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(UNDATED) In the nearly 500 years since the Church of England split with the Roman Catholic Church, a fair number of converts have crossed from one church to the other.
Still, the path is fraught with stumbling blocks, as the Rev. Alberto Cutie — the most recent, and high-profile convert — discovered on Thursday (May 29) when he left Catholicism to join the Episcopal Church.
Known as “Father Oprah” for his popularity and media savvy, a photographer caught Cutie embracing his girlfriend on a Florida beach earlier this month. The 40-year-old celebrity cleric later admitted to struggling with the Catholic priesthood’s mandatory celibacy and was suspended from ministry.
Just weeks later, Cutie announced that he hopes “to continue priestly ministry and service in my new spiritual home” the Episcopal Church, which allows priests to marry. He had been considering conversion for two years, according to the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.
With a star of Cutie’s magnitude — millions tuned in to his television and radio shows for relationship advice — media attention of his conversion was, perhaps, inevitable. Reporters from English and Spanish-language media crowded into Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami to witness the half-hour ceremony and subsequent press conference.
Miami’s Catholic Archbishop, John Favalora, Cutie’s former boss, was not pleased.
He blasted the new convert and his Episcopal counterpart, Bishop Leo Frade of Southeast Florida, for breaking the unwritten rules of conversion: Advise the other bishop about your plans and don’t show up the other faith by making a public display.
“Bishop Frade has never spoken to me about his position on this delicate matter or what actions he was contemplating,” Favalora said in a statement. “This is a truly serious setback for ecumenical relations and cooperation between us.”
Moreover, Favalora said his archdiocese “has never made a public display when, for doctrinal reasons, Episcopal priests have joined the Catholic Church and sought ordination … I regret that Bishop Frade has not afforded me or the Catholic community the same courtesy and respect.”
Even Episcopalians say Favalora has a point. Bishop Christopher Epting, the Episcopal Church’s point man for interfaith affairs, said Friday, “There’s no written rule, but it’s certainly been the informal understanding between all our ecumenical partners that it’s not something one seeks headlines about. It doesn’t help us ecumenically.”
There’s a delicate diplomacy to conversions, with long-established protocols to ensure that interfaith bridges that take decades to build are not burned in a single afternoon. Epting said the Episcopal Church’s ecumenical office, which is usually consulted on all conversions, was not informed about the ceremony ahead of time.
“I wish we had been consulted,” Epting said. “We will be pursuing this.”
Frade could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday. On Thursday, he said, “The only thing we can say is that we pray for ecumenical relations … I am sorry they are sorry, and we love them,” according to the Miami Herald.
Cutie is hardly the first Catholic to leave the fold for love. In fact, the Church of England, which later spawned the Episcopal Church in the U.S., was essentially created by a spousal issue. King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Pope Clement VII wouldn’t let him, so the Henry started the Church of England and appointed himself its head.
But there’s been plenty of traffic toward Rome too, said Monsignor William Stetson of the Office of Pastoral Provision, which was created by the late Pope John Paul II in 1980 to prepare former Episcopal priests for ministry in the Catholic Church. Four or five former Episcopal priests — including, recently, several bishops — convert to the Catholic Church each year, he said.
However, his office “has always advised not giving publicity to these events,” Stetson said. For example, when the former Episcopal Bishop of Southwest Florida, John Lipscomb, announced his conversion to Catholicism two years ago, “there was no display,” Stetson said. “This case in Florida (with Cutie) where you have it within a couple of weeks, and in a public ceremony … that’s not cool.”
But none of those converts were celebrities. In a sense, Frade’s hands were tied by his new convert’s fame, said Jim Naughton, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.
“When (someone) joins the Episcopal Church, it would be silly to chase them away,” he said. “And in such unusual circumstances it’s very difficult to be critical of Bishop Frade because he has both a very vibrant and gifted priest, but also an atmosphere of controversy. Unless you’re from that community, I think it’s very hard to pass any judgment.”
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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