Whence Ecumenism? The Vatican and ARCIC

Whence Ecumenism? The Vatican and ARCIC

Michael Davies

Just when Anglicanism in Australia faces likely fragmentation over pressures for women's ordination - ending any hopes of an early reunion with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy - the official Vatican response to the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) indicates that other fundamental doctrinal differences between the Churches remain unresolved. This is despite widespread acceptance by the world's Catholic hierarchies and Anglican Synods of ARCIC's claims of substantial progress towards doctrinal agreement. Michael Davies, a former Anglican and now a Catholic writer and lecturer on doctrinal and liturgical topics, examines the work of ARCIC and the current ecumenical impasse.

"Unity Report Dismays Senior Bishop" read the lead headline in the 6 December 1991 issue of England's [then] liberal Catholic Herald. The "senior bishop" in question was Bishop Alan Clark of East Anglia, and the first co-chairman of ARCIC.

ARCIC was established as a result of a meeting in 1966 between Pope Paul VI and Dr Michael Ramsay, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury. Its mandate was to examine the doctrines which separate Catholics and Anglicans and to see if, in at least some cases, a consensus could be reached which would open up a path to corporate reunion.

The cause of Bishop Clark's dismay was the publication of the long-awaited official Vatican response to the documents produced by ARCIC, and embodied in a final report published in 1982. The Bishop complained that the Vatican's response showed no interest in or understanding of the workings of the Commission which had met for twelve years between 1970 and 1982, and claimed to have made considerable advances towards eventual unity.

The Anglican House of Bishops' formal reaction in February 1992 to the Vatican response was headlined in the Catholic Herald (7 February) as "Anglicans Voice Dismay Over Vatican".

Another expression of dismay appeared in The Times of the same date. In a letter to the editor, Thomas McMahon, the Catholic Bishop of Brentwood, stated, inter alia: "As Roman Catholics we need to examine our own consciences. For centuries, and even on occasions since Vatican II, we have implied, if not expressed, an "ecclesiological superiority" towards other churches, which must often have made them feel like second-class citizens. Sadly, some may be inclined to see the recent Vatican response to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, wrongly or rightly, as a further sign of this."

Since virtually every Catholic hierarchy in the world, including those of England and Wales and Australia, has given an enthusiastic endorsement to the ARCIC Agreements, despite their incompatibility with key Catholic doctrines - as the Vatican has now made clear - such a disappointed reaction was to be expected.

On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of ordinary Catholics, clergy and laymen, throughout the English-speaking world has shown little interest in the workings of this Commission. Very few could even explain what the letters ARCIC stand for, and fewer still could give the least account of what it has been up to since 1970.

What, then, has ARCIC been "up to"?

The first topic to be discussed was that of the Eucharist and Catholics were entitled to be sceptical about this exercise at the outset, given the difficulty of establishing any consensus of what Anglicans themselves believe on the subject.

While some Anglo-Catholic clerics have a belief in the Real Presence equivalent to that of Catholics - even if they are reluctant to use the term transubstantiation - the far more numerous Evangelical clergy espouse the totally Protestant doctrine of Thomas Cranmer which has been accurately described as that of "the real absence", and, like Cranmer, they insist that the only sacrificial element in their Communion Service is one of praise and thanksgiving.

Article XXXI of the Thirty-Nine Articles, to which all Anglican clerics must subscribe, teaches that: "Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said that the Priests did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain and guilt, were blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits."

Calculated ambiguity

ARCIC published its first report, the first so-called Agreed Statement, in 1971. It was entitled the Windsor Report on Eucharistic Doctrine, named after the location in which the Commission pursued its deliberations. Catholics with a knowledge of Anglicanism were surprised to learn that the Commission claimed to have reached substantial agreement as to the nature of Eucharistic belief in the two communions. Surprise turned to indignation when the text of the Statement was published. The most charitable description of its content was that of calculated ambiguity. Although Catholic teaching was never specifically repudiated it was never specifically affirmed.

