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Published: Sunday, 10/25/2009

Catholicism on the make

SOME religious generalizations - Greeks and Russians are Orthodox Christians, the French and Irish are Roman Catholic, Britain and the United States are predominantly Protestant - have been in place so long that people tend to view them as immutable fact. The Roman Catholic Church reminded us recently that they are not.

The Vatican has offered to welcome back into the fold Anglicans distressed by their church's willingness to accept women priests and gay bishops. They'll even allow married Anglican priests to keep their wives and former Anglican parishes to keep hymns and other "intangible" elements of their worship.

To some, this may look like Catholics are engaging in cherry picking, taking advantage of a fracture in a rival church to steal members. In reality, recovering sheep believed to have strayed from the true path has been a goal of Rome for centuries.

Seen in this light, even the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries and the European wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries can be attributed, in part, to Rome's belief that there can be only one church and its desire to correct members who had fallen away as a result of conquest or theological disputes.

More broadly speaking, we are reminded that the battle among the world's religions for converts continues to rage, though thankfully conversion is seldom accomplished anymore at the point of a sword.

The flaw in the Vatican's new recruiting campaign may lie with how Anglicans view the man at the top. While the Catholic Church may be willing to bend the rules on married priests and allow former Anglican parishes to maintain other traditional aspects of their worship, it seems unlikely that Pope Benedict XVI would bend so far as to allow the converts to deny his authority as head of the church.

That issue, papal primacy versus the power of local churches, was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and a factor in England's split from Rome in 1534. Historically, Anglicans have believed themselves to be the true heirs of the early church and Catholics to be the ones who strayed.

It will be interesting, therefore, to see how many traditional Anglicans - and their Episcopal brothers and sisters - will be willing to bend their knee to Rome for the first time in more than four centuries.

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