Vatican Offer May Lure Church of England Priests

On the surface, it looks like a polite tug of war between two of the world's great churches, each saying nice things about the other.

But the ramifications of the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are broad and not yet completely clear, with details of the Vatican's offer to help Anglicans convert still unpublished.

It is not yet known what part of the Anglicans' liturgy and rites will be incorporated into Catholic worship under the surprise offer made earlier this week in a bold bid by Pope Benedict XVI to capitalize on sharp divisions within the Anglican community over the proper role of women clergy and the acceptability of openly gay priests.

Nor is it clear how many Anglicans will seek to switch churches because of the pope's new policy. The Right Rev. John Broadhurst, the Bishop of Fulham, believes roughly 1,000 Church of England clergy will seek to join the Roman Catholic Church. He is chairman of Forward in Faith, a group of traditionalists opposed to the ordination of women.

He said this was not a direct result of the pope's new policy but a reflection of widespread unhappiness with liberal Church of England policies.

"There are 1,000 priests who are totally disenchanted with the position on women bishops, and if there is no provision for them, they will inevitably leave the Church of England," he said. "The Church of England is in a crisis because of its own internal policies and has been for a long time."

Others predict the exodus will be smaller.

Some changes are clear: it will, for example, be possible for married Anglican clergy to become Roman Catholic clergy under the new rules, a prospect that some believe may open the door, slowly, to the acceptance of married Catholic priests.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert at Georgetown's Theological Center in Washington, predicted the Vatican announcement may have "significant and unforeseen consequences" for the Catholic Church.

"It may in fact provide the Catholic Church with a steady supply of married priests," he wrote.

Several commentators have suggested that the Catholic Church will be increasingly pressured into relaxing its own celibacy rule for priests because of the expected influx of married Anglican priests. For years, there have been calls for so-called "viri provati" or tested men to perform priestly functions to help relieve the priest shortage in the United States and much of the developing world.

The Vatican has always rejected those calls, saying the celibacy rule is not up for negotiation.

Cardinal William Levada acknowledged that the influx of married Anglican priests into the Catholic Church could create problems. But he said he didn't think the problem would be "insurmountable."

"It's a question of education, of the reasons for this kind of a disposition among our faithful," he told a press conference earlier this week. "And I think that experience has already shown us that if an explanation is given, that people understand that and accept it as an exception."

Part of the problem stems from the fact that, according to the new Vatican norms, Anglican seminarians will be trained alongside Catholic seminarians. It stands to reason that that the already difficult decision a Catholic seminarian must make to live a celibate life will be made even more difficult if his schoolmate is allowed to have a wife.

"I think for some people it seems to be a problem because as you know there have been many catholic priests who have left the priesthood to get married, and the question rises: 'If these former Anglicans can be married priests, what about us?"' Levada said.

But he said the two circumstances are completely different. The Vatican grants an exception to Anglican priests as a way of respecting that their calling to be Catholic happened to have occurred after they were married.

Already, some Catholic groups that have long advocated making celibacy optional for priests are seeing the new ruling as a lever to be used to force the Roman Catholic Church to liberalize its policies on married clergy.

"We're surprised and pleased to see Vatican flexibility in permitting married priests for Anglican converts, but we need the option of a married priesthood in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church too," said Christine Schenk, director of FutureChurch, an Ohio-based coalition that favors liberalization of Church rules.

Other group members predicted that Catholic seminarians who wish to marry will likely join the Anglican branch to take advantage of the new situation. They say acceptance of married priests is a vital step needed to help combat the shortage of priests, both in the United States and around the world.

The number of priests in the US has dropped from about 58,000 in 1965 to 40,000 today. The number of priests worldwide has declined slightly since 1970, during a time when the number of Catholics in the world has nearly doubled to an estimated 1.1. billion, according to figures compiled by the Center for Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The shortage is caused not only by men leaving the priesthood, many in order to marry, but also by the difficulty of recruiting qualified candidates for the seminaries.

The surprise Vatican move, designed to make the Roman Catholic Church more attractive to Anglicans, seems to have caught senior Anglican officials flatfooted.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of the global Anglican church, told followers in a letter that he only learned of the Vatican's plans at the very last minute.

He seemed uncomfortable at a press conference announcing the change, and has said he is waiting for details to see how it will be put in practice.