The Anglicanisation of Catholics – are we the “high-church wing”?

“This Anglican disunity was formerly held to be ridiculous by Catholics, and a lack of one of the four marks.”

Image: “High Mass” at Pusey House, an Anglo-Catholic establishment and chapel in Oxford. Wiki Commons.

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Having been edified the account in Mgr Robert Hugh Benson’s The Religion of the Plain Man, of what the Church offers her children, let’s now consider how this description compares with what many experience today.

In the extract previously published, Benson’s priest explains to “John”:

“You will not find me opposing my bishop on a matter of doctrine or ceremonial.”

“[N]or will you find our religious newspapers approving this or that prelate for his sound Catholic views.”

“You will not be required to make speeches about the advantages of confession, nor to listen to them, except perhaps occasionally from the pulpit.”

Liturgical battles, a Catholic press praising this or that prelate for saying something Catholic, persuading co-religionists that basics like confession are necessary: are these not uncomfortably familiar experiences?

In fact, few persons at all experience the “religious peace” which Benson mentions throughout the extract and the novella. Many Catholics – both amongst traditionalists and even amongst conservatives – experience only religious controversy and strife. This strife takes place in the diocese, in the parish, in the family and in the heart. It also takes place on the internet and in the Catholic press.

This religious controversy is not over mere questions of prudence or theological opinions, but rather over essential matters.

This modern phenomenon – and the common explanations given for it – could be called an “Anglicanisation” of Catholics. By this, I mean the adoption of certain assumptions and behaviours as a means of dealing with our current crisis.

The ideas behind these assumptions and behaviours can be found in both “official” sources like the Thirty-Nine Articles, as well as within some parts of the Anglican cultural milieu.

Sometimes the right behaviour can be described in unjustifiable or even unorthodox terms. Such terms can then come to influence other beliefs, and actually lead people astray.

In this instance, we are often faced ideas, assumptions and behaviours which presuppose an ecclesiology which is more Anglican than Roman. In this piece, we will consider this Anglican ecclesiology, and see how far it is incompatible with that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Wing Theory

The Anglican Communion is sometimes called a “broad church”, and it is held to be made up of varying “wings”. This idea is prevalent in the Anglican cultural milieu, although does not appear in the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Prayer Book.

These wings (loosely) include:

  • A “high church”, “ritualist” or “Anglo-Catholic” wing (N.B.: This is an oversimplification of the movements over time which were not identical)[1]
  • A “low church”, “evangelical” or “charismatic” wing
  • A liberal or modernist wing.

Despite their radically different beliefs and practices, these groups, wings or parties are all considered to belong to the same body.

The high-church wing largely believed that they continued the true doctrine, true liturgy and the true Catholic Church within the kingdom of England. They acknowledged that they did so alongside various Protestant errors; and they held that it was their duty to “re-catholicise” their communion – or at least the protestantising trend of some of their co-religionists.

Visible unity

All this runs very contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching on her visible unity of faith – and yet some features of this ecclesiology are uncomfortably familiar to us today.

One of the main reasons that Anglo-Catholics (like Benson’s “Plain Man”) became Roman Catholics was their realising the untenability of this ecclesiology and its accompanying ideas. The protestant disunity of faith in general, and the Anglican disunity and strife in particular, were in fact formerly held to be ridiculous by Catholics, and evidence of a lack of one of the four marks.

Vatican I spoke of the fact of the visible mark of unity as a striking social miracle and a permanent motive of credibility of the Church’s claims to be the true Church of Christ:

“[T]he church herself by reason of her astonishing propagation, her outstanding holiness and her inexhaustible fertility in every kind of goodness, by her catholic unity and her unconquerable stability, is a kind of great and perpetual motive of credibility and an incontrovertible evidence of her own divine mission.” [2] (emphasis added)

The great theologian Cardinal Billot also wrote:

“This unity consists principally in the common profession of the same faith, taught by a social magisterium.”[3] (emphasis added)

The Church’s unity also refers to a unity of government and of communion (or charity). Of these, Billot explains the relationship:

“The unity of government is in reality the principle that generates and preserves the other two – one of which concerns the intelligence and the other the will.”[4]

And elsewhere:

“[T]he unity of communion supposes, in the society of believers, the unity of faith. This is the most important aspect of the note of unity, and requires a little more explanation.”[5]

In other words, the unity of government is ordered towards producing and preserving unity of faith and communion, of which faith is the most important.

The Church’s unity is also considered to be a necessary property, in the sense that the true Church cannot be without it; and in that any body which lacks this unity thereby shows itself not to be the true Church. He continues:

“[T]he threefold unity which Christ has established in the true and legitimate Church cannot fail to appear in full view. […] Christ requires this unity to be a sign of his mission, a note of the true Church […] Not only is this unity a visible and manifest fact, but it cannot coincide in a false Church […] This unity must also have the value of a perpetual proof, to attest Christ’s mission to the world.”[6]

The theologian Salaverri writes that this unity is a negative note or mark of the Church: there may be false religions which are, for a time, totally united, but when one finds an organisation lacking this unity, “by that very fact it is known that it is not the true Church of Christ.”[7] The theologian Berry compares such a situation to a shape that lacks four sides: by that lack, we know that it is not a square.[8]

Benson and unity

Leaving aside his disclaiming of religious controversy, the same idea appears elsewhere in the novella by Benson which has inspired these reflections. As the novella progresses, “John” exclaims:

“I see a unity here, unlike any other unity in the world.”[9]

Benson points out that the Church’s unity of faith is so obvious that non-Catholics actually reproached her for it:

“[T]his unity for which [Christ] prayed was exactly that which you have been condemning [as uniformity].

“Can you, in fact, point to any unity but hers that arrests for an instant the attention of the irreligious, the careless, and the independent? The world may hate that unity — it has taught you a number of phrases to throw at it — it may explain it away, as you have done; but there is no sort of question but that it acknowledges it to be the most startling and arresting fact in Christendom.”[10]

He also wrote:

“It numbers at least half the entire Christian world, and this half is endowed with a unity entirely lacking in the other half. Non-Catholics are united in one point only, namely, in their denial of the Papacy; Catholics are united not only in their view of the Papacy but in all other points of doctrine as well.”[11] (Emphasis added)

Elsewhere “The Plain Man” acknowledges that the Church’s visible unity is a specific motive for those who become Catholic. Benson writes of the purpose of this unity:

“It was to be a unity which the world might recognize — which was to be obvious, plain, notorious, evident; not a unity visible only to the eyes of seers, still less a unity fashioned out of the weaving of dreams and desires in a study-chair.”[12]

This visible unity of faith is not manifested by shared claims to be a Catholic, or to be subject to the pope or submissive to the magisterium. None of these alternatives can be described as a “startling and arresting fact” serving as a “perpetual motive of credibility”. Rather, this is attained by an actual visibly united teaching and profession of faith.

No doubt this is difficult to understand today, but those that are tempted to doubt the thesis or try to rethink it should read the following, proving it from authoritative sources:

Why is “unity of faith” so crucial for making the Church visible, according to Cardinal Billot?

How is the Church “visibly united in faith,” according to this twentieth-century master of ecclesiology?

The Visible Unity of the Church I – on what it means to believe in “One” Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church

The Visible Unity of the Church II – more on what it means for the Church to be “visibly” one

The Visible Unity of the Church III – reconciling the Church’s teachings about her own unity with the current crisis

The Church’s Unity of Faith – St Francis de Sales

What the Church’s visible unity doesn’t mean

In passing, we should be clear that the true teaching does not exclude the possibility of some being mistaken in good faith, nor does it exclude the possibility that Catholics may be more or less disunited over open questions or theses below the level of faith. However, it does exclude the idea that the Church is a merely legal grouping of men, some of whom profess the true Faith and others of whom deliberately and knowingly profess a different faith, contrary to what is taught by the magisterium.

Again, confusion about this doctrine is understandable: it seems impossible to verify the true teaching as a reality today. As a result – even when presented with very clear statements from the popes and theologians – many conclude that the teaching must be being misstated, and that the visible unity of the Church is only a reality at certain times.

But the Church’s teaching is what it is. If we cannot verify it in our current paradigms or locations, that is one thing – but that does not mean that we can deny it or “rethink” it, and replace it with Anglicanisations. The Church’s teaching is not measured by our inability to verify it. We must use her teaching to judge what we’re seeing – rather than putting things the other way around and “rethinking” these certain doctrines with Anglicanised ideas.

