The Roman Option




The Roman Option
commentary and proposal

by Mark Cameron

I recently read (almost at a sitting actually as I found it quite gripping) William
Oddie’s The Roman Option (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), the story of the entry
of Anglo-Catholic dissidents into the Catholic Church in the UK, and to a lesser extent
the US, after the decision of the Church of England to “ordain” women. I think
there are many lessons in this book which are relevant to traditionalist Catholics,
especially when it comes to tactics on how to carve out our own distinct but integral
place in the Church.

The Anglo-Catholics were by and large perfectly orthodox, willing to accept all
Catholic doctrine and to submit themselves to reordination. But they also wished to
preserve some of their liturgical and historical traditions. Quoting Pope Paul VI’s
statement to Anglican Archbishop Michael Ramsey, they wished to be “united but not
absorbed.” They also wished to maintain their group and parish identities, not simply
be absorbed into the anonymity of large (and liberal) suburban Catholic parishes. While
traditionalists may argue with some of their liturgical preferences, and certainly with
married priests, I think most of us would sympathize with their general goals.

The path they faced in trying to find a way to join the Church as distinct groups and
to preserve their liturgical heritage is both discouraging and highly familiar to
traditionalists. At first, they received a warm welcome from Cardinal Hume, and an even
warmer welcome in Rome (where their biggest ally was, surprise, surprise, Cardinal
Ratzinger). Their ideal goal was an Anglican rite personal prelature. But they quickly
realized that this was a non-starter, so they started negotiating for a lesser aim: a
canonical structure that would allow them to be catechized and join the Church together,
and to continue to worship together after they had joined. (I will come back to the
details of this later) Rome was keen for this, and Hume was initially willing. But the
English Catholic bishops, egged on by liberals and feminists in the Church who did not
want to see 1,000 priests and 50,000 laity loyal to Rome and against women priests enter
the Church, balked. What the English Bishops eventually produced was a very watered down
statement saying that parishes or groups could join together, but once received they would
be absorbed into the mainstream church. The hope of staying together as parishes or
keeping elements of Anglican liturgy was more or less crushed. It was join Father Flippant
at St. Teilhard de Chardin’s for the Novus Ordo, or nothing.

Some U.S. bishops, led by Cardinal Law, were more keen and were promoting a wider
explansion of the “pastoral provision”, by which a few Anglican parishes, mostly
in Texas, had already been received into the Church. Rome tried to push for a more
generous settlement in both the US and the UK, but it came to nothing. Some of the
individual stories are shocking. One key player in the negotiations was Episcopalian
Bishop Clarence Pope of Fort Worth, Texas. He tried to negotiate for a personal prelature,
or some form of nationwide, expanded patoral provision, with the help of Cardinal Law.
They had a meeting in Rome with key Cardinals, which concluded with a dramatic meeting
where Pope John Paul II embraced Bishop Pope and gestured towards him saying, “in
communion.” But when they went back home, nothing happened. Finally, the ailing
Bishop Pope announced his retirement as Anglican bishop, and that he couldn’t wait any
longer and wished to come into the Church as an individual. On retirement, he moved to the
diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The bishop of Baton Rouge had said that he would
happily reordain Bishop Pope as a priest. But having said this, the bishop then said that
he would first… (wait for this) put it to a vote of the diocesan priests council. Guess
what? They voted against allowing an Anglican bishop, involved in direct negotiations with
the Pope and Cardinals Law and Ratzinger, to become an ordinary priest. Pope was
completely isolated from the Catholic community in Baton Rouge, and was left in the dark
as to what was happening atthe national and international level (after all, he was just a
retired layman now). Old and sick, he started getting cals from the Episcopalian primate
and the new Episcopal Bishop of Fort Worth to return to the Episcopal Church to the
dignity of being a retired bishop. He did, thanks to the petty jealousies and
heartlessness of a small bishop and his liberal priests.

In the end, thanks to a myriad of stumbling blocks on the Catholic side, and a more
creative response on the Anglican side by giving the dissident parishes four bishops of
their own and allowing them to opt out of the regular Church of England structure, the
negotiations with Rome and Westminster came to nothing. Many individual priests and laity
came over, but the prospect of a mass conversion of whole parishes flopped.

The similarities to the position of Roman rite traditionalists to the Anglo-Catholics
discussed in Oddie’s book were striking. How many times have we had friendly words or
documents from Rome, only to be shot down by bishops? How many times have we heard
initially positive responses from bishops, only to be shot down by a vote of the priests
council? How many times have we had to endure insults that we are not really loyal to the
Church because we want our own distinct liturgy? It also makes me think that if Rome is
too powerless to bring over an Anglican bishop who the Pope has said he is “in
communion” with because of the Baton Rouge priests council, or unwilling to help
bring over 200+ whole Anglican parishes, how much power will they have or energy will they
spend to help us? We may have to come to the same sad lesson that most of the
Anglo-Catholic dissidents still in the Church of England came to: the bishops and priests
don’t want us, and Rome is unwilling or unable to help us. Therefore, we have to help
ourselves. The dissident Anglicans, with their own four bishops, are united through the
Forward in Faith movement in the U.K. (and now in the well) This will give them a
powerful structure to negotiate with Rome as a bloc. Next time, it will take more than
kind words from Cardinals: they will want it in writing.

Canon 372

Another very interesting point raised in the book was that after the initial pipe dream
of a “personal prelature” like Opus Dei had been abandoned, was that the
Anglo-Catholics started focusing on another provision in Canon Law, one which I have never
heard of in traditionalist circles. This provision is known as Canon 372, which is part of
the Canon Law governing the life of particular churches (usually meaning dioceses). Canon
372 states:

“Can. 372 §1 As a rule, that portion of the people of God which constitutes a
diocese or other particular Church is to have a defined territory, so that it comprises
all the faithful who live in that territory.

§2 If however, in the judgement of the supreme authority in the Church, after
consultation with the Episcopal Conferences concerned, it is thought to be helpful, there
may be established in a given territory particular Churches distinguished by the rite of
the faithful or by some other similar quality.”

This was the provision that the Anglo-Catholics were negotiating to have invoked, and
the Vatican and Cardinal Hume were initially in favour of it. Such a particular church
would have to be governed by a bishop, but we need not have our own bishop like a
“personal prelature.” An existing bishop could do the job, say the Cardinal
responsible for the Ecclesia Dei Commission.

If and when the next conflict flares up in the Anglican Church (as is occurring right
now over gay ordination, and will occur over women bishops in the UK) Anglo-Catholics
seeking union with Rome, this time more powerfully organized, will lobby for Canon 372 to
be put into effect.

I see no reason why this should not be our goal as traditional Catholics as well: a
particular church “distinguished by the rite of the faithful” (i.e. the
Tridentine rite) uniting all traditionalists world wide.

In the wake of Protocol 1411 and the divisions in the FSSP, the traditionalist movement
needs to start moving forward with a positive agenda. I suggest that calling for a
Tridentine particular church, under the terms of Canon 372, should be our goal. As much as
possible we should work with like minded groups of Anglo-Catholics, either those groups
already united with the Church who would like a stronger status to maintain their
identity, or Forward-in-Faith or “continuing” Anglicans who would like to join
the Catholic Church, but don’t feel able to under the circumstances.