While pondering further on the German bishops’ request to normalize the possibility of Protestant spouses of Catholics to receive Catholic communion, I was reminded of the situation in the mid-1990s when a huge number of Anglicans in England swam the Tiber.
Throughout the 1980s the Church of England was debating the vexed question of women’s ordination to the priesthood. In 1992 the General Synod finally passed the vote allowing for the innovation. I think the motion scraped through by a mere two votes. Anyway, this was the decider for me and about 750 other Church of England priests. The number of laypeople who left for Rome was never counted, but we can certainly number them in the thousands.
How was this treated by the English bishops at the time? They were embarrassed. A quiet concordat was sealed with the Anglican bishops in which as little publicity about this as possible would be allowed. The English bishops could not, of course, refuse the entry of so many converts, and many were quietly pleased that so many priests were coming over because they helped to ease the priest shortage in the English Catholic Church. One can understand also, the need not to be excessively vocal and triumphant about the Church of England losing so many clergy and people, but the bishops went to such an effort to actually squelch any publicity that it was bewildering and unseemly.
I can remember that my first book was published soon after this. The Path to Rome was a collection of high profile conversion stories mostly from the Church of England. When I asked a Catholic bishop to write a foreword he declined with a dish of that polite ice that only the English can master. Later on when I was wondering why my application for ordination was being delayed and stalled by the English hierarchy a blunt Irish priest said, “You should never have published that book about conversion stories lad. What ye did was to embarrass the English bishops and the one thing the English can never forgive is being embarrassed.”
One of the most famous converts from Anglicanism, Fr Ronald Knox, wittily observed, “A convert to the Catholic Churchy is rather like a bird that has got into a cocktail party. Everyone is delighted and surprised that it is there, but no one knows what to do about it.” Yes perhaps, but it felt to some of us that they were more surprised than delighted.
I wrote my own experience off as my own gaucherie about things ecclesiastical combined with my being an American in England. It was assumed that I would be vulgar, loud and obnoxious–a person to be tolerated and humored–like you would your fat uncle with a drink problem.
Then I spoke with converts in the USA and found that time and again they would say things like, “I finally went to my local Catholic priest and said I wanted to convert to the Catholic faith and he said, “Really now. Why would you want to do something like that? Since Vatican 2 we’re really all the same and you would serve the Lord best in your own denomination.” Seriously.
Now I could understand it if he said, “Why would you want to do that, the Anglican Church has all the nice buildings, nice music and nice people. You won’t really like the Catholic church once you’re in.” That would be understandable and entertaining in a way, but no–time and time again I would hear stories about clergy and laypeople who were not only discouraged from joining, but were actually turned away.
This, I think, helps to explain the German bishops response to Protestant spouses who wish to receive Catholic communion.
Why don’t the bishops and priests encourage them to convert?
The answer is simple: because they really don’t think they need to.
They think we’re all the same already. This is why ecumenism has really petered out–because the liberal Catholics think the mission is accomplished. They think we’re already one, and all we need to do is relax those troublesome rules about no inter communion and everything will then be just fine.
The German bishops are not really concerned about the Protestant spouses receiving communion in special cases because they already can. It is part of canon law that non-Catholics, with the bishops permission, can on special occasions, or in extremis receive the Catholic sacrament. No. In my opinion, this is about attempting to regularize the situation and take another tiny step towards full intercommunion with Lutherans and Anglicans.
While this seems to be a nice, welcoming, kind and understanding initiative, it is worth giving a voice to all the many people who have actually given up practically everything to become Catholics.
We hear it said, “Well it is not easy for those Protestants to convert…” Really? What sort of hardship exactly would be required?
Would they have to give up their home and livelihood, be estranged from family and friends, step out in faith not knowing how they were going to support their family, be rejected both by the church people they left behind and rejected, pushed around accused of being neurotic, extremists by their fellow Catholics, suspected of being dangerous conservatives and be like pilgrims in a strange land?
Perhaps instead of being embarrassed by converts, Catholics should read some of their conversion stories and then ask not only how much they would give up for their Catholic faith, but also ask why we are embarrassed by the call to conversion rather than joyfully, positively and clearly encouraging our separated brothers and sisters to come into full communion with Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church.