VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has created a new church structure for Anglicans who want to join the Catholic Church, responding to the disillusionment of some Anglicans over the ordination of women and the election of openly gay bishops.
The new provision will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining their Anglican identity and many of their liturgical traditions, Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican's chief doctrinal official, told a news conference.
The new church structure, called Personal Ordinariates, will be units of faithful within the local Catholic Church headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to become Catholic.
"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."
Levada said 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 ordination of women, the election of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions in the 77-million strong Anglican Communion. He 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 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 it would be received within the Anglican Communion and the prospects for continued ecumenical talks between the Vatican and Archbishop of Canterbury.
Noticeably, no one from the Vatican's office on relations with Anglicans and other Christians 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 Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual head of the global Anglican church, 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.
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.