Rome’s Bold Answer

The Vatican publishes an apostolic constitution to accommodate Anglicans who seek entry into the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI caught the world by surprise with the announcement that he is creating a new structure within the Catholic hierarchy to accommodate Anglicans who wish to enter the Catholic Church. At an October 20 press conference, Vatican officials revealed that the Pontiff was preparing an apostolic constitution to establish “personal ordinariates” that would be headed by formerly Anglican priests. The purpose of this unprecedented move was twofold: to make it as easy as possible for Anglican bishops, priests, and laity to enter into full communion with Rome, and to ensure that the distinctive features of the Anglican tradition could endure within the Catholic Church.

For months there had been persistent speculation around Rome that Vatican officials were looking for a way to accommodate those traditionminded Anglicans who were hoping to arrange a corporate reunion with Rome. The Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), a group that claims a worldwide membership of 400,000 (although that figure seems considerably inflated), had been engaged in a series of meetings with officials of the Roman Curia, looking for a canonical formula that might ease their entry.

In August of 2008, the bishops of the TAC signed a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, affirming their full acceptance of Roman Catholic doctrine. In January the group’s leader, Archbishop John Hepworth, revealed that the TAC had sent a petition to Rome, asking for admission into the Catholic fold, and was “quietly and optimistically waiting for an answer.” But apart from a few short-lived rumors, there had been no reports during the summer or early autumn about a concrete Vatican response to the TAC petition.

Then suddenly, on October 19, the Vatican press office announced plans for a news conference to be held the next day, at which Cardinal William Levada (the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and Archbishop Augustine Di Noia (the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship) would discuss “relations with Anglicans.”

That surprise announcement sent a pulse of excitement through the Vatican press corps. Ordinarily the Vatican schedules news conferences well in advance, and gives reporters a clear description of the issues to be discussed. This last-minute announcement, coupled with the vague description of the subject matter, signaled that this would be no ordinary announcement. The fact that two senior officials of the Roman Curia would be on hand confirmed the importance of the event.

Shortly after that first announcement, reporters learned that there would be a second press conference in London the next day, at which Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster and the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, would offer their response to the news from Rome. By now the importance of the matter was unmistakable.

The Pope’s offer

At the Tuesday press conference, Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Di Noia revealed that Pope Benedict was preparing an apostolic constitution— the most authoritative form of papal document—that would establish a new canonical structure for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church. The “personal ordinariates” would be integrated into national episcopal conferences, but would be allowed to preserve elements of the “the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony.”

“Under the terms of the apostolic constitution, pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a personal ordinariate, whose ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy,” explained a note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The note continued:

The forthcoming apostolic constitution provides a reasonable and even necessary response to a worldwide phenomenon, by offering a single canonical model for the universal Church which is adaptable to various local situations and equitable to former Anglicans in its universal application. It provides for the ordination as Catholic priests of married former Anglican clergy. Historical and ecumenical reasons preclude the ordination of married men as bishops in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The constitution therefore stipulates that the ordinary can be either a priest or an unmarried bishop. The seminarians in the ordinariate are to be prepared alongside other Catholic seminarians, though the ordinariate may establish a house of formation to address the particular needs of formation in the Anglican patrimony. In this way, the apostolic constitution seeks to balance on the one hand the concern to preserve the worthy Anglican liturgical and spiritual patrimony and, on the other hand, the concern that these groups and their clergy will be integrated into the Catholic Church.

The breadth of the Vatican move, with its open invitation for all Anglicans to consider entry into the Church, caused an immediate sensation. The new canonical structure, on the other hand, caused confusion. What was a “personal ordinariate”?

The Canonical Structure

In the earlier, speculative talks about an offer to Anglicans, canonists had discussed the possibility that an Anglican patriarchate could be established, with its own separate rite. That prospect seemed unlikely, since the Vatican has been loath to recognize any new patriarchate (thus the Roman hesitation to recognize a Ukrainian Catholic patriarchate at Kiev) and since the Anglican Communion sprang from ecclesiastical roots firmly embedded within the Latin rite. More modestly, canonists suggested a personal prelature for Anglo-Catholics, similar to the structure the Church has provided for Opus Dei. Pope Benedict chose a different option: not a single personal prelature, but an indeterminate number of personal ordinariates.

