Vatican City The Vatican announced Tuesday it was making it easier for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism — a surprise move designed to entice traditionalists opposed to women priests, openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.
The decision, reached in secret by a small cadre of Vatican officials, was sure to add to the problems of the 77-million-strong Anglican Communion as it seeks to deal with deep doctrinal divisions that threaten a permanent schism among its faithful.
The change means conservative Anglicans from around the world will be able to join the Catholic Church while retaining aspects of their Anglican liturgy and identity, including married priests. Until now, disaffected Anglicans had joined the church primarily on a case by case basis.
“The unity of the church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows,” said Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in announcing the decision.
The spiritual leader of the global Anglican church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, was not consulted about the change and was informed only hours before the announcement. He nevertheless tried to downplay the significance and said it wasn’t a Vatican commentary on Anglican problems.
“It has no negative impact on the relations of the communion as a whole to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole,” he said in London.
The decision could undermine decades of talks between the Vatican and Anglican leaders over how they could possibly reunite. Although Levada insisted such discussions remain a priority, the Vatican move could be taken as a signal that the ultimate goal of ecumenical talks is to convert Anglicans to Catholicism.
Still, the decision confirmed Pope Benedict XVI’s design of creating a unified, tradition-minded Catholic Church — a goal he outlined at the start of his pontificate and has been steadily implementing ever since.
This drive also involved a recent move to rehabilitate four excommunicated ultra-conservative bishops, including one who denied the full extent of the Holocaust, in a bid to bring their faithful back under the Vatican’s wing.
Levada made the announcement hours after briefing Williams and Catholic bishops in London about the decision. Notably, no one from the Vatican’s ecumenical office on relations with Anglicans attended; Levada said he had invited representatives but they said they were all away from Rome.
Austen Ivereigh, a former adviser to the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, called the Vatican announcement historic because it allowed for the “gradual absorption into the Catholic Church of huge numbers of Anglicans,” who are conservative in their theology and liturgy.
Until now, Anglicans had been allowed to join the church primarily on an individual basis. With the new provision, groups of Anglicans from around the world will be able to join new parishes headed by former Anglican prelates, who will provide spiritual guidance to Anglicans who wish to be Catholic. Called personal ordinariates, they will be established within local Catholic dioceses.
The new provision also allows married Anglican priests and even seminarians to become ordained Catholic priests — much the same way that Eastern rite priests who are in communion with Rome are allowed to be married. However, married Anglicans cannot become Catholic bishops.
A model for the future exists in the United States, where a handful of such parishes function — including three in Texas — thanks to a 1980 Vatican decision to accommodate Episcopal faithful and priests who wanted to convert. These parishes use a Vatican-approved Book of Divine Worship, based on the Book of Common Prayer, that includes Catholic and Anglican rituals, said Monsignor William Stetson, who manages the initiative.
The new entity is also modeled on Catholic military ordinariates, special units of the church established in most countries to provide spiritual care for members of the armed forces and their dependents.
In addition, within the Catholic Church there are ancient communities in the Middle East and others in Eastern Europe that follow different rites and allow married priests while remaining loyal to the pope.
The new model doesn’t create a new rite, but rather an Anglicanized liturgy within the Latin rite.
Levada said Tuesday’s announcement was in response to many requests that have come to the Vatican over the years from Anglicans disillusioned with the progressive bent of the Anglican Communion. Some have already left and consider themselves Catholic but have not found an official home in the 1.1-billion strong Catholic Church.