Facing a priest shortage, the Catholic Church in the United States has started turning to former Anglican leaders to fill empty parishes.
The number of Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by about 20,000 since 1975, while the number of Catholics has increased by 17 million, CBS reports.
The shortage was stretching thin the abilities of Catholic priests, and the Catholic Church was “supersizing” as it tried to accommodate more Catholics at a dwindling number of parishes, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project.
Allowing converted Anglican priests to join the church was seen as a way to solve this shortage problem.
In an announcement that helped make this solution effective, former Pope Benedict XVI issued an edict in 2009 that created a “new structure to welcome some disenchanted Anglicans into the Roman Catholic fold,” Time notes.
At a Vatican news conference in October of that year, Cardinal William J. Levada, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said Anglicans who wished to convert would now be able “to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of the distinctive Anglican spiritual and liturgical patrimony,” The New York Times reports.
This new structure paved the way for former Anglican priests like Mark Lewis to join the Roman Catholic Church.
Lewis, who is married with two children, told CBS News that “It was like God was opening up the door for us to truly become members of the church.”
However, in a 2012 article discussing married Catholic priests in the U.S., the New York Times noted that “the married priest problem” may raise interesting questions for the faithful. (Married priests were banned by the First Lateran Council in 1123, but married converts have been allowed since 1980.)
The Times wrote:
First, are they doing as good a job as other priests? If the church has decided that celibacy confers certain gifts on priests, does it follow that married priests are worse at serving their congregations? Second, wouldn’t celibate priests be a little resentful of colleagues who get to serve the church and have sex too? And third, if the married priests are doing a good job and not provoking envy, why keep the celibacy rule for priests in general?
Still, many of the Anglicans priests — and in some cases whole congregations — who have chosen to convert to Catholicism report the transition has been relatively smooth.
Lewis, who leads St. Luke’s now-Catholic parish in Bladensburg, Md., told PBS that ultimately, converting to Catholicism filled a hole they perceived in the Episcopal Church’s theology.
“We left the Episcopal Church not because we were running away from the issues of the Episcopal Church,” Lewis said. “We left the Episcopal Church because we were running to the Catholic Church … The theology of Rome, the authority of Rome, the unity in the Holy See and in the bishops: that was appealing to us.”