The Vatican's cynical gesture to Episcopalians

Overtures to join Rome shouldn't be based on a Catholicism-lite.

The depth of cynicism behind the Vatican's invitation last month to right-wing Episcopalians "to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony" is best understood through one of Rome's most high-profile converts, a certain John Henry Newman.

Pope Benedict XVI's long-running admiration of the 19th century English theologian is well-documented; this summer, he even cleared the way for his accession to sainthood. Clearly, nothing would please him more than to see a new generation of latter-day Newmans streaming through the gates of the One True Faith. But far from perpetuating his legacy, Benedict's proposed brand of Catholocism-lite would have deeply troubled Newman and the intellectual honesty he stood for.

Newman's transit from firebrand Protestant to Roman Catholic cardinal took place in the mid-19th century, a time when the very notion of Christian belief was under unprecedented existential threat. In the year before Newman's conversion, Marx declared religion the opium of the people, while the publication of "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation" – a precursor to Charles Darwin's "Origin of the Species" – set in motion the gradual erosion of belief in the literal truth of the Bible.

It was an age of doubt, a time when British poet Matthew Arnold depicted the decline in religious faith as a "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar." If many Christian denominations are struggling today – and the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey suggests they are – it must have seemed to Newman's contemporaries that the entire edifice of faith was collapsing about their ears, exposing beyond it a turbulent void of doubt.

In his days as an Episcopalian, Newman had been at the forefront of the so-called Oxford Movement. From their headquarters at Oxford University, this group of young religious hot-shots sought to roll back the liberal secularization of the church, hoping as they did so to restore an element of ritual and mystery to religious practise.

It would be easy enough to assume that the smells, bells, and reassuringly rigid doctrine of the Catholic Church eventually provided too much of a temptation for the intellectually fraught Newman to resist. As it happened, the spark of his conversion came from a quite different direction. Poring over an obscure 5th century religious text in 1839, he came to the conclusion, despite himself, that the Episcopalian faith was founded on a series of misconceptions that precluded its ever being a "true" church.

What followed was described by Newman as a "great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties."

His final conversion was some six years in the making, and came at a time when even the merest hint of "popishness" was still anathema in Britain. As one historian puts it, "to enter the Roman Church was literally to exile oneself from English life."

Newman's slow and painful transformation was an act of spiritual and intellectual bravery so profound that it eventually helped kick-start the gradual rehabilitation of Catholicism into conventional society. It involved not just abandoning much of what he had stood for, but immersing himself in a new and alien creed.

Catholicism, like virtually all Christian sects, is a missionary faith. But while it would be wrong to fault the Vatican for trying to garner new recruits, it's hard to see how lowering the bar to make embittered Episcopalians feel more at home will serve its long-term interests. In stressing rejection of the old over embrace of the new, Pope Benedict has created a simplistic and overwhelmingly negative form of conversion – one that Newman would scarcely recognize.

Oliver Lough is a researcher at the New America Foundation.

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