03 October 2011

Church and communion: Rome and Utrecht

According to a news report on the German Old Catholic diocesan website, the Old Catholic-Roman Catholic dialogue will continue after a positive reaction from both sides. I'm quite pleased, if skeptical that it will lead anywhere, but at least both sides are willing to try.

At the last Old Catholic synod in 2010 in Mainz, where I was a delegate, we discussed the joint paper released by the dialogue commission, not without some serious controversy. It saddens me that some Old Catholics who used to be Roman Catholic can't seem to get past their own personal animosities -- no matter how justified those animosities may be -- and thump tubs against Rome at every opportunity, but that is exactly what went on there. Some of the arguments used against talking with Rome were absurd, to say the least. The bishop had to intervene in the debate more than once because of that.

That said, there are indeed some potential roadblocks which on the face of it don't have any obvious solutions.

The most interesting question, I think, is how women's ordination will be handled. There is simply no way Old Catholics can or will turn back from it. Rome could, in theory, still tolerate it -- in fact that is the exact wording in the joint report -- in a church with which it is in communion, but it would be extremely tricky given the language used in Ordinatio sacerdotalis, wherein John Paul II essentially said that the Church is not able, or is not permitted, to ordain women.

While Ordinatio sacerdotalis is not formally a dogma, it would still be a remarkable about-face if Rome were to accept Old Catholics ordaining women, and at the very latest, once Old Catholics decide they want a female bishop -- which is only a matter of time -- then Rome will be really in a corner.

The second issue that will be thorny, to say the least, is indeed all those former Roman Catholics who are now Old Catholic. By leaving the Roman communion, they were automatically excommunicated as schismatics. If Rome were to establish full communion with Utrecht Old Catholics, then the status of these people -- such as, oh, most of the Old Catholic priests as well as a good-sized chunk of the membership -- would have to be clarified in such a way as to allow them to join the Roman communion without having some kind of penance or guilt hung on them. Even the relatively mild phrasing in the report, where Rome would offer a kind of amnesty or lift the penalty of excommunication, caused angry and pained reactions among many members, who felt that they had done nothing wrong by following their conscience (which, strictly speaking, is true). And of course Rome would also potentially lose credibility by merely lifting a penalty for something it has so long condemned.

A third issue affects me more personally -- what about the Old Catholics' relations with us Anglicans? The plain implication of the document is that if Old Catholics want communion with Rome, they will have to sacrifice their communion with Anglicans, as well as their cordial agreements with the mainline Protestants in Germany, the EKD. From all I have heard and have been told, this is one thing Old Catholics are not willing to sacrifice, meaning Rome would have to somehow reconcile themselves to being in communion with a church that is in turn in communion with a church whose orders and sacraments it doesn't recognize (see Apostolicae Curae).

There is one possible solution to this that has been discussed before, mostly by Anglo-Catholics. While Rome has not recognized Anglican orders at least since Apostolicae Curae was published, the reason rests almost entirely on the supposed defects of the ordination rite used during the reign of Edward VI. The concept is that the line of succession of valid bishops, and with it the validity of the church, was broken by using a rite that wasn't up to snuff. Reinstating a valid rite later, therefore, would not restore the validity of the church -- at least according to the usual "pipeline theory" of apostolic succession.

But here's the thing: Anglican ordination rites in their current form do not have the alleged defect. So if a validly ordained bishop were to participate in an Anglican bishop's ordination, he (though probably not she...) would in theory be validly ordained, even in Rome's eyes, and could pass that valid succession on to someone else, at least assuming that someone else is male. Since that has indeed been happening ever since the Bonn Agreement between Old Catholics and Anglicans in 1931, in theory most if not all Anglican bishops today should therefore be validly ordained, no matter what Apostolicae Curae says. (I did spend some time a while back checking the successions of all current American Episcopal bishops, and sure enough, all can trace one or more lines back to Utrecht.)

So there is a possible grand bargain here. Rome finally recognizes Anglican orders, which removes a block to Rome agreeing on communion with Old Catholics. And in both cases, Rome agrees that women's ordination is a possibility, but refuses to do so itself -- more or less the same solution used within the Anglican Communion, which has churches that do and don't ordain women.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

No matter what, the continuing dialog between Rome and Utrecht will be fascinating to watch. I highly recommend ordering and reading the joint paper, Kirche und Kirchengemeinschaft (Church and Communion), which can be ordered on the German Old Catholic diocesan website. There is also an English-language research paper that discusses the current state of the dialog between Utrecht and Rome, as well as the PNCC, an Old Catholic church that split from the Union of Utrecht over women's ordination. +David Hamid, Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe, also published an article on the topic. Lastly, the Union of Utrecht has an article in English discussing the current state of dialogue with Rome.