The Vatican has taken a surprising step that will allow disgruntled Anglicans to convert more easily to Roman Catholicism. The decision will likely appeal most strongly to Anglican traditionalists opposed to women priests, openly gay clergy, and same-sex unions.
Appearing to follow the precedent of Catholic communities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe that follow different rites, the Vatican hopes to bring disenchanted Anglicans into the Catholic fold.
The decision, announced on October 21, will put Anglican converts to Catholicism in a position analogous to that of Catholic communities in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. These churches have long followed different rites, although they have maintained their loyalty to Rome.
As Cardinal William Levada explained in announcing the decision, "the unity of the church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows."
The move enables conservative Anglicans to affiliate with the Catholic Church while keeping elements of the Anglican liturgy and identity.
In the past, disaffected Anglicans had become Catholic on an individual basis.
The new structure will enable groups of Anglicans -- parishes and even whole dioceses -- around the world to convert together to Catholicism. Such converts will be incorporated into new Catholic parishes called Personal Ordinariates. These bodies will be run by former Anglican priests or unmarried bishops.
A More Flexible Church
The Catholic Church has long tried to be flexible with the Latin rite, retaining affiliation with Catholic groups as different as the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and the Catholic Assyrian Church of the East. These churches maintain their loyalty to the Vatican, despite the fact that many use Byzantine rites comparable to those of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The latest move allows married Anglican priests and seminarians to incorporate into the Catholic Church, like Eastern-rite priests have long done.
One such Catholic convert is Ronald Thomas, a Cambridge-trained theologian and Anglican priest for 13 years. When asked if the Vatican decision will embitter relations with the Anglican Communion, Thomas responds, "That is a thorny question."
Thomas says that while he doubts "hundreds of thousands of Anglicans" will avail themselves of the chance, it does signify that "the old style of ecumenical dialogue, especially carried out by commissions like [the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission], [has] come to an end."
The spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, attempted to downplay the significance of the announcement. He was not consulted about the decision and learned of the new Catholic policy only hours before the announcement.
Nevertheless, Williams said the decision would have "no negative impact" on Catholic-Anglican relations. Vatican and Anglican officials stressed that dialogue between the two churches would continue.
The Anglican-Catholic split dates back to 1534, when English King Henry VIII broke with Rome and made himself leader of the Church of England. The recent decision is arguably the most audacious institutional measure ever taken by the Vatican to accept disaffected Anglicans.
The move is expected to be felt most deeply in England, where the Anglican Church is deeply divided over whether women priests can be bishops.
It's expected to have less impact on the United States, where a number parishes and even dioceses of Anglo-Catholics have already changed affiliation. Many conservative Anglicans in the United States have chosen to stay within the Anglican Communion but to affiliate with more conservative Anglican churches in Africa rather than with the more liberal American Anglican Episcopal Church.
Reaching Out To Moscow
The move reflects a broader effort by Pope Benedict XVI to retool external church relations. Upon his accession to the papacy, he set out to bring greater unity and respect for tradition to the Catholic world.
The latest announcement comes a month after a top Russian Orthodox official met with the pope and other officials at the Vatican.
Archbishop Hilarion, the head of external relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, arrived at the Vatican for several days of talks. On September 18, Hilarion met with Benedict at the pope's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.
Eastern Orthodox Christians have accused Catholics in the past of seeking converts in traditional areas of Orthodox control. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, tensions have occasionally run high between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Vatican.
Nevertheless, Thomas does not believe the latest announcement will affect Catholic-Eastern Orthodox ties, because the Eastern Orthodox churches "possess sacraments and holy orders that the Roman Catholic Church accepts. So they start on a completely different footing than the Anglicans who are going to be incorporated."
Days before the Vatican announced its policy for Anglican converts, the Vatican's top ecumenicist said relations with the Russian Orthodox Church were much improved in recent years.