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Unsurprisingly, when in November 2009 the Holy See announced the establishment of personal ordinariates (similar to dioceses) for those Anglicans and Episcopalians entering into full communion with the Catholic Church, the standard journalistic account cast Pope Benedict’s outreach in political terms, as nothing more than a naked attempt to lure conservative members of the Anglican Communion into union with Rome, thereby consolidating right-wing opposition to women priests and to a homosexual lifestyle.

While it is true that Benedict welcomes Christians who embrace biblical standards rather than the Promethean and protean morality pursued by much of the Western world, reading the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus as simply another skirmish in the culture wars is to misunderstand its theological context and pastoral intent. In the ordinariates, one sees the palpable fruit of Vatican II’s marked accent on legitimate pluralism. Indeed, Anglicanorum Coetibus may be the most tangible fruit of the conciliar emphasis on authentic diversity since the celebration of the liturgy in the vernacular.

But the story of the ordinariates begins long before the council, in the “Malines Conversations” between Catholics and Anglicans in the early 1920s, when Catholic and Anglican theologians met in Belgium to discuss unity between Rome and Canterbury on the initiative of Cardinal Mercier (a churchman widely known for his learning in Thomist philosophy) and Lord Halifax (a well-known English aristocrat and devout Anglo-Catholic).

Mercier was known for the claim that the fundamental goal of the conversations was to unite Anglicanism with Catholicism but not to absorb it. This phrase, “united not absorbed,” was incorporated into the title of a famous article (“The Anglican Church, United Not Absorbed”) written by the Benedictine theologian Dom Lambert Beauduin in 1925.

The point of the maxim was that any reunion would respect and preserve certain Anglican traditions and rituals of the Anglican Communion even as it restored the “large measure of self-government and fidelity to the Roman See” that characterized the English church before the Reformation. Unfortunately, the energy impelling the Malines Conversations died with Mercier in 1926.

But the memory of Malines lived. In 1937, the great ecumenist Yves Congar, one of the principal theologians at Vatican II, examined the Malines Conversations in his Divided Christendom . He noted that some ideas floated at Malines, such as a patriarchate of Canterbury, were ill-founded historically and theologically and, further, that the very idea of corporate reunion was difficult to entertain since one found in the Anglican Communion not homogeneity in faith but “a great variety of irreconcilable beliefs.”

He insisted nonetheless that reunion with Anglicanism need not mean complete uniformity or absorption. And he maintained that accenting merely individual conversions to Catholicism was insufficient: “It is clear that something more is needed and that we must hope some day for a widespread movement towards reunion.”

While acknowledging that he could not foresee exactly which form reunion would take, he believed that such an event was “by no means chimerical,” and he presciently noted that, while the Holy See will brook no compromise in matters of faith, “in matters of discipline it will be broad and comprehensive.” In fact, the Vatican’s latitude in disciplinary matters had already been demonstrated by Malines itself, in Rome’s tacit approval of the conversations.

In the end, Congar concluded, the Anglican“Catholic dialogue, despite all the doctrinal difficulties, “showed a concrete, psychological, and human possibility of return.” Malines had revealed an impasse, certainly, but it had also “sown a seed of which no one can yet estimate the fertility.”

In the decades that followed Congar’s groundbreaking book, the issue of authentic pluralism and legitimate diversity continued to germinate in Catholic thought. Theologians such as the Dominican M.-D. Chenu and the Jesuit Henri Bouillard argued that within doctrinal unity there existed real theological pluralism, since even doctrinal statements are to some extent conditioned by the philosophical and historical contexts from which they emerge. For example, writing in 1943, Bouillard insisted that while revelation undoubtedly teaches the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the terms substance and accident are only one way of expressing this mystery, as the bishops at Trent themselves realized when they stated that the conversion of the elements into Christ’s body and blood is “most aptly” called transubstantiation.

Congar continued to examine the boundaries of authentic pluralism, in 1954 publishing After Nine Hundred Years , an exploration of the possible reunion of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. He argued that Rome must take with profound seriousness the unique rites, traditions, and discipline of Orthodoxy, thereby “recognizing the full diversity” of East and West.

At the Second Vatican Council, the issue at the root of this theological and ecumenical ferment”authentic pluralism within fundamental unity”came to prominence. In fact, as Congar himself observed almost immediately after the council ended, the entire convocation reflected a few famous words in the opening speech of John XXIII in October 1962: “The deposit of faith is one thing, and the manner in which it is expressed is another.”

This simple phrase allowed for the possibility of legitimate pluralism, one in substantial continuity with the tradition but not necessarily clinging to previously established forms. One could, for example, articulate the Catholic faith in expressions other than the neo-scholastic or Thomist terms that had long been in use. This pluralism applied not only to theology but also to other aspects of the life of the Church.