When we do so, we return again to the early traditionalist response, which sounds so strange to those who have more recently come around to the traditionalist analysis. We must say, with those early traditionalists (including Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre) that a society which is visibly disunited in faith is not the Catholic Church – at least taken as a whole.

In spite of this, many today, right across the board, believe that there can also be multiple wings within the Catholic Church, each professing different doctrines. In this schema, these wings might include:

  • A high-church, traditionalist, “extraordinary form” wing
  • A conservative wing
  • An evangelical/charismatic renewal wing
  • A low church “standard parish Novus Ordo” wing
  • A liberal or modernist wing.

The faithful must work out which is which, join the correct wing, and then and agitate and campaign for the truth in order to get their religious leaders on track.

This anglicanised ecclesiology assumes that the truth and the true faith are to be found in the Church, alongside a mass of other wings, each professing their own errors and heresies. In our current crisis, we are told, it is vital that the high-church wing re-conquer the Church and put an end to these competing wings.

As an example, the historian and Catholic influencer Professor Roberto de Mattei wrote in his book Love for the Papacy:

“[W]e need to be careful of speaking of the ‘Bergoglian church,’ or of ‘the new Church.’ The Church today is occupied by churchmen who betray or deform the message of Christ, but it has not been replaced by another church. There is only one Catholic Church, in which today cohabitate in a confused and fragmentary way different and counterpoised theologies and philosophies.

“It is more correct to speak of a Bergoglian theology, of a Bergoglian philosophy, of Bergoglian morality, and, if one wishes, of a Bergoglian religion, without coming to the point of defining Pope Bergoglio, the cardinals, the Curia, and the bishops of the whole world as a ‘Bergoglian church.’”[13]

Without regard for their accuracy, it is clear that de Mattei’s conclusions and proposed theories rest on the presupposition that that the Church can be so divided in faith as to be said to include even “a Bergoglian religion”, defined in contradistinction to the Catholic religion.

While de Mattei’s words are a somewhat accurate attempt to describe the social facts before us today, they show why we must keep our theories within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy and traditional theology.

As it stands, an explanation entailing multiple religions co-existing in the Church is no solution at all, and is quite untenable.

Note that the problems of this anglicanised ecclesiology do not arise for those who take the more modest, pragmatic position of simply adhering to tradition and explicitly leaving an explanation for this period to one side.

Legal positivism

This anglicanised ecclesiology also appears amongst those who hold that a canonical process is required for a man to depart from the Church due to heresy, if he still claims to be Catholic. Some such persons conclude that the Catholic Church consists of the following two groups:

  • Those who are truly Catholics
  • Those who have in fact ceased to be Catholics “before God”, through their profession of a different faith; but nonetheless in law remain “legal” Catholics “before the Church”, until a canonical process removes them, or perhaps until they join a new sect.

The explanation states that, without such a process, we can only call those openly professing a different faith “suspect of heresy”, or at most “occult heretics”. This, combined with the minority opinion that occult heretics are not members of the Church, leads to all sorts of problems. Consider the following statement from one advocate of such ideas:

“The Church is a visible society. So, visibly, occult heretics are still members of the Church. The Church is also a congregatio fidelium, so if you lose the faith by the sin of heresy (internal or external, occult or manifest), you are not a member of the Mystical Body of Christ.”

Positing the possibility of someone being a member of the visible society of the Church, whilst simultaneously not being a member of the mystical body of Christ, introduces an unwarranted and highly problematic disjunction between the two. The two cannot be said to be equivalent and coextensive if groups of men can be members of one but not the other. It also suggests that the mystical body merely “subsists in” the visible society, which is problematic for other reasons.

But this is not the place to examine these problems further.

The point is that all these explanations and theories untenably concede that the Church is no longer visibly and externally united in faith. This concession by no means reconciles the apparent facts of our time with the truth that the Church is always visibly united in her profession of faith as a permanent, social fact.


According to the priest in Benson’s novella, avoiding religious strife, politicking and agitating the hierarchy about ceremonies and doctrine were some of the benefits of becoming a Catholic. In the nineteenth century conversions from Anglicanism were sometimes called a “return to unity” – because the convert was returning to the Church’s visible unity of faith.

