Early this year, Pope Benedict XVI created a “personal ordinariate” for England and Wales, and named a former Anglican bishop, now a Catholic priest, to be its head.
A “personal ordinariate” is like a diocese, except that geographic territory does not matter. Persons within a personal ordinariate are bound to it by some special distinction. In this case, it will be former English and Welsh Anglicans who converted to Roman Catholicism.
Soon, quite possibly, a similar jurisdiction will be established in the United States. What then? New parishes will come into being. A ritual, drawn from Anglican tradition, will be followed. All this will be under provisions acknowledging Pope Benedict as head of the Church, accepting traditional Catholic teaching and according to regulations made in Rome.
While it’s likely not very many people will be included in this new arrangement, it will seem strange to many lifelong Catholics. The task will be to build a truly Catholic, unified national community.
Hovering over all this will be the enduring historic feeling among more than a few Catholics who view religions other than Catholicism with reserve.
These Catholics often look with suspicion on people who earnestly convert from other denominations to Catholicism, as if somehow these converts are half-baked or even to some degree insincere.
It is a hand-me-down from days of interreligious hostility and the anti-Catholicism that has burdened Catholics.
Actually, U.S. Catholic history gleams with the names of converts. Where would American Catholic theology and American Catholic life be if Father Isaac Hecker, Orestes Brownson, Father Richard John Neuhaus and Cardinal Avery Dulles had not come along?
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mother Rose Hawthorne and Dorothy Day were converts.
The other problem may be that probably many Episcopal priests who convert to Roman Catholicism are married. Such conversions are not new. Former Episcopal clergy, if they wish to serve as Catholic priests, undergo a careful, strict process of discerning their own intentions and of exacting their knowledge of authentic Catholic teaching, and they are ordained by the authority of the Catholic Church, as fully provided by Church leadership at its highest level — the papacy.
As Catholic priests, they are subject to Catholic authority, but they do not abandon their marriages. Inevitably this raises the question of celibacy.
If former Episcopal priests can convert and remain husbands, why cannot all Roman Catholic priests marry?
Several important factors apply. While Catholic Church law forbids deacons, priests or bishops in the Roman rite to marry, each deacon, priest or bishop has freely and formally pledged himself not to marry.
The Episcopal clergy made no such pledge, although if a spouse dies, they pledge not to remarry. Permanent deacons make the same pledge. Why not simply require these men to leave their spouses? They vowed themselves to their marriages, and the Church regards their marriage vows as sacred.
Celibacy for priests has not been traditional in the Eastern Catholic Church, although some priests of the Eastern Church do not marry, and bishops are not married. Catholics of the Roman rite always have been a large majority in this country. Their record of accepting Eastern Catholics, sadly, has not always been good. An issue has been that Eastern Catholic priests may be married.
The number of converts to Catholicism from the Episcopal tradition may not be large, but Christian acceptance and welcoming throughout the Catholic community will be needed.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.