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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I’m 17 years old and grew up in a Baptist home, how do I start the journey to becoming Catholic?

Today at Ask Catholic Girl–behold a teenager! I happen to be nuts about teenagers.

Dear Catholic Girl,

I’m 17 years old and I was raised in a home where we are I guess what you could say was a Christian Baptist home. We never really go to church. But, my mother was raised up going to church. I want to experience going to church but I don’t feel a connection with Baptist Christianity. I always felt more closer to Catholicism for some reason. I have a boyfriend who was raised up to believe in the Catholic faith. His family also doesn’t attend church very often. We both want to know how can we become catholic (fully) and experience going to church and really having true faith. We also want to get our families involved as much as possible can you give me some advice on how we start this journey? Please 🙂

-S

Dear S,

Let me start off by saying that as someone who has spent the last year of her life hanging with teenagers in public schools I think the fact you are being proactive about the things you want out of life is just plain beautiful.

Pray your guts out along this journey. Learn good ol’ fashioned Catholic prayers (the Anima Christi and the Hail Holy Queen are my favorites) and learn to pray in your own words too. Figure out what you love about Catholicism. Get to know God better through the community, by attending Mass, and reading everything you can (I can never recommend Why Do Catholics Do That? enough),

Don’t stress about becoming “fully” Catholic. Being fully Catholic is as easy as a sprinkle of baptismal water done in the name of the Trinity. Work on feeling Catholic first. Work at your own pace, pray and learn at your own pace. The Church is suppose to be more of a blessing than a burden, more uplifting than a giant list of rules.

See what Catholicism is all about right there in the trenches and get your butt in a pew on Sunday. If your boyfriend was raised Catholic he and his family probably have a parish, even if they aren’t there most Sundays. I would start there because it’s the parish you’re probably most familiar with. Then head to other local parishes to see if other places work for you too.

The Catholic Church is broken up into geographical parishes, so we attend with those that live near us. Some parishes are a lot looser about these types of things. For example, when I moved to New York City I went to the parish affiliated with NYU but a friend of mine “parish hopped” until she found a parish she really liked. Each parish you visit will be different. Sure, we all pray the same things and sit, stand and kneel at the same times but each parish has its own flavor. Some have contemporary music, some only sing at the beginning and end, some have young (and attractive!) priests who give dynamite homilies, some have priests who are super old dudes who are the best and most loving priests you’ll ever meet, and I know of a handful of parishes where nuns get to give the homilies on a regular basis. Most parishes have a special Mass just for young people (teenagers and young adults) on Sunday evenings. To find a parish near you go to your city’s archdiocese website, for example The Archdiocese of San Antonio. (Each site is different and sometimes kind of poorly made so if you’re having trouble email us!)

Once (or if) you feel comfortable hanging in the pews try a parish activity. Many parishes have breakfast after Mass, weeknight Bingo (yep, and it’s awesome), and youth groups that meet during the week for fun activities or service projects. This is a great way to meet other young people.

Then if you’re still loving the whole Catholic thing look into religious education. Some parishes have youth Bible study classes or other high school programs. Each parish has their own way of doing things but I think because you’re already at the tail end of high school (if not already done) that you could head into a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program. These classes tend to begin in the fall and culminate at the Easter Vigil the Saturday before Easter Sunday. In RCIA adults who are converting to Catholicism or never made their First Communion learn about the Catholic faith and prepare to become Catholic. I don’t know the ins and outs of the program but if you have more questions ask and I’ll find the answers.

Your boyfriend is more than likely already Catholic. Even if his parents never really attended Mass I’d bet all the money in my pockets that he was baptized because us Catholics, even those of us who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, we baptize our babies no matter what. I’ll even take a guess that he received his First Communion too because it’s what we do. I knew kids whose parents would drop them off a Sunday School week after week and then head to breakfast or go back home to watch football. They never took their kids to church or went themselves but it was important to them that their kids made First Communion. If your boyfriend is looking to get back into the world of Catholicism then he might just have to take a Confirmation (when when we receive the Holy Spirit and become adult members in the church) class and then get anointed with holy oil at a special service.

At any point in this journey when you feel ready invite your family to an activity at your parish. Let them meet the awesome youth and young adult leaders, friends and community you’ve found for yourself. Invite them to attend Mass with you. I think it’s great you want them involved and I don’t want to deter you from that but prepare yourself for them to be resistant. They have their reasons for not attending church on a regular basis and let them have those reasons. You never know your parents could all the sudden become very active Baptists after seeing you working hard at becoming Catholic. Involve them with what you can, the parish picnic, the children’s concert, midnight Mass at Christmastime.

Ultimately, this choice is yours alone to make, independent of your boyfriend or your family, and I think you’re savvy enough to figure it all out.

We’d love to hear how everything works out!

