A Continuing Survey
of Religion and Public Life

Richard John Neuhaus

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 67 (November 1996): 66-88.

This Month

The Taming of the Church

(Wherein the author discerns improbable connections between two archbishops at Oxford, centuries apart, one from Canterbury, the other from San Francisco; exposes the noxious influence of nominalism; excoriates the curial mindset and sundry ecclesiological follies; flays wickedness, vindicates righteousness, and offers unsolicited advice to Her Majesty the Queen.)

Reports have it that Queen Elizabeth and her advisors are considering major changes in what is called "the way ahead" for the monarchy, including the law that forbids the monarch to marry a Roman Catholic. About time, some commentators opine. Catholic writer William Oddie grumbles that the monarch can marry a Jew, a Buddhist or Hindu, so why not a Catholic? That has a nice tolerant ring to it, but maybe more is at stake here than abolishing an antique law that violates contemporary sensibilities. In the colorful (often blood-colored) history of England, religion and royalty has not been a trivial question of "personal preference," and that is still the case when the monarch is the official head of the national church, an arrangement that Elizabeth, it is said, wants to retain.

Our American understandings of culture, church, and state are much entangled with the English experience, and reactions to it. In due course, I will get to a fascinating new book that has occasioned these reflections, but first it is worth underscoring that questions about religion and public order, far from being antiquated, will almost certainly become more agitated with the progressive desecularization of world history, which is what we may reasonably expect in the century ahead. The long and complicated effort to eliminate the religion question in the solvent of liberal tolerance has manifestly failed. When tolerance is understood as indifference, religion is declared to be a totally private matter of no public consequence. But declaring it so, even declaring it so ten thousand times over, does not make it so.

The above point can be made on sociological and historical grounds, noting that societies cannot be long sustained when cut off from the commanding truths typically borne by religion. An adequate discussion, however, must be more than sociological and historical. Christianity has a weighty tradition of theological reflection and practical experiment in making connections between religion and the public order, the sacred and the secular. This is not true of Judaism, as witness the very real threat of the religious parties in Israel that force an all-or-nothing religionizing of the public order. And of course it is not true of Islam, in which the crusade against modernity (understood as Christendom) dominates wherever true believers wield power. Whether one attributes it to historical accident, divine Providence, or the working out of its distinctive ideas (or a mix of all three factors, and more), Christianity is unique in providing-from St. Paul to Theodosius, from Charlemagne to Oliver Cromwell, from Roger Williams to John Paul II-a richly diverse body of reflection and experience in the public ordering of realms spiritual and temporal. Needless to say, all the efforts have been gravely flawed, as is everything short of the Kingdom of God. Indeed that "eschatological proviso"-the impossibility of our realizing the absolute in history-is one of the great strengths of the Christian approach to these matters.

The Church at the Center

Wherever these questions arise, and not least in the English experience, the related contentions are about political theory and ambitions for power, but also, and perhaps dominantly, about theology and, more precisely, ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church. This is again made evident in a remarkable new biography of Thomas Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford (Thomas Cranmer, Yale University Press, 691 pp., $35). In addition to being a very big and fascinating read, the book plunges the reader into a history of conflicts that are still very much with us. Although not himself a dramatic figure, Cranmer was caught up in the high drama of the period when Henry VIII needed a compliant ecclesiastical and court politician to help him establish what would turn out to be royal control over a national church.

MacCulloch says that Cranmer, whom Henry made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, has been depicted as both villain and hero, and he is determined to be more evenhanded. His Cranmer, however, is very much the hero. Looking back on his life and his death at the stake in 1556, MacCulloch writes: "Precisely because of his agonizings in those last months, leading up to the flames in front of Balliol College, Oxford, Cranmer deserves to stand alongside other hesitant, reluctant martyrs who have found that they must abandon the assumptions of a lifetime and resist apparently triumphant worldly powers: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador." The conclusion is the more surprising in view of the previous six hundred pages in which Cranmer is portrayed unsparingly as a lackey of royal power and a willing tool of Henry's chief lackey, the vice- gerent (yes, that was his title) Thomas Cromwell.

Cranmer was a master of living with moral ambiguities. When installed at Canterbury, he swore solemn allegiance both to the pope (from whom he received the pallium in token of his authority) and to Henry as supreme head of the Church in England. He would later collaborate in the widespread persecution of those who refused unqualified allegiance to the throne, including the execution of the London Carthusians and such notables as Thomas More and John Fisher, never raising a question about what he recognized as Henry's despoliation of the churches and monasteries for purposes of his own aggrandizement and to secure by patronage the cooperation of those who were only too eager to be corrupted. Cranmer did not "resist apparently triumphant powers" but served them unstintingly until, under Queen Mary, a different power was temporarily triumphant.

According to MacCulloch, he was even eager to accommodate Mary but could not manage to disown all he had said and done in the service of her father, although he tried. In the months prior to his going to the stake, he publicly retracted his break with Rome, professed his belief in the entirety of Catholic doctrine, went to confession, and was restored to full communion. When it became apparent that all this would not win him Mary's pardon, on the day of his death he recanted his recantations and thus attained a place of prominence in Protestant martyrologies. Of these stunning reversals, MacCulloch writes: "It is at these last and most vital few hours of Cranmer's life that the historian retires defeated in trying to unravel the motives of a sorely tried man facing a horrible death. Yet some attempt at assessment is inevitable. The effect was to make maximum use for the evangelical cause of a piece of theater which had been geared to showing off the Catholic Church's most important prize since 1553-perhaps the most important reconversion of the whole European Reformation so far."

