Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Pope's bold invitation to Anglicans

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 20, 2009

With a single, bold stroke that caught nearly everyone by surprise, Pope Benedict XVI has eased the way for tradition-minded Anglicans who wish to enter the Catholic Church. [See the CWN headline story.]

The apostolic constitution that was announced at the Vatican today will create a hierarchical structure within the Catholic Church, allowing Anglican priests to become Catholic priests with a minimum of red tape, and providing for the appointment of former Anglicans as Catholic bishops. The "personal ordinariates" established under the terms of this apostolic constitution will ensure that Anglicans who become Catholics are not simply absorbed into the existing Catholic structures and then forgotten; they will be allowed-- and encouraged-- to maintain their own distinctive traditions.

Oddly, today's Vatican press conference announced the new apostolic constitution, but the Vatican officials who briefed reporters spoke about the document in the future tense. Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, discussed the impact of the "forthcoming" apostolic constitution. The document is not yet ready for publication; the Vatican did not even announce its name.

Ordinarily, the press conference would be convened only after the document was prepared, and the high Vatican officials would unveil the document at the same time that they explained its impact. In this case, apparently, the Vatican wanted to explain the document even before it appeared-- probably in order to prevent the sort of premature leaks that could give rise to misunderstandings and inaccuracies about the nature of the papal initiative.

In other words the Holy See rushed to explain this apostolic constitution before misunderstandings could arise. In a rare and welcome display of media savvy, the Vatican seized control of the story, giving its own explanation before the confusion set in.

For months there has been open speculation about Vatican talks with traditional Anglican groups. Foremost among these groups is the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a group that boasts a membership of 400,000 (although some observers say that figure is considerably inflated). Representatives of the TAC have conferred with Vatican officials several times in recent months, and the group has spoken quite openly about its petition for some form of corporate reunion with Rome. Archbishop John Hepworth, the head of the TAC, was reportedly briefed in advance about the Pope's plans for the apostolic constitution.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, on the other hand, was not privy to the Pope's plans. In a message to his Anglican colleagues, Dr. Rowan Williams reported: "I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier" to the Vatican plans. He explained; "I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage."

To his credit, Archbishop Williams recovered quickly, and in a joint statement released with his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, he did his best to accentuate the positive aspects of the Vatican announcement as seen through Anglican eyes. The Pope's apostolic constitution, the joint statement said, would be "further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition." This step would not have been taken, the statement argued, if Catholics and Anglicans had not been engaged in fruitful ecumenical dialogue for the past generation; now that dialogue will continue. Responding to questions from reporters in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that the Pope's initiative would not been seen "as in any sense a commentary on Anglican problems offered by the Vatican."

In making that last statement, Dr. Williams was being hopelessly optimistic. In the current crisis within the Anglican communion-- caused by "progressive" elements who have pushed the Anglican world far beyond the outermost boundaries of Christian tradition and Biblical morality-- many thousands of Anglicans have begun searching for a way to maintain their faith intact. By opening the door wider for those interested in joining the Catholic Church, the Vatican is indeed making a comment on the current fragility of the Anglican communion. Now the critical question is: How many Anglicans will approach that wide-open door?

Many Anglicans have already come knocking. The Vatican made that point clear in its announcement of the Pope's plans, leading with the statement that Pope Benedict was "responding to the may request that have been submitted to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world who wish to enter into full visible communion."

The plans for the apostolic constitution did not arise through the usual channels of dialogue with the Anglican communion: the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Representatives of these groups were conspicuously absent from the October 20 press conference. Anglican spokesmen explained that there was not enough time to arrange for a proper representative to appear in Rome, and Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, was out of town on the day of the event. What is more remarkable, no other representative from that pontifical council was available at the press conference to field reporters' questions.

This press conference was convened hastily, with less than 24 hours' notice. If more time had been allowed for planning the event, Cardinal Kasper might have attended, along with some leading representative of the Anglican communion. Apparently the Vatican did not consider that representation necessary.

Or is there more to this story? If the Pope's plans for this apostolic constitution had been conveyed through the usual routes, and the Anglican hierarchy had been given ample time to plan for the announcement, there inevitably would have been leaks-- and complaints and criticisms and confusion-- before the Vatican made that formal announcement. With this surprise announcement, Pope Benedict avoided any such complications.

