HOW GO RELATIONS between Angli cans and Catholics as we reflect on the papal Bull Apostolicae Curae promulgated a hundred years ago condemning Anglican orders as "absolutely null and utterly void" ?
We have made great strides in some areas, some of which are not fully appreciated, while in others we seem to have got hopelessly stuck. The expression "null and void", moreover, was used by a Pope, Innocent X, to condemn the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which heralded a new religious order in Europe. In the course of time, however, the Church came to terms with it and the papal condemnation became a dead letter.
Is there ever, moreover, a truly "last word" in matters of ongoing doctrinal and historical concern? The 1,968 encyclical Humanae Vitae was greeted in the Catholic Herald by a leader entitled "Not the Last Word". It was argued that, in the final resort, individual conscience had to be the ultimate court of appeal. This judgement was fiercely criticised in some quarters until, a few months later, it received a sensational endorsement on television from none other than Cardinal Heenan.
Where, then, stands ecumenism today? Basic principles must never be lost sight of. It has long been recognised, for example, that the indispensable sacrament of' baptism, whether in an Anglican or Catholic church, is always valid provided it is properly administered. The same holds true of the sacrament of marriage, conferred by the contracting parties on each other in the presence of an official witness.
The scope of the latter ruling, however, is still not fully realised in Catholic circles. It is thus that unfortunate misunderstandings can arise. My daughter, for example, was married last week to a practising member of the Church of England in the local Anglican Church, with which my family has had close associations for nearly four centuries. The first person, however, that I consulted on the allowability of this, was the Catholic parish priest who generously stated that he had no objection to the marriage taking place, provided the necessary "dispensation from canonical form" was obtained by my daughter from the diocese in which she lived. This was duly done, a note to that effect appearing in the order of service to allay Catholic misunderstandings due to misleading press reports.
I mention the above merely to exemplify the extent to which Catholic understanding in general, lags behind reality. A confident prognosis of ecumenism today remains difficult. Opinion is still alarmingly polarised. There are those who consider it a dirty word, almost without rational meaning, while there are others who would wish to have papered-over unity and inter-communion announced overnight.
The latter is not only impossible but unecessary. Practical united Christian action against the world's growing materialism could be vastly strengthened without compromising any theological beliefs.
The question of Anglican orders, however, is in a category by itself. The first point to note is the vastly changed position today as compared to that of a century ago, since when background events have moved in a full circle. In the aftermath of the Oxford movement, the climate seemed to favour a transfer of Anglicans, including priests, from Canterbury to Rome. A century later, the admission of women to the priesthood in the Church of England precipitated a similar climate.
The latter has been handled with great sensitivity by Cardinal Hume. The former was less felicitiously dealt with by Cardinal Vaughan, whose life and personality were brilliantly captured by Robert 0:Neill in his hook, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, published last year by Burns and Oates. His handling, in particular, of the Anglican orders affair, is painstaking and objective.
THE CARDINAL, believing that a papal condemnation of the Anglican priesthood would hasten the "conversion of England", played a leading part in advancing the moves in Rome for the eventual statement by Leo XIII. A draft was duly completed by Mgr (later Cardinal) Merry del Val and the final result was Apostolicae Curae.
Far from turning the trickle of English Anglicans toward Rome into a flood, the Bull had exactly the opposite effect. Conversions all but dried up and the cause of Anglican-Roman friendship suffered a tragic and longlasting setback.
There is much talk nowadays, when an entirely new situation has developed, of a re-examination of the arguments on which Apostolicae Curae was based. Cardinal Hume has already spoken of the validity of Anglican "ministry". But this, of course, falls far short of full endorsement of the Anglican priesthood. Members of the latter are totally bewildered by the continuance of what is, to them, an offensive condemnation, no longer if it ever was sustainable by sound theological or historical arguments.
The Bishops of the Church of England, shortly after Apostolicae Curae, complied a scholarly reply to the Bull which they respectfully submitted to His Holiness. Leo XIII's only recorded reaction was to remark, "I only wish my Bishops wrote such good Latin." Finally, the main arguments advanced in Apostolicae Curae were generally judged to have been finally put to rest by the erudite work of the American Catholic scholar, Fr John Jay Hughes, in his book, Absolutely Null and Utterly Void.
Why then has serious debate within Catholic circles not been publicly launched? The inhibiting existence of a papal pronouncement on the subject has much to do with this. But the widely held private conviction that the Bull is now ripe for scrapping naturally has, or very soon will have, its due effect; as with Humanae Vitae. In short, with so much talk nowadays of crisis in the Churches, there is a stronger feeling than ever that if we do not swim together we will be united only in jointly sinking.