Rather than retiring from "trying to unravel the motives of a sorely tried man," MacCulloch concludes with the limp explanation that in his last hours Cranmer had to decide between his two sisters, one Protestant and the other Catholic, the former having visiting him the morning of his execution. This suggestion has the merit of introducing to the story the currently de rigueur "woman question"-a question otherwise conspicuously missing in the life of a man who, among other things, did his best to conceal the fact that he was married during the years that clerical marriage was not allowed in England. MacCulloch also suggests that at the end Cranmer wanted to make a statement "which would make sense of his public career and rebuild his personal integrity." That is more understandable. Cranmer's final statement did reassert, if not rebuild, his personal integrity, after he had completely capitulated in the disappointed hope of saving his life. The reader is hard-pressed to decide which was more ignoble, his recantation or his recantation of his recantation, and must in charity suspend judgment on the final acts of a pitiably broken man who held back nothing in his determination to be the king's good servant but not, unlike Thomas More, God's first.

Between Pope and Prince

Cranmer was not entirely without convictions. In MacCulloch's lavishly documented account, Cranmer moved steadily over the years away from the Catholic and Lutheran view of the Real Presence in the eucharist, ending up with a thoroughly "spiritualized" view hardly distinguishable from that of Zwingli. Another early and more or less stable conviction-at least until his final flurry of conflicting capitulations-was that the pope was the Antichrist. This belief made both possible and necessary his fixing of the headship of the Church on the prince. Cranmer asserted that the early Church under the apostles was not properly ordered because it was not headed by a Christian prince, and at least on one occasion he went so far as to make the bizarre claim that the emperor Nero was in his time the rightful head of the Church.

In light of his own portrayal of Cranmer, one may wonder why MacCulloch wants to propose him as a hero. The answer is simple: Despite what may gently be called his character flaws, and despite the ruthlessness of his methods, MacCulloch thinks it was all in a good cause. Like his subject, this biographer is a relentless Protestant who uncritically cheers the "progress" that Cranmer made in extirpating Catholicism root and branch, regretting only that Queen Elizabeth would later "freeze" that achievement at the point of the prayer book of 1552, thus leaving an opening for later Anglicans to claim continuity with a Catholic past.

In 1992 Eamon Duffy published his much acclaimed study, The Stripping of the Altars, in which he demonstrated in meticulous detail the pervasiveness and vitality of Catholicism in England in the years prior to Henry's break with Rome. Contrary to standard Protestant accounts, there was no popular demand for "reformation" in England. There were vocal exiles from and sympathizers with the continental Reformation, largely concentrated in London and the universities, but Henry's church would never have come into being but for his frustration with what he saw as Rome's unresponsiveness to his problems with marriage and the succession to the throne. MacCulloch certainly does not make a hero of Henry. Allowing that he was "religiously earnest" in his way, Henry is depicted as "murderously eccentric," a "self-righteous, God-obsessed royal bully," and a "monstrous egotist." And yet, while Henry declared himself "King and Sovereign with no superior on earth but only God," he was still emotionally attached to remnants of the old order and was at points a brake on Cranmer's "progress" toward a more thoroughly Protestantized kingdom.

Henry brooked no opposition and was possessed of a particular fury against Thomas Becket, the twelfth-century martyr who, as chancellor and archbishop, resisted the will of Henry II. MacCulloch writes, "Ever since Henry had discovered that he was Supreme Head of the Church of England, he had detested the memory of Becket, whose cult represented the triumph of the Western Church over a king of England." In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, what had been the feast of Thomas Becket is bluntly listed, "Becket traitor." Henry had early on ordered Becket's shrine desecrated and his bones scattered in an augury of the wholesale desecrations, book burnings, dispossessions, imprisonments, and killings that were to come. In all this Cranmer acquiesced and, within the limits of not risking royal favor, tried to lead. Under Henry and then under Edward VI, Cranmer was not found wanting. MacCulloch summarizes what would come to be called the English Reformation. "These changes were designed to destroy one Church and build another, in a religious revolution of ruthless thoroughness. Thomas Cranmer was the one man who guaranteed the continuity of the changes, and he was chiefly responsible for planning them as they occurred." The reader is invited to agree that, while the ruthlessness was regrettable, it was justified by the worthy end in view.

Anglo-Catholic Fool's Gold

As might be expected, MacCulloch is dismissive of later Anglo-Catholics who depict the English breakaway as something other than a revolution. While Cranmer was not above the politic use of vestiges of the tradition, he and his collaborators left no doubt that the new church was constituted not by apostolic but by royal authority. "There was no essential difference between having distinctive ordination rites for deacons, priests, and bishops, and having distinctive royal commissions for sheriffs, justices of the peace, and common law judges." Cranmer, MacCulloch says, never resolved the question, "Were the ministers of the Church the ministers of the Crown or the ministers of Christ?" It was not a burning question for him under Henry and Edward, but that changed with Mary. In his final floundering, Cranmer apparently decided he was a minister of Christ, but he then served a Christ who had no Church, for he continued to believe that the Church was headed by the Crown.

MacCulloch shows unseemly glee in his demolition of later Anglican arguments in support of a catholic (and Catholic) continuity in the national church. Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, was among the first to attempt to rescue conservative substance from the Henrician revolution. MacCulloch writes: "However, Gardiner's use of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer against Cranmer was the most damaging of all these devices; it has proved of lasting importance, providing theological fools' gold for those Anglo-Catholics who have sought to reinterpret the first Prayer Book and Cranmer's intentions within it." The effort to pit Cranmer against Cranmer would have a long history, but MacCulloch persuasively demonstrates that Cranmer was a relentless Protestant. "Standing as he did in the developing Reformed tradition of Europe in the 1550s, Cranmer's conception of a 'middle way' or via media in religion was quite different from that of later Anglicanism. In the nineteenth century, when the word 'Anglicanism' first came into common use, John Henry Newman said of the middle way (before his departure for the Church of Rome) that 'a number of distinct notions are included in the notion of Protestantism; and as to all these our Church has taken a Via Media between it and Popery.' Cranmer would violently have rejected such a notion: how could one have a middle way between truth and Antichrist? The middle ground which he sought was the same as Bucer's: an agreement between Wittenberg and Zurich which would provide a united vision of Christian doctrine against the counterfeit being refurbished at the Council of Trent."

