Catholic commentator George Weigel says that the Vatican’s announcement of a new provision for Anglican groups who desire to convert to Catholicism is an “end of an era” in Anglican-Catholic relations, showing a widening “theological gulf” between Anglican leadership and the Christian tradition.
Writing in The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog, Weigel recounts how Anglican-Catholic relations reached a peak around the time of the Second Vatican Council.
However, in the following decades some Anglican leaders appeared to be distancing themselves from the apostolic tradition on the priesthood and the sacraments.
Weigel discusses an exchange of letters in the 1980s between Pope John Paul II, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, then the head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Asked by the Catholic prelates to explain why parts of the Anglican Communion had decided to ordain women as priests, Weigel recalls that Archbishop Runcie replied in “largely sociological, rather than theological terms.” The then-senior prelate in the Church of England cited women’s changing roles in business, culture and politics as a justification for the novel practice.
When the exchange of letters ended in 1986, a “parting of the ways” had been reached. Catholic authorities believed that apostolic tradition precluded the ordination of women to the priesthood, while Archbishop Runcie and similarly-minded Anglicans, in Weigel’s view, believed that “contemporary human insights into gender roles trumped apostolic tradition and necessitated a development of both doctrine and practice.”
“Rome could not accept that as a legitimate development of Christian self-understanding,” Weigel explains, reporting that Catholic leaders feared the new Anglican approach would cause the revision of their teachings on many other issues, such as sexual morality.
With Pope Benedict’s announcement of a new Anglican provision, Weigel writes at On Faith, Anglicans have been offered a “path into full communion” with the Catholic Church that “honors the distinctiveness of their spiritual and liturgical traditions.”