Media focus on divisiveness in Pope's invite to Anglicans

  • November 6, 2009
Pope Benedict’s recent announcement of provisions to permit some Anglicans to convert to Catholicism while keeping some of their liturgical forms and customs caused varied reactions in the Canadian press. Most news coverage was based on international wire services, but many headlines were rather curious, and the commentary ranged from genuinely knowledgeable to downright prejudiced.

Based on what we know at this point, the Vatican’s plan includes the preparation of an Apostolic Constitution that would allow groups of Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of Anglican liturgy and custom. Under the terms of the Apostolic Constitution, the Vatican’s press release said, “pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a Personal Ordinariate, whose Ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy.” Many details have not been announced, but the constitutional changes would make provisions for married Anglican clergy to be ordained as Catholic priests, which has already occurred in a small number of individual cases.

Perhaps the most curious reaction is the assertion that the Pope is attempting to bump up Catholic membership at Anglican expense or “poaching,” as more than one headline and cartoon put it. Most appeared to mean it in a humourous way, and the accompanying news coverage made clear that Anglican-Catholic dialogue has been going on harmoniously for many years, and that the Pope’s invitation follows requests from groups of Anglicans who, sensing a loss of  community and tradition, feel a stronger tie to Rome than Canterbury.

Two national newspapers, the Globe and Mail and the National Post, while not without an incomplete or provocative headline — “‘Oh, my God, I don’t want to be a Roman Catholic” (Post, Oct. 29) or “In reaching out to Anglicans, is Pope a peacemaker or a poacher?” (Globe, Oct. 20) — supplied well-researched articles about the history of the Anglican-Catholic split and what the Pope’s announcement might mean for the future of both churches. A Globe editorial, while critical of the Vatican’s offer, was obviously written by someone knowledgeable about religion and respectful of it. Both are qualities not routinely found in secular newspaper articles about religion.

For the opposite extreme, look no further than an Oct. 25 column by Connie Woodcock in the Sunday Sun (and in other newspapers within Sun Media) headlined: “Pope Benedict, this Anglican’s just not that into you.” If, as a guest at Anglican ceremonies, you’ve been struck by the many similarities to Catholic liturgy, Ms. Woodcock’s words remind us that some Anglicans prefer to keep their distance:

“If I wanted to be a Roman Catholic, I would be already, but I don’t. I’m an Anglican and I’ll be staying that way, thanks.

“And that’s the answer I expect most Anglicans will give to the shocking news the Pope has created a way for us to convert to Roman Catholicism, escape the conflict over homosexuality and other internal divisions without leaving behind our liturgical traditions.

“It’s the biggest bid to drag us back into the fold in the almost 500 years since we broke away… 

“I think it’s an ill-conceived attempt at church poaching the likes of which has seldom been seen. Roman Catholicism is the largest of the Christian denominations, but it’s shedding disillusioned members as fast as or faster than any of the rest of us. In the wake of all those sex scandals, priests are in such short supply that churches often have to shut down because there are no replacements.”

(Some journalists can’t write anything about Catholicism without bringing up “all those sex scandals,” never mind that they happen at about the same rate in all institutions and have nothing to do with the topic at hand.)

Much the same sentiment could be found in letters to the editor from “scripturally minded” Protestants, and those of no religion who, like the headline writers, regard the invitation as poaching.

The fact that most non-Catholic Christians have no plans to convert is probably as true today as it ever was. It is nevertheless unfortunate that a columnist would use the announcement to air anti-Catholic prejudices. Most readers will see the prejudice for what it is. The “mine’s better than yours” mentality is something most of today’s Christians have put behind them.

The differences between various branches of Christianity are important and must be respected, but shouldn’t overshadow the common beliefs and values that unite us. That is why it is rather disturbing that professed Christians, whether columnists or letter-writers, would focus so much on the divisive. Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common by-product of any story involving Catholicism. This announcement was no exception.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League)

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