Episcopal/Catholic Conversion Is a Two-Way Street

An announcement that the Roman Catholic Church was creating a new structure for Anglicans to convert en masse grabbed the media’s attention last year. Married Anglican priests could swim the Tiber all while keeping their liturgies and worship forms mostly intact, affiliating with new Roman Catholic “ordinates” of their own that looked strikingly similar to Anglican dioceses. Many conservative Anglo-Catholics, especially those in Britain, were delighted with the offer.

The developing story of the new Apostolic Constitution for Anglicans continues to unfold in the media, boosted by the Anglican Communion’s instability due to the Episcopal Church and their co-revisionists in the Anglican Church of Canada. Less reported has been the equally well-trafficked path away from Rome and toward the Episcopal Church.

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In 2009, Episcopal bishop and gay celebrity Gene Robinson crowed that his New Hampshire diocese was brimming with disaffected Catholics, drawn to the promise of a more inclusive church. While Bishop Robinson’s celebration was premature (his New Hampshire diocese reported 1 percent growth in membership that year, after a decade-long decline of near 20 percent — but continued to lose weekly attendance unabated), he was not misrepresenting the source of some new pew occupants.

“Pope Ratzinger,” Bishop Robinson declared, referring to Benedict XVI by his given name in a late-2005 speech, “may be the best thing to happen to the Episcopal Church . . . . We are seeing so many Roman Catholics join the [Episcopal] church.”

Roman Catholics and Episcopalians have swapped places for years, easily facilitated by related liturgical forms and practices. Unlike other Reformation-era churches, the Church of England, then a geographic arm of the Roman Church, maintained the forms and hierarchies of its parent. The Anglo-Catholic wing of Anglicanism is the closest to its source, in many cases conducting services that are more recognizably Catholic than the post-Vatican II Mass. Some American conservatives see Rome’s embrace of theological orthodoxy — reasserted by Benedict and his predecessor, Pope John Paul II — as a compelling alternative to an increasingly listless Episcopal Church.

Similarly, liberal Catholics tied to their forms of worship enjoy the option to embrace the Episcopal Church’s “Catholicism Lite” without the inconvenient frowning upon birth control, abortion, or whatever the latest sexual lifestyle innovation might be.

Some converts to the Episcopal Church do not depart Roman Catholicism of their own choosing. In 1993, heretical theologian Matthew Fox — known for his embrace of panentheism (which posits that God interpenetrates every part of nature, but also transcends nature) was ejected from the Dominican Order after he refused to respond to a summons to discuss his writings with his superiors in the Catholic Church.

Eager to help, the San Francisco-based Episcopal Diocese of California quickly re-ordained Fox as an Episcopal priest. Free to conduct his “techno-cosmic mass” blending mysticism, earth worship, and pagan deities, Fox seemed almost eager to validate his defrocking, declaring Mary a “goddess” and positing that “plants have souls” during a recent seminar on “Earth Spirituality.”

Most liberal Catholics choose not to follow Fox, content to merely disregard Church teachings as the minority of a much larger flock than the shriveling U.S. Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church, however, is pleased to welcome anyone — and their baggage, too. Following his disastrous 2004 revelation that he had appointed a homosexual lover as a homeland security adviser, married New Jersey Governor James McGreevey stepped down from office — and away from the Roman Catholic Church. McGreevey and his new partner began attending Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York, in addition to a parish in New Jersey. Almost immediately after being received into the Episcopal Church in 2008, McGreevey was accepted into General Theological Seminary, where he is pursuing a Master of Divinity degree, a requirement to become an Episcopal priest. Many Episcopalians wait years as “discernment” groups decide if they are in fact called to ministry; for a prominent homosexual like McGreevey, there was no such period.

Another former Catholic with a near record-fast conversion was Rev. Alberto Cutié. A popular Spanish-language television and radio host, the telegenic Cuban-American cleric experienced a meteoric rise to prominence well beyond the Archdiocese of Miami, earning the title “Father Oprah.”

That prominence became Cutié’s undoing, as a photographer for a Mexican gossip magazine caught him in an intimate moment with a woman on a Florida beach in the spring of 2009. The Catholic priest quickly announced that he was considering leaving the priesthood and marrying. By the end of the month, Cutié was received into the Episcopal Church by the Right Rev. Leo Frade, the Cuban-born bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. At a press conference announcing his move to the Episcopal Church, Bishop Frade, dressed as though presiding at the coronation of a Holy Roman Emperor, gushed about Cutié and the large Hispanic following that he would bring to the Episcopal Diocese. Cutié now serves as a pastoral assistant at a Miami parish.

For every story that makes headlines about conservative Anglicans moving to Rome, the Vatican is gracious to return the favor by sending more than a few Foxes, McGreeveys, and Cutiés down the Canterbury trail.

  • Jeff Walton

    Jeff Walton staffs the Anglican program for the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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