The surprise announcement last week by the Vatican of plans to woo disaffected conservative Anglicans back to the Papal folds has the potential to grow into the biggest religious turf war since the Jets and the Sharks tangoed down the hoods of New York. With a swoosh of the Ecclesiastical pen the Church of Rome (that would be my homies, me being a Catholic and all) is attempting to undo at least part of what Henry VIII wrought almost five hundred years ago.
The reaction by Anglican leaders has been swift and condemning. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton called Rome’s intentions “inexcusable” and appalling, a form of proselytizing Pearl Harbor carried out without forewarning or consultation. The Telegraph promises “The Queen will stand up to Pope Benedict” when he comes a calling next year. And The Guardian dismisses those who’s limited loyalty might lead them too bolt the faith as “a small rump” whose presence in the Anglican congregation will be scarcely missed.
Yet many Anglicans, including hundreds of its most conservative priests, are seriously considering the option despite huge potential social and, particularly, legal ramifications decamping en masse to Catholic camps would produce. Most of the discussion on the impact of the Anglican Gambit on the Catholic Church, meanwhile, has focused on the tangential impact of welcoming hundreds of married Anglican priests into the community of celibate Catholic clergy.
Both these plot lines—the poaching of Anglican pews and the introduction of desperate Catholic housewives into rectories—may be missing the real dramatic underpinnings of the moment. First, the move by the Catholic Church to poach renegade Anglicans may have the unintentional result of stimulating a pro-Anglican fervor amongst members whose devotion to faith has waned in recent years (decades.) I would not be at all surprised to find out that Anglican Church attendance soared this weekend and continues to grow. Nothing solidifies the ranks like feelings of assault. The overture by the Vatican may end up being one of the biggest calls back to faith for Anglicans in modern times.
Second, by putting conservative Anglicans into play the Catholic Church might be risking putting liberal Catholics into play as well. For many people religion is in many ways as much a cultural, personal identity as a theological one. Many American Catholics whose attitudes on a whole range of issues differ substantially from official Church positions continue to consider themselves Catholics if for no other reason that they were born Catholic and being Catholic is who they are. These Catholics are often referred to by their more conservative brethren as “cafeteria Catholics” in the same way conservative Republicans call moderate Republicans—like their former standard bearer, John McCain RINOs, as in Republican In Name Only. Despite these differences with their faith, moderate and liberal Catholics remain Catholic because the thought of leaving, en masse, has never been really formulate or put on the table.
That may change now. If conservative Anglicans can leave their faith and join the more conservative Catholic Church, liberal Catholics may figure out they can leave their faith and join a more progressive Anglican (or American Episcopal) Church. From a purely Machiavellian perspective, one would think the first official response from the Church of England would be precisely that: a formal invitation to liberal Catholics who want to see women ordained priests, who disagree with Church policy on abortion, contraception, gay rights and other issues, to come join their Episcopal flock. What could now be looming on the holy horizon may well become a wholesale American religious realignment, akin to the great political realignment of the last generation where the Democratic stronghold of the South turned Republican and Republican strongholds in the Northeast turned Democrat. Once Wallace showed Southern Democrats they could break with their party and start anew, the idea moved from heresy to orthodoxy. The same could well happen for American Anglicans and Catholics alike.
The Telegraph argues that Pope Benedict launched his Anglican gambit to secure his legacy in the Church. One must wonder if, a generation down the line, the gamble will have been seen as a winning play. Turf wars are messy affairs laden with drama, unintended consequences—and even the occasional grand song.