An “ordinary” is a member of the hierarchy who provides pastoral care for the faithful within his jurisdiction. In the most common case the “ordinary” is a bishop and his jurisdiction is a diocese, contained within a defined geographical area. But under special circumstances that formula can be changed. Sometimes the ordinary is not a bishop but a priest serving as apostolic administrator. Sometimes his jurisdiction is not over a geographical territory but over a certain subset of the faithful, in this case, the former Anglicans who have entered into communion with the Catholic Church.

In explaining this structure at the October 20 press conference, Cardinal Levada compared the future Anglo- Catholic personal ordinariates to the military ordinariates that have been established in most countries. In the United States, for example, a single archbishop supervises all the Catholic chaplains who serve American troops on military bases all around the world. In the same way, the “personal ordinary” for Anglo-Catholics in the US presumably would be a member of the American hierarchy, serving the needs of any Anglo-Catholic parishes within this country.

The Vatican announcement indicated that the ordinariates would be established “in consultation with local conferences of bishops.” The ordinaries themselves would presumably become members of the episcopal conference, putting the pastoral concerns of the Anglo- Catholic communities on the agenda for the national Church leadership.

The Element of Surprise

One odd aspect of the October 20 news conference was the fact that Vatican officials spoke of the Pope’s plan as an established fact, but referred to the apostolic constitution only in the future tense. The document was not ready for publication; the Vatican did not even announce its title. Cardinal Levada spoke authoritatively about the impact of the “forthcoming” document, but some details of the canonical solution were not clear.

Ordinarily a Vatican news conference would be called only after an official document had been prepared. The document would be made available to reporters, and officials of the Holy See would be on hand to answer their questions about the text. In this case, apparently, the Vatican wanted to explain the document even before it appeared—probably in order to avoid the sort of premature leaks that could give rise to misunderstandings and inaccuracies about the nature of the papal initiative. In other words, the Vatican rushed to explain this apostolic constitution before errors of interpretation could arise. In a rare and welcome display of media savvy, the Holy See seized control of its own story, offering an authoritative explanation before hostile critics and uninformed reporters could muddy the waters.

The news conference was remarkable in another respect as well: the Vatican official primarily responsible for ecumenical affairs was not on hand to discuss the initiative. Nor was his absence coincidental.

Quite understandably, the world’s Anglican leaders have been unenthusiastic about the possibility that entire Anglican parishes, or even dioceses, could enter into full communion with Rome—and thus exit the Anglican Communion. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, who under normal circumstances is the key figure in Vatican talks with the Anglican leadership, had reflected the views of the mainstream Anglican prelates in his own public statements, consistently downplaying the prospects for any corporate reunion.

So the TAC and other conservative Anglican groups had taken another route through the Vatican bureaucracy, bringing their petitions to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Divine Worship— and ultimately to the Holy Father himself, who has long been sympathetic toward the Anglo-Catholic cause.

The plans for this apostolic constitution had not arisen through the usual channels of dialogue with the Anglican Communion: the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). Representatives of those groups were conspicuously absent when the Vatican plans were unveiled. Representatives of the Anglican Communion, too, were missing. Spokesmen for the Anglican community in Rome explained that they had not been given enough time to arrange for proper representation.

Cardinal Walter Kasper was out of town during the week the news broke; he was attending a meeting with Orthodox prelates in Cyprus. But if there was a plausible explanation for his failure to attend the October 20 news conference, it was noteworthy that no other official from his pontifical council was available to the press that day.

The news conference had clearly been convened in some haste. If more time had been allowed for planning the event, Cardinal Kasper might have been able to attend, along with some leading representative of the Anglican Communion. Apparently the Vatican did not consider that representation necessary.

Or was there more to this story? If the Pope’s plans for this apostolic constitution had been conveyed through the usual routes, and the Anglican hierarchy had been given ample time to prepare for the announcement, there would inevitably have been leaks—and complaints and criticisms and confusion—before the Vatican issued its formal announcement. By taking advantage of the element of surprise, Pope Benedict avoided such complications.

Reaction from Canterbury

Cardinal Levada flew to England to brief the archbishop of Canterbury about the Pope’s plans on October 19, giving the Anglican leader a scant 24 hours to prepare for the public announcement. (Archbishop Hepworth of the TAC, who had been privy to the Vatican planning that led up to the formal announcement, also reportedly had a final briefing just before the papal initiative was disclosed.) In a message to his Anglican colleagues, the archbishop of Canterbury reported: “I am sorry that there has been no opportunity to alert you earlier” to the Vatican plans. “I was informed for the planned announcement at a very late stage.”

