The Lamp and the Leaven

How Anglicanorum Coetibus and Summorum Pontificum reveal the Pope’s intentions for strengthening the Church in the West.

Since Pope Benedict XVI promulgated his apostolic constitution on welcoming the faithful of the Anglican tradition back into the Catholic Church, many questions have arisen. These questions touch on such controversial subjects as the application of the norm of clerical celibacy to the returning Anglican communities, and the structure and operation of the “personal ordinariates”—the specific canonical jurisdictions that the Holy See will establish to facilitate the reconciliation of the returning Anglican faithful and to ensure the preservation of their cultural and liturgical heritage.

Given the complexity of the issues, there necessarily are many excellent questions to which no answer is yet possible. Despite this uncertainty, however, the law of the Church does provide a way for us to increase our understanding of this document.

When we encounter a legal document like Anglicanorum Coetibus, Church law gives us several principles of interpretation to help us to read it correctly. Most importantly, we must read the words of a law according to their ordinary meaning (cf. can. 17). In an area as complex as reconciling separated brethren and setting up new Church structures, however, the text of a law cannot possibly anticipate every question that might arise.

When the text alone does not answer all of our questions, Church law directs us to look to similar laws and the mind of the legislator (cf. ibid.). Determining legislative intent is notoriously difficult in the context of civil law because the legislature often is composed of hundreds of individuals whose reasons for enacting a law may vary widely, or may even seem contradictory. In the ecclesiastical context, however, there often is only a single legislator. This is the case with the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, whose sole legislator is the Holy Father himself. This is not to say that determining legislative intent is ever a simple matter, but it certainly can be more manageable in the canonical system than in the civil system.

Moreover, in this case, we do indeed have a similar law enacted by the same legislator that provides some insight into his intentions in issuing Anglicanorum Coetibus. In 2007 the Holy Father famously issued his apostolic letter giving priests greater freedom to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. That document, Summorum Pontificum, is by no means identical with Anglicanorum Coetibus, but there are some striking similarities. As a result of these similarities and as a result of the canonical principles on interpretation, I propose that one should read Anglicanorum in the light of Summorum.

This reading will by no means answer all of the questions that Anglicanorum raises, but I believe that it will shed light on the Holy Father’s intention and purpose. Reading the two documents together suggests several points, and I will discuss four of them here.


The first thing that strikes one about both Summorum Pontificum and Anglicanorum Coetibus is the relatively small number of beneficiaries of the two measures. Nearly all press reports take pains to emphasize that the numbers of both the Latin Mass faithful and the Anglicans who will take advantage of Anglicanorum are small.

One might well wonder whether this constant emphasis on small numbers involves a bit of wishful thinking. In reporting on Anglicanorum, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter recently stated that the number of the faithful who take advantage of Summorum Pontificum by attending the traditional Latin Mass is “tiny.” In actual fact, however, the number of US dioceses in which the traditional Mass is celebrated has grown by 25 percent in the years following Summorum. Thus, the numbers may indeed remain modest in absolute terms, but their proportionate increase over a short interval is impressive indeed.

However, let us assume for the sake of argument that the numbers are in fact as small as some observers say. This only renders the Holy Father’s action all the more remarkable.

It is clear that the Pope sees both of these questions—the Latin Mass and the Anglican situation—as matters of justice. Long before he issued Summorum, then-Cardinal Ratz inger had expressed repeatedly his bewilderment at the disdain that many of his brother bishops had shown for the traditional Mass (cf. J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth [1997]; God and the World [2002]).

By the same token, it seems that the Holy Father’s first concern in this case is to do justice to the Anglicans who wish to enter into communion with Rome. Note what he says at the very beginning of Anglicanorum Coetibus. He does not speak in terms of extending mercy to the separated Anglican brethren, nor does he treat his apostolic constitution as the mere granting of a concession.

Rather, he speaks in terms of both his own duties as universal shepherd, and also the rightful expectations of the Anglican faithful seeking reconciliation with Rome. He says, “Indeed, the successor of Peter…could not fail” to respond to “this holy desire.” Note the remarkable humility of the Holy Father in discussing the matt er in this fashion. This is not to say, however, that doing justice to the Anglicans is his only purpose. Benedict may have his own hopes about the impact that Anglicanorum will have, and below I will speculate a litt le about what those hopes might be.


It seems that no one expected Anglicanorum Coetibus before it was announced, nor even imagined that it was possible. The statements of the Anglicans seeking reconciliation with Rome are poignant and moving. Many say that the Holy Father has given them everything that they have requested, if not more (e.g., A. Arco, “Rome opens arms to world’s Anglicans,” Catholic Herald, November 13, 2009).

A similar thing happened in 2007 in the case of the traditional Latin Mass. In that case, there had been more speculation in advance of the Pope’s issuance of his document. In addition, a vigorous debate was taking place that now has been almost completely forgotten. One side was advocating the erection of an apostolic administration, a worldwide jurisdiction for the clergy and lay faithful devoted to the traditional Mass. The other side was proposing a universal indult, that is, the extension to all priests of special permission to celebrate this Mass.

