Can a liberal Catholic offshoot last?

RH wrote a few weeks ago to ask about why Catholic priests can’t marry. Here’s a follow up from him, this time about the viability of a liberal Catholic sect. It’s a response to a recent article on Religion News Service about a progressive Catholic sect called the American National Catholic Church, which separated from the Church in 2009 and now boasts seven parishes across the country. Here’s the question:

When I wrote to you several weeks ago you mentioned that “modernizing” Catholicism might in part begin with a more “liberal” offshoot of the faith. Think this new “church” might last?

–RH

First, a disclaimer: I’m no Nate Silver with reams of statistical data that could effectively predict the fate of the American National Catholic Church (ANCC). So my guess for the fate of this fledgling body would be just that–a guess, and something that readers should feel comfortable quickly dismissing.

But within the article that RH brought to our attention is the opinion of someone with more socio-historical knowledge than I have: a Jesuit priest named Father Thomas Reese, who attests that “successful liberal movements are rare.” Even without Inquisition-like punishments for such heretics, these movements have a hard time taking flight.

Honestly, this is unsurprising to me, and a couple of possible factors seem immediately apparent. It’s probably hard to keep going without the institutional support and resources of the Holy See. It’s probably difficult to get the word out about what these new churches offer that is different from the orthodox positions of the Roman Catholic Church. And as Father Reese points out, it’s pretty easy to disagree with some of the tenets of the Church and still go to mass, like all those Catholic men and women who use birth control.

But I think another factor that probably works against liberal sects is the type of people that it attracts are not the kind that are easily organized and retained. Another way to say it is they are not easy to shepherd. They’re the type of folks who would flaunt the establishment in order to abide their own consciences, making them less like sheep and more like cats. And we’ve all heard the expression about herding cats.

For those simple facts, it seems like the prospects are bleak for the ANCC.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this spark could grow into a sustainable flame. The article names a couple of exceptions that seem to have solidified into establishments, but also explains that most Catholic offshoots are hyper-conservative traditionalist offshoots, sects that disavow the reforms of Vatican II and hold to Latin masses and thirteen children per family.

So despite my hope that a more progressive movement will sweep the Catholic-sphere and provide an alternative to the fierce conservatism surrounding such issues as human sexuality and women’s role in the church, it doesn’t look very likely.

Part of this is for the reasons mentioned earlier, and another part of this is that sustaining a church movement these days is difficult. In recent years, church attendance in America has decreased significantly, along with a marked decline in religious affiliation, especially among young people. Just google “church attendance in America” or “religious affiliation,” and you’ll see lots of stats demonstrating religion’s steady wane. Some people predict that religion in North America–even in the conservative evangelical sects that experienced a boom in the 1990s as mainline churches began their decline–is going the way of the church in Europe, which is going the way of the dodo.

Conservative Christians decry this as the downfall of civilization, à la Sodom and Gomorrah, while skeptics applaud these changes as much-needed liberation from silly and oppressive superstitions.

My hope is for a space in between. My hope is to find a place where people accept the advancements in science and rational thought but leave room for the possibility of mystical encounters; a place where we can participate in rituals that bring us peace and unity, but where we can recognize and transcend our social constructs in our pursuit of the divine.

I think this is probably the space that the American National Catholic Church is reaching for, along with the North American Old Catholic Church (mentioned in the Religion News Service article) and other liberal Catholic offshoots, and even the Episcopal Church, which is probably the most progressive mainline church in the United States. In some ways, these are efforts to realize progressive ideals of equality and justice. In other ways, these are efforts to remain relevant in people’s lives as the world changes.

But in an op-ed from July, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out that changing to more liberal doctrines is not, on its own, a recipe for growth or even retention–that like everything else, liberal Christian churches are in decline. Of course, as a conservative Catholic, Douthat predictably points a finger, arguing that modifying doctrine or dogma makes for a church with no backbone. There is nothing the Episcopals won’t compromise on, says Douthat, and that undermines their necessity.

Or as he puts it, “Today… the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

And though I think Douthat’s argument is flawed (which Diana Butler Bass addresses in her response on the Huffington Post, which is just a taste of her excellent book Christianity After Religion), he does touch on something that I think is important for liberal churches–or any church, for that matter–to keep in mind in order to succeed:

They must realize that we are past the days when most Catholics were afraid to miss mass for fear of the stain of mortal sin, past the days when many Protestants feared the smiting hand of God, past the days when the majority of people defer to authority qua authority.

At the same time, they must realize what people are not past. And what people are not past is a good stop.

What’s a good stop, you ask?

Well, I consider it a privilege to explain.

When I moved to Austin, Texas, for college, I attended St. Austin Catholic Church, a vibrant faith community just across the street from the bustling University of Texas campus. There I had the honor of knowing Father Bob Scott, a semi-retired Paulist priest who, sadly, passed away this summer at the age of 90.

When I first met him, Father Bob was already quite advanced in age, but he was still very sharp and energetic, wiry and electric. Deeply devoted to his vocation and to his faith, Father Bob celebrated the mass as something mysterious, mystical, and miraculous, something he was so grateful to be sharing with others. Despite his love of cracking jokes–and truly, the whole congregation would laugh aloud several times throughout each mass he presided over–Father Bob’s homilies were profound theological considerations, not retrograde social commentary.

And for me, those masses were transformational. Father Bob changed the mass from something I had to do to into a time and space where I wanted to be.

That was central to his philosophy: attending mass should not be something done out of obligation or compulsion, but out of joy. Every year he gave a sermon called “The Good Stop,” which was based on a frequent expression of his father’s. They could be on a family road trip, and they might stop at a small café and spend fifteen minutes over crisp Coca Cola. “That was a good stop,” his father would say as they walked back out to the car. “A good stop, indeed.”

So the good stop was a time where they paused from the demands of life, the relentless forward struggle of daily existence, and took stock of the moment. It was a time they could celebrate being alive and together. It was a space that provided sustenance, that lifted them up. Father Bob told us that’s what the mass should be in our lives, and the fact that he believed it made it so.

And when we get down to it, I think that’s what many of us are searching for when we seek a faith community. We are looking for a good stop that brings us peace and sustenance and unity and an opportunity to rest in the presence of the divine.

So despite my reluctance to predict their future, I believe if the ANCC can provide that good stop, then people will flock to them because they are a healing balm like nothing else, and the outlook for the ANCC would be just fine.

Wishing you all a good stop,

Carmen

Readers, do you know of churches that are providing that good stop, either inside our outside the Roman Catholic Church establishment? Take to the comments, and share!

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One thought on “Can a liberal Catholic offshoot last?

  1. Hi,
    I nominated your blog for an award…
    This is my way of thanking you for helping other
    people of understanding their faith…
    I hope you would accept

    God bless… and thanks

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