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Sex and the Celibate Priest: Vatican Hedges Offer to Anglicans

5 years ago
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When the Vatican announced that it would create a special Catholic haven for traditional Anglicans who are fed up with their own church's toleration of gay priests and women bishops, it was portrayed as an offer too good to pass up: Priests and bishops, pewsitters and parishes could all migrate to Rome without leaving behind their Reformation-era traditions, rites and churches -- or even, in the case of married clergy, their wives and families.

The exemption on mandatory celibacy, which has been church law in Catholicism for a thousand years, was seen as a particular attraction for married Anglican and Episcopal (as Anglicans are known in the United States) clergy, and, perhaps, as signaling a shift to optional celibacy for Catholic priests. Such a development would not only please a large majority of Catholics, but it has the potential to reverse the dramatic decline in vocations to the Catholic priesthood.

Yet such speculations did not sit well with Pope Benedict XVI, who reportedly chafed at reports that the announcement signaled a shift in Roman tradition. So Cardinal William Levada, an American whom the pope named to succeed himself in the job of the Vatican's chief doctrinal guardian, issued a clarification that was something of a cold shower on the possibility of a married priesthood -- and hopes for large numbers of clergy converts from Anglicanism.In the clarification, Levada said that currently married Anglican or Episcopal priests (men only, of course) could be accepted on "a case by case basis," as has already been done for some 70-80 married clergy converts in the U.S. under a more narrow dispensation adopted in 1981. Levada allowed that Anglicans who are married and studying in seminary may also be allowed to be ordained. But he indicated that they would be "grandfathered" in, and after them, seminarians and priests in any Anglican rite province, or "ordinariate," within Catholicism "must submit to the norm of clerical celibacy."

"The message seems to be: don't think that married priesthood will be the norm in ordinariates in the future. For a time, dispensations will be given fairly liberally, but they will gradually decrease and then virtually disappear altogether," Austen Ivereigh, an English Catholic journalist and former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, wrote at the blog of America magazine.

"This gives Anglicans thinking of 'poping' something important to add to their discernment," Ivereigh writes. "If they object in principle to compulsory celibacy, or regard a married priesthood as something intended by Christ for His Church at least as an option, they will have extra reasons to hesitate."

And there has been more than a little hesitation. Since the Oct. 20 revelation of the offer to Anglicans, leading conservatives who threatened to leave the Anglican Communion or set up shop on their own have told the pope, in effect, "Thanks but no thanks."

Anglican primates (heads of national churches) from Africa and the developing world, where anti-gay sentiment is especially strong and numbers of Anglicans are booming, said they would prefer to work for change from within the Anglican Communion rather than becoming Catholic, even with special exemptions.

Traditionalist Anglicans in Canada also shrugged off the pope's offer. "It will have no major effect on us at all because the reasons why we found it necessary to separate ourselves from the Anglican Church of Canada would not be fulfilled by going in this direction," said Bishop Donald Harvey, spokesman for the Anglican Network in Canada.

Reaction in the United States was even more straightforward: "I don't want to be a Roman Catholic," Bishop Martyn Minns, leader of a group of conservative Episcopalians, told The New York Times. "There was a Reformation, you remember."

Or as Bishop William Ilgenfritz of the recently formed Anglican Church in North America, a conservative splinter group, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Even if I were single it wouldn't look attractive to me. If I believed everything that the Roman Catholic Church teaches as dogma, I would be one and I would have been one years ago."

What seems apparent is that the clearer understanding of the Vatican's intentions on enforcing celibacy are one factor in the reactions. But there are many others, both doctrinal and practical.

An issue that concerns both doctrine and practice is the little-noted fact that Anglicans and Catholics -- or at least their official teachings -- differ on the controversial topic of contraception. Anglican leaders decided in 1930 that birth control was permissible in some cases, which opened the door to widespread acceptance -- and prompted a strong reaction from the Vatican, which condemned contraception in a papal encyclical in 1930, Casti Connubii. That position was reaffirmed in the famous 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

Would married Anglican clergy converts be willing to teach about the ban on contraception? Would Catholic parishes be willing -- and able -- to support the progeny of married priests who did practice what Rome preaches?

The full text of the "apostolic constitution," as it is known -- essentially the church canon law that will govern the new Anglican rite province in the Catholic Church -- is expected to be released at the end of the week, or perhaps next week at the latest. That could resolve any other lingering issues and questions -- or create more arguments.
Filed Under: Disputations, Religion
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