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Debate won't peter out

Paul Vallely

VallelyHere's something you won't hear from the ecclesiastical authorities in the Catholic Church in England. For all the Pope's smooth words inviting dissident Anglican traditionalists to cross the Tiber, they may not get a very warm welcome at the local level. Catholic bishops here are far too polite, and politically canny, to express much in the way of reservation about the latest papal initiative. But your man in the pew, and more particularly your woman, has been a lot less guarded in their response. 'I deeply resent the idea that my church is thought of as a safe haven for a bunch of homophobes and misogynists,'  as one regular worshipper put it to me last Sunday.

What has made things worse is the word from Rome that the thinking inside the Vatican was that admitting the Anglicans was a counterbalance to the moves to bring back into the fold the extreme Lefebvrist traditionalists of the Society of St Pius X - and their Holocaust-denying bishop - who broke away from Rome because of their opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. If Rome sees them as being on the right and the Anglicans, coming back from Reformation, on the left, that is a pretty rum view of church politics.

It's easy to be given a wrong steer on this, especially if you take your notion of what most Catholics think from the kind of wild opinions you find on the Catholic blogosphere - which seems to be populated largely by ultramontane zealots who regard Pope John Paul II as some kind of sell-out to the reactionary cause. But the reality is that most folk in English Catholic congregations regard official church teaching on sexual politics - from contraception through the role of women to homosexuality - as something to be regarded with what Hans Küng has called a 'critical loyalty'.

For evidence look at some research undertaken recently for the Catholic aid agency, Cafod. It suggests that there are 5.2 million Catholics in England and Wales - at least a million more than previously estimated if you include both practising and non-practising. It finds that 19 per cent of them choose not to have anything to do with the Church. As many as 16 per cent of the total think that the Catholic Church does more harm than good. Not proper Catholics, you can hear the bloggers fulminate. But 61 per cent say that their values are informed by church teaching. Yet despite that fewer than half feel the need to receive the sacraments. Instead, they prefer prayer, meditation and helping those in need as expressions of their faith.  

You can't imagine the Pope thinking much of all that. But it is perfectly in line with all that surveys have shown in the past of the numbers of Catholics who trust that the Church's antipathy to female and openly gay priests would, in time, weaken and dissolve. People like that would certainly not welcome, as that unlikely-looking Catholic, the comedian Frank Skinner, recently put it, 'a whole lot of bigoted reinforcements … arriving to galvanise [the] more unpalatable aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine'.

The fact is that for every traditional Catholic who thinks that the Second Vatican Council went too far there is an equal, if not far greater, number who feel that the great church revolution of the sixties and seventies is only half-completed. They concur with the judgement of the Catholic church historian, Adrian Hastings, who - mindful of the new spirit of questioning that was loosed in the Church along with  the introduction of practices such as worship in the vernacular, popular music in the liturgy, and the laity involving themselves in church government - once pronounced 'we are all Protestants now'.

Bishops, of course, can't say anything like that, even if they think it, just as few of the centralisers in the Curia dare openly criticise Vatican II, whatever their lack of enthusiasm for the messages embodied in its statements of faith. But there is a widespread sense in higher circles in the Catholic Church in England that this latest initiative from a Pope with what Diarmaid MacCulloch has called 'a track record of ill-thought-out policy moves' is, as one bishop put it to me, 'unhelpful'.  

It is not just the lack of ecumenical sensitivity  which has been displayed. The bishops were summoned to London to meet the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for what they assumed was a consultation only to find that they were there to receive a fait accompli. Their leader, the Archbishop of Westminster, was given hardly any more notice of the Pope's plan than was the clearly-embarrassed Archbishop of Canterbury.

What the Catholic bishops in England and Wales would have preferred was a continuation of the policy of welcoming converts on an individual basis. The decision to shift to some kind of institutional reception will present them with an unnecessary minefield.

The devil will be in the detail, as one bishop put it to me without evident irony. For a start there will be the ticklish task of telling Anglican congregations, who will want to do battle with the CofE to take their beloved old church buildings with them, that their leaky old roofs and pre-Reformation draughts may not be wanted. Then there is the issue of whether those with Anglican orders regarded by Rome as 'absolutely null and utterly void' will need ordaining, re-ordaining or  'conditionally ordaining'.

Above all there is the question of marriage; many potential converts assume that they will be allowed to ordain married men, since five centuries of married priests, they argue, have put the family at the heart of Anglicanism in a distinct manner. After all Catholicism's Ukrainian, Byzantine, Maronite and Latin rites have always permitted married clergy. But Rome is said to want only celibates to enter future Ordinariates for fear that married Anglican Catholics would increase calls for allowing Catholic clergy to marry.

Things are not going to be so plain-sailing as those in the barque of Peter might suppose.