Splinter Catholics Have It Their Way

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.”

Karma Plus Christ

The Liberal Catholic Church, with about 6,000 members in America, was established in England in 1916 and traces its episcopal succession to Bishop Arnold Harris Mathew, who had belonged to an even older breakaway group, the Old Catholic Church. Mathew ordained as priests several members of the Theosophical Society, which combines an Eastern belief in reincarnation with Western elements such as Gnosticism. The Theosophists whom Mathew ordained refused to leave the society, and at least one wing of Liberal Catholicism in America is heavily infused with Theosophical doctrine, even requiring its clergy to believe in reincarnation.

“Reincarnation is very broad in the Scriptures,” says St. Michael’s pastor, 68-year-old Rev. Timothy Trotman, pointing to Jesus’ statement in the gospels that John the Baptist’s ministry represented a return of the prophet Elijah. “The laws of reincarnation and karma [provide] an answer for our lives,” says Father Trotman, noting that he himself doesn’t believe in hell, preferring to hold that God gives people second chances. On the day I visit St. Michael’s, the congregation sings a closing hymn called Karma. But the liturgy, in English, seems very much akin to the traditional Tridentine Mass that prevailed in Roman Catholicism before Vatican II: “thees” and “thous,” smells and bells. The priest says Mass facing the altar, not the people as in most contemporary Catholic churches, and even wears a maniple, a vestment for the arm that the Roman Church largely discarded after Vatican II.

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. 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.

Splinter Catholics on the left typically reject the papacy outright, laughing off John Paul as hopelessly out of touch, particularly on issues of sexual morality and women’s rights. 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.

Apologists for splinter Catholicism trace its roots back to the first century, when, they say, some of Jesus’ apostles founded their own Christian churches that were distinct from the church headed by St. Peter, the first pope in Roman Catholic belief. On this basis, a doctrine of parallel apostolic succession, as it were, they contend that their sacraments and rites are as valid as those of the Petrine Church.

In fact, however, most of the breakaway churches date from relatively recent times. One of the best known is the Old Catholic Church, which traces itself back to the Jansenists of 17th-century France, although it did not formally sever ties with Rome until 1870, when a number of dissenters to the First Vatican Council’s declaration of papal infallibility joined forces with a splinter Catholic group in the Netherlands. The Old Catholics quickly spawned their own schismatics, who duly started their own new churches (the Liberal Catholic Church was one). Other formerly Old Catholic groups operating in the United States include the American Catholic Church and the Polish National Catholic Church, the latter formed in the early 20th century by Polish immigrants dissatisfied with their treatment by the U.S. hierarchy. All contend that their bishops are as validly ordained as those of the Roman Church, and that their lines of apostolic succession remain unbroken.

Many of the splinter churches are by now barely recognizable as Catholic, but some, such as the Liberal Catholic Church (which adamantly maintains that it is not a splinter group), retain most of the traditional Catholic liturgy. Father Trotman of St. Michael’s says that Roman Catholics occasionally blunder into Mass at his church, thinking they’re at one of their own houses of worship, and several Catholic priests have had their weddings at St. Michael’s after leaving their ministries.

The Rochester Rebel

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. When Bishop Clark reassigned Father Callan to another parish, many of his flock voted in favor of a “statement of faith” affirming their support for the controversial activities that got him into hot water.

Father Callan, who refused to sign a promise to engage in more conventional liturgical behavior, returned to Corpus Christi after a six-week banishment to say Mass at what he styled an “alternative service” that featured parishioners joining in with him at the consecration. That got him suspended from his priestly duties, but he and his associate pastor, Rev. Enrique Cadena, began conducting communion services in a Protestant church, where they distributed already-consecrated Hosts. They still hoped for a reconciliation with Bishop Clark. Then, in February 1999, the two priests 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 because 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.

The Rochester group’s brand of Catholicism is nothing new, of course. In fact such items as ordaining women, letting priests marry, and blessing gay partnerships have been high for years on the agendas of “progressive” Catholic organizations, some on the outer fringes of Catholicism, some formally separated: groups such as CORPUS (the National Association for a Married Priesthood), Catholics Speak Out, and Call to Action.

Priests for Hire

One of the breakaway progressive organizations, Celibacy Is The Issue (CITI), was founded in 1992 by Louise Labbe Haggett of Framingham, Massachusetts. She decided to do something about the Catholic priest shortage by starting a referral service, Rent A Priest, that would draw on the services of Catholic clerics who had married and then either left the priesthood voluntarily or been dismissed from their priestly duties. Haggett was not herself married to a priest, but a friend of hers had been romantically involved with one, and she knew of other priests who had left the Church to wed. Furthermore, because of the priest shortage, Haggett says she could not find a celibate parish priest with the time to visit her mother at a senior assisted-living center. “We’ve all been called by the Holy Spirit to do this work,” says Haggett, 60.

Haggett says that Rent A Priest gets about 25 calls a week for its affiliated clerics to perform weddings and other rites (marriages witnessed by these priests are unlikely to be regarded as valid by the Catholic Church). Its Web site (www.rentapriest.com) lists the names and telephone numbers of almost 300 married priests in the United States and four foreign countries. “We offer our years of education and priestly experience to help people the way they want to be helped,” the Rent A Priest Web site trumpets. “We provide spiritual guidance, counseling, home Masses, first or good second marriages, funerals, confession and other spiritual services.” It also says that more than 70 percent of American Catholics believe that Catholic priests should be allowed to wed.