The Conciliar Alternative

Like many before and after him, Cranmer's unhappiness with the papacy was joined to a great enthusiasm for general councils. As with Luther and other continental reformers, Cranmer began by claiming a great respect for the pope, lamenting only that he was misled by his aides in the curia. When the effort to drive a wedge between pope and curia failed, the appeal was to a council. By the time Rome convened at Trent a reform council to address also the issues raised by the protest, the Reformation churches, now firmly under the control of the princes, were forbidden to take part in the council for which their leaders had so long called. In the case of Cranmer and others, this did not cool their conciliarist enthusiasm: "Perhaps one might see this reverence for the authority of the General Council as the golden thread which runs through Cranmer's theological progress: the one constant to which he always returned, even when in later years his appeal for a General Council was addressed to Wittenberg, Zurich, and Geneva rather than to Rome, and was conceived as a defense against the Council of Trent. As Cranmer's papal loyalty fell away, this deep emotional attachment to the idea of the General Council remained with him all through the uncertain ecclesiological waters of the years after 1533."

Support for a council was a gesture toward the irrepressible intuition that the Church must somehow be more than national and more than a school of theology, that it must be universal. Even an anti-council of Protestants against the Council of Trent might help satisfy that intuition, if one could convince oneself that the apostolic location of the Church's universality in the Petrine ministry had in fact become the location of the anti-Church. In that case, one avoids the onus of being schismatic by declaring that one's schism is, in fact, the center of authentic unity. With Bucer, the much more reluctant Melanchthon, and other continentals, Cranmer dreamed big dreams of a General Council of the reformed churches that now constituted the "true Church of Jesus Christ," with England at the head. An unavoidable complication, however, was that Henry was at the head of England. The ecclesiological confusion was intense.

Other Protestants attempted to avoid the confusion by means of a more thoroughly spiritualized ecclesiology in which the universal and true Church is "the invisible Church." Cranmer was not ready to take that theological bolt-hole since it would have undermined the Royal Supremacy he had worked so hard to put in place. Yet he could not shake off entirely New Testament and traditional understandings of the Church by settling for what was merely and without remainder a national religion. To his credit, Cranmer recognized the limits of cuius regio, eius religio-he who rules determines the religion of the ruled. Under the brutally willful Henry, he had learned that this could end up meaning, in Hans Thieme's phrase, cuius regio, eius opinio. Cranmer was not prepared to think of himself as merely a servant of private opinion, especially when the opinion was not necessarily his own.

Also to his credit, Cranmer did not appeal to sola scriptura in order to evade the inevitability of a community of authoritative interpretation. In building a new church, however, he had rejected Peter and required a new Peter in his place. As Christians have discovered time and again, the question is not whether to have a pope but which pope to have. MacCulloch writes: "Cranmer came to hate the papacy, and therefore he needed the Royal Supremacy to fill the chasm of authority which had opened up in his thinking as a result. . . .What else had he got to hang on to in order to defend the gospel faith against papists and radicals, and to lead England towards a general council of the Church, but the authority of King Henry?" What else indeed.

In addition to ecclesiological incoherence, and as a result of it, the new church faced a host of disputes over authority. In 1533 the Royal Council explicitly denied the power of the bishop of Rome outside his own diocese. As England broke from Rome, so within England parts of the church began to assert their independence from the primatial see of Canterbury. Old cathedral chapters were resurrected and they, along with metropolitan bishops, claimed the right to hold elections for filling episcopal vacancies. The logic that shattered the internal coherence of church order took on its own life. If Canterbury could declare its independence from Rome, what was to prevent local churches and regional centers of power from declaring their independence from the national church? In England of the sixteenth century, the answer was the Royal Supremacy, and Elizabeth II may think that is still the only answer today.

Contemporary Analogies, Whimsical and Otherwise

The intriguing tale told in Thomas Cranmer turns out to be surprisingly pertinent to current developments within the Catholic Church itself. In this country and elsewhere some Catholics complain about unresponsive leadership at the top, ostensibly blaming the Roman curia to which the Pope is presumably captive. Recognizing the probable futility of trying to drive a wedge between pope and curia-for it is obvious that in this pontificate the curia is held tightly accountable to the pope-the protest then takes the form of appealing to a council. Having lost the battle of interpretation with respect to Vatican II, and having little hope that the next pope will champion their preferred course, critics suggest that a number of additional councils will be required to secure the reforms that they have in mind. In fact, some propose a general council every ten years, with synods of bishops meeting in between, and with a greatly expanded role for national episcopal conferences.

The prospect is that of bishops, bureaucrats, and activists kept in a state of perpetual commotion, with church life transformed even more than it is now into the politics of meetings without end. The politics of meetings without end is what some think Vatican II endorsed as governance by "collegiality." It is not entirely unlike what was touted as "participatory democracy" in the 1960s, although the dramatis personae are savvy ecclesiastical pols rather than pot-smoking young radicals. The advocates of this dubious course of "collegiality" and "renewal" typically employ a language of deference toward the pope, while suggesting that his role would be reduced to chairing church conventions in permanent session. At least he would get to chair the meetings in Rome that do not address the more important questions reserved to national bishops conferences, assisted by their committees of experts and a task force for every task that it has been discovered needs forcing.

The pope would retain the right to appoint bishops in his own archdiocese, and maybe, with appropriate consultation, throughout the entire province of Rome. Needless to say, in this reorganization plan for the clerical management of Catholicism Inc., the laity would be granted a larger role than at present, thus-or so it is said-fulfilling Vatican II's call to recognize the dignity of the lay vocation by allowing lay people a greater share in the managerial bustle of bishops and lesser clerics. It is similar to the "elevation" of the laity by letting them do some of the things in the liturgy that previously could only be done by clerics.

