Faith and Reason: Pretensions of the Pope and hopes of unity

Will the latest encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, have better luck than its predecessors? Andrew Brown suggests that its chances are slim indeed.
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The Independent Online
"Dream on!" snorted the convert, wheezing with ill-temper, as a long liberal question wound to its end in an invocation of the Second Vatican Council.

We were at a press conference being presented with the Pope's encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, which could be crudely summarised as saying that the Catholic Church should unite under the papacy in pursuit of Christian unity - and so should everyone else. This is not a programme with much appeal outside the Vatican. It certainly has no appeal in the Church of England, though the encyclical makes it quite clear that this lack of interest is mutual.

It is obvious to a certain sort of liberal Catholic, and still more to a Protestant, that the overwhelming hindrance to Christian unity is papal authority, especially as it has been exercised under the present regime. So it is taken for granted that any progress towards church unity must entail some symbolic sacrifice of Roman pretensions. What this latest encyclical makes clear is that this line of reasoning is fundamentally flawed, if only because the Pope would agree with it. He, too, is ready to give up all his pretensions if that would achieve unity. The trouble is that what everyone else in the West regards as pretension he sees as part of the essence of the office. The tiara was a pretension; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a fundamental. It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast with papalist Anglo-Catholics, to whom the dressing up was essential and authority an optional extra.

"With the power and the authority without which such an office would be illusory, the Bishop of Rome must ensure the communion of all the Churches. For this reason, he is the first servant of unity. This primacy is exercised on various levels, including vigilance over the handing down of the Word, the celebration of the Liturgy and Sacraments, the Church's mission, discipline, and the Christian life."

If that were not clear enough, the encyclical also states, "The mission of the Bishop of Rome within the College of all the pastors consists precisely in 'keeping watch' like a sentinel." A Pope who could not impose his will (or St Peter's) on the Church would be a pathetic sham.

It is important to realise that this power, though absolute in some senses, is not arbitrary. It was explained to us that the unity with the Orthodox at which this encyclical is clearly aimed would not entail the Pope's appointing Orthodox bishops (the issue on which the last serious attempt to reach unity, in 1439, broke down). And there does seem to have been substantial agreement reached in the last decades on some of the Christological disputes which seemed to justify all sorts of murder and mayhem in the fifth and sixth centuries and led to the separation of the so-called Monophysite and Nestorian churches. "Vatican makes peace with Assyrian Christians" may not be an earth-shattering headline but it does represent something which would have been thought quite impossible for most of Christian history.

None the less, prospects of unity even with the Orthodox do seem remote. When someone explains to me, a journalist, that the help of the Holy Spirit will be needed for success, I take this to mean that his plan has no earthly chance. The Orthodox are not great fans of democracy, but it is difficult to discover among them any enthusiasm for the Vatican system which the Pope clearly believes is the one essential constituent of true Christianity that other churches and denominations lack, though they have all the others.

The picture of the Roman Catholic Church as the only organisation which actually possesses all the attributes necessary to be the full church is generally regarded as an ecumenical advance made by the Second Vatican Council. It did, after all, allow that elements of the truth might well be found outside. But we can now see that the workings out of this idea have destroyed the possibility of formal union with the Protestant churches of the West.

For as they have diverged from Roman views - most spectacularly by ordaining women - they have in Roman eyes stopped being churches and become mere agglomerations of Christians. If ecumenism is an activity which only churches can engage in, the Church of Rome can no more have meaningful discussions about unity with the Anglican Communion than an elephant could have congress with a cloud.

This is not exactly news: it has become increasingly apparent since the Lambeth Conference of 1988 at least, and certainly since Lord Runcie's visit to Rome the following year. What the encyclical tells us is something different. All churches have something of value to contribute to the ultimate united church: but what the Pope has to bring to the party is his own understanding of his office. Anyone who thinks differently can just dream on.