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The Vatican has made it easier for Anglicans to join the Catholic Church, responding to the disillusionment of some Anglicans over the election of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions.
Pope Benedict XVI approved a new church provision that will allow Anglicans to convert while maintaining many of their distinctive spiritual and liturgical traditions, Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican's chief doctrinal official, told a news conference Tuesday.
In the past, such exemptions had only been granted in a few cases in certain countries. The new church provision is designed to allow Anglicans around the world to access a new church structure if they want to convert.
The decision immediately raised questions about how the new provision would be received within the 77-million strong Anglican Communion, the global Anglican church, which has been on the verge of a schism over divisions within its membership about women bishops, gay bishops and gay unions.
The new Catholic church structures, called Personal Ordinariates, will be units of faithful established within local Catholic Churches, headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to be Catholic.
They would most closely resemble Catholic military ordinariates, special units of the church established
in most countries to provide spiritual care for the members of the armed forces and their dependents.
"Those Anglicans who have approached the Holy See have made clear their desire for full, visible unity in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church," Levada said. "At the same time, they have told us of the importance of their Anglican traditions of spirituality and worship for their faith journey."
The new canonical structure is a response to the many requests that have come to the Vatican over the years from Anglicans who have become increasingly disillusioned with the progressive bent of the Anglican Communion. Many have already left and consider themselves Catholic but have not found an official home in the Catholic Church.
The divisions in the Anglican Communion have prompted its spiritual head, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, to suggest that in order to avoid a schism, the Anglican Communion may have to accept a "two-track" system in which churches can hold different opinions about gay clergy and same-sex unions.
Levada declined to give figures on the number of requests that have come to the Vatican, or on the anticipated number of Anglicans who might take advantage of the new structure.
The new canonical provision allows married Anglican priests and even seminarians to become ordained Catholic priests - much the same way that Eastern rite priests who are in communion with Rome are allowed to be married. However, married Anglicans couldn't become Catholic bishops.
The Vatican announcement immediately raised questions about how the Vatican's long-standing dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury could continue. Noticeably, no one from the Vatican's ecumenical office on relations with Anglicans attended the news conference; Levada said he had invited representatives to attend but they said they were all away from Rome.
However, the Vatican's archbishop of Westminster and Williams issued a joint statement saying the decision "brings an end to a period of uncertainty" for Anglicans wishing to join the Catholic Church. The statement said the decision in fact could not have happened had there not been such fruitful dialogue between the two.
"The ongoing official dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion provides the basis for our continuing cooperation," the joint statement said.
Nevertheless, Williams' representative in Rome, the Very Rev. David Richardson, said the Vatican's decision was "surprising," given that the Catholic Church in the past had welcomed individual Anglicans in without creating what he called "parallel structures" for entire groups of Anglicans.
"The two questions I would want to ask are 'why this and why now,"' he told The Associated Press. "Why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has decided to embrace that particular method remains unclear to me."
Also unclear, he said, was the Vatican's target audience: those Anglicans who have already left the Anglican Communion, or current members. Levada said it covered both, and the documentation explaining the new structure speaks of both Anglicans and "former Anglicans."
"If it's for former Anglicans, then it's not about our present difficulties, then it's people who have already left," Richardson said. If it's current Anglicans, "There is in my mind an uncertainty for whom it is intended."
The announcement was kept under wraps until the last moment: The Vatican only announced Levada's briefing Monday night, and Levada only flew back to Rome after finalizing the details at midnight.
This program aired on October 20, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.
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