To his credit, Dr. Williams recovered quickly, and in a graceful joint statement, released with his Catholic counterpart, Archbishop Nichols, he did his best to accentuate the positive aspects of the Vatican announcement as seen through Anglican eyes. The Pope’s apostolic constitution, the joint statement claimed, would be “further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition.” This step would not have been taken, the statement argued, if Catholics and Anglicans had not been engaged in fruitful ecumenical dialogue for the past generation.

Responding to questions from reporters in England, the archbishop of Canterbury insisted that the Pope’s initiative should not be seen “as in any sense a commentary on Anglican problems.” But most reporters disagreed, and the media coverage of the papal plan interpreted the Vatican’s offer as an invitation to the many conservative Anglicans who have become estranged and disillusioned because of the doctrinal and disciplinary chaos within the Anglican Communion. With the Anglican world in crisis—caused by the “progressive” elements who have pushed far beyond the outermost boundaries of Christian tradition and biblical morality—many thousands of devout Anglicans have begun searching for a way to keep their faith intact. By opening the door wider to those who might be interested in Catholicism, the Vatican was undeniably making a comment on the current fragility of the Anglican Communion.

How Many?

Many Anglicans had already come knocking on the doors of the Catholic Church. The Vatican made that point clear in its announcement of the Pope’s plans, leading with the statement that Pope Benedict was “responding to the many requests that have been submitted to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world who wish to enter into full visible communion.”

But while many Anglicans wanted to enter the Catholic Church, and the Pope wanted to welcome them, there were a few serious obstacles to overcome. Traditional Anglicans sought assurances that they would be allowed to maintain their own cherished traditions, drawn from a rich heritage of 450 years. To provide that assurance, the Catholic Church would need to find some way to integrate the Anglo-Catholic communities into the Church’s hierarchical structure. The apostolic constitution will fulfill that requirement, enabling Anglicans to retain their traditions while entering into full communion with Rome. As Cardinal Levada put it, “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.”

An influx of former Anglicans could indeed enrich the Catholic Church, perhaps giving many jaded “cradle Catholics” a fresh glimpse of a beautiful liturgy, a deep sense of reverence, and a commitment to traditional Christian moral principles. But not all of the Anglicans who are now alienated from Canterbury will spring at the opportunity to embrace Rome.

Appalled as they might be by their co-religionists who have ordained women and accepted homosexuality, conservative Anglicans might glance nervously at the Catholic parishes in their neighborhoods, noticing theological novelties and liturgical abuses, and wonder whether they might be leaving one untenable situation to enter into another.

Meanwhile, working from the opposite direction, liberal Catholics—including some in the hierarchy—might do their best to discourage Anglicans from entering the Church, recognizing that the advent of a large number of new conservative believers could tilt the entire Church toward a more traditional perspective.

For some conservative Anglicans—especially in Africa, a stronghold of Anglican traditionalism—there is no urgent incentive to make a change, because the Anglican communities in their regions remain firmly in the hands of their fellow conservatives. The worldwide Anglican Communion may be falling apart, but in Africa the faith is buoyant and the faithful are less likely to see a good reason for dramatic changes.

Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola, the Nigerian prelate who has been most visible in opposition to the liberal trend of the Anglican Lambeth Conference, took that attitude in his response to the Vatican announcement. After first announcing that he was taking the Pope’s offer into consideration, Archbishop Akinola issued a statement that might best be described as a very polite “no.” He explained that he would concentrate his energies on a reform movement within the Anglican Communion: the Anglican Covenant. The Nigerian archbishop said:

We welcome Pope Benedict XVI’s stance on the common biblical teaching on human sexuality, and the commitment to continuing ecumenical dialogue. At the same time we believe that the proposed Anglican Covenant sets the necessary parameters in safeguarding the catholic and apostolic faith and order of the [Anglican] communion.

Finally, there are many conservative Anglicans who have no desire to enter the Catholic Church under any circumstances, because while they are conservatives on questions of moral principle, they are firmly Protestant in their doctrinal stands. Thus Bishop Martyn Minns, a leader of the Anglican Church in North America— a group formed to counteract liberalism in the Episcopal Church USA— told the New York Times: “I don’t want to be a Roman Catholic.” Pressed to explain, he said simply: “There was a Reformation, you remember.”

