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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How should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?

Before I get down to business let me say how sorry I am for being MIA for so long! As I said in my previous post I have had a particularly trying semester, graduating and figuring out where in the world I am going to start my grown up life. A lot of things have fallen through the cracks in the last few months but now I’m putting things back together again, slowly but surely.

So after almost two whole months and without further ado…here’s the question:

Hello Carmen, Nadia, and Mary,

For the last two years I have been living in Trento, Italy.  I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Prior to moving here I only ‘snuck’ into the Cathedral of the Madeline in SLC a couple of times in high school. I was shocked that there were no adults around to supervise me and felt like I had gotten away with something.  Later in graduate school I used to love running by there on Sundays when the bells were ringing but I never went back inside.  Then I unexpectely moved to Italy.  I had never been outside of the US so the whole experience has been both terrifying and wonderful.  For the longest time I never went into a Duomo (Cathedral) and there are loads of them here.  Although I am not mormon I was still operating under a very Utah worldview.  I wasn’t sure I was allowed in and once I was through the doors I wasn’t sure what I was or wasn’t supposed to do. The big church in the middle of the city which everything seems to be built around, you are telling me I can just walk in there and have a look around . . . but I am not a Catholic and I don’t know what is happening in there.  After a few months I realized what a fool I was being.  You don’t need to be a card carrying Catholic to gain entrance.  Some of the most beautiful, awe inspiring art are found in these churches.  I have come to realize that as a respectful tourist it is okay for me to walk around and gaze at the amazing architecture and art.  Now I have been to Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, Bologna, Verona, the Vatican, and numerous small towns so I have been into many, many Churches, Cathedrals, Basilicas, monasteries, etc.

Now that I am more comfortable in these sanctuaries I have been noticing what other people are doing.  I am sometimes shocked by how noisy and casual people are and these are people who have done the dip in the holy water followed by the quick kneel on one knee.  I tip toe around and marvel at the decor and contemplate all the people who have labored to make such beauty tangible and all the people who have worshipped in these places.  In January my husband and I visited several churches in Verona in one day.  Two of them had organ players and so I sat down in the pews and listened.  It was so wonderful.  The last church we visited was the best and I was so overcome with joy.  There was beautiful sunlight steaming in through the windows and I was feeling so incredibly grateful to be alive and to see all these historic places with my husband.  I was so moved by a silver and gold Madonna and child in that moment that I almost lit a candle.  At the last second I decided not to do this.  I am not a religious person and don’t consider myself a devout christian by any stretch.  Most of my spiritual experiences in life have been on mountain tops and in yoga class.  I do understand about giving thanks and the act of getting down on your knees and observing a higher power.
I guess my question is how should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?  And also how should you act if you are Catholic? Would it have been offensive if I had lit a candle and said a quick prayer?
Thanks so much for considering my questions.
Sincerely,
Amy

That’s me as a lector at my brother’s wedding

Dear Amy,

To be quite honest when I first read your question my first thought was “oh, how to act in a Catholic church? Don’t be an a**hole.” I never thought about how I am supposed to act in a Catholic Church. On the rare occasions when I drag my non-Catholic friends to Mass I always tell them, “sit and stand when I do, don’t kneel unless you want to, technically you’re not supposed to get Communion (that’s a whole other post) and when you come with me you must hold my hand during the Our Father.” Growing up the rules were simple: wear a cardigan to cover your shoulders, put your cell phone away, speak in a hushed voice and try not to get into any arguments with your siblings. Good rules I still follow. I am a cradle Catholic, immersed in churches, cathedrals, basilica and a heap of rules. In fact, these rules of decorum are so engrained in Catholics, those devote and not so much, that when I asked my dad how we are supposed to act in a cathedral he shrugged and said “uh…with respect?”
Catholics might be hyper sensitive to how to act in church. I’ve had quite a few unChristian moments staring down folks who are chatting it up during the Consecration or texting during the Homily.
Last summer my sister came to New York City to help me move out of my dormroom (and to you know, see the city). We went to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and there happened to be Mass going on. We weren’t there to attend Mass just to see the church and wander around a bit. I told my sister that it was completely fine to walk around the sanctuary, the pews and altar are roped off as to not disturb Mass but my sister felt uncomfortable. Mass is an incredibly sacred time and my sister did not want to interfere with anyone’s experience but peering around the statues and carvings. She totally could have but did not feel comfortable. When we returned later in the day we walked to the back of the cathedral where there is a small adoration chapel is. Just outside the chapel was a burly security guard keeping camera clicking and chatty tourists at bay. In an adoration chapel the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and we Catholics kneel in front of is and pray our guts out. In this case taking pictures in front of the literal Body of Christ, let alone while folks are praying in front of it is disrespectful, the security guard was to make sure everyone was respected.
While Catholic churches in the U.S. tend to be a lot looser than some might expect the same is not true for the Vatican. You can’t wear shorts or tank tops, women must be veiled or wear a hat and that’s just to visit. You certainly can’t wander about freely when Mass is being said.
As for whether or not you can light a candle–go for it. Religious practice is all about intent. I have Christian, Catholic, Atheist, Jewish and Muslim and searching friends all could go in and light a candle. Lighting a candle doesn’t mean much without prayerful intent or wanting to send good vibes out into the universe. Bottom line everyone might see you light a candle but they have no idea what’s going on in your head or your heart.
Much love,
Nadia
So readers what are your experiences roaming around places of worship? Any Catholic rules of conduct I left out?

