VATICAN CITY — The Vatican announced Tuesday it was making it easier for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism — a surprise move designed to entice traditionalists opposed to female priests, openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.
The decision, reached in secret by a small cadre of Vatican officials, was sure to add to the problems of the 77-million-strong Anglican Communion as it seeks to deal with deep doctrinal divisions that threaten a permanent schism among its faithful.
The change means conservative Anglicans from around the world will be able to join the Catholic Church while retaining aspects of their Anglican liturgy and identity, including married priests. Until now, disaffected Anglicans had joined the church primarily on a case-by-case basis.
"The unity of the church does not require a uniformity that ignores cultural diversity, as the history of Christianity shows," said Cardinal William Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in announcing the decision.
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The spiritual leader of the global Anglican church, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, was not consulted about the change and was informed only hours before the announcement. He nevertheless tried to downplay the significance and said it wasn't a Vatican commentary on Anglican problems.
"It has no negative impact on the relations of the communion as a whole to the Roman Catholic Church as a whole," he said in London.
The decision could undermine decades of talks between the Vatican and Anglican leaders over how they could possibly reunite. Although Levada insisted such discussions remain a priority, the Vatican move could be taken as a signal that the ultimate goal of ecumenical talks is to convert Anglicans to Catholicism.
Still, the decision confirmed Pope Benedict XVI's design of creating a unified, tradition-minded Catholic Church — a goal he outlined at the start of his pontificate and has been steadily implementing ever since.