However, traditionalists in the Anglo- Catholic mold were unrestrained in their expressions of delight at the Pope’s plans. Archbishop Hepworth said that the Vatican announcement “more than matches the dreams we dared to include in our petition” to the Vatican, and members of the TAC would move forward to enter the Catholic Church. “That process will begin at once,” he said.

Similarly, Bishop John Hind of Chichester, a prominent Anglican traditionalist, welcomed the “remarkable new step from the Vatican,” and said that he was seriously weighing the Pope’s offer. He remarked: “At long last there are some choices for Catholics in the Church of England.” The Publication Of


On November 9 the Vatican released the text of the apostolic constitution, titled Anglicanorum Coetibus. Accompanied by a set of Complementary Norms, the constitution was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to flesh out the canonical structure of the new personal ordinariates and their relationship to existing dioceses. The Vatican also released an official commentary on the documents, written by Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, SJ, the rector of the Gregorian University.

In releasing the new document, the Vatican stressed that Pope Benedict was answering repeated petitions, rather than making an aggressive move to encourage defections from the Anglican Communion. The apostolic constitution, the Vatican announced, “represents not an initiative on the part of the Holy See, but a generous response from the Holy Father to the legitimate aspirations of these Anglican groups.”

During the three-week gap between the press conference announcing the move and the actual appearance of Anglicanorum Coetibus, Italian media outlets reported that the delay in publication was due to disagreements over how the norm of clerical celibacy would apply to the personal ordinariates. Vatican officials denied that concern, claiming that the question was already resolved and that the norm of priestly celibacy would not be altered.

Nevertheless the apostolic constitution does allow for some exceptions to that norm—not only for priests and seminarians who might seek entry into the Catholic clergy immediately, but for others who might apply for ordination in the new personal ordinariates in the future. The apostolic constitution (VI, #2) states that the ordinary “may also petition the Roman Pontiff, as a derogation from [the norm of celibacy] for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective criteria approved by the Holy See.”

In his commentary, Father Ghirlanda cites the Vatican’s willingness to make an exception to the norm of celibacy as clear evidence that the Holy See is determined to guarantee the continuation of a distinctive Anglican tradition within the Catholic Church. Still the Vatican announcement cautioned: “The possibility envisioned by the apostolic constitution for some married clergy within the personal ordinariates does not signify any change in the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy.”

There is a reason why the allowance for married priests in the Anglo-Catholic communities would not undermine the norm of celibacy elsewhere in the Church: the provisions of Anglicanorum Coetibus apply only to a tightly defined group. The apostolic constitution establishes the personal ordinariates to serve the pastoral needs of the faithful “originally belonging to the Anglican Communion and now in full communion with the Catholic Church, or those who receive the Sacraments of Initiation within the jurisdiction of the Ordinariate.” The Complementary Norms spell out the implications: “Those baptized previously as Catholics outside the Ordinariate are not ordinarily eligible for membership, unless they are members of a family belonging to the Ordinariate.” The document suggests that any other Catholics who wish to register in the Anglican-use parishes will find it difficult to do so. The Vatican is not opening a loophole that will allow Roman Catholics to adopt a different set of traditions.

Prior to the October 20 announcement that the Pope would create personal ordinariates for Anglicans entering the Catholic Church, canonists had speculated that the Pope would erect either a new “personal prelature” for their needs. The only personal prelature currently in existence, Opus Dei, includes priests and lay people as members. But as Father Ghirlanda noted, the canons governing a personal prelature make no provisions for religious orders. The “personal ordinariate” was chosen so as to allow entire Anglican religious communities to enter the Catholic Church, and even to allow for the establishment of new religious orders within the personal ordinariates.

From the outset it was understood that the apostolic constitution would allow at least some Anglican bishops—the unmarried ones—to be considered for consecration to the Catholic episcopacy. The text of the Complementary Norms (Article 11) goes even further. A married Anglican bishop “is eligible to be appointed Ordinary.” He would not be a bishop of the Catholic Church, but he would exercise many of the same responsibilities as a Catholic bishop, and “exercises pastoral and sacramental ministry within the Ordinariate with full jurisdictional authority.” Former Anglican bishops may be invited to join in the work of bishops’ conferences, “with the equivalent status of a retired bishop.” The Vatican document stipulates that they “may request permission from the Holy See to use the insignia of the episcopal office.”


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About Philip F. Lawler 15 Articles
Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News and author of the Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, available now for pre-order.