I was raised Catholic, but can’t accept it all. How do others, especially women?

Another day, another challenging and exciting question from a fellow Catholic girl!

And we were so pumped about being here and having this conversation, we decided that we’d all weigh in. The first post will be from Carmen, following the question: below. Nadia and Mary will follow.

Dear Catholic Girls,

How do Catholics simply disregard/ignore/make peace with huge issues I cannot get past? I was raised Catholic–mass 3 times a week, 9 years of Catholic school, the works–but I can’t sit through mass anymore with only a male, celibate priest who feels like he has a right to dictate my birth control options. I’m sorry, but he has no uterus, and he has no sex, so where does he get off telling me that birth control is wrong? I also don’t understand how the huge majority of Catholic families do utilize birth control even though it’s against the church’s decree. If an enormous population of your church disregards what you say, what does that mean?

I just see no place whatsoever in the church for women who don’t want to wear their bodies out having kids or live a celibate life as a nun. I see no place for women who know that they can’t be good mothers to 7 kids, or for women who ache to see a woman in priest’s robes blessing the congregation.

I think my question is: if you aren’t a hard-line, 100% orthodox Catholic, how can you take what resonates in your heart and disregard what makes you squeamish? It’s so black and white to me.

Wondering,

Where Is the Room for Gray

Dear “Where Is the Room for Gray,”

How I feel you! How I struggle with the dichotomy of the Virgin Mary and the woman at the well. How I wish that the Church could recognize the damage it has done to male and female alike by allowing so few examples of what it means to be a woman of God outside of the selfless, suffering mother or the selfless, suffering nun. How I wish that ideology was a less powerful force in our world than it is.

Right now, you feel like it’s black and white because everybody has always told you that’s how it has to be. I’ve heard people say it my whole life. “A cafeteria Catholic” was one who would pick and choose the parts they liked—the jello and the fried chicken but not the wretched soggy spinach—and discarded the rest. You couldn’t do that and be a real Catholic, and being a real Catholic was a badge of honor.

It was doubly an honor because I was a real Catholic in a small town in Southeast Texas, where Southern Baptists had us heavily outnumbered. At school, kids told me I wasn’t saved because I hadn’t responded to an altar call. I hadn’t raised my hand at an Evangelical revival, walked down to the front with fear and trembling, and asked Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. Even when they came to my house in the white church van during their revival week to “kidnap” me and take me to First Baptist, where I’d be subjected to the proverbial “turn or burn” talk, I kept my hand down and my ass firmly in the pew.

I resisted it as a good Catholic girl, because of that real Catholic badge of honor. I knew the Catholics were Christians, despite what those Baptists said, and I had two thousand years of tradition behind me to back it up. I had the Sacred Heart of Jesus along with the saints and statues and rosaries and all the makings of a real religion, not something invented in the last 100 years, or even the last 500. And if it meant I had to take things wholesale, well, that was the price of the badge.

But, after years of obedience and sanctimony, after years of guilt and shame (oh, we are so good at that) about my body and the things it wanted to do, after years of trying to reconcile a priest who had never been married counseling my sister to stay in a verbally abusive marriage, I’m not willing to accept that badge.

I don’t believe it has to be black and white. I believe that there are expansive areas of gray where we can honor one another in full acceptance and in love, the way Christ did. To me, there is room for many voices in this conversation, many outside of Catholicism and even Christianity, about what is divine and how to reach it. And—this is a very, very important “and”—I choose to attend Mass at parishes in that exude such a spirit.

One of the reasons I no longer believe the all or nothing, black and white agenda and instead have found this middle ground is because otherwise, I would have to leave the church, the way I would have to leave America—and let’s be honest, the planet—if I didn’t let the stuff I disagree with wash over me.

There would be silence where I used to sing the Gloria, my hands absent where they were joined with others in the Our Father, no imprints in the kneeler where my knees would press during the consecration of the Eucharist.

And then what happens? If I leave, and you leave, and every other woman who wants to be something other than a celibate nun, a Virgin Mary, or a guilt-ridden transgressor, then who is going to fight for a different image of women in the Church? Who will fight for a different role for women in the church? If we are not there to press for change, how will it change?

