Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The apostolic constitution: a closer look

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 09, 2009

By releasing the full text of Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Vatican has given us a much better understanding of Pope Benedict's historic effort to reach out to the Anglican communion. And the official commentary, written by Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda of the Gregorian University and released along with the text, helps to highlight the fundamental policies behind the canonical rules.

Father Ghirlanda notes, for example, that the many petitions from Anglicans seeking entry into the Catholic Church often raised doctrinal questions. The Pope's apostolic constitution opens with a reflection on the nature of Christ's Church and the necessity for repairing breaches in the communion of the faithful. The document goes on to stipulate that the Catechism of the Catholic Church must be recognized by any incoming Anglicans as the official teaching of the Church, to which they are required to adhere. These are doctrinal questions, certainly. Father Ghirlanda rightly observes that "such questions will continue to arise as the time comes for the erection of particular Ordinariates and for the incorporation of groups of Anglican faithful into full Catholic communion through the Ordinariates."

Still it is remarkable that the Pope's outreach to Anglicans was organized through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with some help from the Congregation for Divine Worship-- but, as far as we can determine, no substantial influence from the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, which ordinarily coordinates ecumenical affairs. The Pope's decision to work around his chief ecumenical officer, Cardinal Walter Kasper, rather than through him, remains an interesting background story.

However, the publication of Anglicanorum Coetibus sheds no new light on that story, whereas it does clarify several other questions. Among those questions, four struck me as particularly noteworthy:

  1. the application of clerical celibacy to the new personal ordinariates;
  2. the question of membership in those ordinariates, particularly for lay people;
  3. the choice of the personal ordinariate, rather than the personal prelature or some other canonical structure; and
  4. the deference shown to Anglican bishops who choose to enter the Catholic Church.


In their coverage of the apostolic constitution, secular media outlets have focused heavily on the questions raised by the issue of clerical celibacy. Will the Anglican tradition of a married clergy be continued in the personal ordinariates? And if so, will the opening to married priests imperil the discipline of celibacy throughout the Roman Church?

The Vatican did its best to quiet those concerns-- first by denying (not altogether convincingly) that the delay in publication of the apostolic constitution was due to concerns about celibacy, and then by adding a clear endorsement of celibacy in a press release accompanying the new document:

The possibility envisioned by the Apostolic Constitution for some married clergy within the personal ordinariates does not signify any change in the Church's discipline of clerical celibacy. According to the Vatican Council II, priestly celibacy is a sign and a stimulus for pastoral charity and radiantly proclaims the reign of God.

Nevertheless, Anglicanorum Coetibus open the door to the possibility of married priests-- not only for the immediate future, to accommodate those Anglican clerics entering the Catholic Church, but also further down the road. The apostolic constitution (VI, #2) states that the personal ordinary "may also petition the Roman Pontiff, as a derogation from [the norm of celibacy] for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective criteria approved by the Holy See."

The nature of these "objective criteria" is not specified in the documents released today, and it may still be a matter subject to discussion and negotiation. But it is important to recognize that the case-by-case review suggested in this document applies to married men who might seek ordination in the future, not just to married Anglican priests wishing to enter the Catholic priesthood today. The latter are covered by the previous paragraph in the apostolic constitution, which essentially carries on the policy of the "pastoral provision" that has, since the 1980s, allowed married Anglican priests to become Catholic priests.

In his commentary on the apostolic constitution, Father Ghirlanda mentions the Vatican's willingness to make an exception to the norm of celibacy, citing it as clear evidence that the Holy See is determined to guarantee the continuation of a distinctive Anglican tradition within the Catholic Church.


Anglicanorum Coetibus (I, #4) establishes the personal ordinariates to serve the pastoral needs of the faithful "originally belonging to the Anglican Communion and now in full communion with the Catholic Church, or those who receive the Sacraments of Initiation within the jurisdiction of the Ordinariate." In other words, these new ecclesiastical units are designed for a special purpose. The Complementary Norms released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith spell out the implications: "Those baptized previously as Catholics outside the Ordinariate are not ordinarily eligible for membership, unless they are members of a family belonging to the Ordinariate."

Any parishes established within the personal ordinariates will be fully Catholic parishes, and so any lay Catholic will presumably be free to attend Mass and other liturgical ceremonies. But the document suggests that any Catholics who wish to transfer formally to the Anglican-use parishes will find it difficult to do so. The Vatican is not opening a loophole that will allow Roman Catholics to adopt a different set of traditions.

If that loophole is closed (or at least tightened), married men will not be able to switch their registration to the personal ordinariate in order to pursue priestly ordination. The dispensation from clerical celibacy will be carefully restricted.

For other Catholics, however, the tightening of the loophole may create new concerns. Some families may find themselves drawn to the beauty of the Anglican-use liturgy, and attend Mass regularly at a church connected with the personal ordinariate. They may be forced to clear some extra hurdles when their children are ready for Confirmation or Matrimony, and their formal registration remains in another parish.

Personal Ordinariates

Prior to the October 20 announcement that the Pope would create personal ordinariates for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church, canonists had speculated that the Pope would erect either a patriarchate or a new "personal prelature" for their needs. The choice of a "personal ordinariate" instead caused some puzzlement. In his official commentary, Father Ghirlanda explains the choice.

A patriarchate would have been improper because the Anglican communion traces its ecclesiastical roots back to the Church of Rome, not to one of the other historical patriarchal sees. The Anglican tradition now is to become "a particular reality within the Latin Church," Father Ghirlanda explains. The liturgy will be somewhat different from that in other Latin-rite churches, but this will not be a self-governing Church with its own independent rite. "The creation of a new Ritual Church might have created ecumenical difficulties."

A "personal prelature" seemed a more likely choice, but that option was not broad enough to accommodate the Anglicans petitioning Rome. The only personal prelature currently in existence, Opus Dei, has priests and lay people as members. But as Father Ghirlanda notes, "Members of Institutes of Consecrated Life or of Societies of Apostolic Life are not even mentioned in the canons concerning Personal Prelatures." The "personal ordinariate" was chosen so as to allow entire Anglican religious communities to enter the Catholic Church, and even to allow for the establishment of new religious orders within the personal ordinariates in the future.


From the outset it was understood that the apostolic constitution would allow for Anglican priests to become Catholic priests, and at least some Anglican bishops-- the unmarried ones-- might be considered for consecration to the Catholic episcopacy. The text of the Complementary Norms (Article 11) goes even further in providing respectful treatment of Anglican bishops who enter the Catholic Church.

First, a married Anglican Bishop "is eligible to be appointed Ordinary." He would not be a bishop of the Catholic Church, but he would exercise many of the same responsibilities as a Catholic bishop, and "exercises pastoral and sacramental ministry within the Ordinariate with full jurisdictional authority."

The Complementary Norms show a strong impulse to treat former Anglican bishops with the same respect that is accorded Catholic bishops, even if they are not chosen to head personal ordinariates, and even if they are married. Former Anglican bishops may be asked to assist in the administration of the new ordinariates, and may be invited to join in the work of bishops' conferences, "with the equivalent status of a retired bishop." The Vatican document stipulates that they "may request permission from the Holy See to use the insignia of the episcopal office." Recognizing that these Anglican prelates will be taking a humbling step by asking for entry into the Catholic Church, the Vatican is doing everything possible to greet them with dignity.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: j.fleming8019 - Nov. 11, 2009 6:11 PM ET USA

    Objective criteria are mentioned in Article 6 of the Complementary Norms alongside "and the needs of the Ordinariate". The needs of the Ordinariate still leaves wide open the question as to the degree to which married priests will be part of the life of the Ordinariate.