LONDON, Oct 20, 2009 -- In a surprise announcement Tuesday the Vatican laid out plans to make it easier for disaffected Anglicans -- including U.S. Episcopalians -- to join the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI has approved a new church provision, or an Apostolic Constitution, that will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining many of their distinctive spiritual and liturgical traditions, including having married priests.
"It is the hope of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI that the Anglican clergy and faithful who desire union with the Catholic Church will find in this canonical structure the opportunity to preserve those Anglican traditions precious to them and consistent with the Catholic faith," Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican's chief doctrinal official, announced at a news conference today.
The papal document was not itself unveiled at the press conference as its publishing has been delayed because of technical and translating corrections but should be ready in a few weeks. Until the document is published the mechanics of the process remain unclear.
Many Anglicans, disappointed by the more liberal moves of their church, namely the ordination of women and gays as priests and bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions, have asked to become aligned with the Holy See.
Cardinal Levada would not specify who these Anglicans are that have approached the Vatican wishing to make this transition but did say the Vatican had received "many" worldwide requests over the last three years. These requests would include ones coming from members of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the main branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Although this could mean a potentially large exodus from the Anglican to the Catholic Church, the head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, insisted that this move by the Vatican should not be interpreted as poaching.
Just last week, the Vatican's top ecumenical official, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told reporters: "We are not fishing in the Anglican pond," when asked about the Vatican's negotiations with would-be converts.
"The Apostolic Constitution is further recognition of the substantial overlap in faith, doctrine and spirituality between the Catholic Church and the Anglican tradition," Williams said in a joint statement with his Catholic colleague, Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster.
The two held a joint press conference today simultaneous with the Vatican's. Archbishop Williams was apparently warned of today's announcement only two weeks ago.
"I was informed of the planned announcement at a very late stage, and we await the text of the Apostolic Constitution itself and its code of practice in the coming weeks," the Archbishop wrote in a letter to his bishops published today.
He goes on to assure them "in the light of recent discussions with senior officials in the Vatican, I can say that this new possibility is in no sense at all intended to undermine existing relations between our two communions or to be an act of proselytism or aggression."
The joint Anglican Catholic statement adds that today's announcement "brings to an end a period of uncertainty for such groups who have nurtured hopes of new ways of embracing unity with the Catholic Church."
One group, the Traditional Anglican Communion, has made its bid to join the Catholic Church known. The fellowship, which split from the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1990, says it has spread to 41 countries and has 400,000 members, although only about half are regular churchgoers.
According to the Apostolic Constitution, married Anglican clergy can be ordained as Catholic priests but they will not be allowed to become bishops (or cardinals or Pope) in accordance with Catholic Church rules.
Both the Vatican and the British archbishops insisted today that this would not disrupt relations between the two churches and that they will continue to work toward "full corporate unity."
The Church of England -- which later grew into the Anglican Communion -- was formed in 1534 when King Henry VIIi split with the Catholic Church after Pope Clement VII refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
"Throughout the more than 450 years of its history, the question of the reunification of Anglicans and Catholics has never been far from mind," the Vatican said in today's statement.
ABC News' Phoebe Natanson in Rome and the Associated Press contributed to this report.