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.
In February 1999, Father Callan, his associate pastor Rev. Enrique Cadena, and about 1,100 of their parishioners at Corpus Christi announced that they were starting a new church. Bishop Clark declared that an act of schism and excommunicated Father Callan, Father Cadena, and all who followed them to their breakaway parish.
The excommunication did not seem to bother those involved. Father Callan declared that he did not believe in excommunication be-cause Catholicism was about "including people." He told the New York Times that his new parish, named Spiritus Christi, was a "parallel" Catholic Church. He and Father Cadena began celebrating Mass again. "Now we are no longer bound by the rules of the institution," Father Cadena told the National Catholic Reporter. There is now talk at the new church of ordaining Ramerman.
Conservative Catholic breakaway groups typically reject all the liturgical changes, such as Mass in the vernacular, which followed the Second Vatican Council, and some have their own bishops, which puts them on the outs with Rome. Most on the breakaway right say they "respect" the pontiff, but disobey him because he leads a Church that has lost its bearings since Vatican II. A few of the ultra-traditionalists go a step further and insist that the post-Vatican II Church is so far gone that not even the pope is a true Catholic. Some of those have elected their own popes-such as Pope Michael, who reigns over a tiny, ultraconservative Catholic sect in Kansas.
Of course, it was as a mere religious society that the best-known of all the splinter churches of the Catholic right, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), started out in 1970. Its original aim had been to train traditional seminarians to keep alive the Tridentine Mass after it was replaced by a newer liturgy after Vatican II, and it originally had the blessing of several Vatican officials. Only when the society's founder, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, ordained his own bishops without papal permission in 1988, did the Vatican declare that he had committed a schismatic act incurring automatic excommunication. As it is now constituted, the SSPX (www.sspx.org) rejects certain Vatican II documents that it says contradict traditional Church teaching, especially the council's encouragement of religious liberty, ecumenism, and adapting the Church to the modern world.
A sticking point for the SSPX, which claims about 20,000 U.S. adherents, is the Tridentine Mass. Its Latin version was the norm for Catholic churches until after Vatican II, when Pope Paul VI replaced it with the "Novus Ordo" Mass said in most Catholic churches today, usually in the vernacular. In 1984, John Paul II gave permission for the Tridentine Mass to be said in Catholic churches if allowed by the local bishop. Many conservative Catholics love the old Mass, and they believe that the Novus Ordo version lacks beauty and lends itself to banal translations and bizarre liturgical innovations. As early as 1965, when folk songs were beginning to creep into the liturgy, Rev. Gommar DePauw, J.C.D., of Westbury, New York, founded the Catholic Traditionalist Movement to counteract what he called "hootenanny Masses."
What separates these traditionalists from breakaway groups such as the SSPX is that the latter reject the Novus Ordo Mass altogether, arguing that it "does not adequately express the dogmas of the Church concerning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass," as Father Scott wrote in an August 2000 letter to the society's members. "We don't dispute the validity of the New Mass," says Father Scott, who works at the SSPX headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. "We dispute the licitness of it. It's half-Protestant."
The society itself denies that it is in schism with the Church. "We don't refuse the authority of the sovereign pontiff," says Father Scott. "It's like a boy whose father tells him to steal something. He might disobey the unjust command, but he doesn't dispute the fact that his father has legitimate authority."
Right now, the Vatican and the SSPX seem to be at an impasse over the Mass, and as time passes, the possibility of reconciliation seems increasingly dim. History has shown that the longer groups stay away from Rome, the less likely they are to return. Since the Lefebvrist schism, the traditionalist movement in the Church has become increasingly fragmented and faction-ridden.
Some ultraconservative Catholic breakaway groups consider the papal seat likely to remain unfilled for an indefinite time. At the same time, a number of rival pontiffs have come forward to claim it: Pope Peter II in France, Pope Linus II in Rome, Pope Gregory XVII in Spain, and Pope Peter Romanus II in Australia. In the United States, there is the 41-year-old Pope Michael, aka David Bawden of Delia, Kansas, who believes, like many splinter Catholics, that Pope John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council, and all the popes who succeeded him were actually antipopes.
"No true pope can proclaim heresies," says Pope Michael. On his website, he accuses the recently beatified John XXIII of having been a Rosicrucian who failed to halt the infiltration of the Catholic priesthood by communists and who helped usher in the time of the Antichrist.
The Kansas pope, who has about 50 followers and who dropped out of a less radical Catholic traditionalist group in 1984, was elected in 1990--not by the College of Cardinals like the pope in Rome, but by six members of a group he calls "the remnant," which included his parents. Pope Michael is not a priest, but he points out that there have been other non-priest popes in history. He hopes to become a priest, he says, but that won't happen until a legitimate bishop appears. Nor does he attend Mass because, he believes, there are no licit Masses left to attend.
On What Rock?
There is "not a great deal of future" in many breakaway churches, says ecclesiologist Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. "They lose steam after the death of their founder."
Recently, the Vatican has been in dialogue with some of the separated churches, including the Old Catholic Church and the Polish National Catholic Church. Rome may also be successful in its reported efforts to secure a rapprochement over the Mass with the SSPX. Liberal Catholic splinter groups that defy Church teachings may be harder to reach. Father Callan and his followers in Rochester have "made no effort to accept basic principles of the Church," says Rev. Kevin McKenna, the diocesan chancellor.
But the sad fact that splinter churches exist in the first place might serve as a warning to Catholic hierarchs. Liturgical abuses and poor catechizing have driven many traditionalist Catholics to breakaway groups that promise more authentic versions of Catholicism. At the same time, when priests and others tell their flocks that there is little real difference between Christianity and Eastern religions, it is not surprising that some Catholics with itchy feet find themselves combining Theosophy and the Tridentine rite at St. Michael's.
And the one thing that most splinter groups have in common, from the ultraleft to the ultraright, is that they reject the idea of any central authority that might give the Church a common moral center and a common tradition. Christ said to Peter, "You are rock, and on this rock I will build My Church." Without the rock of Rome to build on, it is not surprising that breakaway Catholic churches ultimately fade away.