The Faith Once Delivered Print
By Mary Eberstadt   
Tuesday, 17 November 2009

It is no exaggeration to say that Catholicism today, not only in America but across the world, resembles nothing so much as a gigantic pizzeria – one in which some people spend their days enjoying the pizza, and others complaining about just which parts of the pie they dislike most.

Now, imagine that the parlor doors swing open one day to let in a small but distinguished group of new patrons, all sharing the same gastronomic preference: they, too, are coming to enjoy the pizza rather than to disdain it. What do you suppose will be the likely effect of this group on the overall scene? Won’t it most likely please the already seated pizza-lovers, even as it gives the pizza-complainers a moment of pause as they witness this new group do something they think can’t be done – i.e., enjoy the pizza for what it is?

If you think the answer is yes on both counts, then you already understand more than many commentators about Pope Benedict’s bombshell October announcement, offering members of the Anglican Communion a new fast track into the Catholic Church. As Robert Royal noted in his column following the Vatican’s announcement (“Bold, Benedetto, and Bello”), this forceful stroke “confuses journalists who tend only to think in binary oppositions of left and right that maybe a whole other game is being played.” Now, weeks later, the commotion has only grown louder – a reaction worth inspecting as the pope’s move begins to re-write the next few centuries of Christendom.

As ever, outright anti-Catholics have elbowed their way to the front of the japery. Some have provided so much free entertainment following the pope's announcement that a whole new awards ceremony should be designed to recognize them. In the category of reading world historical news through the most parochial lens possible, for example, the Los Angeles Times led a crowded field with this entry: “this religious realignment is also a reminder to supporters of equality for women and gays and lesbians that they must literally preach to the converted if they are to win believers to their cause.”

The skies were not much clearer on the other side of the country at the Washington Post. There Benedict’s announcement provoked what might be dubbed the inadvertent miracle award; it caused Richard Dawkins to wax lyrical about a Christian clergyman – specifically the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose “saintly quality,” “benignity of countenance,” and “well-meaning sincerity” he contrasted with that Gulag on the Tiber that “most deserves the title of greatest force for evil in the world.”

As for the blogosphere, where the traffic from anti-Catholics, un-Catholics, and ex-Catholics is busiest of all, so much sputtering has been occasioned by Benedict’s move that it might seem nearly impossible to single out any one entry for distinction. Fortunately, the Huffington Post volunteered itself. There, a female Episcopalian priest, disdaining the pope’s announcement, valiantly predicted an influx into the Anglican Communion of disaffected Catholics, and further reported that from what she personally had seen at the Vatican, “the clergy scene in Rome certainly seems very gay” – a statement that, considering the source, fairly cries out for what might be called a Kettle and Pot prize.

Even so, amid the showers of crocodile tears, there remains one other interested party about which little has been heard: religious-minded Anglicans themselves, who have watched with dismay for many years now as their liturgy has been trashed, their churches emptied, and their vaunted tolerance twisted by a-religious radicals into a rationale for jettisoning anything besides whistles and bells that smacked of traditional Christianity.

Charlotte Hays’ eloquent column on this site, “Outreach to the Homeless,” said it all: “It’s good I found a new home, because my old one no longer exists.” Similarly, as one former Episcopalian priest turned Catholic wrote in a letter to the New York Times – objecting to the paper’s umpteenth portrayal of believers like himself as simply bad on women and gays – “Priests like me are not reacting to polemics on the theological spectrum. It is the faith once delivered that we are after, which we pursue as an imperative of conscience.” Such personal testimony underscores the compassion of Benedict’s move. It also reminds that there have indeed been victims of what have come to be the teachings of the Anglican Communion – just not the ones that pundits reflexively hostile to the papacy have identified.

In his 1952 classic A Traveller in Rome, H.V. Morton writes sweepingly of the longstanding love harbored by English tourists of all times and varieties for the Eternal City, one that influenced their home country in a thousand and one imported ways. “Even today,” he reported from mid-century after surveying the tourists of decades past, “those who have been ruthlessly educated to be chemists and physicists, and to hold down important posts in commercial combines, descend from their coaches and gaze around upon the Roman scene, so dear to their ancestors, conscious maybe that there is something there to be understood and perhaps even loved.”

It now turns out that there is more understanding and love in Rome than even Morton in all his brilliance could have foreseen, including and especially for those Anglicans, English and otherwise, who are still searching for a faith that delivers. Their exodus into the pizza parlor will be bad for those want the place to be something other than what it is, and good for those who love it for itself alone. That’s why those in that second category should be standing on their chairs by now, cheering what may turn out to be one of the religious game-changers of our lifetimes.


Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, contributing writer to First Things, and author most recently of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism, forthcoming in Spring 2010 from Ignatius Press.

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