One wonders what Cranmer might think of such agitations. He would no doubt find attractive the accent on nationalism that is evident, for instance, in current talk about an American Church. And he might be intrigued by the possibilities inherent in the American invention of denominationalism, although the prospect of the Catholic Church as one denomination among others would surely fall short of his idea of a national religion. Despite his perhaps more intense animus toward the papacy, however, he might have shared the interest in exploring the sharp attenuation of papal authority as an alternative to the complete break that created for him such troublesome ecclesiological incoherences. Plans being proposed today might largely achieve the goal of independence from Rome without bringing down upon him the charge of being a revolutionary who is starting a new church.

Other Sovereignties

Of course the circumstance today is in many ways different from that of the sixteenth century. For one thing, there is no King Henry with whom to replace the pope as head of the Church. As many astute observers have noted, however, this does not mean that the modern world is bereft of alternative sovereignties. There is, for instance, the sovereignty of the technical-managerial model that has its own powerful dynamic and dominates so much of our world through government by experts. That is the model employed with such telling effect when some years ago corporate management experts were called in to structure the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and its administrative arm, the United States Catholic Conference. It is the model that is clearly dominant in some current proposals to reorganize the management of the Church. The managerial revolution of our time is closely allied to what is commonly called the "knowledge class" that is concentrated in civil government, the universities, the media, and the foundation world.

Unlike King Henry, the managerial and knowledge classes do not burn books or send people to the stake. They do, however, have more humane and equally effective ways of silencing, or at least sidelining, their opposition and assuring the ideological dominance of what is defined as the course of progress. Today's reformers have one great asset that was not available to Cranmer, namely, the idea of democracy and the representative principle that attends that idea. Democracy may at first flush appear to be the very antithesis of monarchical sovereignty, but it can be every bit as royal in the sweep of its command.

The experience of history has convinced most of us that there is no acceptable alternative to democracy in the civil realm. There is an alternative in the governance of the Church, and that alternative is truth, even, if you will, supernatural and revealed truth. When that alternative is excluded, a community has only claimed truths in conflict, and democratic fairness requires that all truths be equally represented in the search for a common ground by which the community can identify itself. In some Catholic circles, this proposal appeals to the idea of the sensus fidelium, frequently in blithe indifference to whether the people involved adhere to or even have an informed understanding of "the faith once delivered to the saints." Those who invoke John Henry Newman on "consulting the faithful" are sometimes prone to overlook his assumption that those consulted are in fact the faithful.

Of course there may be differences of varying degrees of seriousness among the faithful, but all who are faithful agree that there is a truth revealed by God, entrusted to the apostles, and authoritatively interpreted by their successors in the Church fully and rightly ordered through time. Within that structure of inquiry toward an ever fuller and more adequate expression of the truth, there is considerable flexibility and room for debate. Those who challenge the structure, however, are not to be seen as participants in the inquiry but as people who pose a great pastoral challenge of evangelization and catechesis, with the hope that they may be lovingly drawn back into the community of faith and reflection.

When difference becomes dissent and when dissent becomes apostasy-these are matters of delicate pastoral discernment. For that task of discernment, at least in the Catholic view, Christ has given the Church pastors, bishops who are successors to the apostles. No matter how often they botch it, that task is still theirs. Bishops can and should draw on methods that have emerged from democratic experience, but they can never weary of pointing out that the Church is not a democracy. Democracy as a form of governance and as a theory of sovereignty is as alien to the Church as was the supremacy claimed by King Henry. Contemporary efforts to redefine the Church as a voluntary association managed by experts who claim the legitimacy of their rule from democratic procedure may fare better than Henry's scheme, as witness the flourishing of numerous denominations in this country. But they all presuppose an ecclesiology very different from what the Great Tradition intends when it speaks of the Church.

More Than a Religious Association

The hard truth that runs into such powerful resistance in our age, and maybe in any age, is that the Church is infinitely more than a religious association. After all, the first disciples, too, had all kinds of dandy plans for setting up an organization and distributing among themselves positions of honor and power. We say the Church is a mystery, an organic reality to which all organizational questions are incidental, but that too often meets with incomprehensibility, and, in any case, falls short of the radically incarnational claim that Christ apostolically ordered his Church to embody his saving presence through time. In the Catholic view, an indispensable part of that ordering is the Petrine ministry exercised by the successor of Peter, the bishop of Rome. Scholars can debate whether that claim is adequately grounded in the New Testament, and nobody denies that the exercise of that ministry has at times been sorely abused, but to surrender that claim is simply to give up on what distinctively constitutes the Catholic Church. Whether in the fourth, the sixteenth, or the twenty-first century, it is also to surrender that ecclesial zone of independence and freedom that enables the Church to resist the insatiable claims of earthly sovereignties, whether royal, managerial, or democratic.

Proposals now being bandied about betray an underlying, perhaps unconscious, assumption that the Church is a religious association whose primary problem is its dysfunctional structure. Such proposals are largely, sometimes completely, devoid of any reference to the Gospel understood as the mystery of the world's redemption by which and for which the Church exists. While appealing to the "spirit" of Vatican II, they reflect little of the rich ecclesiology of, say, Lumen Gentium. Since they so clearly lack warrant in what is the Church's teaching, their proponents call for Vatican III, Vatican IV, Vatican V, and on and on in order to establish what they think should be the Church's teaching. When the Church's teaching is contingent upon which faction has the edge in preparations for next year's council, however, one may wonder what would be recognizable as the teaching of the Church. The media would be massively involved, cheering on those who, in the name of progress, would finally bring to heel the world's largest institutional dissenter from the wisdom of the age. "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" asked an earlier Henry. Today, as then, there is no lack of volunteers.

