The map at the subway station on Manhattan's East Side shows it as St. Michael's Liberal Catholic Church. Liberal Catholic church? What does that mean-a statue of the archangel wearing a "Hillary for Senate" button? I look for Gothic spires off Lexington Avenue and East 53rd Street, where the listing in the phone book for St. Michael's tells me I should be this Sunday morning. Instead, I'm on a block that's home to a drug rehabilitation center, an adult video store, several restaurants, and a Japanese society that seems to be teaching that man is divine. And it turns out that the address given for St. Michael's is actually that of the Quest Book Shop, literary purveyor to the New Age.
Next door, however, is the New York Theosophical Society, and I notice a modest sign on its glass door welcoming all comers to St. Michael's. I follow a man into a room that could double as an art gallery during the week. He dips his fingers into a font of holy water and sits down on one of the 18 folding chairs. A young woman wearing a cassock and surplice is lighting candles at a traditional Catholic-style altar, and an older woman is playing prelude music on an electronic keyboard.
I stop at a side table to pick up literature: everything you'd want to know about the Liberal Catholic Church and, just in case that isn't your thing, the Theosophical Society and its doctrine of reincarnation. I look up and notice what appears to be an image of a Hindu god staring down at me from a framed print on the wall not far from the crucifix.
Welcome to the sometimes wacky world of splinter Catholic churches. These groups-and there are at least 250 of them in the U.S. and abroad by one count-call themselves Catholic. But at some point, a decade ago or a century ago, or perhaps just yesterday, they cut off ties to Rome. All the churches have their own formulas of faith, whether it be infused with idiosyncratic interpretations of Eastern spirituality like that at St. Michael's, or so ultra-traditionalist that even Pope John Paul II isn't conservative enough. Call the phenomenon "Catholicism any way you like it."
The ideological leanings of the splinter Catholic churches are all over the board. Some have rejected elements of traditional Catholic doctrine and practice; others have added practices that are contrary to Church teaching. For liberal splinter groups, that typically means women priests (although the Liberal Catholics ordain only men), second marriages after divorce, a green light for birth control, and, in many cases, recognition of gay unions. Splinter Catholics on the left typically reject the papacy outright, laughing off John Paul as hopelessly out of touch.
Other liberal splinter Catholics prefer rites that are, well, quite a bit more liberal. A prime example is the parish founded in 1998 by Rev. James Callan, the former pastor of the Church of Corpus Christi in Rochester, New York. Father Callan was removed from his pastorate by Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester after ignoring orders to cease blessing same-sex unions, allowing non-Catholics to receive communion, and having a female "pastoral associate" help him perform his priestly functions at the altar. The associate, Mary Ramerman, clad in an alb and what she called a "half-stole" around her neck, raised the chalice while Father Callan elevated the Host. Father Callan had a number of loyal parishioners, many of them non-Catholics who liked his open services.