One was reminded of Newman's comments on the manner in which the Arians drew up their creeds: "Was it not on the principle of using vague ambiguous language, which, to the subscribers would seem to bear a Catholic sense, but which, when worked out in the long run, would prove to be heterodox."

The Windsor Agreement evoked a furore, and its critics pulled no punches in denouncing both the Statement itself and the Catholic members of the Commission. The reaction to ARCIC among Catholics loyal to the Magisterium was well summarised by Father Peter Holloway, Editor of Faith magazine: "In the Agreed Statement of the Commission no evidence whatever can be found of a convergence of doctrine which has any definite meaning. Nothing in it can be found which would distinguish Roman Catholic from Anglican doctrine, or either of these from Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or Congregationalist doctrine for that matter. To speak therefore of a 'substantial agreement' which would satisfy Roman Catholic Eucharistic doctrine is totally an illusion."

Father Holloway described sections of the Windsor Agreement as "a betrayal of the Catholic Faith, and hence a betrayal to our Anglican brethren of that sincere portrayal of the essential Eucharistic Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, which the Catholic delegates, and especially the bishops concerned, were accredited to present". However, these, and the words of other well-informed critics, were simply ignored by the Catholic members of ARCIC.

The critics were, nevertheless, well prepared for the Second Agreed Statement reached at Canterbury in 1973. There the ARCIC co-chairman proclaimed that substantial agreement had been reached on the priesthood, and sought to prove this with yet another series of calculated ambiguities.

The subsequent response of many Catholics to what they saw as a second betrayal of the faith was even more indignant than that provoked by the Windsor Agreement. Again the criticisms were largely disregarded.

Eventually, in 1979, ARCIC published "elucidations" of the two Agreed Statements in the light of criticisms received. But they did little more than insist on the validity of agreements already reached. Father Edward Carey, a Catholic theologian, commented in Britain's largest circulation Catholic weekly, The Universe (29 June 1979): "The labours of ARCIC have not brought Anglicans and Catholics nearer in doctrine. Rather, the specialised jargon, the ambiguities and even equivocations of the Agreed Statements have inhibited any real dialogue and provide no progress towards unity."

ARCIC had also produced a statement on Authority at Venice in 1976. An elucidation duly appeared in 1981, and a second statement on Authority was produced at Windsor in 1981. The level of convergence claimed for these agreements was much less than that claimed in the statements on the Eucharist and Ministry - despite the scarcely credible concessions made by the Catholic delegates, it was not possible to explain away the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The Anglican delegates would not accept these at any price, insisting on their reservations being included in the second statement on Authority: "For many Anglicans the teaching authority of the Bishop of Rome independent of a council is not recommended by the fact that through it these Marian doctrines were proclaimed as dogmas binding on all the faithful. Anglicans would also ask whether in any future union between our two Churches, they would be required to subscribe to such dogmatic statements."

Catholic credibility

In fact, the entire credibility of the Catholic Church is involved in the certainty that these two dogmas are infallibly true, in virtue of their having been proclaimed ex cathedra by the Sovereign Pontiff. There could never be any question for orthodox Catholics of reducing them to the status of optional beliefs in order to facilitate organic reunion with the Anglican Communion.

All the Agreed Statements, together with their Elucidations, were then collected together in a Final Report in September 1981, and submitted for approval by the Holy See and by all the Catholic hierarchies and Anglican Synods throughout the world.

In due course, ARCIC's critics were not surprised to find that when, in May 1982, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published its response to ARCIC - despite a few conciliatory remarks acknowledging ecumenical progress - it showed that where Catholics are concerned the ARCIC documents lacked credibility. The ecumenical bureaucracy, however, was outraged, and, astonishingly, it seemed that members of ARCIC had genuinely expected the Congregation to ratify their ambiguities.

