The Roman Catholic Church's decision last month to take in dissidents who left the Episcopal Church because of women priests is producing repercussions the Vatican never dreamed of.
Many Episcopalians and some Catholics as well are affronted by the requirement that dissident priests, who have been ordained in the Episcopal Church, must submit to reordination if they want to function as Roman Catholic priests.
Strong defenders of ordaining women to the priesthood see the Roman Catholic offer of spiritual hospitality to the dissidents as sexism on the part of Rome and an affront to women priests.
"All is forgotten and forgiven, all these real and historic differences are glossed as the dissident Anglicans and the Vatican rush to reunite over their common refusal to ordain women; over, in fact, their fear and hatred of women," said the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess of Syracuse, N.Y., one of the first group of women to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood.
Some of the break-away Episcopalians, on the other hand, see Rome's action as a rebuke to the Episcopal Church and its 1976 decision to ordain women. "Whatever else this many mean, it is clearly a devastating indictment of the actions of the Episcopal Church" in agreeing to ordain women, said Fraser Barron, a local leader of the dissident movement.
Some Roman Catholics who would like their church to drop the celibacy requirement for priests see Rome's offer to take in married ex-episcopal priests as unfair to Roman Catholic priests who are not allowed to marry. Others are hopeful that an influx of married men into the Roman Catholic priesthood might provide an opening wedge in a renewed campaign to eliminate the mandatory celibacy requirement in the Roman church.
Still others speculate that the presence of married priests in Roman Catholicism will require revisions of priestly salary scales which are predicated on the needs of a man without the expenses of a family.
Although no one knows at this point how many dissident Episcopalians will take advantage of the Catholic offer, it appears that their numbers will not be large. "There may be as many as 50 to 100 priests" who will switch their allegiance to Rome, suggested the Rev. Carroll Simcox of Hendersonville, N.C., one of the most widely respected of the dissidents. Dorothy Faber, who edits a monthly journal devoted to news and views of the dissidents, put the number at "no more than 40 or 50."
The most serious sticking point is the reordination requirement. "I could not possibly accept that," Simcox said. He added, however, that some others would. "In my ministry of 40 years. I have known some brother priests [in the Episcopal Church] to whom everything Anglican was somehow defective. They tried to improve on it by borrowing things from Rome."
The Episcopal dissidents are deeply divided among themselves, with the Anglican Catholic Church, which they founded nearly three years ago and which is now split into at least four segments. Most congregations lack traditional church buildings and meet in motels or other rented quaters. "Episcopalians are not into worshipping in store-front churches," Simcox said, "but the church after all is people united in a common faith."
While he has no interest in Rome's offer, Simcox said, it does have its appeal. "Rome offers the kind of security that I must say I miss having," he said.
Besides discouraging the former Episcopalians from turning toward Rome, the reordination requirement may prove to be a serious setback for the fragile unity talks that Anglicans and Roman Catholics have engaged in for more than a decade. Not since the Roman Catholic church required that President Lyndon Johnson's daughter, Luci, be rebaptized when she converted to Catholicism from the Episcopalianism in which she was baptized have Episcopalian emotions been so aroused by an action of the Roman Church. h
Episcopalians perceive the requirement for reordination -- or rebaptism in the Luci Johnson Nugent situation -- as a clear implication by the Roman church that Anglicanism is less authentically a party of the Christian tradition than is the Roman Church. This the Episcopalians hotly deny.
Bishop John S. Spong of Newark, N.J., called the reordination requirement a "heavy-handed pre-Vatican II type action that comes with all the marks of medieval ecclesiastical arrogance." Spong was so incensed by the Roman Church's actions that he has broken relations with Catholics in the Newark area in protest.
In a more thoughtful mood, the Rt. Rev. John T. Walker of Washington said that "if the Roman Catholic Church still holds to the idea that the orders [the authenticity of priestly ordination rites] of the Anglican Church are invalid, then that does do some damage to the conversations that would lead to unity."
Some Catholics are also dismayed by the reordination requirement. "They've opened up a can of worms," said the Rev. Charles LaFontaine, a Roman Catholic priest who is codirector of the Graymoor Ecumenical Institute in Graymoor, N.Y.
"Most good Roman Catholic Theologians would say there are very few Episcopalians or Anglicans who don't have valid orders," he added. The reordination requirement, he said, is "a reflection of the mentality that this [the Roman Catholic Church] is the one true church and these poor benighted Anglicans are not."
Much of the speculation about the ruling centers on the meaning of the promise that the former Episcopalians may retain a "common identity" within the Roman church, even though their entrance into the Roman Church for both priests and lay persons will be on a case by case basis.
"I don't think it means a bleeping thing," said Faber, who clearly was not impressed by the offer.
Bishop arthur Vogel of Kansas City, Mo., who represents the American Episcopal Church on the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, said he discussed the situation with Pope John Paul II during a meeting of the commission in Italy last week. "I told him we were pleased that the former Episcopalians were being received [into the Roman church] as individuals. . . . The pope replied: 'Not as a group; as individuals. Yes, as individuals.'"
Vogel pointed out that the dissident Episcopal priests wishing to become Roman Catholics must start from scratch. "They will be evaluated de novo, as to whether they are persons suitable for the [Roman] priesthood," he said.
"Some of their priests may not be accepted at all," said the Rev. Herbert Ryan of Los Angeles, a Roman Catholic priest who serves with Vogel on the Anglican-Roman Catholic commission.
Walker raised questions about the transfer of ex-Episcopalians to Rome. "If these priests were not loyal in the Episcopal Church when loyalty was expected of them, how can they be expected to be loyal in the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to an interpretation of theology they may disagree with?" he said.
Walker said he had had an understanding with Roman Catholic Cardinal William W. Baum, who headed the Washington archdiocese until early this year, that there would be full consultation before either bishop considered receving a priest or deacon from the other communion. "We agreed that if a man couldn't be a good deacon in the Episcopal Church, how could he be a good deacon in the Catholic Church?" The Washington Episopal leader said he hoped to develop the same kind of "excellent relationship" with Baum's successor, Archbishop James A. Hickey.
The willingness of Rome to accept married clergy among the exEpiscopalians ex-Episcopalians was less of a concession than it at first appeared. There has been a provision within Roman Catholicism since 1967 that would permit a married clergyman from another Christian denomination to convert to Roman Catholicism and remain both married and a priest. There have been a handful of such arrangements in Europe and in Australia in the last decade or so. American bishops have resisted such cases for fear they would stir further agitation for a married priesthood.