Octave / Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – January 2023

Octave / Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – January 2023

[ Links to posts for the Octave / Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 2019  /  2020  /  2021  /  2022   /  2023 ]

[ Image: (Clockwise from upper-left), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; St. Jerome (painted by Ghirlandaio), preeminent among the Church Fathers as both a patristic writer and the translator of Scripture into language that could be ‘understanded of the people’, imagined as studying in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; St. Augustine of Canterbury; the young John Henry Newman; Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who accomplished much towards 20th-century ecumenism between Rome and Canterbury; and Sophie Scholl, whose White Rose movement that defied Hitler (at the cost of her life) was inspired in part by Newman’s writings on conscience. ]

Because of Pope Benedict XVI’s passing from this life a few weeks ago (31 December 2022), it seems meet and right to observe this year’s Octave/Week of Christian Unity by pointing to at least some of the contributions Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI made to the cause of ecumenism between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.  I therefore re-purpose a post of a few days ago to mention a connection between Canterbury and Rome that has yet to be widely appreciated, though Benedict XVI understood it well.

Briefly put, this connection has to do with the ressourcement theological movement in the Catholic Church and the place of Scripture and the Church Fathers in Anglicanism’s ethos.

Theologian Dr. Larry Chapp provides a succinct description of the perspective and project of ressourcement theologians, which was “to move beyond the neo-Scholasticism of the time [the first half of the twentieth century] and to expand our appropriation of the Tradition by ‘going back to the sources’ of Scripture and the Church Fathers. This necessarily entailed the scuttling of the idea, so regnant in the Church for centuries, that all of Catholic theology should be centered in, and be an outflow of, the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the traditions of his commentators. And it was also the view of these theologians, Ratzinger included, that it was only in the Christocentrism of this return to the sources that the modern world could be properly engaged.’”  Greater familiarization with patristics necessarily meant, as well, rediscovery of theology’s interconnection with liturgy and, of course, the study of theology as part-and-parcel with growth in holiness.

In the Anglican context, Scripture’s preeminence has been acknowledged by nearly any form of Churchmanship.  But part of Anglicanism’s distinctiveness has been explicitly claiming an important place for patristic sources as well.  Among the sources that point to this characteristic, one is worth noting here, since it was part of the Elizabethan Settlement of roughly the last half of the sixteenth century, that settlement being a series of religious and political efforts towards establishing a distinct theological identity for the Church of England.  In 1571, Convocation required clergy in the Church of England to refer both to Scripture and “to the ancient Fathers of the Church,” which is “a statement probably without parallel in the official literature of [early] Continental Protestantism” (Aidan Nichols, 39).

(A few other sources on the importance of the Fathers and the early Church councils in the Anglican context:  Henry Chadwick, “Tradition, Fathers and Councils,” in The Study of Anglicanism [Fortress Press, 1988], 105; William Haugaard, “From the Reformation to the Eighteenth Century,” in The Study of Anglicanism, 24; on the synthesis of patristic sources with fourteenth-century English and other spiritualities in the seventeenth-century “Caroline Divines,” see Martin Thornton, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1986], 231-243.  Ready access, by Anglicans and non-Anglicans, to English translations of patristic literature is now taken for granted.  But it was thanks to the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement that the “first extensive body of patristic translations into English” appeared.  Richard Pfaff, “The Library of the Fathers: The Tractarians as Patristic Translators,” Studies in Philology 70, no. 3 [July 1973]: 344.)

None of this is to claim that it has been smooth sailing for either the ressourcement movement in Catholicism or the role of patristic literature throughout Anglican history.  For example, the ressourcement perspective has been derisively called la nouvelle théologie by some of its critics.  And regardless of official Anglican statements, some forms of Churchmanship have had little interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. 

But the connection between Catholicism’s reclaiming of its sources and Anglicanism’s refusal to jettison entirely its pre-sixteenth-century roots is there.  It could well provide a mutual enrichment between the two traditions.

Because Benedict XVI understood and appreciated this aspect of the Anglican patrimony, he made it possible for it to come into its own, as it were, to discover its distinctiveness in the broader context of Catholicism.  As important Anglican theologians have acknowledged, Michael Ramsey among them, and as many of us who appreciate the patristic approach will readily claim, there are times and situations when solidly systematic approaches to theology are not only preferable but necessary.  But there is much yet to be discovered in the Anglican-patrimonial distinctiveness.

John Henry Newman was, avant la lettre, a ressourcement theologian.  It is part of what made things difficult for Newman, first as an Anglican and then in Catholicism’s regnant Thomism of that era, to which Chapp refers.  Difficulties, are, however, part of the way forward.  May we be spared the kind of difficulties Sophie Scholl knew in the form of being executed because of her White Rose Resistance movement against the Nazi’s.  But though it might be a stretch to claim Scholl was keen on reading the Church Fathers, she, her brother, and others in the White Rose Resistance, were deeply influenced by Newman, especially his writings on conscience—none of which, Newman would have insisted, was without foundation in the patristic texts he knew so well.  Sophie and her brother were considering becoming Catholic, but that was one of many possibilities cut short by their executions.  The interconnections thus provide another layer of ecumenism.

Br. John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.

Sources

Nichols, Aidan. Catholics of the Anglican Patrimony: The Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Leominster, Herefordshire, U.K.: Gracewing, 2013.

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