As for the issue of what it means to have an enormous percentage of the Church disregarding the ban on contraceptives, I think it’s a wake up call. It’s pretty undeniable, even if the 98% figure isn’t exactly what it seems. And though the Catholic bishops aren’t admitting it, I think priests closer to the people know what’s going on. On the website Religion News Service, Mark Silk presented One Priest’s Opinion on the Mandate. “I don’t need Guttmacher stats to tell me that using contraceptives is not an issue for Catholic women,” a priest from the archdiocese of Milwaukee wrote. (Or for Catholic men, I might add.) “I see it every week at the Masses I celebrate at large suburban parishes… each one of those couples has 2.5 kids… I hear it in the casual conversations that men have with me informing me that they long ago had ‘snip-snip’… I haven’t had confession about birth control in years

So women are taking their birth control in silence, abiding this ban in silence, as many are abiding the fact that women aren’t allowed to be priests—that instead of being church leaders, they are put on a pedestal and told to be like the Virgin Mother: selfless, obedient, long-suffering.

But I wonder what would happen if we all spoke up, about any and all of it. I know the Catholic Church is far from a democracy, and this may seem incredibly naive or idealistic or downright foolish, but what if our experience—our lived reality—could change things for the better?

At this point in my life, I attend Mass—not because I have to do so in order to be a real Catholic, nor because I think a priest has all the answers for me, nor has any idea what is good for my body. It’s also not because I agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches, because I don’t.

I attend because it is my church, too, and because it is important that I remain a part of the conversation. I attend because it is a way I feel fed, connected to the larger body of humanity, and I know that lots of those people spend their time contemplating the nuanced shades of gray, too.

I believe that makes me more real than I’ve ever been.

Commenters, Catholic Girls: other perspectives? Any tips for reconciliation (with a little ‘r’)?

Carmen, A Catholic Girl

I’m a 66 year old “ex” Catholic. I’m not a conventional believer, but I miss my Catholic home. Help?

A couple of Friday evenings ago, Ask Mormon Girl Joanna Brooks asked me, “What are the problems in your church?” In between tears, I told her. Joanna told me that there are Catholic girls who need to hear that. They need the validation. My first thought was “Joanna Brooks is crazy.” My second thought was, “Where are all the lost Catholics?”

Early Monday morning, I opened a forwarded email from Joanna. “here you go, honey. your first question. you ready?” I propped myself up in bed and glanced over at the map of the world that hangs on my dorm room wall. One billion Catholics fit into that world map. I don’t have to fanaticize about wayward Catholics. They are out there and in my inbox.

Mark wants to know how to reconcile his disbelief with his longing for a community. He asks Joanna:

I’m a 66 year-old “Ex” Catholic. I decided to distance myself from the Church. I believe in married priests, women priests, and family planning beyond the abstinence pushed by the Catholic hierarchy. I’m not at all certain that the Catholic Church is the “one, true church” and that all others, Mormon included, are somewhat defective since they were not established by Jesus. I believe that other gospels are relevant and good. And I’m not into the belief that the host in Mass is truly Jesus’ body.

For years I sat in Mass and listened to preaching of the above and more. One day, a couple of years ago, I finally realized that my quietly listening to such talk was being read by others as agreement, submission. I told my wife that I could no longer allow my presence to be misread by priests and others as support for their beliefs.

I feel bad about the disconnectedness from the community that I was involved in for more than 60 years. I feel like a bad person sometimes. But the Church response is that if I choose to be Catholic, I must believe the tenets of the faith.

How would you answer this dilemma?

With that I began typing. Ask Catholic Girl was born and I made a mental note to tell Joanna she was right.

Mark,

I’d like to let you in on a little secret. I am a 21-year-old progressive Catholic feminist. I long for the day when a woman can raise her right hand to bless the congregation with the Sign of the Cross. I worry that The Church forgets how important the sacredness of human agency is. I’ve read the Book of Mormon and the Quran and they were beautiful. Some days I know that those wafers and the Body of Christ and other days that idea sounds crazy. You and me Mark, we’re the same.

I suspect that when I sit in the very first pew, smack dab in front of my priest in my New York City parish that he thinks I have it all figured out. I don’t. I go to Mass on Sundays to say “And I ask you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to Lord our God” and to share in a community meal.

Some Sundays I lay in bed reading Why do Catholics Do That? because the thought of going through the motions feels disingenuous. Other Sundays, when I am back home in Texas, I sit in my car in the parish parking lot and listen to Mormon Stories Podcasts while sipping a slushy from Sonic.

Let me let you in on a little secret. St. Paul tells us “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”

Mark, you and me were baptized into this beautiful, confusing, mess of a Church and the priests on Sunday, uber-devout fellow Catholics, the Pope himself or our own misgivings can’t change that.

What would happen if you went to church this coming Sunday? I vote you come home. Maybe it won’t be this Sunday. Maybe this year you’ll go on Easter and Christmas. Maybe, as per wayward Catholic tradition, your first Sunday back you’ll slip out after Communion. You have every right to come home. To sit, stand and kneel. And even though Church doctrine tells us that people like you and me shouldn’t receive the Body of Christ come up to the altar and say “Amen.” It isn’t just saying “I agree” or “I believe” but “I’m here to belong.”

The craziness we carry around with us during Mass is for us to ponder and pray about and for God to iron out.

-Nadia, a Catholic Girl

Dear readers, what lesson have you learned along your journey that you can share with Mark and the Catholic Girls who run this blog? How do you get your butt in a pew on Sundays?