As the Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio , famously teaches, “All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all .?.?. enjoy proper freedom in the various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in the different liturgical rites, and even in the theological elaboration of revealed truth . . . . If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.”

This well-known statement was itself foreshadowed in schemas discussed earlier in the council’s deliberations. One, prepared by the Commission for the Eastern Churches, warns of confusing unity with uniformity and, in a paragraph entitled “Unitas in Diversitate,” applauds the diversity of traditions and customs that flourish in various regions of the world, particularly in the East. The schema further notes, in a sentence ultimately bearing fruit in the conciliar decree on ecumenism, that “by diverse methods, East and West reach out in order to understand and contemplate divine things.” This schema was incorporated into the general draft document on ecumenism.

In the spring of 1963, when the draft of De Oecumenismo (including the text explicitly calling for due liberty in liturgical rites, forms of spirituality, and theological elaboration of the truth) reached the bishops, there was a spirited reaction. Some objected to the call for theological pluralism, fearing the specter of relativism. As one archbishop asked: Will this now introduce into the Church the kind of philosophical thinking found in much Protestant theology, leading to the demise of Thomism?

Despite these concerns, a new tone was set in September of that year when Paul VI opened the second session of the council with a ringing affirmation of John XXIII’s original speech, noting that John explicitly spoke of the need to express the Catholic faith in forms intelligible to the times. In the subsequent debates on the draft of De Oecumenismo , this theme was taken up by Leon Elchinger, the coadjutor bishop of Strasbourg, who argued that one should not confuse uniformity with the unity of faith. Pluralism may lead to an acceptable variety of words and ideas but never to a relativism regarding revelation itself.

Lorenz Jaeger, archbishop of Paderborn, reiterated Pope John’s point: The fundamental intention of the council is to retain the substance of the depositum fidei , even while finding ways of expressing it that are consonant with the times. This idea was echoed by Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger of Montreal, who noted that the Church had occasionally engaged in immoderate uniformity in doctrinal matters, liturgy, and discipline. But, he asserted, a true theology of unity must allow for authentic liberty and diversity.

More pointed were the remarks of the Melkite bishop Joseph Tawil, who argued that in the course of her long history the Catholic Church has survived attempts to Judaize her, Hellenize her, Latinize her, and Romanize her. Speaking of Eastern Catholics, he said, “We have become Latinized in fact, even if not by divine law.” Consequently, Eastern Catholics welcomed the pluralism endorsed by the document, seeing in it an affirmation of their unique identity.

In a written comment on the proposed draft, Joseph Floribert Cornelis, archbishop of Elisabethville (today, Lubumbashi) in the Congo, argued that the East should serve as an example of authentic plurality in the Church. He called for a communication of spiritual wealth between the older and newer churches, arguing that the unique contributions of the young African churches are a sign of the richness of Jesus Christ.

Jean Rupp, bishop of Monaco, buttressed his support for qualified pluralism by citing Newman’s claim in the Apologia Pro Vita Sua that for centuries the Anglican church nurtured souls, and this was possible only by divine providence. In response to the request of some bishops that the words sanctioning a plurality of theological elaborations be deleted from the draft of De Oecumenismo , he noted that the freedom affirmed is not a freewheeling and unlimited freedom but libertas debita , a proper or due freedom.

One example of the kind of pluralism sanctioned by the council may be found in Orientalium Ecclesiarum , its Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches: “Among these [particular churches or rites] there flourishes an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it for it is the intention of the Catholic Church that each individual church or rite should retain its traditions whole and entire while adapting its way of life to the different needs of times and places.”

Since Vatican II, the magisterium has affirmed the legitimacy of authentic pluralism many times. John Paul II, for example, did not hesitate to speak in his 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen of the “harmony in that genuine plurality of forms which remains the Church’s ideal,” while in his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint , he again affirmed that “the vision of the full communion to be sought is that of unity in legitimate diversity.”

The final report of the extraordinary synod of bishops, issued twenty years after the conclusion of Vatican II, fully endorsed “variety and pluriformity in unity” while opposing the pluralism of fundamentally incompatible positions that leads to “dissolution, destruction and the loss of identity.”

Anglicanorum Coetibus openly encourages those Anglicans and Episcopalians who have come into full communion with the Catholic Church to “maintain the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift .?.?. and as a treasure to be shared.” With the publication of this constitution, and the subsequent erection of the ordinariates (ordinariate for the United States, the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, was announced on January 1), we have, in concreto , the fruit of both the Malines Conversations and the accent on legitimate diversity endorsed by Vatican II. The apostolic constitution stands, perhaps, as the most creative initiative of the papacy in support of authentic pluralism since the great council concluded.

Thomas G. Guarino is professor of theology at Seton Hall University and cochairman of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.