Of course those who would undertake the taming of the Church are sincere, but there is slight comfort in that. As the transcendent mystery and adventure of the Church can be destroyed by royal tyranny, so it can be dissipated by insipid and, all too often, self-serving disputes over who is disaffected and why. Call in the dysfunctionality experts, consult the focus group oracles, test-market the product, and let's see if we can't put this religious club back together again as one big happy family. After all, isn't that what our founder said he came to establish? What an awful bore, this vapid, trite chatter about "renewal." If one must choose between tyrannies, one would almost prefer Henry's to that of this democratic banality.

To make the Church boring is a greater treason than heresy and apostasy, although often accompanied by both. Or maybe it is simply the more common treason, and were the current heresies and apostasies very interesting, it might mitigate the crime somewhat.

Anyone looking for a direction deserving the name of renewal can readily find it in that alleged reactionary, John Paul II. His urgent proposals for world evangelization, Christian unity, and battling for the culture of life against the culture of death are an invitation to "cross the threshold of hope" into the Third Millennium with a spiritual dignity and daring worthy of disciples of the crucified and risen Christ. Compared, for instance, with the November 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millenio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Nears), the media-acclaimed proposals for renewal by restructuring are little more than plans for interior redecoration and the rearrangement of ecclesiastical furniture. John Paul dares us to live in, and possibly die for, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth), in response to which bishops and editorialists call for a committee which in due course reports its finding that timid souls do not much care for martyrdom and the Church should tailor its message accordingly. This might be called demand-side Christianity, and it perfectly fits the managerial mindset.

The Nominalist Connections

Consultation. Collegiality. Participation. Inclusiveness. These are among the words put to dubious use in the current round of conciliarism aimed at taming the Church and limiting the influence of this prophetic pontificate. Conciliarism has had a peculiar history. An earlier conciliar movement (Pisa 1409, Constance 1414-18, Basle 1431-38) was, inter alia, an effort to restore a measure of universality to the Church after a dismal century that witnessed "the Babylonian captivity" of a papal office that was virtually bought and sold by earthly powers. That conciliar movement was ended by the Council of Trent, which, among its achievements, went a long way toward restoring the integrity of the papacy. Today the papacy enjoys an independent moral stature and influence unrivaled by any other office in the world. It is a fine irony that at this historical moment a new conciliar movement arises that seems determined to plunge the leadership of the Church back into the perpetual commotion of national and ideological factionalism.

Yet another factor can help in understanding the irony. Historians suggest a connection between the fourteenth-century expansion of national and royal power, on the one hand, and the ascendancy of nominalism in philosophy and theology, on the other. Nominalism-which denied the reality of universals and declared it an "error to believe that there is something in reality besides the singular entity"- accompanied and explained the new order in which universal spiritual claims were displaced by the singular entity of the nation and by the exigencies of politics. The nominalist doctrine found expression, mutatis mutandis, in Cranmer and in the formula of the diet of Augsburg, cuius regio, eius religio.

Today we are culturally awash in an ideological solvent more acidic than nominalism, or perhaps it should be described as nominalism taken to the nth power. Variously called radical pluralism, multiculturalism, culture criticism, and deconstructionism-and sometimes self-declared as nihilism-it is a pervasive intellectual impulse that is at war with the idea of universal truth, whether that truth be human nature or Christ's will for the ordering of his Church. I do not for a minute suggest that bishops, theologians, and activists who are agitating the new conciliar movement are disciples of Foucault or Rorty, or have even read them. Radical nominalism is simply in the cultural air that this generation breathes.

How else to explain the response of knowing disbelief to claims of universal truth and of teaching authority in the service of that truth? The only universal truth, it is said, is that there is no universal truth; there are only interests, felt needs, and ambitions, and the quest to satisfy them all. We should not be surprised that the nominalist air of the university and popular discourse has seeped into the churches. Almost everywhere the doctrine is advanced that the putative battle over truth is in fact a contest of power to impose "truths" that serve singular interests-whether of race, class, and gender or of ecclesiastics wanting a bigger say in the business of Catholicism Inc. Throughout there is an appeal to a sovereignty more powerful than that of the divine right of kings-the sovereignty of democracy understood as the will of that most singular of all singular entities, the autonomous self.

Archbishop Quinn Speaks Up

To be sure, these assumptions usually remain precisely that, assumptions. They are in the background, forming, as it were, the ideational ambiance of proposals presented in other terms. They are certainly not explicit in the June 29 address of John Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, given in Oxford, not far from where Cranmer died 440 years ago. The very long lecture, "Considering the Papacy," has quickly become a centerpiece of the new conciliarism.

In a carefully coordinated campaign of publicity, the address has been celebrated, along with other initiatives, as a bold call for Catholic reform. In the usual quarters, Archbishop Quinn was hailed for his "courage," although it is not clear what he risked. He took early retirement from the office he held, had no other office either in hand or in prospect, and burning at the stake is simply out of the question these days. He did manfully accept the explosion of approbation from people of like mind who view Rome as oppressive and think (or at least hope) that this pontificate is drawing to its close, making it an opportune moment to press their preferred directions.

Archbishop Quinn had been for many years a major influence in the activities of the U.S. episcopal conference, and it is perhaps understandable that his Oxford address was treated as a major event, even if Origins, the documentary service of the conference, may have gone a bit far by printing not only the entirety of the address but a long interview about what Archbishop Quinn had said. The interview was unusual in that the Archbishop interviewed himself, both asking and answering all the questions. As might be expected, the interview was decidedly favorable to the Quinn initiative.

Among the Archbishop's complaints is that, while the Pope consults with the bishops, the power to initiate new directions always lies with Rome. Although Quinn says he is speaking from his own experience, he does not specify how restraints imposed by Rome prevent a bishop from taking energetic initiatives in teaching, sanctifying, and governing (the classic responsibilities of a bishop) in a way that nurtures a vibrant, faithful, and growing local Church in places such as San Francisco. It might have been helpful if he had specified how Rome was responsible, if it was responsible, for that not happening during his many years as archbishop there. But a man can't do everything, and over those years the Archbishop was giving himself unstintingly to the efficient management of the national episcopal conference and, as is now evident, to "considering the papacy."

