By RACHEL DONADIO
Published: October 21, 2009
ROME — In making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to become Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI once again revealed the character of his papacy: to reach out to the most fervent of like-minded believers, even if they are not Catholic. Yet some observers wonder whether his move could paradoxically liberalize the church — or at least wedge it open — on a crucial issue: celibacy.
Pope Benedict's overture toward the Anglicans speaks to his desire to bring traditional believers into the church at all costs.
In a momentous move on Tuesday, the Vatican said it would help Anglicans uncomfortable with female priests and openly gay bishops join a new Anglican rite within the Catholic Church.
The invitation also extends to married Anglican clergy. And so some have begun to wonder, even if the 82-year-old Benedict himself would never allow it, would more people in the Roman Catholic Church begin to entertain the possibility of married Catholic priests?
“If you get used to the idea of your priests being married, then that changes the perception of the Catholic priesthood necessarily,” said Austen Ivereigh, a Catholic commentator in London and a former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor of Westminster.
“We face the prospect in the future of going to a Catholic church in London and it being normal to find a married Catholic priest celebrating at the altar, with his wife sitting in the third pew and his children running up and down the aisle,” he said.
It remains unclear how many Anglican priests will make the transition to the church. At a news conference announcing the new structure on Tuesday, Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal officer, said only that 20 to 30 Anglican bishops had inquired about becoming Catholics, although priests far outnumber bishops.
Married priests are permitted in the eastern Catholic rites, and one of Benedict’s central goals is full communion with the Orthodox — and they, too, allow priests to marry. Anglican priests, married or not, are already permitted to become Catholic priests, but on a case-by-case basis. The new dispensation would for the first time allow in groups of married priests.
“Now we’re opening up a whole structure within the Latin rite, within the Western rite, which will allow married priests to function,” said Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Seminary at Georgetown University and a liberal Catholic commentator.
Father Reese raised a series of intriguing hypothetical questions: Would unmarried Anglican priests who want to become Catholic priests have to take a vow of chastity? (The answer is presumably yes.) Could a Catholic man convert to Anglicanism, be ordained as an Anglican priest, then rejoin the Catholic Church under the new Anglican rite? (The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, dismissed that idea as “a trick.”)
The overture toward the Anglicans speaks to a central theme in Benedict’s papacy: his desire to bring in traditional believers at all costs to help Catholicism become a “creative minority” in increasingly secular Europe.
Many saw it in line with the pope’s decision in January to revoke the excommunication of four schismatic bishops from the ultratraditional Society of St. Pius X, including one, Bishop Richard Williamson, who had denied the scope of the Holocaust. Aimed at healing a rift within the church, the move created global outrage and led a significant number of Catholics in Benedict’s native Germany to leave the Catholic Church.
Despite the outrage and a bumpy start toward reconciliation, the first formal meeting to bring the schismatic group, already pardoned by Benedict, back into the church will take place next week.
“Today more than ever, with Joseph Ratzinger as pope, the ecumenical path seems not to be a march toward modernity, but a return to the land of tradition,” Sandro Magister, a veteran Vatican reporter in Italy, wrote on his blog on Tuesday.
Many liberal Catholics in the United States lamented that the decision over the Anglicans again demonstrated that Benedict reached out only to the most conservative elements on the Catholic spectrum, not the more progressive ones.
And many experts noted that the decision also reflected a similar tendency inside the Vatican: as in the case with the schismatic bishops, the arrangement with the Anglicans was hammered out by doctrinal offices, generally staffed by more conservative clergy, without close consultation with the office responsible for ecumenical dialogue, whose staff members tend to be more moderate. Many saw it as yet another sign that the true power of Benedict’s papacy lies in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the doctrinal office, which he oversaw for two decades before becoming pope.
Coincidence or not, the Vatican announced the creation of the structure for Anglicans only after Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, a strong voice for ecumenical dialogue, had retired, and when Cardinal Walter Kasper, the director of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Vatican’s main point person for relations with the Anglicans, was out of town.
Last Thursday, Cardinal Kasper said at a news conference that the Vatican did not intend “to fish in Anglican lakes,” that the aim of its dialogue with the Anglicans was not conversion. On Tuesday, Cardinal Levada said he had asked people involved in ecumenical dialogue to attend the Anglican news conference, but they were not in Rome.
He did acknowledge the complication of allowing married priests into the church.
“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,” Cardinal Levada said. “And the question arises, ‘Well, if these former Anglicans can be married priests, what about us?’ ”
But he said there were differences between Anglicans seeking to convert to Catholicism and Catholic men who commit to a celibate priesthood and then decide “that they want to leave the priesthood in order to have a married life.”
“I don’t think it’s an insurmountable problem,” Cardinal Levada said.
For liberal groups, usually ignored by the church hierarchy, the Anglican ruling was a rare, if mixed, moment of hope. Allowing married priests, liberals noted, could go a long way to overcoming the deep shortages of priests in the developed world.
“I think it’s very interesting and probably somewhat encouraging, in the sense of ‘yes, there is a flexibility, there is an openness,’ ” said Sister Christine Schenk, the executive director of Future Church, a Catholic group based in Cleveland that favors married clergy.