VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Tuesday took a major step to make it easier for disaffected Anglicans who feel their Church has become too liberal to convert to Roman Catholicism.
The move comes after years of discontent in some sectors of the 77-million-strong worldwide Anglican community over the ordination of women priests and homosexual bishops.
While both sides stressed the step would not affect dialogue between the two Churches, it was clear it was taken because of the growing number of Anglicans who want to leave their Church.
The Vatican said the Pope had approved a document known as an "Apostolic Constitution" to accept Anglicans who want to join Catholicism, either individually or in groups, while maintaining some of their own traditions.
It marks perhaps the clearest and boldest institutional step by the Vatican to welcome disaffected Anglicans into the fold since King Henry VIII broke with Rome and set himself up at the head of the new Church of England in 1534.
The new structure allows for the appointment of leaders, usually bishops who will come from the ranks of unmarried former Anglican priests, to oversee communities of former Anglicans who become Catholics and recognize the pope as their leader.
"In this way, the Apostolic Constitution seeks to balance on the one hand the concern to preserve the worthy Anglican liturgical and spiritual patrimony and, on the other hand, the concern that these groups and their clergy will be integrated into the Catholic Church," the Vatican said.
It said the decision was taken to respond "to the many requests that have been submitted to the Holy See from groups of Anglican clergy and faithful in different parts of the world who wish to enter into full visible communion."
The most prominent recent Anglican convert to Catholicism was former British prime minister Tony Blair, who joined after leaving office in 2007.
The new regulations, due to come into effect soon, will not affect the Catholic Church's ban on its own priests marrying. But they will continue the age-old practice of allowing a married Anglican priest who converts to remain married.
Anglicans will find it easier than before to join the Catholic Church because they will be able to use a standard benchmark of rules and obligations for conversion.
Men who want to become priests and come from an Anglican background will study together with Catholic seminarians even if they are destined to eventually administer to former Anglicans.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican communion, told a news conference in London that he did not see the Vatican move as "an act of aggression" or vote of no confidence, but part of a routine relationship between the two Churches.
Both Vatican and Anglican officials stressed that both churches would continue dialogue aimed at eventual reunion.
"This is not a comment on the life of the Anglican Communion. This is a response to people who came forward," said Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
Vatican and Anglican officials were coy when asked about the number of potential converts.
"We will have to wait and see how many people put their hands up and say they are interested," said Nichols, describing the pope's response as "courageous and generous."
Additional reporting by Avril Ormsby in London, editing by Mark Trevelyan