In its critique the Congregation listed a series of doctrines on which ARCIC claimed to have reached agreement, but without formulating them in a manner that safeguarded Catholic teaching. It noted: "Certain formulations in the Report are not sufficiently explicit and hence can lend themselves to a twofold interpretation, in which both parties can find unchanged the expression of their own position. This possibility of contrasting and ultimately incompatible readings of formulations which are apparently satisfactory to both sides gives rise to a question about the real consensus of the two Communions, pastors and faithful alike, In effect, if a formulation which has received the agreement of experts can be diversely interpreted, how could it serve as a basis for reconciliation on the level of Church life and practice?"

The Congregation recommended that the dialogue should continue, and had little alternative to doing so in view of the internal politics of the Vatican. An ecumenical bureaucracy entrenched within what is now known as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is very powerful, and commentators have spoken with some reason of behind the scenes 'warfare' between this Council and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

In a ploy possibly designed to bypass the critique of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Final Report had been sent to all the hierarchies of the world for their evaluation before Rome made its final response to ARCIC. In almost every case, the Catholic hierarchies which sent a response to the Vatican found the ARCIC documents acceptable - as did all the world's Anglican Synods.

The favourable response from so many National Episcopal Conferences certainly posed a dilemma for the Holy See. ARCIC had been established as a result of an initiative by Pope Paul VI. It had received warm encouragement from Pope John Paul II. It had involved much time, much effort, and much expense, and had given many Anglicans the impression that organic union was a distinct possibility - and now the prestige of most national hierarchies was attached to Vatican endorsement. Was it really possible that almost all the bishops of the world could approve agreements that were, to quote Father Holloway, "a betrayal of the Catholic Faith"?

In what it probably envisaged as a damage control exercise, the Holy See arranged for its final Response (1991) to be produced jointly by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The hand of the latter is evident in some ecumenical platitudes giving a warm welcome to the Final Report, expressing its gratitude to the members of ARCIC, and hailing its work as "a significant milestone not only in relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church but in the ecumenical movement as a whole." The hand of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is seen in the detailed analysis of the Agreed Statements, an analysis which differs in very few respects from the 1982 critique. It should be noted, however, that this response comes not with the authority of the two Congregations which prepared it but of the Vatican itself.

In what ways, then, does the Vatican now find the Final Report of ARCIC wanting?

It notes that the Report makes no claim to have reached substantial agreement on the question of authority in the Church, particularly with respect to papal infallibility, that no real consensus was recorded on the Marian dogmas, and that it claims incorrectly that the "assent of the faithful" is necessary to validate any magisterial decision.

The Vatican explains in considerable detail why the Report's attribution to Peter among the Twelve of "a position of special importance" does not express the fullness of the Catholic Faith in regard to the Petrine ministry. With regard to the Eucharist, the Vatican notes the failure of the Report to accept that the Sacrifice of Calvary is made present in the Mass "with all its effects, thus affirming the propitiatory nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice, which can also be applied to the deceased. For Catholics "the whole Church" must include the dead. The prayer for the dead is to be found in all the canons of the Mass, and the propitiatory character of the Mass as the sacrifice of Christ, that may be offered for the living and the dead, including a particular dead person, is part of the Catholic faith." The incompatibility of Catholic teaching with that of Article 31 (of the Thirty Nine Articles) reaffirmed here in such uncompromising terms, certainly requires no comment.

Where the Real Presence is concerned, the Vatican response warns that while such affirmations as the statement that the Eucharist is "the Lord's real gift of himself to his Church" can certainly be interpreted in conformity with the Catholic faith they are insufficient to remove all ambiguity regarding the mode of the Real Presence which is due to a substantial change in the elements: "The Catholic Church holds that Christ in the Eucharist makes Himself present sacramentally and substantially when under the species of bread and wine these earthly realities are changed into the reality of His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

"On the question of the reservation of the Eucharist, the statement that there are those who 'find any kind of adoration of Christ in the reserved sacrament unacceptable,' creates concern from the Roman Catholic point of view."

