recognized: that the Catholic Church is not co-extensive with the one, true Church, and that there are elements of the true Church outside it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, in other words, is not merely a dressed-up layman, but a bishop; and while Anglican priests may not be Catholic priests, they are still priests; and although the Church of England is not in communion with the Catholic Church, both form part of the Body of Christ, whose fragments God is calling into one.
When, on Sunday, Francis blessed an icon, gave off-the-cuff answers to three questions, and received jars of homemade marmelade and chutney, he was bestowing on the Church of England parishioners and clergy of All Saints the kind of warmth a bishop gives to one of his own parishes — without, obviously, formally recognizing it as a Catholic parish.
So far, so normal.
But on Sunday, Francis was also setting forth his own, distinctive vision of how Christian unity is made, which constitutes a clear shift in emphasis from Benedict XVI’s ecumenism, with its stress on a common search for truth.
In his homily and Q&A, Francis never referred to the theological, institutional dialogue between the two Churches, beyond celebrating the achievement that “after centuries of mutual mistrust, we are now able to recognize that the fruitful grace of Christ is at work also in others.”
Instead he indicated three roads to Christian unity: an attitude of humility, shared prayer and actions witnessing to God’s mercy, and learning from the creativity and freedom of young Churches in the developing world.
First, humility. In a reflection on St. Paul attempting to evangelize a divided Corinth, the pope described in his homily how the apostle relied not on his own ability and strength but on God, “as a beggar of mercy.” This, he said, is “the starting point so that God may work in us.” Seeking reconciliation in the face of divisions, St. Paul “grasped the fact that he was fed by mercy and that his priority was to share his bread with others: the joy of being loved by the Lord, and of loving him.”
The second point was that one he has made often: that acting together for the poor creates the space for the Holy Spirit to overcome differences, and indeed is already “a powerful sign of renewed communion.”
Referring to the joint outreach performed by All Saints and the Catholic parish in Rome of Ognissanti — who were formerly twinned on Sunday — the pope noted how “solid communion grows and is built up when people work together for those in need.”
The third point was one made in answer to a question from a Nigerian congregant about what the Churches can learn from developing-world ecumenism, where relations are often “better and more creative” than in Europe.
Francis agreed, and noted how he was studying a visit to South Sudan following a joint approach by bishops of the region of different denominations.
But he also gave a more provocative example from the remote Chaco region of Argentina, where Anglican and Catholic indigenous practice, in effect, inter-communion, with the knowledge of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“When people can’t go on Sunday to the Catholic celebration they go to the Anglican [church], and the Anglicans go to the Catholic [church], because they don’t want to spend Sunday without a celebration; and they work together,” the pope said, adding that “this is a richness that our young Churches can bring to Europe.”
Another example he might have given is Papua New Guinea, which has one of the largest files in the offices of the Vatican’s Christian Unity congregation. Anglicans and Catholics began practicing inter-communion while interned together under Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and have never stopped. The Catholic bishops of Papua even once brought an Anglican bishop with them to Rome.
In his answer Francis never excluded theologian dialogue, observing that ecumenism is “perhaps more solid in theological research in a more mature Church” such as Europe’s. His point, as ever, is that those searching for Christian unity need to be attentive to the movements of the Spirit running ahead of the institutions, and the young Churches — unencumbered by the centuries of disputes — can help with that.
But the question must still be asked — and it was, by the second questioner — whether Francis’s approach represents a departure from Benedict XVI’s, and the answer seems unquestionably to be ‘yes.’
Benedict told the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2012 that ecumenism must never become a “praxiology”, that is, social action, rather than concerning itself primarily with theology, the search for truth.
As a former official of the Vatican’s Christian Unity office who served under Benedict XVI put it to me: “For Benedict, truth is ultimately what matters. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t do things together, but the danger is always that it’s easier to open a food bank together than to discuss women priests.”
When Francis on Sunday was presented with what Benedict said on that occasion (“your Predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, put us on guard regarding the risk in the ecumenical dialogue of giving priority to collaboration in social action rather than following the more exacting path of theological agreement”) he demurred.
As if anxious not to be seen to be contradicting his predecessor, the pope instead said he did not know of the context in which it was said.
Yet what he went on to say showed that for Francis the greater danger is to carry on theological dialogue as an abstraction (“in a laboratory”) rather than rooted in lived experience (“it must be done walking, along the way.”)
“We are on the road, and on the road we also have these discussions,” Francis added. “The theologians do so. But in the meantime, we help one another in our necessities, in our life, we also help one another spiritually.”
One of the difficulties with professional ecumenical dialogue is that it is conducted between theologians, often at a very technical level, and barely connects with the ordinary parish experience of Catholics and Anglicans. That has certainly been the experience of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, which has produced magnificent documents but has barely impacted the people of God.
The defense of that process is, of course, that it has enabled greater institutional proximity. Yet others might argue that it has succeeded mainly in clarifying the reasons for the insuperable obstacles that exist to unity.
Francis points to another way, one that is more “of the people,” more missionary, more based on common action. It is what he believes God is calling Christians to do — and let the theologians work it all out.
At the risk of simplification, one could say: Benedict said, “don’t do a food bank together as a substitute for discussing women priests,” while Francis says: “You’re not going to agree on women priests, so set up a food bank together — and work it out from there.”