VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican said on Monday its plan to allow married Anglican priests to convert to Catholicism does not signal any change to its age-old rule of celibacy for the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests.
The Vatican stressed its position in a preface to Pope Benedict's Apostolic Constitution "Anglicanorum Coetibus" (Groups of Anglicans) regulating the admission of Anglican converts to Catholicism, including married priests and bishops.
"The possibility envisioned by the Apostolic Constitution for some married clergy within the Personal Ordinariates (the structure for ex-Anglicans) does not signify any change in the Church's discipline of clerical celibacy," it said.
The Vatican announced last month an initiative to make it easier for conservative Anglicans who feel their church has become too liberal to convert to Catholicism. This stirred widespread speculation on what it could eventually mean for the celibacy rule in the Roman Catholic church.
There was also speculation about whether men who had left the Catholic priesthood to marry and later became Anglicans could return to the Catholic priesthood and remain married.
The constitution ruled out this possibility and also said unmarried Anglican priests who convert must remain celibate after their conversion and ordination as Catholic priests.
When the initiative was announced on October 20, some Catholic dissidents described it as important ammunition for supporters of a married priesthood.
The constitution says that "as a rule" only celibate men will be admitted to the Roman Catholic priesthood but that the admission of married Anglican priests will be decided on a case by case basis after a petition made to the pope.
Former Anglican bishops, including married ones, will be eligible to lead groups of former Anglicans in the Catholic Church. The former Anglican bishops will also have to be ordained as Catholic priests.
The Vatican plan comes after years of discontent in some parts of the 77-million-strong worldwide Anglican community over the ordination of women priests and homosexual bishops.
The papal constitution marks perhaps the clearest and boldest step by the Vatican to welcome disaffected Anglicans since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up as head of the new Church of England in 1534.
The 9-page constitution says the move was necessary to respond to individuals and groups of Anglicans who had "repeatedly and insistently" petitioned the Vatican to be received into the Catholic Church.
In London, Anglican Bishop Broadhurst, chairman of the traditionalist group Forward in Faith, whose members are considering taking up Rome's offer, welcomed the overture.
"What is interesting is how far they appear to be willing to go to find a home for Anglicans who are cheesed off with the situation. It will effectively be a Church within a Church, accepting Roman authority, but actually effectively self-governing, which I think is fascinating," Broadhurst said.
"The real question is whether this can be made to work. I think it can be," he said.
Additional reporting by Avil Ormsby in London; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall