By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – The Roman Catholic Church is establishing a program to help disaffected American Episcopalians to join the Catholic fold – including married Episcopal priests who want to become Catholic priests – it announced Tuesday.
The move comes after dozens of Episcopal parishes have left the Episcopal Church in recent years over what they allege is the mother church’s liberal drift, which they say is most dramatically reflected in its ordination of openly gay clergy.
The new Catholic program will allow groups of Episcopalians to become Catholic and to recognize the pope as their leader, yet have parishes that retain Anglican rites.
The church announced an effort to welcome disaffected Anglicans into the Roman Catholic Church in 2009. The Episcopal Church is the American arm of the Anglican Communion.
The developments come more than 450 years after King Henry VIII broke from Rome and created the Church of England, forerunner of the Anglican Communion.
Washington Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl announced the new program at a meeting of American bishops on Tuesday, saying Pope Benedict XVI had signed off on the new program in October.
The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003, angering some conservative Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church notes that the vast majority of its parishes have remained with the mother church.
In January, the Catholic church will establish an Ordinariate, or official body, for former Episcopalians who decided to join the Catholic church.
Wuerl said that 67 American Episcopal priests had already applied to be ordained as Catholic priests in anticipation of the new program. He said that 35 of them are moving onto the second stage of the ordination.
Two American Episcopal communities – one in the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas and another in the Archdiocese of Washington – have joined the Catholic Church this year, he said.