Where the priesthood is concerned, the Vatican response tackles head on the ambiguity made clear in the commentary and clarification of Dr Julian Charley, an Anglican theologian appointed to ARCIC, an ambiguity open to the possibility of a layman celebrating the Eucharist. It also refers directly to Anglican teaching that Our Lord instituted only two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist, and that the five other sacraments of the Catholic Church are only of ecclesiastical institution:

"Similarly, in respect of the ordained ministry, the Final Report would be helped if the following were made clearer:

  • that only a validly ordained priest can be the minister who, in the person of Christ, brings into being the Sacrament of the Eucharist. He not only recites the narrative of the institution of the Last Supper, pronouncing the words of consecration and imploring the Father to send the Holy Spirit to effect through them the transformation of the gifts, but in doing so offers sacramentally the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.
  • that it was Christ himself who instituted the Sacrament of Orders as the rite which confers the priesthood of the New Covenant ... The ARCIC document does not refer to the character of priestly ordination which implies a configuration to the priesthood of Christ. The character of priestly ordination is central to the Catholic understanding of the distinction between the ministerial and the common priesthood of the baptised. It is moreover important for the recognition of Holy Orders as a sacrament instituted by Christ, and not therefore a simple ecclesiastical institution."


The Vatican Response also demonstrates that the ARCIC concepts of the Apostolic Succession and the Interpretation of Scripture are incompatible with those of the Catholic Church. The Response then concludes with some remarks paying tribute to "the important work done by ARCIC", expressing the hope that it will contribute to "the continued dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics".

Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, commented that the Vatican response is "a very positive document," and Father Edward Yarnold, S.J., a Catholic member of, and longstanding apologist for, ARCIC claimed that the latest chapter in its history "does have a happy ending."

The reverend gentlemen are both perfectly correct, but probably not in the sense that they intended. The report is positive and the ending happy because the bubble of false ecumenism has been pricked finally and effectively.

The Catholic Herald expressed its 'liberal' disillusionment very clearly when it stated in its 6 December 1991 editorial: "The Vatican's reaction this week to the ARCIC report has disappointed some and worried others, while those who said all along that ARCIC was nothing more than a talking-shop, and that Rome would never agree to its decisions are now basking in their superior knowledge. Catholics on the Commission feel their Church has let down the Anglicans with whom they shared so much for so long, while some of the Anglicans wonder whether there is much point in going on with the discussions."

If any Anglicans feel let down the fault lies not with the Vatican, which had no alternative but to uphold authentic doctrine, but, as Father Holloway pointed out, with those Catholic members of ARCIC who failed to explain to their Protestant brethren the essential Catholic teaching that they were accredited to present.

As to "basking in their superior knowledge," I have certainly been unable to refrain from taking delectation in the extent to which I am able to say I told you so," having written numerous articles, letters to cardinals and bishops, and letters to the press pointing out precisely the defects in the ARCIC statements now delineated by the Vatican.

In 1980 I was granted an audience with Cardinal Seper, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, during which we spent several hours discussing ARCIC, among other topics. I was able to present him with copies of Dr Charley's commentaries which he had not seen, and to alert him to the manner in which sixteenth century Protestants who repudiated Catholic Eucharistic teaching sometimes used language which gave the contrary impression. The Cardinal was extremely interested and took copious notes of all I had to say. He gave me a categorical assurance that there was not the least possibility of his Congregation ever endorsing ARCIC, and I take great satisfaction in the fact that this has proved to be the case.

What is most astonishing, most alarming, is the fact that although these deficiencies were obvious to a layman like myself, with no specialised theological knowledge, almost every Catholic hierarchy in the world pronounced in favour of the ARCIC statements.

The Vatican Response also pointed out the new obstacle to unity raised by the ordination of women within the Anglican Communion. It is, in fact, not simply an obstacle but an insuperable barrier. There is no possibility of any Anglican province which has taken this fateful step of reversing it, and no possibility of any denomination which ordains women achieving organic unity with the Catholic Church.

Why, then, did the Vatican Response encourage a continuing dialogue under such circumstances? Why, indeed? Sincere Catholics who were naive enough to believe in the imminent possibility of organic reunion between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion should now remove their blinkers.