The first thing I wish to suggest is that the TAC hierarchy has been unwise to restrict the substantive discussion of this move and the reasoning and planning behind it largely to its episcopal College. There is an undeniable “disconnect” between what the College is doing and what much of the laity and lower clergy are thinking. While the general intention of the bishops had been made abundantly clear, there appears to have been little or no attempt to explain the details or address through patient theological education and dialogue the inevitable and serious reservations or objections of many within the TAC. It is not enough for their Primate simply to state, as he has done in the past, that there are no differences in doctrine, especially when differences had appeared to exist in the past. It was incumbent upon the bishops either to explain precisely what had changed in the doctrine of the TAC or RCC, or to show that previously identified divergences in doctrine were in fact only apparently divergent, and that further theological clarification had achieved reconciliation. I think it is manifestly the case that this has not been done, and so an unfortunate impression has been created that the TAC hierarchy has acted more out of unreflective expedience than considered principle.
Now, I do not say this to attack the TAC or its ecumenical goals. Indeed, I happen to believe that the explanations necessary to address the abovementioned concerns can be made successfully. To make clear why I believe this I must deal more generally with the theology of Anglo-Papalism.
What is Anglo-Papalism? Simply put, it is the belief that all the (definitively held) doctrines of the RCC are true, including those affirming the Supreme Jurisdiction and conditional Infallibility of the Pope, and that it should therefore be the goal of Anglican Churches to acknowledge this and submit corporately to Papal Jurisdiction. Obviously, since Anglo-Papalists are by definition still Anglicans, the belief I have outlined is combined with the assertion that the Anglo Papalist is either obliged or at least permitted to remain Anglican and work for corporate re-union from that “side”.
But there are a variety of possible nuances and interpretations of the facts within such a theological position. And this is especially the case when it comes to the justification of the second element, continued Anglican membership. For example, an Anglo-Papalist might simply depict Anglican churches as schismatic or even heretical particular churches, but argue that he stays Anglican because the schism began corporately and so should be healed corporately, such that he is not obliged to leave a church he acknowledges as outside the One True Church (OTC) and join what he identifies instead as the OTC. Or he might instead see (still orthodox) Anglican churches in a more positive but ambiguous light, arguing that, despite their effectively embracing Protestant errors at the popular level of common teaching and belief, they did not actually initiate the breaking of communion, definitively embrace any heresy, or reject Papal Primacy as it is officially defined and understood by the best theologians, but that they rejected a Papal Supremacy that was (wrongly?) perceived to be claiming absolute temporal and spiritual authority. In the latter case an Anglo-Papalist could say that the Anglican churches were materially but not formally (or fully) schismatic, that the fault for this schism was not entirely their own, and so that his and his church’s present separation from the Pope was not a wholly accurate representation of the spiritual reality but at least partly an historical accident. Therefore, he might justify his continued Anglicanism as being not properly schismatic. Indeed, he could see himself as a papally obedient Catholic whose role was to help others in his church “become what they already are”, to quote a popular soteriological phrase.
Similarly, even the primary belief, that Rome has not erred in dogma (and can not do so) and the Pope has universal jurisdiction, admits of variations that affect the implications for Anglicans searching for re-union. An Anglo-Papalist could simply take the triumphalist, ultramontanist view and say, “The RCC’s right, everybody else is wrong, and the pope’s the boss and that’s that.” Or he might say that the dogmatic trustworthiness of the RCC would not mean all its common teaching was correct, or that the common interpretation of its dogmas is always correct. Indeed, he might posit that many such problems are compatible with asserting that Rome has not erred in dogma. He might even note that some of these problem areas for the RCC compared unfavourably with better theology or practice in “separated” Churches. Such an Anglo-Papalist might also note the many qualifications, some of which are not well known, made by RC theologians when discussing Papal infallibility, universal jurisdiction, and the obligation of obedience. And then, if he reasoned that his present lack of communion with and outward, objective submission to the Pope were at least partly the result of past papal excommunications or other decrees that were fallible in theory and flawed in fact, he could happily point to his subjective submission and ask that Rome would dismantle the unnecessary barriers erected from its side.