Quite understandably, the Anglican hierarchy has been unenthusiastic about the possibility that entire Anglican parishes, or even dioceses, would enter into full communion with Rome-- and thus exit the Anglican communion. Cardinal Kasper, who under normal circumstances is the key figure in Vatican talks with Anglicans, has reflected the views of the Anglican hierarchy in his own public statements, consistently downplaying the prospects for any corporate reunion. So the TAC and other conservative Anglican groups have taken another route, bringing their petitions to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship-- and ultimately to the Holy Father himself, who has long been sympathetic toward the Anglo-Catholic cause.

While many Anglicans wanted to enter the Catholic Church, and the Pope wanted to welcome them, there were a few serious obstacles to be overcome. Traditional Anglicans wanted assurance that they would be allowed to maintain their own cherished traditions-- drawn from the rich heritage of Anglo-Catholicism that goes back to the days before Henry VIII. To provide that assurance, the Catholic Church would need to provide some form of hierarchical structure.

Canonists had discussed the possibility of an Anglican patriarchate, or the more modest possibility of a personal prelature for Anglo-Catholics, similar to the structure the Church has provided for Opus Dei. In his apostolic constitution, Pope Benedict chooses a different option: personal ordinariates.

An "ordinary" is a member of the hierarchy who provides pastoral care for the faithful within his jurisdiction. In the most common case the "ordinary" is a bishop, and his jurisdiction is a diocese, contained within a defined geographical area. But under special circumstances that formula can be changed. Sometimes the "ordinary" is not a bishop, but a priest serving as apostolic administrator. Sometimes his jurisdiction is not over a geographical territory but over a certain subset of the faithful-- such as the members of Opus Dei, or in this case the former Anglicans who have entered into communion with the Church.

In explaining this structure at the October 20 press conference, Cardinal Levada compared the future Anglo-Catholic "personal ordinariates" to the military ordinariates that have been established in most countries. In the US, for instance, a single archbishop supervises the chaplains who serve American troops all around the world. In the same way, the "personal ordinary" for Anglo-Catholics would be a member of the American hierarchy, serving the needs of any Anglo-Catholic parishes within the country.

The Vatican announcement indicated that the ordinariates would be established "in consultation with local conferences of bishops." The ordinaries would be drawn from the ranks of Anglican priests who have entered the Catholic Church (and been re-ordained for the Catholic priesthood), and could include former Anglican bishops, but could not be married. New priests could be trained for the ordinariate in existing seminaries, "though the ordinariate may establish a house of formation to address the particular needs of formation in the Anglican patrimony."

The coming apostolic constitution, then, gives Anglicans the assurance they sought that they may continue their own traditions, while coming into communion with the Holy See. As Cardinal Levada put it, "Insofar as these traditions expressive in a distinctive way the faith that is held in common, they are a gift to be shared in the wider Church."

Pope Benedict is trying to make it as easy as possible for faithful Anglicans to return to the main stream of the apostolic tradition, which is the Catholic Church. Many thousands of Anglicans, comparing that rich moving stream to the brackish backwaters of contemporary Anglicanism, may find the invitation irresistible. As they enter into the Church, they could give their fellow Catholics a useful reminder of how wide and deep that apostolic tradition is.

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: Solzy2004 - Oct. 21, 2009 10:19 PM ET USA

    This is simply the best Pope that ever was.

  • Posted by: BANICAJerry - Oct. 21, 2009 2:59 PM ET USA

    Will this speed up the return of the Latin Liturgy? What about the real estate lost to Henry VIII's Church? Will it be returned?

  • Posted by: John Holecek - Oct. 20, 2009 7:24 PM ET USA

    What can one do but rejoice!

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Oct. 20, 2009 6:38 PM ET USA

    It's a good thing when faiths reunite, especially when they come back into the fold. In the case of Anglicans, the Holy Father might have wished for too much. The Anglican blog Stand Firm in Faith already has Episcopalians wringing their hands about this or that. Having been one myself in a previous life, I know from personal experience how they will fall on their sword over the tiniest thing. It's good that they will have their own ordinaries -- Roman bishops are busy enough already.

  • Posted by: St.John Neumann - Oct. 20, 2009 6:02 PM ET USA

    As a former Episcopalian who has studied to be a priest, but did not seek ordination, I was delighted with this news. I learned to be a Catholic in the Episcopal Church as did many of my friends who also became Catholic about 25 years ago. I firmly believe the inclusion of these serious followers of Christ will greatly stengthen the Holy Father in his work to recover the true sense of Vatican II. If I wasn't so old I would seek ordination in the new ecclesial structure. Thank you Holy Spirit

  • Posted by: rpp - Oct. 20, 2009 4:43 PM ET USA

    Hooray! Hooray!! Hooray!!! Authentic ecumenism at its best.