One hastens to say that John Quinn is certainly not Thomas Cranmer. There is no reason to doubt that the Archbishop intends to be a loyal son of the Church and sincerely wants to improve its governance. Yet the similarities between the tale told by MacCulloch and the Quinn initiative are not limited to the coincidence of their sharing the locale of Oxford. Quinn appealed to an allegedly widespread popular discontent with the current governance of the Church. As with Cranmer and Henry, the "woman question" enters the dispute, this time in the form of women's ordination. Once again, we are told that the problem is not really with the pope but with the curia. Everybody would be better served, it is suggested, if decisions were made by general councils convened every ten years, reinforced by synods of bishops and national episcopal conferences with real power.

While bishops would be elected (by other bishops, with undefined participation by priests and laity), the Archbishop insists that he is opposed to such elections being "political." Election results would be courteously submitted to the pope for his affirmation. Such proposals are cautiously and somewhat ambiguously presented, but the point of limiting the exercise of papal authority, if not papal authority itself, is unmistakable. The address is devoid of reference to universal truths touching on the divine constitution of the Church, devoted as it is to the singular entity of managerial imperatives. Theology gives way to the modern monarchs of efficiency, participation, and responsive management, all in the name of "collegiality." Preoccupied with the regio of the Church and reflecting the regio of the culture, the address fails to attend to the ways in which, still today, regio may determine religio.

A Curious Continuum

Of course, reflecting on the similarities and dissimilarities between Cranmer and Quinn is largely a whimsical exercise, for the latter surely does not intend to establish a new national church. It is not so clear that he is averse to a federation of national churches with the pope as international president. In any event, the Oxford address reminds us of the curious continuum of history in which, as they say, what goes around comes around. Those with a firm grasp of the past may greet the Quinn proposal with a yawn. Been there, done that. Others express alarm that he and his collaborators are launching another Protestant schism. Both reactions are unwarranted, I believe.

While the divinely constituted structure is permanent, the particulars of the governance of the Church have changed many times in the past and will no doubt change in the future. With specific reference to the Petrine ministry, John Paul said as much in last year's ecumenical encyclical, Ut Unum Sint (That They May Be One). In that document he asked non-Catholics for help in reflecting on how the papacy might better serve the cause of Christian unity. The Pope was perhaps somewhat surprised that the first person to jump at the invitation would be a Catholic archbishop who, with only nominal attention to Christian unity, took the occasion to press the familiar progressive agenda that has dominated so much of the discussion in the thirty years since Vatican II. The fact that the gist of the Quinn proposal is not new does not mean it is not important. It can be useful to have these organizational concerns raised again, although they are more helpfully raised in the context of a developed ecclesiology that recognizes that the Church is ever so much more than a religious association. Absent that ecclesiology, as MacCulloch's story reminds us, reorganization schemes can give rise to all kinds of unhappy incoherences and lead to transfers of sovereignty in ways that were not intended.

An Intra-Curial Dispute

In any case, nobody should be panicked by the crisis-mongering of highly coordinated press campaigns. In a little-remarked passage in his book of reflections, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul expresses his gratitude that, for the first time in a very long time, the Catholic Church does not face any evident prospect of schism. That is one reason why this pontificate-which, far from winding down, goes on from strength to strength-can devote itself so energetically to setting out a comprehensive, coherent, and compelling vision for the future of the Church and the world. It is a sadness, but it is not surprising, that this bracing vision makes slight impression on ecclesiastics who live by organization charts and confuse renewal with deciding who chairs what committee with what powers to appoint whom to what. That the Pope seems to be relatively indifferent to such questions offends those trained to the curial mindset, whether in Rome or in national episcopal conferences. The controversy sparked by the Quinn initiative is essentially an intra-curial dispute.

The curialists also serve, no doubt, even if their anxieties and excitements seem far removed from the "new Pentecost" for which John Paul asks all Christians to pray. Somebody has to do the institutional grunt work with its inevitable, and often unseemly, contests for influence and power, and its stifling vision of corporate efficiency. Catholicism Inc. is not the Church, yet, in God's mysterious devising, it is inextricably part of the mission for which and by which the Church is sustained through time. In these institutional struggles other sovereignties-royal, managerial, democratic-seem to triumph from time to time, but the Spirit keeps erupting and we have the promise that the sovereignty of Christ will out.

Thomas Cranmer, too, no doubt had some legitimate concerns. He lived too early to see the world-transforming resurgence of the Catholic Church in subsequent centuries and so decided it was necessary to switch sovereignties. In the maddening ways of history, not unrelated to the ways of God, his decision may have contributed to the resurgence. We must in charity assume that he did not intend to displace the sovereignty of Christ and the truth by which the Church is ordered. On the contrary, it seems probable that he sincerely believed he was liberating the Church from the oppressive yoke of Rome. But switch sovereignties he did, building a church not on the rock of Peter but on the sand of national identity, and the gates of history, if not of hell, have not been kind to it. There would seem to be no good reason why, four and a half centuries later, Catholics should be similarly flirting with the sovereigns-or, as St. Paul might say, the principalities and powers-of the present age.

To come back to where we began: For all the institutional risks it might entail, I hope Queen Elizabeth will decide to relinquish the pretension to being the supreme head of the Church of England. It has caused a great deal of mischief, and England deserves something better than a royally established denomination that no longer has even the dubious distinction of being the national religion. And I do recommend the reading of Thomas Cranmer, even if Mr. MacCulloch does draw the wrong lessons from his sad but intriguing tale.

And Now For Something Not So Completely Different . . .

We are told that this has no relationship to the initiative of Archbishop Quinn at Oxford, and I am prepared to believe that. The appearance of coordination, however, will tempt the more conspiratorially minded. Be that as it may, people with long institutional memories say they do not recall anything quite like it in the history of Catholicism in this country. The very public conflict between cardinals was triggered by an August 12 press conference at which Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago announced that he was launching a "Catholic Common Ground Project" aimed at reconciling differences among Catholic Americans.