The solution that the Holy Father put forward was simpler, but broader, than what most everyone had been discussing. He avoided the need for either the apostolic administration or the universal indult by simply recognizing that all priests are entitled to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass if they wish to do so (cf. SP, art. 2).

Another issue related to the Holy Father’s daring concerns his relationship with his brother bishops. Two years ago, many were outspoken in opposing Summorum Pontificum, especially in Europe. The situation is somewhat different with Anglicanorum Coetibus, because there was not nearly as much advance notice before its release. As a matter of fact, the lack of advance notice and the absence of organized opposition to the Pope’s initiative might not be entirely coincidental.

Nevertheless, the reception from some Catholic leaders has been chilly. It has not been openly defi ant, as it was in some quarters when the Holy Father issued Summorum, but it has been decidedly unenthusiastic. The episcopal reaction to Anglicanorum calls to mind the “NIMBY” phenomenon so familiar to local government officials, an acronym for the inevitable response to any att empt to build an undesirable facility in the community, such as a halfway house: Not in My Backyard! Some Catholic authorities have responded to Anglicanorum by acknowledging that it might be suitable for other countries, but that it is unnecessary in their own.


One particularly striking thing about the Holy Father’s initiatives is his willingness to bypass existing structures, even ones created by his beloved predecessor and dear friend Pope John Paul II.

It is clear from his apostolic letter on the traditional Latin Mass that Benedict had concluded that the standard way of dealing with the faithful devoted to this Mass was not working. The problem was that many bishops opposed the traditional Mass for years, despite the repeated urging by John Paul and then Cardinal Ratz inger to be generous.

Pope Benedict’s bold solution was to change the locus of decision-making. Instead of bishops, pastors now normally would be the ones to decide whether or not to offer the Latin Mass in a parish. John Paul II’s 1988 apostolic letter Ecclesia Dei had affirmed the legitimate aspirations of these faithful and had required the bishops to extend pastoral care to them, but in actual fact, John Paul’s administration nearly always deferred to the decision of the local bishop, no matter how arbitrary or ungenerous. Benedict’s innovation was to recognize that individual priests could decide for themselves whether to celebrate the traditional Mass, and that the decision as to whether a parish should offer this Mass normally should be made by the pastor rather than the bishop (cf. SP, art. 5).

The case of the Anglican faithful is somewhat similar. Although the Holy Father, in issuing Anglicanorum, provided no discussion of the difficulties that Anglicans have faced, as he did in the case of the Latin Mass faithful when he issued Summorum, a number of Anglican groups and former Anglicans themselves have reported their frustrations with the Catholic hierarchy.

In 1980, Pope John Paul II established a Pastoral Provision office in the US to facilitate the return of Anglican clergy to communion with Rome, and to establish Anglican Use parishes that would be fully Catholic but would also preserve the distinctive liturgical heritage of the Anglican tradition. The Pastoral Provision has been effective in realizing the first of these purposes.

That is, it has assisted with the return of more than 70 Anglican or Episcopalian priests to communion with Rome. With regard to the second purpose, however, the office has succeeded in establishing only a handful of Anglican Use parishes (seven, to be exact) over the course of more than 25 years.

The fact is, as with the traditional Latin Mass, some bishops simply have not been willing to consider establishing Anglican Use parishes in their dioceses. Thus, few US bishops welcomed the Anglican Use, and bishops in England rejected the requests of Anglican faithful there for the establishment of something like the Anglican Use in their country (cf. E. Pentin, “Constitution for Anglican Converts Released,” National Catholic Register, November 22 28, 2009; C. Campbell, “One or two more bits and pieces,” December 9, 2009,

It seems that the Holy Father’s solution is not to tinker with the existing structure, but to replace it entirely. The official Vatican commentary to Anglicanorum (by the distinguished canonist Gianfranco Ghirlanda) states that Pope Benedict’s vision goes beyond what was intended when the current structure was established. The clear implication is that the Pastoral Provision is simply inadequate to give life to the Holy Father’s vision.

Benedict has chosen a structure that does not even appear in the code of canon law, namely, the personal ordinariate. The leadership of each ordinariate is expected to cooperate and collaborate with local bishops, but the ordinariate itself will not be subject to local bishops. Rather, it will be a jurisdiction overlapping multiple dioceses within a given country, thus resembling a military ordinariate.

Since Vatican II, we have become accustomed to having most decisionmaking in the Church located in the bishop and the diocese. This no doubt will remain the model in the overwhelming majority of situations. But with Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Holy Father has shown openness to having influence and decision-making located in other structures when circumstances call for it.

Another principle that seems close to Benedict’s heart is simplification and the reduction of bureaucracy. In the matter of the Latin Mass, the system of appeals to bishops and to the Holy See was largely replaced by vesting decisions at levels much closer to the people than in the past. In Anglicanorum, the Pope provides that the faithful may be included in a personal ordinariate by making a request in writing, and he vests the authority to establish these structures not in local bishops or conferences of bishops, but rather close to himself in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

One might well ask why the Pope is willing to take the risks of establishing new structures, incurring the displeasure of his brother bishops, and replacing some of John Paul II’s own structures. I suspect that Benedict may have his own hopes, and I am willing to venture my best guess as to what one of those hopes might be.


