NASHVILLE, Tenn. --- An invitation by the Vatican for Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of their liturgical heritage could mean an increase in the number of married Catholic priests, leading to a possible reexamination of the celibacy requirement altogether.
During a news conference Oct. 20, the Vatican announced a desire for the Catholic Church to serve as a refuge of sorts for conservative Anglicans who disagree with the church's recent acceptance of women priests and openly homosexual bishops.
The New York Times described the move as an effort "to capitalize on deep divisions within the Anglican Church to attract new members at a time when the Catholic Church has been trying to reinvigorate itself in Europe." Some Anglican and Catholic leaders even expressed shock at the news, The Times said.
Experts expect the offer to appeal more to Europeans than to Anglicans in America, where conservatives already have formed an alternative to the increasingly liberal Anglican Communion. But in England, The Times said entire parishes or even dioceses could leave the church and set off battles over ownership of church buildings and land.
Bishop Martyn Mimms of the newly formed Anglican Church in North America welcomed the pope's invitation.
"It demonstrates his conviction that the divisions in the Anglican Communion are very serious and these are not things that are going to get papered over," Mimms told The Times.
He added that he didn't expect many conservative Anglicans to take advantage of the offer because the theological differences are significant.
"I don't want to be a Roman Catholic. There was a Reformation, you remember," Mimms said.
But if enough Anglican priests decide to become Catholics, the Vatican could have a new debate on its hands regarding celibacy. The Catholic Church already allows married Anglican priests to convert and become Catholic priests while maintaining their marital status, but in the past few priests have chosen that route.
Some are speculating that as parishioners become accustomed to married priests who were formerly Anglicans, there will come a call for men who have always been Catholic to be allowed to marry.
"If you get used to the idea of your priests being married, then that changes the perception of the Catholic priesthood necessarily," Austen Ivereigh, a Catholic commentator in London, told The Times.
"We face the prospect in the future of going to a Catholic church in London and it being normal to find a married Catholic priest celebrating at the altar, with his wife sitting in the third pew and his children running up and down the aisle," he said.