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Conscience Magazine

Universal Catholics: An Examination of Alternative Catholics

By Sister Bridget Mary Meehan, DMIN April 19, 2017

Most people associate the term “Catholic” with a church led by the pope, with strict hierarchies, a fairly rigid official theology and a tight-knit community that spans the world. Less well known are the great number of independent Catholics who, while not formally associated with the pope, are deeply rootThe Other Catholics - Julie Byrneed in the Catholic tradition. In The Other Catholics, Julie Byrne explores the question of who is a Catholic and argues that despite their relative obscurity, independent Catholics have had a significant influence on the Roman Catholic Church.

To get a sense of the estimated one million independent Catholics in the United States, Byrne, associate professor of religion and the Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, spent 10 years researching and spending time with Antioch Catholics, whom she describes as “black sheep” among Catholics. The Other Catholics describes these and other independent Catholics as a loose network of diverse, independent, progressive Catholic clergy and communities in the United States who are remaking a new, creative brand of Catholicism. They constitute “Catholicism’s research lab,” combining the best of the tradition while reshaping it in different mixes for Catholics and forging new approaches such as “queer Catholicism” and “Buddhist Catholicism.”

While sharing positive stories of cooperation between independent clergy and their Roman Catholic counterparts, The Other Catholics also tackles the thorny relationships that are a reality in this community. It is not uncommon for independent priests to get referrals from Roman Catholic priests for weddings that cannot be celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes the independent priests officiate at these weddings in Catholic sanctuaries. Sometimes independent male clergy substitute for Roman priests who take a holiday. The general attitude is that while the independent priests “decry official Roman exclusion, they celebrate the inclusion of ‘open’ Roman clergy and laity … [and] pray for our sister church.”

The bulk of The Other Catholics focuses on Byrne’s in-depth examination of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch founded in 1959 by a charismatic prelate, Herman Spruit. Adopting ideas from other liberal traditions— including an open Communion table and women’s ordination—Archbishop Spruit consecrated dozens of bishops from different lines of succession and presided over a period of unprecedented growth. In one publication, he wrote, “Holy Orders are open to all members of the church, regardless of sex or marital status.” While other independent bishops were free to do whatever they wished, he ordained women. In 1974, a few months before the “Philadelphia Eleven” were ordained as the first women priests in the Anglican Communion, Spruit consecrated the first woman bishop, Jeannie Maiereder.

Byrne argues that the independent Catholics are a gift that helps Catholicism to evolve and meet pastoral challenges such as gender justice: “But since no one thought Catholicism had ‘denominations,’ no one noticed.”

The archbishops, bishops and clergy in independent Catholic communities do not function in a top-down power structure like the hierarchy in the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, Byrne illustrates the down sides of a looser structure, such as an aging clergy, geographical differences and interpersonal conflicts. One example she cites is the story of the devastating turmoil that occurred during a time of leadership transition from one presiding bishop to another in the Church of Antioch. In 2010, the church split in what was called a “holy implosion” and is no longer one body. But despite the trauma of separation, Byrne writes, splits can be a positive sign of growth that can meet the needs of members and address issues of vulnerability, order and balance. For example, she credits independent Catholics for helping to redefine Catholicism, especially in the direction of “mixing mysticism, and … sacramental justice-opening the sacraments to all…. Telling this story, I suggest that independents function as the ‘other’ within the totality of Catholics by sheltering, reshaping and showcasing what the big bodies block or expel.” Comparing the new ideas that independent Catholics contribute to modern Catholicism with the varied legacies that religious orders brought in medieval times, Byrne argues that the independent Catholics are a gift that helps Catholicism to evolve and meet pastoral challenges such as gender justice: “But since no one thought Catholicism had ‘denominations,’ no one noticed.”

In a dramatic illustration of how “the other Catholics” are remaking the largest religion, Byrne recounts the enthusiastic gathering of a Richmond parish of the Church of Antioch on October 16, 2005, for the consecration of three women bishops: Patsy Grubbs, Diana Phipps and Kera Hamilton. She writes: “Archbishop Richard Gundrey laid hands on heads, when he said, ‘Be filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and breathed upon anointed scalps, when each was given a ring and crozier, then fitted with the miter and sweetly fussed with to make sure the hair still looked good, somehow there was no avoiding the sense that this ancient ritual resounded afresh when performed on female bodies. By the end of the presentation of the episcopal insignia, the new bishops were in tears, and so was most of the church.”

As a bishop in the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP), a branch of the international Roman Catholic Women Priests Movement (RCWP), I found Byrne’s presentation of progressive Roman Catholic groups, including RCWP, particularly interesting. Like the independent Catholics, Roman Catholic Women Priests offers continuity with the Catholic tradition by ordaining bishops in apostolic succession and, like our sisters and brothers in independent Catholic Churches, we welcome everyone to receive sacraments.

The Other Catholics pinpoints social justice as a common thread that connects both independent Catholics and progressive Roman Catholics, and credits the founding bishop of the Church of Antioch as a visionary who impacted the future of both groups on hot button issues. “If social justice aims for the equal thriving of all human beings in society, sacramental justice seeks everyone’s full access to the sacraments. [. . .] The [bishop] took radical Catholic stances on divorce, remarriage, and women’s ordination, pioneering what I am calling sacramental justice.” Even though substantial change in Roman Catholic teaching evolves slowly, it does come. In 2016, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, followed the Church of Antioch’s lead by publishing guidelines on the Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s document on family, which stated that remarried Catholics may receive Communion under certain conditions.

One takeaway from this book is that Roman Catholicism is not the only way to live a vibrant Catholicism today. The “other Catholics” in independent churches are courageous pioneers of Gospel inclusiveness from whom we have much to learn. Our sisters and brothers in these ecclesial communities have led the way to a more inclusive community of faith by sharing the sacraments with all, and by listening to the Spirit’s call in other traditions and experimenting with new blends of Catholicism.

After reading this book, I look forward to a sequel with more stories about independent Catholics and the new inclusive communities emerging within the Roman Catholic Church. Like Peter Manseau wrote in the New York Times, I too believe: “Though [Pope Francis] surely did not intend it this way, ‘Who am I to judge?’ would be a fitting motto for a papacy that saw a thousand Catholicisms bloom.”

I pray that a thousand Catholicisms will continue to blossom in our church and world!


The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion
Julie Byrne
(Columbia University Press, 2016, 432 pp)

Sister Bridget Mary Meehan, DMIN
Sister Bridget Mary Meehan, DMIN

is a bishop within the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, is one of the founding members of the People's Catholic Seminary and author of Living Gospel Equality Now.