This week, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of the Catholic Church announced that an upcoming Apostolic Constitution will streamline and clarify processes for Anglicans to become Catholic, reflecting a broader trend towards cultural and liturgical diversity in the Catholic Church that, because it is both orthodox and organic, will help make the Church relevant in an increasingly globalized, cosmopolitan world.

Under the “Personal Ordinariates” that will be introduced with the Constitution, ex-Anglican clergy will provide pastoral care for groups of traditionalist converts to Catholicism, who will maintain their own liturgical practices so long as they do not conflict with universal Catholic doctrine. This means that Anglican priests and seminarians who convert will be permitted to remain in the clergy even if they are married, that the Book of Common Prayer will be used at Masses for the converts, and that other Anglican flourishes will continue to be central in the worships lives of the new Catholics.

The Church does not generally allow former Protestants to retain any of their old liturgical practices upon converting, but Cardinal William Levada noted “the importance of Anglican traditions of spirituality and worship for (converts’) faith journey” in the CDF statement announcing the Constitution.

Levada explicitly noted that this liturgical flexibility reflects a broader emphasis of the Church on cultural diversity in the context of unity in faith:

Insofar as these traditions express in a distinctive way the faith that is held in common, they are a gift to be shared in the wider Church. The unity of the Church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows . . . Our communion is therefore strengthened by such legitimate diversity, and so we are happy that these men and women bring with them their particular contributions to our common life of faith.

Pope Benedict XVI summed up the Church’s interest in a legitimate, intellectually-serious form of cultural diversity this summer in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate , when he warned readers:
Let it not be forgotten that the increased commercialization of cultural exchange today leads to a twofold danger. First, one may observe a cultural eclecticism that is often assumed uncritically: cultures are simply placed alongside one another and viewed as substantially equivalent and interchangeable. This easily yields to a relativism that does not serve true intercultural dialogue . . . with no true integration. Secondly, the opposite danger exists, that of cultural leveling . . . In this way one loses sight of the profound significance of the culture of different nations, of the traditions of the various peoples, by which the individual defines himself in relation to life’s fundamental questions.

The Catholic Church under Benedict has emphasized the need for cultural exchange based on intellectual integration and the search for truth about human existence and its facets, as well as a healthy respect for the myriad ways that humanity has responded to them historically in particular cultures. By allowing Anglicans to bring their liturgy into the Church, Benedict is encouraging different forms of cultural expression as part of a common search for the truly holy life in obedience to God. In order to do this, he is establishing Personal Ordinariates for the Anglicans, in what canon law expert Ed Peters says is “another sign of the inevitable trend away from purely territorial jurisdictional units in the Roman Church and toward greater use of personal jurisdiction.”

This idea of Personal Ordinariates, that would encompass different social groupings and cultural tendencies into the life of the Church, has the potential to play an increasing role in Catholicism in this increasingly global era. This is not to suggest that all is now permissible liturgically speaking, but that the Church is big enough and open enough to welcome the broad variety of human cultures that have sprung up throughout history into its worship.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal , Francis X. Rocca emphasizes the necessity of “organic development” in determining what is and is not to be sanctioned within Catholic liturgy. Favorably quoting a theologian who refers to the Pope as a “liturgical pluralist,” Rocca goes on to say that Benedict is “leading his church forward in the spirit of its oldest traditions.” I would only add that Benedict is leading the Church forward into the era of globalized humanity by positioning the Church as strong in faith, flexible in expression.

This position matters because no one else seems to be able to be both as fully as the Catholic Church. National churches like the Church of England and other mainline Protestant denominations are losing ground in a world where nationality and culture are becoming increasingly flexible in the lives of most people. Without a united English culture either in England or in the former colonies, the lack of Anglican doctrinal clarity matters. In a world where few people stay still throughout the course of their careers, there is little reason to join a denomination solely for the sake of cultural identification. Doctrine is necessary, and churches that sought to define themselves largely by ethnicity, heritage, or geography are finding that out the hard way.

Rt. Rev. John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham and one of two bishops assigned by the Anglican Communion to provide pastoral care for traditionalist Anglicans worldwide, noted as much in an interview with London’s Daily Telegraph this week, arguing that “Anglicanism has become a joke because it has singularly failed to deal with any of its contentious issues . . . . I believed in the Church I joined, but it has been revealed to have no doctrine of its own . . . . The Anglican experiment is over.”

If the bishop is right and the Anglican experiment is over, then every national church within Protestantism may soon face a similar fate. That would open up a considerable amount of room for the one church that is both big enough to encompass many different cultural heritages around the world and old enough to stand by its authorities and doctrines.

“Catholic,” after all, means “universal,” and a Catholic Church that continues to emphasize its globe-spanning culture and its timeless beliefs is well-poised to be the face of twenty-first century Christianity in the West, even in countries that went Protestant half a millennium ago. The decision of the Church this week to establish Personal Ordinariates to give Anglican converts flexibility in their liturgy is just the latest step towards reaffirming that Catholic orthodoxy is ready for whatever the world may bring.

Articles by Matt Cavedon

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