It is absolutely necessary that we hold fast to the traditional theology of the Church. We must use this traditional theology to form our judgments on things – and leave aside the opinions of those who have adopted an Anglicanised ecclesiology and discourse, declaring that Roman ecclesiology is no longer tenable in our day.

If we cannot see how to reconcile our current situation with the Church’s teaching and traditional theology, it would be better identify and fulfil our duties – to reject novelties and to adhere to tradition – make an act of faith in God’s promises to his Church, and then to refrain, consciously, from creating theories and explanations which sacrifice thraditional theology.

The fact that so many feel compelled to rethink traditional teaching and adopt such Anglicanisations instead points to the conclusion established elsewhere:

The body headed by Francis (and his recent predecessors) – taken as a whole – is not and cannot be the Roman Catholic Church, and no amount of Anglicanisation or “rethinking” can make it so.

Rather – taken as a whole – this body is a disunited assembly of individuals; some of whom have remained Catholic, whilst others have not – for instance, because they have visibly defected from her profession of faith. Many of the latter claim to be Catholic, and have not been dealt with by authority. The result of this is that the Church’s visible unity – which remains and must always remain – is nonetheless eclipsed and obscured by men who are no part of the Church at all.

It is in this sense that we conclude that the conciliar body, taken as a whole, is not the Catholic Church.

Once this reality is grasped, the question of where the Roman Catholic Church is today can seem truly terrifying. But it need not be so. The Roman Catholic Church, outside of which there is no salvation, remains the true Church of Christ, no matter how challenging the current crisis may seem.

But where is she? Note that this is a different question to “Where is the true Church” – we are asking specifically, “Where is the Roman Catholic Church?” In fact, the answer to this question is not very complicated at all. In many cases, readers already know where she is, and are already members of her.

All that remains is for them to stay within her bounds and to remove themselves from any dangerous situations or grey areas – and to avoid all theories which entail denying traditional Catholic theology, including on the Church’s unity.

Once this is done, we can rest in the bosom of Holy Mother Church, calling to mind one of the last parts of the Benson extract:

“Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem; and to the company of many thousands of angels; and to the Church of the first-born who are written in heaven; and to God the Judge of all; and to the spirits of the just made perfect; and to Jesus.”[14]

Further Reading

What does the Church have to offer? – an extract from Mgr R.H. Benson

The Religion of the Plain Man, (and for UK readers)

Book Review: “Christ in the Church” by Mgr Robert Hugh Benson

What are the implications of conditionally repeated sacraments?

How can we explain the Catholic faith simply?


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[1] There have been several varieties of “High Church” wings. There was the original, slow and passive resistance to “Protesantising” at the beginning of the English Reformation, which became more active and in many ways more “Catholic” with Laud and the seventeenth century Anglican divines etc. But by the nineteenth century and the time of the Oxford Movement, this “High Church” had lost a lot of its “Catholicity” (though there were always people, like the Kebles, who adhered to the more “Catholic” tradition). “Anglo-Catholicism” post-Pusey was a new departure again.

[2] Vatican I, ‘Session 3: 24 April 1870 Dogmatic constitution on the catholic faith’ Chapter III no. 10. Available at:

[3] Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, Tomus Prior, Prati ex Officina Libraria Giachetti, Filii et soc, 1909, p 146. Translated with DeepL from the French translation by l L’Abbé Jean-Michel Gleize SSPX, published as L’Église I – Sa divine institution et ses notes, Courrier de Rome, Versailles, 2009, n. 208.

[4] Billot 146, Gleize n. 208

[5] Billot 148, Gleize n. 212

[6] Billot 159, Gleize n. 228.

[7] Joachim Salaverri, On the Church of Christ, n. 493. In Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB translated by Kenneth Baker SJ 2015.

[8] E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, B. Herder Book Co. London 1927. p 147

[9] Mgr Robert Hugh Benson, The Religion of the Plain Man, p 103. Burns and Oates, London, 1906.

[10] Ibid. 43

[11] Ibid. 90-1

[12] Ibid. 42-43

[13] Roberto de Mattei, Love for the Papacy & Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church, p 138. Angelico Press, New York, 2019.

[14] Benson 132-3

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