The first wave of reactions to the announcement by the Vatican on Tuesday of a new arrangement for receiving into the Roman Catholic Church groups of Anglican clergy and laity who would retain distinctive elements of their spiritual and liturgical heritage tended toward the critical: Rome's move, it was suggested, was a new obstacle to Anglican-Catholic dialogue, an act of ecclesiastical "poaching," and a retreat from the ecumenical commitments of the Second Vatican Council. What the Vatican intended as an act of ecumenical hospitality, however, was also bit of theological shock therapy: a moment of clarification in a situation that had begun to resemble an ecumenical wonderland in which well-intentioned people taught themselves impossible things before breakfast.
Many of the practical details of the new arrangement remain unsettled, for the text of the Apostolic Constitution that Pope Benedict XVI will issue, creating "Personal Ordinariates" by which Anglicans can enter into full communion with Rome under the spiritual guidance of Anglican clergy who will be ordained as Catholic priests, has not been completed. Nonetheless, the announcement does mark the end of an era in Anglican-Catholic relations, which began with a pioneering ecumenical dialogue led by the Belgian Cardinal Desire Mercier and the British statesman Lord Halifax after World War I. That era reached its apogee at Vatican II in the mid-1960s, when corporate reunion between Canterbury and Rome seemed to many an achievable, short-term goal.
As both Anglicanism and Catholicism sought to find their way through the cultural whitewater of late modernity, however, the theological premise on which an era of good feelings had been based—that Anglicanism and Catholicism both affirmed the binding character of apostolic tradition, which in turn led to a common understanding of the priesthood and the sacraments—began to seem less a given than a hope. The tensions were evident more than 20 years ago, in a historic exchange of letters among Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the veteran Dutch ecumenist then leading the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
The pope and the cardinal asked Runcie to explain the reasoning that had led certain parts of the Anglican communion to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood. Runcie replied in largely sociological rather than theological terms, citing women's changing roles in business, culture, and politics. By the end of the exchange, in 1986, a parting of the ways had been reached: the highest authorities of the Catholic Church believed that apostolic tradition, not misogyny, precluded ordination to the priesthood, which Catholics understood in iconographic terms as a sacramental representation of the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Archbishop Runcie and those whom he represented believed that contemporary human insights into gender roles trumped apostolic tradition and necessitated a development of both doctrine and practice.
Rome could not accept that as a legitimate development of Christian self-understanding. Catholic leaders also feared that this approach to the authority of tradition would inevitably lead to an Anglican reconception of the moral law on a host of issues, including the morality of homosexual acts. That, too, happened, fracturing the Anglican Communion in the process. Now, Anglicans who have come to accept the Catholic view that what numerous Anglican authorities understood as a legitimate development of doctrine was in fact an abandonment of the very idea of "doctrine" have been offered a path into full communion with the Catholic Church that honors the distinctiveness of their spiritual and liturgical traditions.
Which, in the end, may actually clarify things. The theological gulf between Rome and Canterbury had become wider, not narrower, since Vatican II. An honest recognition of that fact might lead to a more fruitful, less fantasy-driven theological dialogue, as well as to new and intriguing historical explorations of just what the English Reformation entailed, back in the 16th century.