London (CNSNews.com) - Any possible union between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches has run into serious problems, Pope John Paul II told the Archbishop of Canterbury at a personal audience over the weekend.
Although the pope did not elaborate on his remarks, reported by the Vatican's news service, it's widely believed that he was referring to the move by some branches of the Anglican Church to ordain homosexuals and bless same-sex unions.
"As we give thanks for the progress that has already been made, we must also recognize that new and serious difficulties have arisen on the path to unity," the Pope told Archbishop Rowan Williams.
"These difficulties are not all of a merely disciplinary nature; some extend to essential matters of faith and morals," the pope said.
Tensions between the two denominations were raised in 1992 when the Anglican Church decided to allow the ordination of women.
Pat Ashworth, a reporter with the Church Times, a leading Anglican newspaper, said that while the two branches have largely smoothed over the conflict arising from that dispute, Anglican arguments over homosexuality would present a tough new obstacle for unity.
"There has been a great deal of work between the two churches over the last 30 years to develop a better relationship," she said, adding that the pope's comments were "significant."
"The Roman Catholic Church has strict teachings in this area," she said.
Ashworth pointed to comments by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who told a press conference that Anglican ordination of practicing homosexuals would affect relations between the two churches.
"That was quite a strong statement," she said.
The Episcopalian Church - the Anglican Church's U.S. branch - voted a openly homosexual candidate, Gene Robinson, into the post of Archbishop of New Hampshire in August.
That move exacerbated already simmering disputes over the role of homosexuals in the church, and prompted Williams to call a special meeting of the church primates, or national leaders, later this month.
Speculation on the tactics and outcome of the meeting has already begun. Conservative evangelicals in the developed world have been backed by bishops in Africa and Asia, while liberals who hold sway in some areas have argued that the church must be open to changing its policies to halt a decline in numbers in Britain and elsewhere.
Ashworth said the focus will be on Williams and that Anglicans were awaiting the outcome of the primates' meeting.
"The Archbishop is much admired for the way he handled things this weekend in Rome," she said. "He's under a lot of pressure ... but I think he'll keep a firm lid on the meeting."
The pope told Williams during the Archbishop's first visit to Rome since his installation: "Faced with the increasing secularism of today's world, the Church must ensure that the deposit of faith is proclaimed in its integrity and preserved from erroneous and misguided interpretations."
Williams said that he would bring the pope's comments to the primates' meeting.
"We shall need to consider those very carefully. We have, I think, in these days, listened hard to what has been said to us," he told reporters in Rome.
The meeting was partially overshadowed by talk about the frail health of Pope John Paul II, who suffers from Parkinson's disease. The pope was, however, able to conduct a lengthy canonization ceremony on Sunday.
The Anglican and Catholic churches have been split since the 16th century, when England's King Henry VIII broke from Rome.
See previous story:
Pope Health Rumors Overshadow Anglican Visit (10/03/2003)
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.