When pressed about his church’s (rather than just his own) acceptance or rejection of the Papal claims, an Anglo-Papalist could say that his church had erroneously rejected the Catholic doctrine. Or he could say that past disagreements were based partly on Rome and its apologists claiming and pushing for more than its dogma really justified or required, and that his church had not officially declared the Papal claims heretical and intended to follow the doctrines of Holy Tradition on this point, but needed time to receive the dogmas as properly understood.
The possibilities explored above are not exhaustive, of course, but they do give a considerable range of potential views within one school of thought. Some of these interpretations of Anglo-Papalism are disloyal (both to the RC and the Anglican tradition) and incoherent. Others are not.
What about the insistence of the RCC that those who recognise it as the Catholic Church must join it? It is not as simple as it looks. The RCC deliberately seeks corporate reunion with separated churches and what it calls “ecclesial communities” based on theological dialogue meant to result in doctrinal convergence. Does anybody really think that the RCC is saying that if such dialogue was successful in any particular case, unless it was accompanied exactly simultaneously by corporate reunion, all members of the other body would be obliged under pain of mortal sin to immediately abandon and dismantle their church and be simply absorbed into the RCC? This is clearly not what is intended by the RCC, so it would seem that there is implicit allowance for a transitional period once doctrinal convergence is reached when members of the other body my remain in it, waiting for corporate re-union to be finalised. But what if the doctrinal agreement is perceived by a member of that body to be actually present but not yet made completely manifest and explicit through the process of dialogue? Is that person obliged to repudiate his church even if he agrees with all the RCC and his own church teaches? What about the analogous situation where somebody is wrongly excommunicated and told they must repudiate something they have said as heretical or rebellious when they know it is not? Are they obliged to lie so as to ensure their restored membership to the RCC, with which they have no intentional or true material doctrinal disagreement? The RCC has not said that such situations are impossible, so it is clearly not true (absolutely and without exception) that a person recognising the Papal claims is thus necessarily obliged to do whatever is necessary to be a part of the RCC.
What is my position? I think that most readers will have detected that my sympathies lie more with the more “nuanced” versions of Anglo-Papalism outlined above than those that see the RCC as simply “in” and Anglican Catholics as simply “out”. Roman critics might see my position as a kind of dishonest and disrespectfully Minimalist Anglo-Papalism. Anglican critics are likely to think I am granting too much to Rome and fooling myself about the possibilities for complete convergence at the level of dogma. However, I have good reasons for thinking as I do, most of which I have outlined on this blog before.
Why, fundamentally, do I trust the RCC not to have erred in dogma? Because I don’t believe that God would allow the prime Successor of Peter and all those in communion with him to abandon the OTC either through utterly definitive and binding denial of any Catholic truth or through dogmatic affirmation of what is heretical. This “disbelief” is one of head and heart and is based on my understanding of Scripture and the Consensus of the Fathers.
Yet, on the other hand, I also don’t believe that the Bishop of Rome is the only Petrine successor, given the Petrine roots (acknowledged by ancient Popes) of Antioch and Alexandria, the fact that Jerusalem, “the mother of us all”, once contained the whole Church, with Peter as its Primate, and the fact that Constantinople was founded as “New Rome” and recognised as such by the Church. Nor do I believe that God would have or did allow the Eastern half of the Church (and its Petrine sees!) to leave the OTC in the middle ages. Or that the E-W schism was primarily the result of Eastern error or rebellion. Or that the said schism was complete or definitive. Or that Rome’s excommunications or condemnations in general, whether towards individuals or bodies, have always been fair. Or, thus, that the resultant schisms are proof that whoever is not in communion with Rome at any point in time must be outside the OTC. Or that the Church of England committed itself definitively to heresy or intended to be out of communion with the rest of the Church (E and W) in 1559 or since then until the defection over the ordination of women. Or that it rejected, then or since, Papal Primacy properly understood. Or that such primacy has often been fittingly understood on either side. Nor do I believe this set of “disbeliefs” is inconsistent with the pro-Papal one or dogmatically excluded by the RCC.
And so, I say once more, I remain a (coherently!) philo-Orthodox Anglo-Papalist.