Much love,

Nadia

I’m a Catholic school educated, practicing Baptist and I’m missing the Catholicism of my growing up years. Any Advice?

First of all, we have to thank Joanna Brooks again for her lovely introduction to Ask Catholic Girl that appeared on her blog this morning. We have also received lovely, encouraging emails and Facebook messages from people excited about our work. Thank you to everyone!

Now on this lovely Sabbath Day, we received Ask Catholic Girl’s first, official question. I (Nadia) forwarded it along to the other Catholic Girls and we pulled our Catholic lady wisdom together.

Here’s the predicament:

Hi Ladies,

I’m a 31-year-old stay at home mother of 3 children (5 years, 3 years and 9 months), and I’ve been married for almost 8 years to a wonderful man. I was not raised in any faith but went to a Catholic high school that I loved.

After my husband and I were married we decided to join a church. My husband has a baptist background and consequently we joined an evangelical church where I was later baptized and had my children dedicated. Periodically over the years I’ve found myself reflecting back on the 4 years that I went to catholic school, served in the choir and went on retreats and have found myself missing the beauty and order of the catholic faith.

My husband and I have now enrolled our children in catholic school. I am very happy about this and am sure they’ll receive a wonderful education and a wonderful sense of the community of Christ. My husband is open to attending mass but has proclaimed that he will never convert (I imagine that many years of being baptist will do that to you). I find myself contemplating it again but only had 4 years of exposure to the faith so I’m not entirely sure I’m making an informed decision (if I’m even making a decision at all?)

My other concern is that after 8 years at our current church I’m sure I’ll be severing relationships, especially a relationship with our current pastor who I love and respect very much.   What if I end up not wanting to convert and I’ve damaged relationships at my current church for the sake of investigation?  Yet, at the same time I feel like my heart is pulling me away.

I was wondering if you had any advice for me?

Thank you,

Fearfully contemplating going “home”

Dearest Fearfully Contemplating Going “home,”

First of all, we’re pretty excited that a lady like you is thinking about hanging in the pews with us Catholics on Sunday. The more thoughtful, loving people we have around, the better.

Let me get this straight: You love Catholicism, went to Catholic school, and your Baptist husband is cool with enrolling your kids in Catholic school and isn’t bothered by the idea of going to Mass? If your home and married life can support you as you dip a toe or two into Catholicism then over half the struggle is taken care of. Even if your husband never converts, and even if you never convert, his support and understanding add extra threads to the rope of your relationship, making it stronger, fuller, and more vibrant.

Then there’s your faith community and Baptist home. We can tell that, as a member of the Baptist community, you serve, love, and support the community. There is probably a beautiful spirit of openness and a love of Christ there. ACG’s Nadia grew up around Baptists and other Protestants and Evangelicals who were confounded about how Nadia was both Catholic and Christian. Catholicism makes them uncomfortable. The Saints, Mary, the priests and their vestments, the Pope, the incense, the Eucharist, etc, etc. It is a vastly different worship environment and belief structure. But—unfortunately there’s a but—your decision to experience worship differently is your choice.

For now, we think that your congregation does not need to know how much you love Catholicism. You did not sign a contract when you joined your current church to attend only that church in perpetuity. It is not a betrayal to follow an honest yearning for the divine. In fact, the betrayal would be staying where you are simply out of fear and worry.

If as you begin exploring, you begin to feel that exploring without disclosure is disingenuous, take a few of your closest Baptist friends out to lunch and tell them what’s going on in your head and your heart. Make it known you love them and the community. Explain that it is not about the failings of the Baptist church, but about your heart and spirit feeling drawn some place else.

You and your husband can meet with your pastor and tell him the same things. Assure him that your marriage is great, your kids are thriving in both communities, but you feel the Spirit someplace else, too. We think he’ll appreciate that you’re keeping the lines of communication open and that you want to maintain a love and community with his congregation. If he’s truly invested in your spiritual growth, he’ll understand. If he doesn’t, that intolerance might be a sign that your desire to explore another faith is well-founded.

And as you are sorting this out, we suggest you go to your Baptist church frequently, attend Daily Mass when you can, pray fervently about this choice, and read a ton about Catholicism.

Nadia’s mom suggests you read Jeff Cavins’s conversion story My Life on the Rock: A Rebel Returns to the Catholic Faith, and buy The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a huge book of Dogma about everything The Church teaches). Along Nadia’s journey she’s read Why Do Catholics Do That?, and Fr. James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life and My Life with the Saints.

Based on your thoughtful and interested query, we believe you are capable of handling this time in your life gracefully, stepping on as few toes as anyone can.

Much love,

Nadia and Carmen

So readers, what else should this Catholic lover be doing to prepare herself and her faith community? Anything else she should be reading to doing while she and God decide which community should be her home?

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?