By Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

VATICAN CITY, October 20, 2009 ( – In a surprise announcement this morning, the Vatican opened the door to groups of Anglicans – including potentially whole parishes or even entire Anglican dioceses – who are seeking communion with the Catholic Church while keeping their unique Anglican liturgical and pastoral traditions. The creation of new “canonical structures” to achieve this, Vatican officials said, comes in response to “hundreds” of requests by Anglicans from around the world who maintain the traditional moral teachings of Christianity.

William Cardinal Levada, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said at a press conference at the Vatican this morning that a document has been approved by Pope Benedict that will create “Personal Ordinariates,” allowing groups of Anglicans to be brought into “corporate reunion” with the Catholic Church without the loss of their unique “spiritual and liturgical patrimony.”

Cardinal Levada said that the requests had come from Anglicans who had come to realize the need for a “Petrine ministry,” that is, the ministry of the papacy, whereby doctrinal and disciplinary matters can be decided authoritatively. Major issues for those making the requests, Levada said, have been the decision of the Anglican churches to ordain women as clergy and bishops and, most recently, the decision by some provinces of the Anglican communion to give “approval to homosexual activity, such as the ordination of clergy who are practicing homosexuals or the ‘blessing’ of homosexual unions.”

“For many Anglicans, the idea of an imminent union with the Catholic ChurchâEUR¦seemed to recede,” Levada said. Some Anglicans believed that these recent moves had created an “ecclesial deficit,” and a “lack of authority to make decisions about the faith of the Church”.

The document, called an “Apostolic Constitution,” has been approved by the Pope but not yet published. Last minute “technical revisions and translations” have to be made, Cardinal Levada said, but its provisions will remain substantially the same. The full document will be published, he said, “in the near future.”

A simultaneous press conference was held in London this morning with the titular head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Dr. Rowan Williams, who says he was informed on the decision to publish the Apostolic Constitution only two weeks ago.

For many years, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has shied away from the suggestion of bringing Anglicans into the Catholic Church in groups while preserving the distinctive Anglican traditions, saying that conversion is a personal process to be undertaken individually. Notably, no member of that council was present at today’s press conference.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the head of the Christian Unity office only last Friday at a press conference said that the official ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and other mainline Protestant groups and the Catholic Church, was “entering a new phase.” At the launch of a book on the ecumenical movement, Kasper said that the churchmen involved “are pleasantly surprised for all that has been achieved in these years.” Moreover, Kasper made a point of adding at the time, “We are not fishing in the Anglican lake.”

Nevertheless, Cardinal Levada said today that, while the “ecumenical work will still go on,” there are prelates who believe that after decades of talk, little that is concrete has been achieved and that the “goal [of the movement] has receded.”

Cindy Wooden, the reporter for the US bishops’ Catholic News Service, asked whether the decision is “harmful to the ecumenical movement.” Calling the traditionally Christian Anglicans who made the requests to the Holy See “a dissenting segment of the Anglican Communion,” Wooden asked, “Are you worried at all that this is going to be the end of the ecumenical movement?”

Cardinal Levada replied that it will “certainly not” be the end of the ecumenical movement, but that the movement’s purpose is to create the union of all Christians with the Catholic Church, which this Apostolic Constitution does. He called the suggestion a “rather partial perspective.”

“It has always been a principal aim of ecumenism to achieve full, visible unity” between Christians, he said. In “the history of Catholic doctrine, the biblical doctrine,” Christianity is “not a divided Church. It is one Church. Unity is not something achieved by us, but is God’s gift. And the gift that God gives is one we hope will be realized in our time”.

The Vatican says the Personal Ordinariate could act as a diocese-within-a-diocese to allow those groups to come into the Catholic Church en masse. Levada said that the Personal Ordinariate is a structure similar to the existing “Military Ordinariates” that oversee the needs of Catholic clergy and laity serving in armed forces around the world. Cardinal Levada said that the Ordinary of a given group of former Anglicans, normally a bishop in the Catholic Church, would “usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy.”

The Apostolic Constitution will allow for the ordination of already married Anglican clergy to the Catholic priesthood, a practice that is already not uncommon in individual cases. The Catholic Church allows married clergy in her Eastern branches such as the Ukranian and Maronite Rites. Cardinal Levada said also that married Anglican laymen could be considered for ordination to the Catholic priesthood “on a case by case basis,” a remarkable and possibly unique concession.

Although it was officially denied that the move was made specifically for them, the concept of a separate structure to accommodate traditionalist Anglicans has long been a central object of overtures made by the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) or other conservative groups in the “continuing Anglican” movement.

Read related LSN coverage:

Traditionally Christian Anglicans Ask to Join Catholic Church En Masse