The Vatican recently announced that it would allow Anglicans - including Anglican priests - to enter the Catholic Church while preserving some, but not other, Anglican traditions. This outreach is presumably meant to draw conservative Anglicans - those unhappy with the American Episcopal Church's ordination of women and homosexuals and the consecration of gay bishops - into the Catholic fold. University of Illinois anthropology professor Andrew Orta, who studies the dynamic between Catholic missionaries and the Aymara people of Bolivia, believes that the current developments between Anglican and Catholic Churches can be best understood as part of a longer history of Catholic relations with other religious traditions. News Bureau Life Sciences editor Diana Yates interviewed Orta.
How does the current tug-of-war between Catholics and Anglicans resemble the centuries-old effort to convert non-Catholics to the Catholic faith?
I think there are two lessons here. The first is that while we often think about missionary work as involving an absolute rejection of other religious traditions (and we shouldn't lose sight of that part), some missionaries also make efforts to understand and build bridges between traditions. In the region that I know best, Latin America, some of the earliest Catholic missionaries saw indigenous myths as a form of history in which there might be evidence of a previous evangelization. This squared with their understanding of the travels of the Apostles, and helped legitimate some indigenous practices as plausibly Christian. This is, of course, a very unequal exercise in understanding: I appreciate your tradition because I see it as an expression of my truths.
A second lesson concerns the competitive aspirations of the Catholic Church. The 20th century saw the church trying to re-engage in a rapidly modernizing world and compete with such perceived threats as Protestantism, Marxism, and increasing secularization. The Second Vatican Council of the 1960s was probably the strongest institutional expression of this effort. This re-engagement required a balancing of flexibility and accommodation on the one hand, and a sense of clear core orthodox principles on the other.
The opening toward elements of Anglican practice reflects this history of pragmatic missionary and inter-faith relations. But it may also reflect a new chapter in the geopolitics of the Catholic Church. After World War II and Vatican II, the church renewed its focus on the third world. This reflected the new strategic relevance of these regions in the second half of the 20th century. One result has been a continuing shift of the Catholic base toward the Third World - so much so that a growing number of Catholic parishes in Europe and the U.S. are served by priests from the Third World. There was even speculation after the death of Pope John Paul II that the next pope would come from one of these regions. Perhaps this latest opening to the Anglican Church is a pragmatic effort to shore up the Anglo-European base of the church once again.
Don't missionaries (and others who are convinced their religion is the one true faith) generally approach conversion as a one-way street? Does it always turn out that way?
Though we sometimes think of formal religions as hermetically sealed conveyors of timeless truths, beliefs and practices shift constantly: sometimes in their content, sometimes in what they mean in the contexts of believers' lives. The Catholic Church is a top-down hierarchy, but it is also a global and diffuse institution, intersecting with peoples' lives in missionary and pastoral encounters in a vastly diverse set of contexts around the world. The happy evidence is that there is no total control and conversion is never a one-way street.
Is it possible the Catholic Church will be changed more by allowing Anglicans (including married priests) in the door than the Anglican Church will be changed by the loss of some of its more conservative members?
Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger led the Vatican office responsible for articulating and enforcing doctrinal orthodoxy. Under his leadership, this involved a strong reaction against some of the changes emerging since Vatican II. Liberal clergy and pastoral developments related to Liberation Theology, for instance, were censured and discouraged during his watch. And intensifying calls to reconsider Catholic insistence on a celibate male priesthood have been consistently rejected. A remarkable irony of this opening to disaffected Anglicans is that on the one hand it seeks to make common cause with Anglicans unhappy with liberal openings in the Anglican Church, while on the other hand, it entails an unprecedented accommodation recognizing married Anglican priests.
You write that you find yourself "repeatedly collecting accounts of personal crisis and transformation from a range of missionary consultants." Do you see such crises as central to the religious experience or to the experience of converting others?
The priests I worked with as part of my research in Latin America were primarily Europeans or North Americans who saw themselves as dedicated to serving and improving the lives of others through the church. They arrived with an understanding of what it meant to be a Christian and a priest and what their congregations needed from them. Many found that their initial understandings were inadequate to the situation they had entered, however.
For some this realization was the result of experiences of extreme poverty or of repressive governments. For others it was new experiences of community in other cultural traditions, or a recognition that the meaning of the church in a rural community in the Andes was very different from that of a small town in Poland or Kansas City. Many spoke to me of a period of crisis as they struggled to make sense of what they were doing and how they were doing it. I came to see this as part of the
unequal-but-still-two-way process of interaction, accommodation and change by the church.