By Kevin M. Clarke

SAN MARCOS, California, SEPT. 27, 2010 ( Five years into his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI marked a new papal first -- celebrating a beatification.

This beatification occurred in the homeland of the one raised to the altars, as has been the Vatican’s trend. But the papal voyage for a beatification was unique. Then again, 19th-century former Anglican and Catholic convert John Henry Cardinal Newman is no ordinary beatus.

Pope Benedict stated on the flight on the way to the United Kingdom that Newman is a man of “exceptional stature for our time” and a “bridge” to unity between Anglicans and Catholics. He even stated that he is “like a Doctor of the Church for us and for all.”

So, the now Blessed Newman may also become the 34th of the Church’s doctors -- an act that may accompany his future canonization. And why not? Consider the many spheres of Catholic theology in which Blessed Newman extended his influence -- development of doctrine, ecumenism, the nature of Catholic education. 

And while the Pope stressed Blessed Newman’s impact over each, in addition to Newman’s spirituality and holiness, the United Kingdom visit and the surrounding events bear the greatest impact upon the future of the ecumenical movement.

The Pope and the ecumenical meetings

Among his Friday stops was Lambeth Palace, where the Pope met with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. While the Pope did not dwell heavily upon the present state of ecumenism in his address, he offered insights that no doubt will bear heavily upon the future of the Anglican-Catholic dialogue.

The Pope even managed to eloquently raise the often ecumenically complicated question of conversion. He did this by elevating the witness given by Blessed Newman, who “was moved to follow his conscience, even at great personal cost.” That movement, of course, was his historic acceptance of the Catholic faith.

But the Holy Father pointed to a second dimension to Blessed Newman’s ecumenical witness is his continued companionship with members of the Anglican community. This “led him to explore with them, in a truly eirenical spirit, the questions on which they differed, driven by a deep longing for unity in faith.” The Pope extended his desire toward Williams to continue in that same spirit.

The graceful mention of Newman’s fidelity to his conscience is an important one. All too often one hears personal conversion stories in which pastors from other communities desiring full communion with Rome were encouraged -- in some cases even by Catholics themselves -- to remain separate from the Catholic Church to achieve the greatest possible unity. But what is lost in such an approach is the pastor’s duty himself to follow his conscience.

And this, of course, is why Blessed Newman’s example is so vital. Newman’s ecumenical witness brilliantly illumines the true path to union -- one in which followers of Christ achieve the real unity for which our Lord prays (cf. John 17) by following their consciences, and dialogue and friendship continue in charity and in truth. 

During an ecumenical celebration at Westminster Abbey, the Pope marked the centenary year of the modern ecumenical movement by accentuating the progress that has been made from the beginning. He drew attention to the common theological beliefs shared by Anglicans and Catholics, but also addressed the many challenges, both on the path to Christian unity and with regard to the proclamation of Christ in the modern age.

Offering the following “word of encouragement,” he stated: “Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age.”

"Anglicanorum Coetibus" making inroads

Before looking to the future canonization of a St. Newman -- however many years away that may be -- looking to the past year will shed light on the present of Vatican-Anglican relations.

Less than a week after the beatification, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has announced that Washington Archbishop Daniel Wuerl, by appointment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will head the U.S. body in charge of implementing the Pope’s apostolic constitution "Anglicanorum Coetibus." Archbishop Wuerl’s job will be twofold: to implement the apostolic constitution and to gauge interest. No doubt his duty will also entail the assuaging of fears -- on the part of both Anglicans and Catholics -- concerning the many challenges of the change.

The Vatican is in the process of setting up the structures for reception of Anglicans who according to the constitution have requested “repeatedly and insistently” to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church. The document, given last November, looks to create “ordinariates” for Anglicans desiring full communion.

The ordinariates may be compared with particular churches, as provisions guarantee that much of the Anglican liturgical identity will be preserved, while establishing full doctrinal communion within Sacred Tradition (with the Catechism of the Catholic Church as its authoritative expression). The constitution also elucidates the acceptance of Anglican clergy into Holy Orders.

The Pope’s earlier thought is useful in illustrating his navigation of the Barque of Peter. He writes in "Church, Ecumenism, & Politics: New Endeavors of Ecclesiology" (Ignatius, 2008, originally published in Communio in 1983), “The actual goal of all ecumenical endeavors must naturally remain the transformation of the plurality of the separate denominational churches into the plurality of local Churches, which, in reality, form one Church despite their many and varied characteristics” (p. 119).

The idea is essentially the same -- the ordinariates are as local churches, preserving the characteristics of the Anglican communion while achieving the koinonia in the Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church.

A unified future?

Forget the protesters and the embittered anti-Catholic reports that characterize much of the secular media, lest the true face of the papal image be overlooked: that of progressing healing of centuries-old divisions. Anglicans and Catholics -- servants of the same Lord, together “seeking a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will” -- both share in the glorious triumph of the recent papal visit.

And if Blessed Newman becomes St. Newman and in St. Peter's Square -- perhaps sooner rather than later -- many will make the physical journey from the U.K. to Rome, a journey symbolic of the increasing spiritual union that is a gift of the “bridge” to which the Pope had referred -- Newman himself.

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Kevin M. Clarke has a master's degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and teaches religion at St. Joseph Academy in San Marcos, California. He is the author of a chapter on Benedict XVI's Mariology in "De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People" (University Press of America, 2009), and is a recent contributor to the New Catholic Encyclopedia.