VATICAN CITY — The Vatican has published an apostolic constitution that allows for groups of Anglicans to come into communion with the Catholic Church while retaining their heritage and traditions.

The decree, Anglicanorum Coetibus, was signed by Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 4, the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo.

An apostolic constitution is usually legislative, with binding authority on the entire Church.

Accompanying the decree were a list of complementary norms and an explanatory letter.

News of the document’s preparation had been announced by the Vatican Oct. 20.

In a Nov. 9 press release, the Vatican said the apostolic constitution introduces “a canonical structure that provides for such corporate reunion by establishing personal ordinariates,” autonomous jurisdictions within the Church that are headed by a ordinary. It added that the papal decree “opens a new avenue for the promotion of Christian unity while, at the same time, granting legitimate diversity in the expression of our common faith.”

The document explains how this historic act came to be. “In recent times,” it states, “the Holy Spirit has moved groups of Anglicans to petition repeatedly and insistently to be received into full Catholic communion individually as well as corporately.” The Church, it adds, “could not fail to make available the means necessary to bring this holy desire to realization.”

Vatican officials and canon lawyers have generally welcomed what they see as the ingenious way the decree upholds the traditions of the Roman rite, while at the same time valuing and nourishing Anglican patrimony.

For example, only baptized former Anglicans will be allowed to become members of the ordinariate, not baptized Catholics, ensuring that Anglican and mainstream Catholic identities do not become blurred. Some possible loopholes have also been foreseen, such as ex-Catholic priests who left the priesthood to get married who might try to be re-ordained within an ordinariate.

“Those who have been previously ordained in the Catholic Church and subsequently have become Anglicans,” says the document, “may not exercise sacred ministry in the ordinariate. Anglican clergy who are in irregular marriage situations may not be accepted for holy orders in the ordinariate.”

Some Italian newspapers speculated in the days leading up to the document’s publication that issues surrounding priestly celibacy were delaying its publication. But the press release stated that the decree “does not signify any change in the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy.” Ex-Anglican married clergy will continue to be allowed to be ordained within the Catholic Church on a case-by-case basis, as they have since the early 1990s.

The decree shows great deference to ex-Anglican bishops.Although married ones won’t be able to serve as bishops within the new structure, they will be allowed to serve as ordinaries, thereby allowing them to continue to govern but not confer sacraments such as ordination. They will also be allowed to continue to use the insignia of their previous episcopal office and possibly participate in bishops’ conferences.

Also welcomed were the norms allowing ex-Anglicans to establish institutes of religious life within the ordinariate and that each individual member must make a profession of faith before being received into communion, assenting to the teachings set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The canonical aspects of the apostolic constitution are very well prepared, and I think that all the main areas are covered,” said Father Philip Goyret, professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. “However, we cannot be surprised if, after some time, we meet situations that were difficult to foresee.”

Pastoral Provision’s Future?

Canon lawyers are already asking, for example, who will approve future seminarians within the ordinariate. Such issues aren’t addressed in the current document, or are left open, perhaps intentionally. Some of them are going to have to be resolved using analogies of law, whereby norms made for one situation are lifted and applied to another situation. “Canon law is flexible, and more complementary norms could be added without great difficulties,” said Father Goyret.

Missing from the document was a reference to the future of the Pastoral Provision that established Anglican-use parishes in the United States in 1982. Its only mention was in an accompanying explanatory note by Jesuit Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda, rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, who said the provision was not suitable for the new situation to which the Holy See was called upon to respond.”

Speaking to the Register Nov. 10, Father Christopher Phillips, pastor of the first Pastoral Provision parish, Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, said he is waiting to see what might happen when the Church establishes the first ordinariate. “It seems as though the Pastoral Provision has done its job,” he said, adding that it “wouldn’t seem logical for the Pastoral Provision to continue” within these new international structures.

He said everyone in his parish was “very excited” about the papal decree, and that they had been “working for this and waiting for this for an awfully long time.” But he stressed his parish has had a very good relationship with the diocesan bishop and that relationship will go on once his parish becomes part of an ordinariate. “We want to make sure it goes on,” he said. “It’s written into the constitution that there has to be constant cooperation.”

Our Lady of the Atonement has grown rapidly since its humble beginnings in the early 1980s. Starting with just 18 worshippers, it now has 500 families and a thriving school.

Father Phillips sees even more promise with the ordinariates because they won’t be left to the whim of a local bishop, as Anglican-use parishes are currently.

“The reason there are so few [Anglican-use parishes] is because so many bishops didn’t want the Pastoral Provision in their diocese,” he said. “An ordinary has the powers of a bishop to establish personal parishes wherever they’re needed, so I think we’ll see a real flowering of this.”

And although his parish is fortunate to have a good relationship with its bishop, Father Phillips said it still felt somewhat “on its own” because the bishop had other priorities to attend to. The only job of the new ordinary, he said, will be “to think of ways for this to grow.”

He added that he didn’t think there would initially be “a huge wave of converts” because of the new ordinariates, “but if it grows slowly, it’ll grow in a more healthy way.”

Said Father Phillips: “It’ll strengthen the whole movement and bring lots of people home.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.