The Vatican launched an historic initiative Tuesday to make it easier for disgruntled Anglicans worldwide to join the Roman Catholic Church. The church said the move was not a swipe at the Anglicans but it could nevertheless result in hundreds of thousands of churchgoers unhappy with openly gay and female clerics defecting to Rome.
Pope Benedict XVI gave his approval to a new framework to bring back into the fold Anglicans who oppose their church's liberal stance on gay marriage and the ordination of women priests and gay bishops while allowing them to retain some of their separate religious traditions.
The move comes nearly 500 years after Henry VIII's desire for a divorce led him to break with Rome and proclaim himself as the head of the newly formed Church of England in 1534. The framework is the Vatican's most sweeping gesture toward any schismatic church since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and the Thirty Years' War that followed it in the 17th century. That war ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which acknowledged the right of monarchs rather than the Vatican to determine their national faiths, prompting Pope Innocent X to declare the document "null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time."
Over the centuries, relations between the various Christian faiths have improved and both Anglican and Catholic leaders were at pains on Tuesday to say that warming relations between the two churches will not be affected by the new plan. But both churches have been struggling to retain adherents in recent years, particularly in the developed world, with poorer countries their only growth spots.
Individual Anglicans have long been free to convert to Catholicism, as former British prime minister Tony Blair did after leaving office in 2007. But the so-called Apostolic Constitution will enable entire Anglican communities to transfer their allegiance en masse.
The pope was responding to "numerous requests to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in various parts of the world who want to enter into full and visible communion" with the Catholic Church, Cardinal William Joseph Levada told a news conference. He is the American head of the Vatican's doctrinal body.
Vatican officials declined to say how many of the world's 77 million Anglicans might take the opportunity to convert to Catholicism.
The Traditional Anglican Communion, a vocal group of 400,000 conservatives who split from the Anglican Communion in 1991, are expected to move towards Rome.
"We have had requests from large groups, in the hundreds," said Cardinal Levada. "If I had to say a number of bishops, I would say it's in the twenties or thirties."
His American colleague, Archbishop Joseph Di Noia, Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, said after the press conference that he believed the number of bishops ready to convert was closer to 50.
Cardinal Levada was asked whether the Vatican's new policy weakened the Anglican Church's standing.
"I would not dare to make a comment on that. After the long years of the British Empire, and the work of Anglican missionaries, the Anglican Communion is a diverse and very varied worldwide communion."
Under the new constitution, married Anglican priests will be allowed to enter the Catholic Church but will not be ordained as bishops.
Will African Anglicans move?
The initiative was in response to years of lobbying by Anglicans who had become disenchanted with Anglican liberalism, a dissatisfaction which reached a crisis point in 2004 when the Episcopal Church in the United States ordained the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
That move and other liberal shifts, such as a Canadian diocese's willingness to bless same-sex unions, have been fiercely opposed by more conservative Anglicans, particularly in Africa.
The new framework was announced simultaneously in Rome and in London, where the head of the Church of England, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, said he did not see the Vatican move as "an act of aggression." (Read a Monitor profile of the archbishop here.)
Neither was it a vote of no confidence in the Anglican Church, he said, but a sign of maturity and understanding between the two faiths.
But Vatican commentators described it as a blow to the Anglican Communion. "For people who harbor the vision of Anglican unity, this will be a great disappointment," said Vatican analyst Francis X Rocca, of the Religion News Service.
"But it may also help to let off steam within the Anglican Church. If disaffected traditionalists leave, then they will lower the tensions over issues like gay marriage and women clergy."
Vatican expert John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote in a blog post that while the opening by the Vatican had long been rumored, some Catholics feared "potentially negative repercussions in relations with the Anglican Communion – whose leadership might see it as 'poaching.'"