History of the Pastoral Provision by Rev. William H. Stetson

The recent appointment of Most Rev. Bishop Kevin W. Vann, of Fort Worth, as Ecclesiastical Delegate of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for what has come to be known as the “Pastoral Provision,” is a good time to examine this pastoral work.

In July 1980 the President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop John Quinn, received a letter from the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Franjo Seper, indicating that the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, responding to requests received from some priests and laity formerly or actually belonging to the Episcopal Church in the United States, had decided to make a special pastoral provision for their reception into full communion with the Catholic Church. In general terms the decision provided for the ordination of married, former priests coming from the Episcopal Church, and for the creation of personal worship communities which would be allowed to retain elements of the Anglican liturgy. Cardinal Seper’s letter asked the Conference of Bishops to propose a Bishop to the Congregation for appointment as its “Ecclesiastical Delegate” for this work.  Bishop Bernard Law, of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, later Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, was appointed to this position in 1981. Since moving to Rome he has been succeeded by Archbishop John Myers, of Newark.

The decision announced in 1980 was the result of requests addressed to the Holy See from two separate groups of members of the Episcopal Church in the United States:  The American Church Union, headed by the late Canon Albert Dubois; and the Society of the Holy Cross, a priestly fraternity whose superior in the United States was at the time Father James Parker. Canon Dubois represented a small group of Episcopal priests and lay people who had already separated themselves from the Episcopal Church following the 1976 decision of the Episcopal Church to ordain women. Even before the decision to ordain women the American Church Union had as its goal union with Rome for its members and the parishes (grouped in a body called the Pro-Diocese of St. Augustine of Canterbury) that they had created. They sought to retain the Anglican liturgical heritage. The more broadly based Society of the Holy Cross also had as one of its goals union with Rome.

In 1977 Father Parker, on behalf of some members of the Society of the Holy Cross presented to Rome through the good offices of Bishop Law, then the chairman of the Bishops Committee Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, and the Apostolic Delegate in the United States, Archbishop Jean Jadot, the petition to be allowed to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood with a dispensation from the law of celibacy following entry into full communion. They asked for special consideration regarding the studies required for ordination. In the same year Canon Dubois, accompanied by two other former Episcopal priests Father W.T. St. John Brown and Father John Barker, traveled to Rome where they met with Cardinal Franjo Seper, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (whose English secretary at the time was Msgr William Levada).  They presented Cardinal Seper their request for ordination as Catholic priests and the establishment of their parishes with special liturgical practices deriving from the Anglican tradition. 

The initial reaction of the Congregation, though rejecting the idea of any kind of “ritual diocese” was basically favorable.  Before reaching a definitive decision, however, Cardinal Seper requested the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opinion regarding the question of allowing the ordination of married men. The Conference, at its May meeting in 1978 voted affirmatively and so informed the Holy See. There the matter stood when Paul VI died in August and later John Paul I in September.  Finally in 1980 the entire matter was presented to John Paul II and he gave his assent to the decision that was communicated to the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishop in the United States.

At his appointment as Ecclesiastical Delegate Bishop Law was directed to develop a proposal containing elements for the pastoral provision for submission to the Holy See, to oversee its implementation and to deal with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in questions pertaining to the admission of former Episcopalian clergy unto the Catholic Priesthood.  With the help of a number of consulters (among which were the then rector of Holy Trinity Seminary in Dallas, now Archbishop Michael Sheehan, of Santa Fe and myself) Bishop Law defined the process by which married, former Episcopal ministers could become priests sponsored by a diocesan bishop. The process includes the gathering of information by the candidate and his sponsoring bishop concerning his suitability for ordination. This information is then submitted to the Holy See through the Ecclesiastical Delegate. To this is added the academic assessment and certification of each candidate by a body of theologians established by the Ecclesiastical Delegate. This process (in which I have been involved from the beginning) was approved by the Congregation and has led to the ordination in the Catholic Church of over eighty former Episcopal clergymen. Presently, due to the confusion in the Episcopal Church the number of inquiries from Catholic bishops on behalf of Episcopal clergymen, has seen a considerable increase.

On the question of the liturgy, the 1980 decision specified that “the group may retain certain elements of the Anglican liturgy; these are to be determined by a commission of the Congregation set up for this purpose.”  Such a commission was set up in conjunction with the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship in 1983. The work of this commission resulted in the approval of the Book of Divine Worship to be used in the parishes and worship communities of former Episcopalians. In 1983 a commission of canonists, including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua established the guidelines for the creation by diocesan bishops of personal parishes and worship communities of former Episcopalians in which the special liturgy may be used. Seven such parishes/communities are presently functioning in different areas of the United States.

How might we assess the success of the Pastoral Provision after its 25 year History? The answer is quite well, according to a survey of Catholic Bishops and former Episcopal priests, done at the request of Cardinal Law two years ago.  Does that mean that its work could not be improved? Two anecdotes may help to see some of the problems inherent in the “cultural difference” between the two situations. When asked the difference between being an Episcopalian priest and a Catholic priest, one former Episcopalian priest answered, “about twenty thousand dollars.”  The financial arrangements for Catholic clergy are not suited to the needs of married men. This is a topic that needs further study and on which bishops sponsoring candidates need guidance. 

Another difference brings additional challenges to the married priest in the Catholic Church, that is the size of the flock. The average parish in the Episcopal Church might have less than 200 families; in the Catholic Church parishes of over a thousand are common. Even though the married priest is prohibited from having the ordinary care of souls in a parochial setting nevertheless his work load as a Catholic priest will usually be much greater, whether as a hospital chaplain or campus minister. Indeed, helping in a parish on the weekend, as most of them do, can be very time intensive. This can, and has, led to serious repercussions on married life. The pastoral care of priests’ wives is a new topic for the Catholic diocesan bishop. 

There are other “cultural” issues that have to be taken into consideration. Such might be the “integration” of the priest’s wife into his relationship with the diocesan presbyterate and his pastoral assignment; the “integration” of a personal parish using the Anglican tradition liturgy into the diocesan community; the length of term for the pastors of the “common identity” parishes (the phrase Anglican Use, though frequently employed is not an approved usage) These are some of the ones that occur to me from my years of experience.

We might end by asking where the “Pastoral Provision” is likely to go from where it is now. From the beginning the Holy See and the bishops of the United States view the “Pastoral Provision” as a pastoral response to the needs of a category of Christian faithful seeking full communion with the See of Peter. The ordination of married men is an exception granted on a case by case basis to former clergymen of the Episcopal Church (an exception now also extended to non-Episcopal ministers, although not through the “Pastoral Provision.) It is clear in everyone’s mind that this is not a proving ground for optional celibacy in the Catholic Church. In fact, the special challenges of a married clergy mentioned above and recently pointed out by bishops of the Eastern Catholic Churches show the value of the norm of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom in the Western Church. More importantly, the growing crisis of theological and moral authority both in the Episcopal Church and in other Protestant denominations is likely to result in a new wave of priests, ministers and lay people seeking the sure home of the Catholic Church. They will bring to the Catholic Church the sound Christian traditions that have sustained them since the Protestant Reformation: a love for Sacred Scripture; joy in singing to the Lord; eagerness to spread the Word of God; and from the Anglicans a long and rich history of English in the liturgy. Perhaps the Pastoral Provision has served till now as the harbinger of this new springtime for Christianity in the United States.

Reverend William H. Stetson, JCD
Advisor to the Ecclesiastical Delegate
for the Pastoral Provision