Vatican Plan to Oversee Conversion of Anglicans


Pope Sets Plan for Disaffected Anglicans to Join Catholics


VATICAN CITY — In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican on Tuesday announced that it would make it easier for Anglicans who are uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of women priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church.

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Domenico Stinellis/Associated Press

Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, spoke at a news conference at the Vatican on Tuesday.

Why the Vatican Wants Anglicans

Room for DebateWhat does the decision to make it easier for Anglicans to convert to Catholicism say about the church?

A new canonical entity will allow groups of Anglicans “to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” Cardinal William Levada, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a news conference here.

Though both Catholic and Anglican leaders sought on Tuesday to present the move as a more coherent, unified response to those seeking conversion, the Vatican appeared to have announced the move to the Anglican Communion only in recent weeks and as a fait accompli. And many Anglican and Catholic leaders expressed surprise, even shock, at something they said would undermine efforts at ecumenical dialogue and capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church over issues like the ordination of gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions.

The move could have wide impact in England, where large numbers of traditionalist Anglicans have protested the Church of England’s embrace in recent years of liberal theological reforms like ordaining women bishops. These Anglicans, and others in places like Australia, might be attracted to the Roman Catholic fold because they have had nowhere else to go. If entire parishes or even dioceses leave the Church of England for the Catholic church, it will probably set off battles over ownership of church buildings and land.

Pope Benedict has announced that he will travel to England in 2010. The trip will be the first official diplomatic visit, rather than pastoral visit, by a pontiff.

In the United States, many traditionalists have already broken away from the Episcopal Church and formed their own conservative Anglican structures, and experts speculated that proportionally fewer would be eager to join the Catholic fold.

The Vatican’s announcement marks a significant moment in the timeline of two churches that first parted in the days of the Reformation.

In recent decades, the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church have sought to heal those centuries of division, and some feared that the Vatican’s move might jeopardize decades of dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans seeking common ground by implying that the ultimate aim of that dialogue is conversion.

Officials of both the Vatican and the Anglican Communion made clear on Tuesday that the move was intended to address the doctrinal issues surrounding conversion, not the diplomatic issues of interfaith dialogue.

The move creates a formal structure to oversee conversions that had previously been evaluated case by case, including those of married Anglican priests, who are permitted to remain married after they convert to Catholicism. Called Personal Ordinariates, the structure will consist of local Catholic faithful overseen by Anglican prelates who will provide guidance to Anglicans — including entire parishes or even dioceses — seeking to convert.

Under the new regime, former Anglicans who become Catholic can preserve some liturgical elements of the Anglican Mass, including hymns.

As such, the structure could conceivably create a new, separate and hybrid Catholic Church in a place like Britain, where Anglicans now vastly outnumber Catholics.

Cardinal Levada, who flew back to Rome from London Monday evening, acknowledged that the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and leading cleric of the Anglican Church, had only been informed about the Vatican’s decision within the past month.

Cardinal Levada said the Vatican created the structure in response to many requests from Anglicans over the years since the Church of England first ordained women in the 1970s, and more recently when it faced what he called “a very difficult question” — the ordination of openly gay clergy and the blessing of homosexual unions.

He said that 20 to 30 bishops and hundreds of other people had petitioned the Vatican on the matter in recent years, but he did not give any further details.

He said the move was not specifically aimed at the Traditional Anglican Communion, a group that broke away from the Anglican Church in the early 1990s over its ordination of women priests.

The American branch of the Anglican Communion, known as the Episcopal Church, has also come close to schism over these issues. Disaffected conservatives in the United States announced in 2008 that they were organizing their own rival province of the church in North America.

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