Is the Catholic Church a denomination?

"Don't mention the war!" is a wonderful catch phrase from "The Germans" episode of the British television series Fawlty Towers.

John Cleese, playing a concussed and bandaged Basil Fawlty, inadvertently insults a party of German tourists dining at his hotel. Even though he warns his assistant Polly, "don't mention the War", he proceeds to do so with each line taking on a sharper tone. The comedy reaches its zenith when Basil gives an impression of Adolf Hitler and goose-steps around the hotel.

The humor in this episode comes from the interplay between the slightly mad Basil Fawlty's attempts at maintaining  bourgeois respectability and his anti-German jokes. The audience knows the mad Basil is the real Basil. Basil's respectable language is all very well, but reality has a knack of continuing to exist independently of his attempt to bind it through verbal gymnastics.

A recent article in the Oklahoman entitled "State leaders react to new Catholic rite for Anglicans" brought this language game to my mind. Read on one level, the Oklahoman article couples loose reporting with unexamined statements offered by the protagonists. On another level, one where language has precise meanings and history, it comes across as an equal opportunity hit piece -- one that can offend Anglicans and Catholics.

Let me show you what I hear in this story.

The Oklahoman offers a local angle on the news of the creation of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter for Anglicans seeking a corporate place within the Roman Catholic Church. The lede begins:

Oklahoma’s Episcopal bishop said switching from one denomination to another is nothing new.

“Just as the Roman Catholic Church has received people from other denominations, the Episcopal Church has received people from other denominations as well,” the Rt. Rev. Edward Konieczny, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, said Wednesday.

Perhaps I have been down too deep and too long in the ocean of religion reporting, but my first response was "Whoa! Was this an anti-Catholic smack-down from the Episcopal bishop? Was he calling the Catholic Church a denomination?" I might well be misreading this, but this is not something you say in polite religious company.

The article then offers a some background and an explanation of the ordinariate that is somewhat messy. Fr. Jeffrey Steenson, who left the Episcopal Church in 2007 for the Roman Catholic Church and was appointed head of the ordinariate, is identified as the former bishop of New Mexico when he was the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande. The article states that Episcopal clergy who join become Catholic clergy, but does not say that these clergy must be re-ordained and will not automatically be allowed to become priests. Not fatal, but it would be nice to get this right. It further states:

The Houston-based Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter will allow a special Anglican-style Catholic Mass that can include sections from the Book of Common Prayer and other Anglican liturgies.

Yes -- but. Is there is more to it than Anglican-like, or Anglican-lite Catholic Masses? No explanation so far of the concept that this is a jurisdiction within the Catholic Church akin to a diocese for those members of the Anglican churches who have come to believe the truth claims of the Catholic Church -- and believe they are called to enter the Catholic Church. The story then quotes a local Catholic voice.

“What they’re basically doing is taking the traditional Anglican approach and becoming part of the Catholic Church,” said George Rigazzi, a canon lawyer who is director of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s Office of Family Life.

“They are allowed to keep their uniqueness as Anglicans but still be in communion with Rome.”

Yes -- but. There is more to it than this. What does "uniqueness as Anglicans" mean? What are they being allowed to keep?

This new structure grew out of a controversial 2009 effort by Pope Benedict to persuade conservative Anglicans to align with Rome under an exemption that allows Anglican priests, laity and even entire congregations to convert while keeping their prized music and prayers. ... “The beauty of this is they are maintaining their tradition while being in communion with Rome,” [Rigazzi] said.

Why the adjective? Controversial to whom? Anglicans who become Catholics may keep their prized music and prayers and may maintain their traditions -- which means what exactly? Anglican prayers, after all, are what differentiates Anglicans from Catholics.

I assume I know what the bishop means -- people move between church homes all the time. But the Roman Catholic Church rejects the notion that it is a denomination. The Episcopal Church too rejects the notion that it is a denomination. It is a "true church", a branch of the "one, holy and apostolic church" along with the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

I assume I know what the canon lawyer means -- Anglicans liturgies have aesthetic value. But can Anglicanism be reduced merely to a Catholic-lite denomination with pretty liturgies? The concept of the sacrifice of the mass, real presence and such are antithetical to Anglican prayers at the Holy Communion.

This incompatibility is what lies behind that segment of the Anglo-Catholic movement known as Anglo-Papalists --- Anglicans (mostly in the Church of England) that use the Roman Catholic missal instead of the Book of Common Prayer because the missal is a more faithful statement of their beliefs than the Prayer Book. This is from where many of the members of the English ordinariate are coming. Is this true in America?

Why my mind was drawn to Basil Fawlty at the outset of this article was the sense that the "Don't mention the war!" meme had morphed into "Don't mention denominations!" The D word is offered up front, pulled back, and without being spoken again its meaning introduced into the discussion of the ordinariate. Anglicans and Roman Catholics are, after all, different Christian denominations -- a supposition both would reject.

While to many observers there is little to distinguish between the Catholic and Anglican churches save for the Pope and married clergy, there are substantial doctrinal differences between the two that are glossed over in most accounts of the ordinariate.

What I find missing in this story, and many of the stories about the ordinariate, is the sense from those going over to Rome that they are entering the true church -- the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Preserving liturgical forms is important, but it is this sense that they have reached their true home -- or have come home as some Catholics like to say -- that is missing from these stories.

In other words, the motivation for the actors in these stories is unconvincing. It is kept at a level of aesthetics, when it has more to do with a search for truth.

Am I being fair to the Oklahoman? Putting aside the surface level errors is the lack of convincing motive due to inexpert reporting or an inadequate explanation, a faulty apologetic, from the Catholic Church as to the purpose of the ordinariate? What say you GetReligion readers?

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