John Hunwicke on the lasting consequences, especially for Anglicans, of the pontificate of John Paul II, and the unapologetic proclamation of the Gospel which characterised his teaching

As the obituary writers get drafting on a new Pope and the Vaticanologists scrutinize his every gesture for hints of a programme, and the mandarins in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints prepare their dossiers on John Paul the Great (and what a truly great pontiff he was), what of John Paul’s legacy, and, particularly, what are its consequences for Catholic Anglicans?

In a sense, what makes his legacy hang together was his conviction that the Church has a message, has a Gospel, for the world. Many of those who were most emotional about the Second Vatican Council saw it as an opening of the windows to the world; and of course there is a sense in which we have to hear the world.

When St Paul preached on the Areopagus, he felt it appropriate to quote fashionable Greek philosophers; but as he dictated Romans 1, he did not look around at the sexual mores of the Graeco-Roman world and devise neat ways of accommodating his teaching to either its presuppositions or its practices.

Empowering the Church

We have a Gospel to proclaim, and John Paul was prepared to make himself unpopular by proclaiming it. In cultural terms, he believed that the Gospel has its own culture, its own values, its own way of talking. Just as the early medieval Church had Christianized and civilized a barbarous western world, not by accepting that world on its own terms but by transforming it, so John Paul believed in pushing God’s Word upon the world, rather than lying back and enjoying whatever the world dishes out.

He inherited, as far as the English-speaking church was concerned, a disintegrated liturgical culture dominated by a self-perpetuating élite, which came to power in the Sixties with a dogmatic determination to promote ‘translations’ which eliminated anything – in terms of either doctrine or language – which it felt would not be understood and accepted by the least instructed and the least committed.

In a superb document which he sponsored, Liturgicam authenticam, much maligned by the illiterate, and in his revision of the Roman Missal, he demanded that the Church’s biblical and patristic culture should be empowered, through the liturgy, to make inroads upon the world, rather than making constant retreats in the face of modern paganism. The results of that initiative will eventually have a knock-on effect upon our worship – Fathers, this is not the moment to reprint or revise your parish Mass booklets!

He took over a Church which was losing its nerve in the face of relativism and a lack of real conviction that the Gospel is the truth, rather than my truth, or one item on a menu of more or less true options. In initiatives such as Dominus Jesus, John Paul’s regime made clear that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life; that there is only one name given under heaven by which humans may be saved. His enemies created such a hysteria that the document was condemned by innumerable writers who had clearly never read it. (I urge evangelical brethren to get a copy, to go through it with two highlighters, one for agreement, the other for disagreement, and to see which colour runs out first.)

He stood up to modern heresies with regard to gender. His Ordinatio sacerdotalis is characteristic in more than one way. Firstly, with regard to what it reveals about his attitude to the authority of his office. Gone is the old papacy which expressed itself in such a way that it was easily misunderstood as claiming the right to invent and impose ‘new’ doctrines. John Paul and his collaborators regarded the papacy as called by God to resist attempts to corrupt the faith once for all delivered to the saints (excubare, as patristic Latin puts it).

Limits of power

So Ordinatio sacerdotalis carefully explained that the Church does not have the ability to ordain women to the sacerdotal ministries. The ordination of women to the priesthood is excluded, not because papacy and Church have such enormous power that they can ban it, but because they have such limited power that they cannot sanction it.

This leaves liberals in the entertainingly incoherent position of arguing that papal power is big enough to make such a change, but at the same time not big enough for liberals to have to obey it when it does not agree with them. And it leaves non-Roman Catholic traditionalists the duty to reconsider a papacy that sees its duty as no more than to refuse innovations, which are not organic developments of the paradosis, thus enabling all the churches to live in unbroken communion on the basis of the Gospel.

Irreversible declaration

As far as the question itself, of ordaining women, is concerned, Ordinatio sacerdotalis settles the matter. It is infallible; technically, because it authoritatively declares what the infallible ordinary magisterium of the universal episcopate has always taught. This means that even if a subsequent pope or council wished to go back on it, a minority, which adhered to Ordinatio sacerdotalis, would have a strong case for arguing that this pope or council would automatically have lapsed into heresy by denying infallible truth, and thus automatically have lost its standing.

Such horrendous dangers of substantial and irreversible schism would make a reversal of Ordinatio sacerdotalis pretty well inconceivable. Even the dear old Guardian understands this. So, if ‘reception’ means reception on a universal basis rather than merely within the Anglican Communion, the ‘period of reception’ of women priests has already come to an end, and the innovation has been unreceived.

John Paul presided over Rome’s acceptance of ARCIC I as so ‘remarkable a consensus’ that ‘no further study would seem to be required at this stage.’ The Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission had agreed that ‘it is only the episcopally ordained priest who presides at the Eucharist’ and that ‘each episcopal ordination is part of a successive line which links the bishops of today with the apostolic ministry.’

Tragically, this did not prevent Anglican synods from subsequently agreeing arrangements with Scandinavian Lutherans and British Methodists which contradict this consensus. But at least it gives the lie to the idea, now being fostered, that the General Synod decision of 1992 about ordaining women priests would never have happened if the Vatican had not ‘dragged its feet’ about ARCIC. Establishment Anglicanism enjoys ecumenical accords with Rome only to ignore them totally in its subsequent praxis.

Santo subito!