THE ROMAN Catholic Church has long tolerated a black market in morality. Those who fall foul of its myriad rules and regulations learn to avoid the crusty old dogmatist lurking behind the velvet confessional curtain who will castigate human weakness and prescribe 10 Our Fathers and 10 Hail Marys as a penance. They go to a neighbouring parish where they find a kindly, usually young, often bearded priest who knows a bit about the real world and dismisses talk of sin with a sympathetic nod. Having a clear conscience is a question of shopping around for your confessor.
In this ecclesiastical version of market forces, Catholics may soon be tempted by a new alternative. Go to the local Anglican church which, disgruntled at November's General Synod vote to ordain women, has 'come over' to Rome.
Such an alternative would be on offer if the Catholic bishops of England and Wales decide at their meeting this week to allow whole Anglican parishes, complete with their church buildings, their style of worship and their vicars, to join the Pope's battalions. While individual members of the Church of England, like the combative social security minister Ann Widdecombe, have signed up for full board in the Roman church, parishes of disaffected Anglican traditionalists are seeking group discounts in the form of some relaxation in various papal teachings. At the most extreme, some, it seems, would simply like to paint out the words 'Church of England' on the notice board and replace them with 'Roman Catholic'.
Those born into the Catholic church would then have a choice each Sunday between the existing parish, with its public adherence to the papal line, and the former Anglican church, which could offer, for instance, a married priest. If Rome decided to allow married Anglican vicars to become Catholic priests, it would be de facto allowing the very reform that liberal-minded Catholics have been demanding, with varying degrees of hopelessness, for years. In a church which places heavy emphasis on sexual morality, the idea of turning to a married priest for advice, and even confession, will be immediately more appealing than listening to the idealistic reveries of lifelong celibate clerics.
The number of Anglican traditionalist vicars eager to take the so-called 'Roman option' has been variously estimated at between 100 and 1,000. Only a handful will be able to bring their entire parishes plus church buildings with them. For most, if a deal is arranged, it will be a question of leading a breakaway group and becoming a semi-detached part of an existing Catholic parish, booking the 10am slot to celebrate a modified Anglican liturgy each Sunday in between the 9am Catholic family mass and the 11am Catholic folk mass.
One group of Catholics at least would have immediate grounds for dismay. Since the late Sixties an estimated 100,000 Catholic priests worldwide have left the active ministry. Many felt a dual vocation - to marriage and to serving God at the altar. The Vatican refused to countenance such a combination - despite the fact that St Peter, the first Pope, was married - and forced them to choose. A sizeable number have made the best of an impossible conflict of loyalties, becoming with their wives active lay members of their local congregations and often rising to prominence in the social-work agencies of the church. How will they feel if the Pope grants to former Church of England vicars the very concession that he refused to make to them?
Many Anglican opponents of female priests belong to the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, where the order of service has long been modelled on a highly traditional version of Catholic ritual. With its clouds of incense, lashings of lace, ornate buildings and wave after wave of sacred music, the Anglo-Catholic wing is acting out a ceremony that was abandoned by many Catholic churches in the late Sixties. Those Anglican traditionalists who 'come over' and then go along to their local Catholic parishes expecting to blend into the decorations may be in for a via dolorosa. With its stark, aircraft-hangar churches, ubiquitous guitars and avoidance of ritual for ritual's sake, the standard Catholic parish will be almost as alien to the newcomers as a woman celebrating mass.
Indelicate though it may be to mention the fact, there are also financial issues involved. Cardinal Basil Hume's Westminster diocese is deep in debt. The Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury revealed recently that it was pounds 3m in the red. Wherever else the money has gone, it has not been spent disproportionately on the clergy. Celibate priests are not expensive. They have no wives and children to support and do not need spacious accommodation. They can be moved from parish to parish at the drop of a biretta, and often are. Married convert vicars with family ties are a different proposition.
Faced with such a maze of complications, the Catholic bishops might care to focus their attention on the spectacle - and spectacle was clearly the word for yesterday's service in the Palace of Westminster Chapel - of Ann Widdecombe's reception. Surely if individual Anglicans, in whatever numbers, want to become Catholics in the wake of Synod's vote, they should follow her example and heed the motto that was trotted out in every Catholic classroom with all the regularity of the Angelus bell: if you are a member of the club, you keep the rules.
There is great scope for reforming some of Rome's most cherished notions, including the bar on married priests. But that vital cause is ill-served if the Catholic bishops agree to set up a church within a church for one small group, while telling the rest of the faithful to do as they are told.
The writer is a former editor of the 'Catholic Herald' and author of 'Cardinal Hume and the Changing Face of English Catholicism', published last month by Geoffrey Chapman.
In an article published on 22 April 1993 we said the Catholic diocese of Shrewsbury was pounds 3m in debt. This figure in fact related to 1989, and in the last financial year ended 31 March 1993 the diocese showed a credit balance of just under pounds 1m.
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