Becoming a Catholic after one has lived life as an Anglican is not an easy thing to do. The belief of many Catholic-minded Anglicans is that whatever the Catholic Church might express in the Catechism and the Missal, the appalling way in which so many of her priests celebrate the Liturgy, the lack of attention paid to the content of homilies, and the rebellion of so many Catholic adherents on so many crucial questions, contradicts, and ultimately undermines, her declared intentions.
And so I had always believed.
A Picture of Vatican II
Even after having studied the Second Vatican Council in detail, I took the view that the Council had served to radically alter the Faith of the Church, and so to make the Catholic Church as protestant as any of her 16th-century offspring. What is more, I thought, she was still seeking to explain the doctrine of Christ according to overwrought definitions and legal decrees, all while allowing the Liturgy – her principal task – to become a tool of populist priests and extroverted, domineering parish busybodies. This, from the Catholic Church: the Church that had withstood the persecution of pagan Roman emperors, the Church that had deigned to crown the new Holy Roman Emperor, the Church that had fostered the best art, the best philosophy, and the best science that the world had ever known. All that thought and beauty and mystery was reduced to Father Personality and his band of ‘lay-popes’ cajoling everyone in the parish into mumbling the latest ditty by the St Louis Jesuits (see this article for a revealing commentary on the state of Catholic music). Or so I thought.
While I would still maintain that the Mass has, in some places, become the victim of zealous de-mystifiers and ultra-subjectivists, and while I could go on at length at how this has betrayed the Church’s patrimony – including all the saints, theologians, and faithful through time who have lived according to the great and mysterious Icon of the Liturgy – as well as her ecumenical commitment to the Orthodox, whose own liturgical traditions have never been treated with such callous insensitivity, I must also acknowledge that her clarity of thought and her comprehensiveness is such that these liturgical (and so theological) errors can be counted as nothing but lapses.
An Ecumenical Proposal
I am well aware that from a traditional Anglican’s perspective, such problems in the Catholic Church will be seen as reflective of precisely the same difficulties and frustrations faced by those seeking to maintain some semblance of faithfulness in Anglicanism. My arguments regarding the subjective nature of Anglican theology notwithstanding, they quite simply are not. It may be that one could argue in favour of shared experience between Anglicans and Catholics were the old ‘branch theory’ to apply, but that is an ecumenical metaphor used by no one except Catholic-minded Anglicans. In other words, if both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church are under threat from the Enemy, it is from entirely different positions on the battlefield; not as part of the same organic unit.
The picture I would propose as an alternative to the ‘branch theory’ is that of a castle. (Bear with me. I live surrounded by three major ones!)
At the centre of every castle is the keep. The keep is the main repository of stores, and the ultimate safe-haven of the castle’s inhabitants. Outside of the keep are all sorts of sheds, storehouses, and shelters, each serving different purposes within the castle grounds. Well beyond them are the exterior walls of the castle, on which are positioned all those who keep watch over the castle’s well-being.
As an ecumenical model, the keep houses the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Within the keep, these are separated by a curtain drawn across the building, unfortunately cutting each of the Churches off from the other. The curtain, however, is soft and permeable, proffering hope to those inside that it is not a permanent fixture. The sheds and houses outside represent the various Protestant communities. Well within the safety of the Church, in their desire to serve the Lord of the castle faithfully, they have cut out for themselves a variety of niches. Some are positioned in closer proximity to the keep than others, but all are of the same intent. The Anglican Church, in this case, may even be the structure nearest, but that would be for the Anglican Church to decide. Manning the exterior walls are the theologians of every group in the castle, keeping watch on the horizon for signs of trouble, and surveying the castle itself for places where it might be strengthened.
In this respect, it seems to me, Anglicans and Catholics may be said to be at one in the same war. And that is no small thing. But the difference in perspective it implies for the various battles waged is roughly equivalent to the difference between the Novus Ordo and the modern Anglican liturgies of North America. Kind of similar. But not exactly the same.
What convinced me of the fundamental difference between the Catholic Church and my own Anglicanism, and of the fact that Catholic problems (even when they shared superficial similarities with Anglican problems) were of a very different nature, was in my experience of the Novus Ordo in numerous Catholic churches and monasteries around Britain, as well as in the Ukrainian Catholic Church my wife and children attended up North. Whether it was the Requiem Mass for Pope John Paul II in Westminster Cathedral, the Easter Vigil at Church of the Holy Name in Manchester, or even Mass at my parents’ local parish church, such exposure helped me to see that the essence of Catholicism was a very different thing from Anglican perception. As mentioned in Part VI, the nature of the Novus Ordo Missae as an evolutionary, as opposed to a revolutionary Liturgy, became clear to me. And as I realised this, my understanding of what happened at Vatican II also began to change.
One important thing I came to see is that what I had always loved about Orthodoxy – the almost chaotic liturgical affirmation of people’s folk culture – was one of the hallmarks of Catholicism as well. For me, this was, and is, a Christological issue. I first witnessed its power when I attended a friend’s ordination to the priesthood in a Russian Orthodox church, and saw it again in the context of the two Ukrainian churches and one Roman Catholic church in the town of my own former parish. And here I am not talking about the inclusion of people plucking away on poorly tuned guitars, or (God forbid) liturgical ‘dancers’. I am talking about the genuine freedom of people within the Liturgy to respond to God as naturally as the Liturgy is supernatural. When this works, it is a testament to the Incarnation; the juxtaposition of ancient ritual with people’s need to shift feet or sit down; the fusion of sublime formality at the Altar with reverential human informality in the Nave. We can see it in medieval paintings of Western liturgical scenes, we can experience it in the Orthodox Liturgy, and we are re-presented with it in the documents of Vatican II.
I think it was either Kendall Harmon or Peter Toon who said that the reason they could not become Catholic, even while many other orthodox Anglicans were, was due to the fact that, in spite of what people may assume about the Catholic Church since Vatican II, in light of reading the Breviary, the Missal, and the Catechism together, it was clear that the Catholic Church had not changed its theology at all. Whoever it was that said it, the statement was made as a reason not to become Catholic. For this reader, however, nothing could have brought a bigger smile to my face. Precisely. The Second Vatican Council may have constituted an aggiornamento, a bringing up to date, but it did not constitute a change in belief. The documents attest to this. However the Council has been interpreted by theologically nescient priests, its clear intention was to direct the Church in a constructive engagement with the modern world, and in the process to enliven people’s faith by inviting them to live again within the Liturgy.
Having said all that I have, I quite accept that what the Catholic Church is may not always be easy to see. The radical iconoclasm of the last forty years in some parts of the Church would obscure the vision of the most clear-sighted person. But this iconoclasm is a lapse, and one that is being addressed all over the world even as I write. What matters is that adherence to Scripture, the teaching of the Fathers, the continual engagement with Tradition, and the manifestation of a full, resplendent Christology in the Liturgy and the Magisterium is all intact in the Catholic Church, and that the people of God are able to enter in, offer what they have, and become swept up in the graceful heavenward movement of the Body of Christ. She remains the living vessel of our Lord’s exitus et reditus: a vocation she has always enjoyed, and which she retains until the end of time.
In this were my former difficulties with becoming a Catholic resolved, and now I wait with happy impatience to learn what Christ would have me do in response.