Priestly celibacy is, of course, a rule of clerical discipline in the Western Church (and as such, subject to change), not part of its unchanging dogma. But CITI, like many other progressive Catholic breakaway groups, also urges the ordination of women, the prohibition of which the Vatican says is not something that could change. Rev. James Shuster, vice president of CITI, has a statement on the Web site saying, “Since society has finally recognized their equality, it is time the church granted women equality for pastoral service:”

Some CITI priests and their spouses already minister as couples, and “some wives might concelebrate” Mass with their priest-husbands, Haggett says. Others practice what she calls a “shared liturgy” in each other’s homes. “We all read the words of the Eucharist and the consecration.” Everyone present at these liturgies is invited to communion, including non-Christians.

Rent A Priest clerics typically take a far more relaxed attitude than the Catholic Church on divorce and remarriage. A married priest listed on the Web site who declines to be identified says he believes that divorced people can be “called into another marriage. We don’t respect the annulment process. We’re not bound by it. Each priest makes up his own mind…. It’s just a Church law I don’t observe.”

On other issues of Church teaching such as abortion and homosexual unions, the CITI priests are more divided. Rent A Priest maintains a list, not posted on its Web site, of priests willing to preside over gay weddings. “We bless cows and pigs and horses; why not bless people?” says Rev. Henry Fehrenbacher, 79, a Rent A Priest cleric who never married or left the priesthood. Father Fehrenbacher is affiliated with the diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, although he lives in New York City (he has played priests in a number of movies, including Prizzi’s Honor and True Confessions).

As a CITI priest, Father Fehrenbacher says he comes to the rescue of couples who are refused Catholic weddings because they are cohabiting and refuse to separate before the ceremony or who want the rites to take place in a restaurant or park instead of in a church as most dioceses require. “If the pope can have Mass in a baseball field, why can’t a marriage, considered less excellent than the Eucharist, take place outside a church building?” Father Fehrenbacher asks.

Rent A Priest does not have an ecclesiastical structure, so it is not quite a splinter Catholic church. But it certainly acts independently of Church authority. “We’re the Rosa Parks of the Church,” boasts Haggett, who conceives of her organization as a religious society akin to the Jesuits or the Redemptorists, not as a church in schism. “We’re not asking for permission to sit in the front of the bus; we’re just doing it.”

Is the Pope Catholic?

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.

My visit to a SSPX chapel in New York, as part of my reporting assignment for this story, is an unsettling experience for me, as if I were to visit a Masonic lodge and see my Catholic friends there: “What? You, too?” The SSPX Sunday Mass I attend hasn’t drawn a large crowd, but I can’t help noticing that some of those present are people I’ve also seen at legitimate, Vatican-approved Tridentine Masses and other religious and social functions that attract traditionalist Catholics who haven’t broken with the pope. “I won’t tell if you won’t,” a friend jokes to me.

Before delivering his homily, the celebrant, Rev. Peter R. Scott, the Australian-born U.S. superior of the society, reports on what he describes as recent Vatican initiatives to “regularize” the SSPX (its superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, who was excommunicated along with Lefebvre in 1988, met last December with Vatican officials, although no agreement was reached). “It’s not we who need regularizing,” Father Scott declares. “What needs regularizing is the situation of the Church since Vatican II.”

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.”

People I speak to after the SSPX Mass bristle at my suggestion that they belong to a splinter group, and 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.

Two conservative Catholic newspapers in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Remnant, and the Wanderer, have been waging a war in print since spring 2000, when the Remnant published a document titled “We Resist You to the Face written by the newspaper’s editor, Michael J. Matt, and several others. The article urged Catholics not to obey “the progressivist teachings of Vatican II” or “the authorities who desire to impose them on us,” including, apparently, John Paul II. The article condemned what its authors saw as the secularization of the Church and also the way in which John Paul has tried to facilitate reunification with Eastern Orthodox communities, which to Matt and others suggested that he might be trying to dilute the papacy.

Matt’s cousin, Alphonse J. Matt Jr., editor of the Wanderer, responded in his own newspaper that the authors of “We Resist You” were on a “schismatic trajectory that can only have tragic consequences.” The response generated a flurry of back-and-forth diatribes in the two papers.

The Remnant article insisted that its authors did not question the underlying validity of John Paul’s papacy. But a number of breakaway conservative Catholic organizations do just that, with some contending that the chair of Peter has been empty since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958. The Society of St. Pius V (www.sspv.org), headquartered in Oys¬ter Bay Cove, New York, and founded by several expelled SSPX members, including the current leader, Bishop Clarence Kelly, questions the legitimacy of the last several popes because they promote the “heretical” teachings of Vatican II, as the Pius V group puts it.

Be Your Own Pope

Some ultraconservative Catholic breakaway groups, known as sedevacantists (after the Latin words for “empty chair”), 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 Web site (www.homestead.com/POPEMICHAEL), 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.

What to Do

It is a sad situation when a Kansas man can believe he is the pope and a renegade priest in upstate New York can act as if there were no pope. There are so many groups that call themselves Catholic but aren’t connected to Catholicism that it might seem as though there is little hope for unity in a Church that is supposed to be one. Nor do such groups tend to grow very large; they tend to remain just what they are: splinters. 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 on New York’s East Side.

In the meantime, it is always wise to bear in mind that not every organization that uses the name “Catholic” is really Catholic. And the one thing that most splinter groups have in common, from the ultraleft to the ultraright, is that they reject the pope and 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.


  • John Burger

    John Burger has been news editor of the National Catholic Register since 2003. He came to the Register in 2001 as a staff writer after working as a reporter for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York. Prior to that, he taught English in China and France. He has a bachelor's degree in English from Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., and a master's degree in English from Iowa State University. He is married and lives in Connecticut.

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