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VATICAN LETTER May-13-2005 (850 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

For Anglican-Catholic unity, new pope offers mix of hope, concerns

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Before Pope John Paul II died, questions existed about the future of Anglican-Roman Catholic efforts to promote unity.

With the election of Pope Benedict XVI new questions arose, mainly based on statements he had made in his role as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the official Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission's dialogue.

As prefect, he called for greater precision in ARCIC statements on teaching and practices that had divided Roman Catholics and Anglicans, questioning claims that the commission had found "substantial agreement" on matters related to Eucharist, ministry and authority in the church.

But some Anglicans were even more disappointed with two doctrinal congregation documents addressed in 2000 to members of the Roman Catholic Church.

The "Note on the Expression 'Sister Churches'" insisted that Roman Catholics should not refer to the Anglican Communion as a "sister church" because the term is reserved for Christian communities "that have preserved a valid episcopate and Eucharist."

And the document "Dominus Iesus" on Christ as the one savior of all humanity and on the church as the instrument of salvation said, "The ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the eucharistic mystery are not churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the church."

Yet, while the Vatican was describing the official Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue as facing real obstacles, Pope John Paul made surprising gestures of friendship toward Anglican leaders, including giving pectoral crosses to visiting Anglican bishops.

Some Catholic critics were puzzled by the fact that the pope would give a symbol of episcopal dignity to an Anglican bishop when the Catholic Church had not recognized Anglican orders.

Father Donald Bolen, an official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Catholic secretary of ARCIC, said he would be cautious about trying to "pick apart" the late pope's gestures.

Pope John Paul's gestures, he said, "were not doctrinal statements" and could be seen simply as "signs of respect for the leadership they exercise within their communities."

The friendly gestures and corresponding efforts by Anglicans and Roman Catholics around the world to get to know each other better, pray together more often and work together for social justice have kept the dialogue moving forward even when theological differences seemed to make unity appear more distant than ever.

Decisions by many provinces of the Anglican Communion to ordain women priests derailed the official dialogue's attempts to find a way that the Roman Catholic Church could recognize the validity of Anglican priesthood.

And decisions in 2003 by North American members of the Anglican Communion -- the Episcopal Church in the United States and the Anglican Church of Canada -- related to the acceptance of homosexual behavior threatened to split the Anglican Communion.

While Anglicans sought ways to preserve their own unity, the official Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogues were put on pause.

But at the same time the Anglican Communion invited Roman Catholics involved in the dialogue to offer their reflections on how the Anglicans could move forward, and the Anglicans themselves turned to ARCIC statements to explain the importance of keeping their communion united not only in faith, but also in practice.

Anglican leaders and members of the dialogue commissions also drew hope from the strong statements Pope Benedict made in his first days as pope.

In his homily April 20, the morning after he was elected, Pope Benedict told the cardinals who had chosen him that he sees as his "primary commitment that of working tirelessly toward the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers."

"Theological dialogue is necessary," he said, but so is a willingness to move beyond the misunderstandings and slights of the past.

At his April 24 installation, Pope Benedict prayed to God, "Let us do all we can to pursue the path toward the unity you have promised."

Meeting the next morning with Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, head of the Anglican Communion, and with other religious leaders who had come to the Vatican for his installation, Pope Benedict said, "I strongly feel the need to reaffirm the irreversible commitment" of the Catholic Church to pursuing the search for Christian unity.

Archbishop Williams told reporters later: "Pope Benedict has gone out of his way to underline his sense of the priority of ecumenical work. He has spoken of being servants of unity, and we have taken that very much to heart."

Father Bolen said, "The beginning of Pope Benedict's pontificate has had a strong emphasis on ecumenism.

"He is a great theologian, and ecumenical progress comes not from bypassing theology, but from engaging in rigorous theology together and by coming together in prayer and in common projects," he said.

As Father Bolen was preparing to travel to Seattle for the May 16 release of ARCIC's statement of Anglican-Roman Catholic agreements about the Blessed Virgin Mary, he said, "We are profoundly hopeful."


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