The rationale of the project was set out in a three-thousand-word statement, "Called to be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril," which Monsignor Philip J. Murnion said had been in preparation for several years. Murnion, who heads the staff of the project, directs the National Pastoral Life Center in New York and has a long association with Cardinal Bernardin. Through dialogues, conferences, and publications, the project hopes to establish the common ground that will help mediate what its sponsors view as the "extremes" dividing the Church. The project will draw on the suggestions of an advisory committee of twenty- five persons, clergy and lay.

The response to the Bernardin initiative was swift and, in many cases, sharply critical. Although he had included Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles on the advisory group and had notified some bishops and the Holy See of his intentions, there was no advance consultation with, among others, the cardinal archbishops of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Detroit. The day following Bernardin's press conference, James Cardinal Hickey of Washington issued a statement affirming the need to seek fuller unity but asserting that the project's declared purpose "obscures the true 'common ground' for any effort to bring about unity within the Church. That true 'common ground' is found in Scripture and Tradition as handed on through the teaching office of the Holy Father and the bishops. Indeed, we are fortunate to have a reliable and complete expression of our 'common ground' in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We cannot achieve Church unity by accommodating those who dissent from Church teaching-whether on the left or on the right. To compromise the faith of the Church is to forfeit our 'common ground' and to risk deeper polarization."

"To be sure," said Hickey, "[the project's statement of purpose] recognizes the Magisterium as authoritative and deserving of respect. But it also seems to regard magisterial teaching as only one element of a consensus that is to be forged out of contrasting opinions." In fact, says Hickey, "the Magisterium guarantees that the Lord's message will not be corrupted or manipulated by those who have a message of their own to offer. . . . Church doctrine on faith and morals is deeply rooted in what the Lord has said and done to save us. It is His message we must preach, even when it is distinctly unpopular."

Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston was scarcely less critical. The project statement, he said, "breathes an ideological bias which it decries in others. The fundamental flaw . . . is its appeal for 'dialogue' as a path to 'common ground.'" Law recognizes that there is often a "disconnect" between Church teaching and the views and practices of "some Catholics," and he describes this circumstance as "alarming." But he adds: "Dissent from revealed truth or the authoritative teaching of the Church cannot be 'dialogued' away. Truth and dissent from truth are not equal partners in ecclesial dialogue. Dialogue as a pastoral effort to assist in a fuller appropriation of the truth is laudable. Dialogue as a way to mediate between the truth and dissent is mutual deception." On the claim (at least implied in the project statement) that the authenticity of Church teaching depends upon its popular reception, Cardinal Law says, "Reception by the faithful cannot be measured by polls which are subject to all the pressures of contemporary culture . . . any more than the schism of all the bishops save one in Henry VIII's England can be ascribed to an exercise of collegiality." With respect to the truth revealed by God, Law concludes, "Dissent either yields to assent, or the conflict remains irresolvable."

Public statements by Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit were similarly critical. Maida's statement went very nicely to the theological heart of the matter. "Church unity will be achieved by recognizing the fact that we are members of one same body, sharing the life of the Lord Jesus. We do not 'dialogue' about membership in the Church any more than we would discuss our status in our family. . . . Unity in the Catholic Church will not be brought about by some kind of human consensus, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit as we consecrate all that we are and all that we have to the Lord Jesus and to His body, the Church."

Many joined also in questioning what they viewed as the tendentious reading of the Catholic situation as "Church in a time of peril," contending that a large, growing, and committed Catholic community is excitingly challenged by the teaching of the Magisterium and the call of John Paul II to prepare Church and world for the Third Millennium. The Common Ground Project, they say, defines the Catholic reality by divisions, discouragements, discontents, and dissent rather than by the equally evident virtues of faith, hope, and love. "It is essentially a negative document," says one bishop who does not want to be publicly critical of Bernardin, "and can only exacerbate the divisions it says it wants to heal."

In a letter sent to some prominent Catholics a few days before the Chicago announcement, Msgr. Murnion wrote that Cardinal Bernardin "will be assisted in this effort by an advisory committee who themselves find the statement an acceptable framework for initiating the project, even if one or another might see aspects of the present situation a bit differently from the viewpoint of the statement." As it happens, a number of those who had at first agreed to serve on the committee have indicated that they take strong exception to the statement. Cardinal Bernardin seems to have been taken aback by the sharpness of the criticism, especially from his fellow cardinals. In subsequent comments he has tried to clarify the purpose of the project, although saying at the same time, "In no way do I wish to be distanced from the statement."

Also central to this unprecedented public conflict between American cardinals is the question referred to by Cardinal Law, "the exercise of collegiality." For many years now, what some observers call the Bernardin party has been adamant that bishops should speak and act collectively. Bernardin, a chief architect of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has until now been loath to act even in concert with other cardinals, insisting on collective action through the conference. The puzzlement was considerable, therefore, when he unilaterally launched a project to resolve major disputes that have been around for years, completely bypassing the conference that is largely of his own making and, with the exception of Los Angeles, taking the other cardinals by surprise.

Sympathy and Admiration

Nobody doubts Cardinal Bernardin's deep devotion to reconciliation. His admirers have long dubbed him "the great reconciler," while those less enamored of his leadership say that he believes almost everything is negotiable, and acknowledge his record of making improbable accommodations that, he is convinced, serve the Church. Across the board there is enormous personal sympathy for Bernardin. He has recently gone through the hellish ordeal of being falsely accused of sexual abuse, and the grace with which he bore himself both under attack and in unqualified vindication met with universal praise. In addition, since the announcement of the project he has made it known that the cancer with which he has been struggling is now inoperable and he likely has less than a year to live. His indomitable determination to carry on with his duties as long as he can, joined to his compelling public witness of hope in Christ's eternal promise, have further increased his spiritual stature among both Catholics and the general public.

