Benedict XVI eases way for Anglicans wishing to 'cross the Tiber'

Benedict XVI eases way for Anglicans wishing to 'cross the Tiber'

Michael Gilchrist

At a Vatican press conference on 20 October, 2009, Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announced that Benedict XVI had approved an apostolic constitution (see page 4) to assist Anglicans wishing to enter into union with the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Levada explained: 'The Holy Father has introduced a canonical structure that provides for such corporate reunion by establishing personal ordinariates which will allow former Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.'

The initiative was in response to requests from Anglicans - including from 20 to 30 bishops - who wish to become Catholic in the face of a fragmenting Anglicanism that accepts women and active homosexual clergy and bishops, and the blessing of same-sex unions. The large African component of world Anglicanism has been particularly unhappy at such developments in Western countries.

Recent years have seen many individual Anglicans, including hundreds of the clergy, several bishops and whole parishes accepting papal authority and entering into union with the Catholic Church. But the present papal initiative has far wider implications.

Stalled ecumenism

Following the heady optimism of the early post-Vatican II years, ecumenical progress between Catholics and the post-Reformation churches has stalled over the contentious issues that divide Protestants.

Archbishop Augustine DiNoia, the former under-secretary at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who helped draft the new structure, commented, 'We've been praying for unity for 40 years, [but our] prayers are being answered in ways we did not anticipate.' There has, he said, been a 'tremendous shift' in the ecumenical movement and 'these possibilities weren't seen as they are now'. Technical details still need to be worked out, he added, and the personal ordinariates could vary in their final form.

Cardinal Levada said the apostolic constitution provided a 'reasonable and even necessary response' to what was a 'worldwide phenomenon' for it offered a 'single canonical model for the universal Church which is adaptable to various local situations and equitable to former Anglicans in its universal application.'

A 'personal ordinariate' is similar in some ways to a personal prelature, as with Opus Dei, or a military ordinariate, where a bishop has ecclesiastical authority over members of the armed forces and their families, regardless of geographical location.

Cardinal Levada explained that it was Benedict's hope 'that the Anglican clergy and faithful who desire union with the Catholic Church will find in this canonical structure the opportunity to preserve those Anglican traditions precious to them and consistent with the Catholic faith.

'Insofar as these traditions express in a distinctive way the faith that is held in common, they are a gift to be shared in the wider Church. The unity of the Church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows.'

The Primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, Archbishop John Hepworth, welcomed Benedict's decision to permit Anglican communities to join the Catholic Church as communities.

'May I firstly state that this is an act of great goodness on the part of the Holy Father. He has dedicated his pontificate to the cause of unity. It more than matches the dreams we dared to include in our petition of two years ago. It more than matches our prayers ...

'My fellow bishops have indeed signed the Catechism of the Catholic Church and made a statement about the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, reflecting the words of Pope John Paul II in his letter Ut Unum Sint.'

Similar sentiments were expressed at a Forward in Faith conference in London on 23-24 October.

Forward in Faith is an association of Anglican clergy and lay people opposed to the ordination of women and active homosexuals within the Anglican Communion. The association has nearly 1,000 clergy members world-wide.

Bishop John Broadhurst, Forward in Faith's world leader, described the Vatican move as generous for respecting 'our integrity'. He said the establishment of personal ordinariates was a 'world approach to which we will be part', adding that bishops involved with Forward in Faith would be seeking to respond to the apostolic constitution in unity.

His views echoed those of other Anglican leaders, including the former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and Bishop John Hind of Chichester.

End of an era

Reactions elsewhere were also positive, with Cardinal Francis George, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicating that the Conference was 'ready to collaborate' in implementing the apostolic constitution.

Fr George Rutler, an Anglican convert and one of America's most prominent Catholic priests and commentators, described Benedict XVI's move as 'a rebuke to the liberal agenda of some in the Anglican Communion', namely a 'total repudiation of the ordination of women, homosexual marriage and the general neglect of doctrine in Anglicanism.'

However, in a joint statement, Archbishops Vincent Nichols (Catholic) and Rowan Williams (Anglican) said that the Pope's declaration was a 'further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition' which has grown out of the last 40 years of dialogue.