Benedict’s first purpose no doubt is to do justice to the Anglican faithful, and to be faithful himself in shepherding both the sheep that already are in the fold and those that are approaching the sheep-gate. The Holy Father’s sense of justice and his generosity to the Latin Mass faithful are readily apparent in Summorum. “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows” (Benedict XVI, “Explanatory Lett er to Bishops on SP”). As the observations above show, the Pope issued Anglicanorum in the very same spirit.

That is, it seems at first blush that he has withheld nothing that is within his power to grant. But is this in fact the case? It seems to me that there is perhaps just one thing that the Holy Father is not willing to give to either the returning Anglicans or the Latin Mass faithful.

For years the faithful devoted to the Latin Mass spoke of the old Mass as the Latin Rite or the Tridentine Rite. In issuing Summorum Pontifcum, however, Benedict was firm that it is not a question of two rites, but of two expressions of the same rite. Thus, we now call the post-Vatican II Mass (the Novus Ordo) the ordinary form, and the older, pre-Vatican II Latin Mass the extraordinary form. However, both are forms of the same Roman Rite.

Similarly, in preparing the way for the Anglican personal ordinariates, Benedict says that the priests cannot exclude celebration of the Roman Rite. In the past there have been proposals to establish an Anglican Patriarchate (cf. M. Rear, “This offer was 400 years in the making,” Catholic Herald, November 6, 2009). These proposals envisioned giving the returning Anglicans something like the status of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Stated differently, these proposals advocated recognizing an Anglican Catholic Church distinct from the Roman Church, but in union with it.

But this is the one thing that Benedict seems to exclude. Why does this man, who is almost shocking in his generosity, withhold this one thing? I would propose that it has to do with the place and role of both Anglicans and Latin Mass Catholics in the Church.

Let us return to the question of why the Pope is willing to take risks and expend his efforts for two small groups of the faithful. In addition to the thoughts that I already have offered, I would add the observation that, although these groups may be small (or relatively small, at any rate), they are nonetheless vibrant.

I believe that the Holy Father envisions a rejuvenated Roman Rite in the Church and a rejuvenated Western Church, and I suspect that he sees both Anglicans and Latin Mass Catholics as making crucial contributions to this vision.

There is a crisis of beauty in the world and even in the liturgy today, but both the traditional Mass and the Anglican liturgy show us ways out of this crisis. That is, both traditions offer liturgies that simply excel at conveying the majesty and mystery of God.

With regard to the Latin Mass, the Holy Father already has expressed his will that the two forms of the Mass— the ordinary and the extraordinary— should mutually enrich one another. His larger project, of course, is to heal the rupture between the pre- and post- Vatican II Church.

When he liberated the Latin Mass, Pope Benedict broke open the Church’s treasure chest, and in issuing Anglicanorum Coetibus, he is beckoning Anglicans into the Church and inviting them to bring their treasures with them. The Holy Father is welcoming Anglicans back in this particular way, not only because he sees them as properly belonging to the Western Church, but also because the Western Church itself needs them.

The Holy Father has not spoken as directly about his intentions in issuing Anglicanorum as he did when he issued Summorum, but the document itself and the complementary norms implementing Anglicanorum seem to reveal similar goals. They urge cooperation between priests of the personal ordinariates and priests of the local dioceses (AC, VI.4; comp. norms, art. 3); they require seminary preparation to be in common (comp. norms, art. 10); they allow ordinariate priests to belong to the Presbyteral Council of the diocese (ibid., art. 8); and they speak of ordinariate priests assisting the dioceses, and diocesan priests assisting the ordinariates (ibid., art. 9). Thus, even as he provides a distinct structure for returning Anglicans and former Anglicans, the Holy Father is equally concerned with mutual cooperation between the ordinariates and local dioceses.

What then would be the role of an Anglican ordinariate in the wider Church? One might say that there are two possible models. The first model of the community is what I would call the “lamp” model, or the “city on a hill” model. I would suggest that, in such a model, returning Anglicans (or for that matter, Latin Mass Catholics) might be understood as an exemplary community set apart, like a lamp on a lampstand or a city on a hill. The second model is what I would call the “leaven” model, and in this model, like leaven in bread dough, the community could be understood as exercising a direct and beneficial influence on the Church as a whole through interaction with other members of the faithful and cooperation with local dioceses.

My guess would be that the Anglican Use communities already existing have thought of themselves more along the lines of the lamp model up until now. This is understandable, and both models have a great deal to be said for them, not the least of which is that both are derived from Scripture (cf. Matt. 5:14-15; Matt. 13:33; Luke 13:20).

I expect that Anglican communities within the Catholic Church always will have some affinity for the lamp model. Far be it for me to put words in the mouth of the Holy Father, but my own hunch is that—in light of the splendid riches of the Anglican tradition and in light of the present crisis of beauty—the Holy Father might like Catholic Anglican communities not only to provide a light in the distance, but also to serve as leaven for the entire Western Church.


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About R. Michael Dunnigan 9 Articles
R. Michael Dunnigan is a canon lawyer and a civil lawyer, and he lives and works in Indiana.