In an unexpected announcement that has set the Anglican world agog, the Vatican said today that it has created new structures that will allow Anglicans around the world to enter into full communion with Rome while retaining a portion of their Anglican identity. In particular, it will allow Anglican priests and even seminarians who are married to become Catholic priests. According to the Associated Press:

The Vatican announced a stunning decision Tuesday to make it easier for Anglicans to convert, reaching out to those who are disaffected by the election of women and gay bishops to join the Catholic Church‘s conservative ranks.

Pope Benedict XVI approved a new church provision that will allow Anglicans to join the Catholic Church while maintaining many of their distinctive spiritual and liturgical traditions, including having married priests.

Cardinal William Levada, the Vatican’s chief doctrinal official, announced the new provision at a new conference.

In the past, such exemptions had only been granted in a few cases in certain countries. The new church provision is designed to allow Anglicans around the world to access a new church entity if they want to convert.

The new Catholic church entities, called personal ordinariates, will be units of faithful established within local Catholic Churches, headed by former Anglican prelates who will provide spiritual care for Anglicans who wish to be Catholic.

They would most closely resemble Catholic military ordinariates, special units of the church established in most countries to provide spiritual care for the members of the armed forces and their dependents.

“(This will) facilitate a kind of corporate reunion of Anglican groups” into the Catholic Church, Levada said.

The new canonical provision allows married Anglican priests and even seminarians to become ordained Catholic priests — much the same way that Eastern rite priests who are in communion with Rome are allowed to be married. However, married Anglicans couldn’t become Catholic bishops.

This is a very interesting move, and I’ll be intrigued to see how many Anglicans take advantage of it. Presumably it would be just Anglo-Catholic priests and groups, but I guess anything is possible.