The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Anglo-Catholic Contribution

In commenting on a recent post, my friend the Young Fogey made clear his belief that the Anglican Reformation was illegitimate. My answer, like his brief comment, was a synopsis of a complicated viewpoint. (You can see the Fogey's more nuanced statement of his views here, by the way, and it's well worth the read, though I firmly reject his conclusion).

To put forward a more nuanced position, let me draw from several passages in Edward Gordon Selwyn's Preface to the Third Edition of Essays Catholic and Critical (1929):
What is Catholicism? The Roman Church answers easily enough that it is identical with the Roman Church. . . . If Roman Catholicism is the only kind there is, then in the last resort the gravamen against Catholicism must be admitted. . . .We are tied up to a conception of authority [Papal Infallibility] which, both in theory and in practice, cannot in our view be defended.

Fortunately, however, an Anglican finds himself pressed to no such impasse; and we are free to defend Catholicism on a non-Roman basis. . . . By Catholicism we mean, that is to say, a presentation of Christian thought, worship, and life to which no one Church--Anglican, Roman, or Eastern--has any exclusive title; and yet which does permeate all these bodies with a thoroughness and tenacity sufficiently marked to distinguish them from all those bodies which call themselves, and are known to history as, Protestant. . . . Catholicism gives to the institutional element of Christianity a place not less fundamental than that given to its mystical and intellectual elements.

[Anglo Catholicism] is something far more than Catholicism minus the Pope. It was not the Papacy only that the Church of England rejected at the Reformation; but the whole temper of those rules and ordinances, mostly enshrined in Canon Law, which had reduced Christianity almost to the level of a legalistic religion.
Id. at vii-viii.

Selwyn then states that "Rome's great contribution to Christianity was in the realm of law, and legalism is nothing more than law growing cancerously." Id. at x. Selwyn then compares the three traditions of which, he argues, Catholic Christianity represents the confluence--"the Hebraic, the Roman, and the Hellenistic, which first met in the person of St. Paul, and have blended in different proportions since." Citing the mediating influence of the Hellenistic tradition between the other two, Selwyn claims for Anglicanism a synthesis of the three, which has:
maintained all the essentials of Christian law and institutions, without the cramping fetters of legalism; through a revived knowledge of the Scriptures in their original tongues it brought into fresh prominence the Hebraic element, without giving it any monopoly; and it fused these two into a living unity by the alchemy of Greek thought, feeling, and proportion. The result was a Church where, in an age of religious license, law was maintained, where revelation was mated with reason, and where criticism--the characteristic product of the Greek genius--was steeped in the spirit of reverence.
Id. at x-xi.

There's a lot to upack here, but at present, let me cull one point from Selwyn's analysis. The Roman form of Catholicism has been guilty of not just legalism, but, in the decades since Selwyn wrote, a vaunting of the institution over the mystical and intellectual--exalting the power structure of legalism over the Church's pastoral role. The great paradigm of such error is the Roman Church's shameful use of its public goodwill and its hierarchical authority to cover up decades of sexual abuse by priests, who were shuttled from place to place, their acts covered up, over a fifty year period. According to the British newspaper The Guardian, during the papacy of John Paul II, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the current Pope, reaffirmed in 2001 an edict from Pope John XXIII called Crimine solicitationies, which imposed a religious duty of silence upon victims and other reporters or witnesses, barring them from taking their complaints to the civil authorities with penalties up to and including excommunication.

Now, I don't rake this up to bash the Roman Church reflexively, but rather to point out how consistent this behavior is with Selwyn's critique: the roots of the problem are, not simple monstrousness, but rather exaltation of legalism over law, the institution over the individual, not in balance with it, and monarchical power over Christian service.

In other words, the Anglo-Catholic stands in between Roman Catholic and Protestant, tempering the tendency towards excessive regard for institutional power and prestige, on the one hand, and disregard for the numinous value of the whole Church gathering as the Body of Christ, on the other.


Ecgbert said...

Thanks for the mention. Rome's errors in prudential judgement don't change my view that the 'Reformation' was a mistake, and if you're looking for a non-papal Catholicism known for non-legalism and being numinous never mind liberal Protestantism. There are the Orthodox.

I agree that 'Rome's great contribution to Christianity was in the realm of law' - RC moral theology is my gold standard.

But I don't think the English were chomping at the bit to overthrow canon law.

Anglocat said...

You're welcome for the mention, and always welcome here. You'll appreciate, I hope, that I'm not trying to convince you, but to explain my own reasons for my belief in a non-Roman Western Catholiicsm that is in communion with Protestantism--a model of Christianity in one church.

Just to clarify, I don't think that Rome's errors of prudential judgment (nice phrase!) are self-standing, but reflect a tendency in the Roman Church toward authoritarianism and institutional hubris (remember Boniface VII and "I am Caesar" or the claim at Vatican I that the Church cannot err in its reachings?).

We Anglicans have, on our part, a tendency to paper over differences with bland, meaningless statements widely mocked as "Anglican fudge."