VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict’s decision to fling open Catholicism’s doors to disaffected Anglicans could challenge centuries of Catholic opposition to married priests and may bring the Church closer to married priesthood.
The opening announced last week could lead to as many as half a million Anglican faithful, some 50 of their bishops and thousands of married Anglican priests converting to Catholicism.
The conservative Anglicans, who oppose female priesthood and gay bishops, now have an exit strategy. They will have their own niche within the Catholic Church and will be allowed to convert as individuals, parishes or even as whole dioceses.
They will not have to jettison their Anglican traditions and many will find their new parishes headed by formerly Anglican married priests who will become de facto married Catholic priests after they convert.
Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, the pope’s job until he was elected in 2005, acknowledged that the Vatican will have some serious explaining to do to groups that have been pushing for a married priesthood.
“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 arises, ‘well, if these former Anglicans can be married priests, what about us?’”
Levada made a distinction between Anglican priests who are already married and convert to Catholicism and “Catholic men who knowingly commit to a celibate priesthood”.
But Jon O’Brian, president of the U.S.-based dissident group Catholics for Choice, said the move will be “incredibly important” ammunition for supporters of a married priesthood.
“This will bring more attention to the Church’s dismal failure to recruit new priests under the current rules. As parishes are being forced to amalgamate, it’s clear that this is the Church’s Achille’s heel,” he told Reuters from Washington.
Priests were permitted to marry during the first millennium of the Church history before the celibacy rule was adopted.
Father Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said that the long-term effect of Benedict’s move may be to “provide the Catholic Church with a steady stream of married priests”.
“This is going to give empirical evidence that a married priesthood can work in the Catholic Church,” he told Reuters. “People will ask questions like ‘he seems nice, he’s doing a good job. Why can’t we have more like him?’”.
The Vatican has made clear that so far a man who left the Catholic priesthood to marry cannot return, but it is still not clear if a married Catholic will be allowed to enter an Anglican seminary and return to the Catholic Church as a married priest.
The devil, or in this case the angel, will be in the details of the pope’s Apostolic Constitution, not yet released.
“If so, this could become a rich source of priests for the Catholic Church,” Reese said, adding that the problem of the shortage of Catholic priests can be solved within a generation.
Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, one of two Vatican officials who explained the move last week, said the papal document will clearly state the Vatican’s preference for a celibate clergy.
Critics have said it was hypocritical for the Church to ordain married converts while demanding that so-called cradle Catholics make a stark choice between marriage and priesthood.
Others are fascinated by the possible long-term repercussions of the move, particularly as more and more married and celibate seminarians study together for the priesthood.
“This really brings us closer to a married priesthood,” said O’Brian. “It creates two classes of priesthood and this tension will bring pressure for at least optional celibacy.”
But others, such as Rev. William Franklin, academic fellow at Rome’s Anglican Centre, said he had doubts about the move’s long-term effect on the Catholic priesthood.
“It’s a red herring. It all depends on what the pope’s apostolic constitution says and how many people convert,” Franklin, a married Anglican priest who teaches at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome, told Reuters.
One key point still not clear is if the provisions allowing married former Anglican priests in the new wing of the Catholic Church will extend to male descendants of today’s converts.
Editing by Diana Abdallah