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By NICOLE WINFIELD, Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield, Associated Press Writer Fri Jan 15, 10:14 am ET
VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI defended his decision to invite disaffected Anglicans to join the Catholic Church en masse, saying Friday it was the “ultimate aim” of ecumenism.
Benedict told members of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the invitation wasn’t an attack on the church’s reunification efforts with other Christians but was rather designed to help them by bringing about “full and visible communion.”
The Vatican in October announced it was making it easier for traditional Anglicans upset over women priests and gay bishops to join the Catholic Church while retaining many of their Anglican traditions, including married priests.
The move roiled the 77-million Anglican Communion, already on the verge of schism over woman and gay clergy, particularly since its spiritual leader, Archbishop Rowan Williams, wasn’t consulted and was only informed at the last minute.
Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. For decades, the two churches have held theological discussions on trying to reunite, part of the Vatican’s broader, long-term ecumenical effort to unify all Christians who have separated from Rome over the centuries.
The Vatican denied that it was poaching for converts in the Anglican pond and said its unprecedented invitation was merely a response to the many Anglican requests to join the Catholic Church.
The Vatican’s invitation “is not in any way contrary to the ecumenical movement but shows, instead, its ultimate aim which consists of reaching full and visible communion of the Lord’s disciples,” Benedict told the members of the congregation, which he headed for a quarter century before becoming pope.
Benedict has made healing the divisions in the church a priority of his papacy, reaching out not only to Anglicans but also to Orthodox Christians and breakaway Catholics as well in a bid to unify all the Christian faithful.
In that vein, he told congregation members that he hoped they resolve the remaining doctrinal problems with a group of traditionalist conservatives, the Society of St. Pius X, which includes a Holocaust-denying bishop.
The society, founded in 1969 by the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, split from Rome over the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its outreach to Jews. Lefebvre and four bishops were excommunicated in 1988 after Lefebvre consecrated them without papal consent.
Last year, Benedict removed the excommunications, sparking outrage because one of the bishops, British Bishop Richard Williamson, had denied that any Jews were gassed during the Holocaust.
Benedict apologized for mistakes in the Williamson affair but has insisted that his overall aim of bringing the society back under Rome’s wing was necessary to prevent greater division in the church and promote unity.
“Achieving the common witness to faith of all Christians is a priority of the Church at all times,” Benedict said Friday. “In this spirit, I trust in the commitment of the (congregation) so that the doctrinal problems that remain with the Society of St. Pius X … can be overcome.”
Jewish groups have denounced Benedict’s rehabilitation of Williamson as well as his moves to put the World War II-era pontiff, Pope Pius XII, on the path to possible sainthood. Some historians and Jewish groups say Pius didn’t sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.
The criticism has overshadowed Benedict’s planned visit this weekend to Rome’s main synagogue, prompting at least one rabbi and one prominent Jewish community member to announce they will not attend.