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Vatican Ruling Imperils Anglican-Catholic Ties

Doctrine: Statement asserts that 1896 denunciation of English-based church's ordinations is an infallible truth. In some quarters, its conservative tone adds to pessimism about ecumenical progress.


A Vatican declaration that a century-old papal denunciation of Anglican ordinations is to be considered "infallible" has overturned three decades of efforts toward unity between the Roman Catholic Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion, a leading Anglican ecumenist has declared.

Already at odds with Catholics over the ordination of women, which the Roman Catholic Church opposes, Anglican leaders viewed the latest Vatican declaration as driving another wedge between them and Rome. The worldwide 70-million member Anglican Communion includes the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Church of England.

The declaration garnered public attention mostly because of the way it appeared to strengthen the Vatican's hand in dealing with dissent over the rule barring the ordination of women. But it also, for the first time, said that Catholics are expected to accept as infallible truth an 1896 proclamation by Pope Leo XIII that Anglican ordinations are "null and void."

The new statement came as a surprise to Catholics and non-Catholics alike and was widely viewed as another effort by Pope John Paul II and Vatican conservatives to set a conservative course as the church enters Christianity's second millennium.

While some Roman Catholic authorities on Anglican-Catholic relations were far less pessimistic about the prospects for ecumenical progress between two of the world's largest Christian communions, the Vatican announcement may force the world's Anglican bishops to reassess their dialogue with the Catholic church.

"The way forward looks blocked," William Franklin, dean of the Episcopal Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University and a leading authority on Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, said in an interview. "The Anglican Communion must take this blocking seriously rather than try to explain it away."

Franklin, who has been a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue and governor of the Anglican Center in Rome, said there is little doubt that when 800 Anglican bishops, including 11 women bishops, meet later this month at Canterbury, England, for their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference, the latest Vatican declaration will dominate discussions of Christian unity.

Many Episcopalians would, no doubt, simply dismiss the Vatican statement as irrelevant to their faith and practice.

Other Episcopalians, however, would nonetheless be troubled by the Vatican's decision to strengthen its century-old assertion that Episcopal and Anglican priests are not validly ordained. The implication is that, in Catholic eyes, the Eucharistic sacrament that Episcopal priests consecrate in the central act of Anglican worship is also invalid.

The specific mention of the 1898 proclamation came in a commentary that accompanied John Paul's Apostolic Letter. The commentary was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog.

By declaring that Leo XIII's proclamation is covered by infallibility, Ratzinger is "overturning" 33 years of progress in Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue toward unity, Franklin said.

"This decision means that the current goal--up until now full communion--is less possible. The [differences] over the ordination of women foreclosed reconciliation on the basis of ministry. But in many ways this forecloses reconciliation on the basis of the Eucharist. Those are the two poles of reconciliation," Franklin said.

Catholic experts, however, offered assurances that unity efforts would continue and said that when it comes to Anglican ordinations, the Vatican commentary was not the law itself but a commentary by Ratzinger--albeit highly authoritative commentary--suggesting what doctrines are covered by the law.

"I can certainly understand Dean Franklin has gotten very exercised," said John Borelli, associate director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interchurch Affairs in Washington.

"But that's a commentary intended for internal Catholic discussions and specific items mentioned are for discussions within the Roman Catholic Church."

But Father Gregory Coiro, spokesman for Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, was less sanguine. "The teaching of Leo XIII has been fairly authoritative and considered as such. It remains an outstanding issue to be resolved between Catholics and Anglicans, and I don't think we help dialogue if we just try to smooth over the rough spots. I think what Cardinal Ratzinger is telling us is that the teaching of Leo XIII is definitive."

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