Critics of modern ecumenism — the project of fostering Christian unity — say it too often is characterized by a tendency to gloss over differences in doctrine. Critics of Pope Benedict XVI say he’s too often characterized by rigid insistence on differences in doctrine. 

So how is it that the pontiff is developing a reputation in some circles as “the pope of Christian unity”? There’s even a Facebook page of that name, with some 1,400 followers. A popular blogging priest hung that label on Pope Benedict back in 2009, and it has popped up in various places since then. 

A year ago, The Catholic Herald in England also ran an editorial making the case that Benedict is the “pope of Christian unity.” The impetus was the then-recent announcement that the pontiff had approved the creation of “ordinariates” — special structures like dioceses that would allow groups of Anglicans to become Catholic but retain their traditions, culture, liturgical expression and even some forms of governance, like participation of laity in the election of Church leaders. 

This Easter, the first such ordinariate took real shape in England, with the reception of some 1,000 Anglicans into the Catholic Church (see story, Page 5). Plans for ordinariates in other regions, including Australia and the United States, are said to be in advanced stages. 

Some have lamented the apparent death blow to the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), the main vehicle of ecumenical work between the two confessions since its formation in 1966. 

But others say the ordinariate instead demonstrates ecumenical success. 

“The explicit desire of ARCIC,” a former Anglican priest and prominent English Catholic commentator wrote in late April, “was for visible unity between Catholics and Anglicans. It was not about remaining in separate bodies while appreciating each other’s traditions.” 

“This seems to be what Anglicanorum coetibus [the authorization of ordinariates for Anglicans] has achieved.” 

The gratitude felt toward Pope Benedict by these new Catholics is striking. One reportedly even took the name “Benedicta” to honor his ecumenical creativity. Another commented that “the chief shepherd — with gentleness and love — is gathering in the sheep.” 

Could this model be replicated for other Christians, too? 

Thus far a similar approach has had little success in drawing back the self-described traditionalists of the Society of Pius X. That process has been marred by Vatican missteps, but also by the society’s obstinate rejection of doctrinal points. 

Perhaps Lutherans are next. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has received requests from interested congregations, reports The Portal, a new monthly online magazine about the ordinariate. 

Pope Benedict himself sees working for the unity of Christians as one of his most important responsibilities, and, in a homily during this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, he said it “cannot be reduced only to recognizing our reciprocal differences and to achieving peaceful coexistence.” Instead, he called it a “moral imperative” that Christians work for the unity Christ described at the Last Supper, and which is manifested in common profession of faith, sacraments and ministry. 

The “ultimate purpose” of ecumenism, the pope told Vatican doctrinal officials last year, “consists in the achievement of the full and visible communion of the Lord’s disciples.” By that standard, Pope Benedict XVI is the pope of Christian unity.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor