Dissident priests who broke from the Episcopal Church over the issue of ordaining women and want to be Roman Catholic priests face rigorous tests of their motives, fitness and perfornamce, according to guidelines issued this week by the American bishop delegated to supervise such transfers.
The Vatican's announcement last August that the dissident Episcopalian priests, even though married, might be reordained in the Roman Catholic priesthood brought vigorous protest from a number of quarters.
Some Episcopalians, as well as some ecumenically minded Catholics, were offended by the reordination requirement, which was widely interpreted as a slight to the Episcopalians by casting doubt on the authenticity of priestly ordinations in Anglican churches.
Others, in both Catholic and Protestant traditions, viewed the Vatican's special treatment for the Episcopalians as a Catholic affront to women. Still others, particularly Roman Catholics who would like to see their own church drop mandatory celibacy requirements for priests, questioned the Vatican's willingness to lift such rules for outsiders but not for its own priests.
In a statement released this week, the Vatican made it clear that the exception being allowed for the dissident Episcopalians "should not be understood as implying any change in the [Roman Catholic] Church's conviction of the value of priestly celibacy. . . ."
The Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has designated Bishop Bernard F. Law of Springfield/Cape Girardeau, Mo., to coordinate the reception of such priests into the Catholic Church. In a letter this week to all bishops in this country, Law outlined the fairly rigorous procedure that must be followed.
A "dossier" must be assembled containing "basic biographical materials," including records of "academic pursuits" as well as employment "both within and outside the Episcopal Church."
The dossier must also "refer to the petitioner's spiritual information and life as well as an assessment of his psychological and emotional state."
Law's directive to fellow bishops noted that "the motive of the petitioner should be carefully reviewed. Care must be taken to ensure that we are responding to a question of faith and that what is involved is an unconditional, sincere desire to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church."
Also required is a review of "the marital status of the petitioner as well as the health of the marriage and family."
The dissident Episcopalians must also pass both oral and written examinations "to determine academic readiness" before they can receive ordination as Catholic priests.
Law said that "over 70" diocesan bishops have "indicated their willingness, some with conditions," to accept the former Episcopalians into the Catholic Church, where there is currently a great shortage of priests.
Each petitioner must have final approval from the Vatican's Sacred Congregation.