The late Prior Roger Shutz of
theTaizé community, a Protestant,
receives communion from then
Cardinal Ratzinger at the funeral
of Pope John Paul II, 2005
John Paul was by all accounts a bit cavalier in his approach to both ecumenism among Christian denominations and interreligious dialogue with other world religions. While the Catholic Church does not “recognize” Anglican Orders, for example, John Paul always accorded the Archbishop of Canterbury a place of honor comparable to that accorded to the Patriarch of Constantinople or his representative at various pontifical ceremonies. I remember, for example, at the ceremonies for the 2000 Holy Year the Holy Father was flanked by Metropolitan Anastasias representing the Ecumenical Patriarch and then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, on January 18, 2000 as he opened the Holy Year Door at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. By putting the Archbishop of Canterbury in such a position he is signifying that an Anglican Archbishop is indeed of the same status as a Greek Orthodox Archbishop, despite the fact that we recognize the validity of Greek Orders while we claim that the Anglicans lost the Apostolic Succession with the Edwardine Ordinal of 1552. On November 13, 1999 the Holy Father presided at Vespers in the Vatican Basilica flanked by the Lutheran Primates (major Archbishops) of Sweden and Finland along with several other Scandinavian Bishops, all attired in Copes and Miters, again implicitly recognizing the Episcopal (bishoply) character of these Lutheran Prelates. Now, don’t misunderstand me—I don’t have a problem with this. I think the entire understanding of “valid orders” is more about historical politics than sound theology—though remember, I am a historian not a theologian—but Josef Ratzinger as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was very quick to see the implications of ritual actions that symbolized one thing when official Church policy holds another. If bishops had been garbed in “choir dress”—rather than pontifical vestments, correct protocols would have been followed and the problem would have been avoided but the use of Pontificals sent an ambiguous sign about the sacramental systems of Anglican and Lutheran Churches. As early as Mass marking his installation as Pope, Benedict adjusted the position occupied by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Papal ceremonies to make it more clear that the Anglican prelate was a guest and observer, not a “member of the club,” albeit an honorary one
Benedict is not insensitive to Ecumenical sensibilities only anxious to be clear about the Catholic position. To be fair to Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger and Dean of the Sacred College during the interregnum between the death of John Paul and his own ascension to the chair of Peter, while making arrangements for the funeral of John Paul II, Ratzinger allegedly instructed that the priests giving communion at the funeral mass that they were not to refuse the Eucharist to those who came forward even though there were any number of official guests who were not Catholics. Ratzinger himself gave Communion to Frère Roger Shutz, the Protestant Prior of the Ecumenical Monastic community at Taizé. I was living in Rome at the time and working with several television networks in the coverage of the events, and two of the priests designated to distribute communion in the dignitary section told me of the instruction that they were not to refuse Holy Communion to anyone coming forward. (They also told me that to their knowledge there were no communicants among the distinguished guests in their section who were not Catholic. They explicitly said that no one in the American Delegation came forward [The Presidents Bush, President Clinton, and Secretary Rice] and that no non-Catholic clergy nor anyone in Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu garb came forward.) Frère Roger’s reception of Holy Communion was quite public, however, seen on world-wide television and evoked much comment. There are conditions in canon law under which a non-Catholic Christian can be admitted to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church and Frère Roger’s situation was certainly one. It was only four months later when Frère Roger himself died—stabbed by a mentally ill woman during Vespers in the monastery Church at Taizé. Pope Benedict sent Cardinal Walter Kasper to represent him at the funeral and to celebrate a Mass of Christian Burial. On the instructions of the Holy Father, communion was, on this occasion, given to both Catholic and Protestant members of the community. Of course, there is a considerable difference between implicitly recognizing the validity of Anglican or Lutheran Orders and sharing the Eucharist with non-Catholic Christians. As I pointed out there are certain situations in which Church law provides for such permission as sharing the Eucharist with non-Catholic individuals while the recognition of Orders is a much more complicated issue with vast implications for ecumenical relations.
As long as we are talking about Ratzinger/Benedict and “valid” orders, however, there is one other incident to point out. When the Church of England was considering ordaining women to the priesthood in the early ‘90’s, the Tablet, a Catholic international news weekly which is, to my mind, the best English language Catholic news publication, reported that Cardinal Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approached then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey with the proposal that if the Church of England did not proceed with the ordination of women, the Catholic Church would take a new look at the validity of Anglican Orders. The “new look” never happened, of course, because the Church of England voted in 1993 to ordain women to the priesthood, What is crucial about this offer, however is that it means that the question of Anglican Orders is not a closed question and the decision of Leo XIII in Apostolicam Curam that Anglican Orders are not “valid” is not necessarily final. Theologians, or rather self-appointed theological experts, might be surprised at that; historians know that no word from Rome is ever truly final and no door is irrevocably shut. In the bigger picture I think we can say that while the course corrections of John Paul and Benedict have pushed back change somewhat—200 years if you believe the late Cardinal Martini—all is not lost. Time marches on, but nowhere more slowly than in Rome.