Personal sympathy, plus sympathy for the aims of the project itself, help explain why seven bishops agreed to be on the advisory committee. "This may be the last hurrah at the end of a remarkable career, putting the capstone on his legend as a reconciler," said one bishop who asks to be unnamed. "How could I say no?" Personal sympathy, reinforced by a sense of collegiality, also explains why the criticism of the Common Ground Project has generally avoided any personal criticism of Cardinal Bernardin.

Although one can be sure it was not his intention, the project and the way it was launched gave the appearance that Cardinal Bernardin was elevating himself to the de facto leadership of the American hierarchy. More troubling, "Called to be Catholic" could fairly be read as a statement that the Common Ground Project was taking over from the hierarchy the pastoral responsibility that the bishops had failed to exercise effectively. This consideration weighed heavily in the criticisms, reinforcing Cardinal Law's observation that the project statement "breathes an ideological bias." In fact, the statement is carefully crafted and clearly strives to be evenhanded, as evenhandedness is perceived from the left of the Catholic spectrum.

In the statement, traditional ecclesiology gives way to a dominantly sociological view of the Catholic reality. "Unless we examine our situation with fresh eyes, open minds, and changed hearts," it is said, "within a few decades a vital Catholic legacy may be squandered, to the loss of both the Church and the nation." Among the signs of "peril," the Number One issue is "the changing roles of women," followed by the usual concerns about sexual ethics, the decline in priestly vocations (which it is implied will continue), and the inclusion of the cultural heritages of racial and ethnic minorities. The project also intends to take on "the responsibility of theology to authoritative church teaching," and, in striking similarity to Archbishop Quinn's Oxford initiative, "the place of collegiality and subsidiarity in the relations between Rome and the American episcopacy."

What Might Be Learned

As mentioned, many observers deny the premise that the Church is in peril. ("Church in Time of Peril" employs the locution of "Church" without the definite article, which for some reason has become a liberal fetish recently-as in "We Are Church," the activist coalition currently trying to collect a million signatures protesting the allegedly reactionary ways of this pontificate.) At the same time, numerous Catholics who describe themselves as conservative or traditionalist would agree that Catholicism is in crisis, but they would draw up a very different list of reasons for the crisis, possibly beginning with the widespread assumption that authoritative teaching can be negotiated with those who oppose it.

The future of the Common Ground Project is very much in question. Msgr. Murnion says it had been in the works for several years. It was a wagon ready to go and was temporarily hitched to Chicago's ecclesiastical star, but now that star is disappearing. Without Cardinal Bernardin, and with the possible withdrawal of the few advisors who gave the committee a nonpartisan cover, the project could go on as yet another moderately liberal discussion group. The proposed conferences that were to "model" the dialogue that might bring Catholics together would turn out to be something like a traveling Commonweal symposium. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it is a far, far way from the project's initial ambitions to assume pastoral responsibility for ecclesial reconciliation. The unhappy and undeniable fact is that what started out to be a program for unity quickly became a cause of disunity at many levels of leadership in the Church.

There is a sadness in it all. Cardinal Bernardin deserves a worthier conclusion to his years of devoted service, and he should not be remembered for this initiative. In addition, one hopes that the bungling of this enterprise will not make dialogue a dirty word. As Cardinal Law observed, "Dialogue as a pastoral effort to assist in a fuller appropriation of the truth is laudable." Dialogue is a way of teaching, and teaching is the duty of bishops-a duty that, few bishops will disagree, has often been neglected. The Catholic Common Ground Project may make the exercise of that duty more difficult in the years ahead, or it may spur other bishops to take up what was right and promising in this failed initiative.

While We're At It

Sources: Pope John Paul II on Africa, cited by George Weigel, Pilot, April 5, 1996. On Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), Touchstone, Winter 1996. Garry Wills on Hillary Clinton, originally in New York Review of Books, quoted in New Republic, February 5, 1996. Michael Horton criticisms of RC Church, Regeneration Quarterly, Winter 1996. Alan Wolfe on religion and higher education, Lingua Franca, April 1996. Religion index in Emerging Trends, March 1996. On shrine at Walsingham, England, Ecumenical News International, April 12, 1996. Clark Morphew on women and religion, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, April 20, 1996. David Elkind on modern and postmodern families, Phi Delta Kappan, September 1995. Dorothy Rabinowitz on TV news magazine 20/20 in Wall Street Journal, April 29, 1996. Dr. Scott Walker quoted in Religion Watch, May 1996. On oldline Protestant decline, Religion Watch, May 1996. On millennial ferris wheel, Daily Telegraph, April 18, 1996. Dr. R. Albert Mohler on Pope John Paul II, Light, March-April 1996. Nina Shea on Chinese churches, Freedom House memo to various Catholic writers, May 14, 1996. New Yorker article on Justice Clarence Thomas, April 29 and May 6, 1996. Gore Vidal on John Updike, Times Literary Supplement, April 26, 1996. Brother Dietrich Reinhart on "colleges in the Catholic tradition," The Record, May 2, 1996. Review of Louis Spohr's Mass, Crisis, June 1996. On the Rev. Philip Wogaman, Mother Jones, May/June 1996. Dolores Williams quoted in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 22, 1996. Gangsta rap lyrics and Recording Industry Association president quoted in press release from Empower America, June 6, 1996. Obituary of former New Jersey Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz, New York Times, July 24, 1996. On downsizing at the National Council of Churches, Ecumenical News International, August 21, 1996. Mary Jo Weaver lecture, copy of text available from Santa Clara University. On moral equivalence between abortion and other justice issues, Catholic Trends, August 24, 1996. C. Everett Koop interview in American Medical News, August 1996. Bishop Richard Holloway on opponents of women's ordination, Christian Challenge, May 1996.