The Other CatholicsNovember 20, 2016 at 4:38 pm | Posted in Catholicism | 1 Comment
Tags: Independent Catholicism, Julie Byrne, The Church of Antioch
Here’s a review of a new book by my friend and colleague Julie Byrne. The review also appears in Gumbo, the monthly publication of the U.S. Grail, and EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.
The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion by Julie Byrne. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016. Hard-back, $29.95; e-book, $28.99. 390 pp.
For many progressive U.S. Catholics, myself included, the years since the Second Vatican Council can seem remarkable, even groundbreaking. Eucharistic communities forming and welcoming all kinds of people—the divorced and remarried, LGBT Catholics, married priests. Not to mention increasing numbers of women priests and women bishops leading growing congregations.
In her new book, Julie Byrne, without dismissing the achievements of progressive Catholicism since Vatican II, brings to our attention Catholics who were making such changes well before Vatican II, and who continue to embody such changes today: the “independent” or “other” Catholics. Byrne is the author of the enormously engaging O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs (2003), made into a movie in 2009. And once again, in The Other Catholics, she brings an astonishing narrative drive to a wide range of little-known historical and contemporary ethnographic materials. There’s nothing like a good story.
Byrne introduces the “Other Catholics” by telling us that the term was first used in the 1890 U.S. Census, when six Catholic churches besides the Roman Catholic Church were presented as options: a church that would evolve into the Church of Antioch, the main focus of her research; a church formed to protest the doctrine of papal infallibility; the Polish National Catholic Church; and three others. The Census continued to count independent Catholic jurisdictions until 1936. But because the Roman Catholic Church is a “behemoth of size and influence”—with members comprising a fifth of the U.S. population—not very many people are aware that there’s any other kind.
Byrne shows, however, that independent Catholic churches have exerted significant influence whether many people know about them or not. By “participating in common Catholic patrimony, remixing it with other traditions, and giving sanctuary to alternative practices, independent Catholicism serves as a catalyst, cavern, and clarifier of Catholicism as a whole,” and even of American religion more broadly.
In support of her thesis, Byrne traces the “lineage of western independent Catholicism” from the galvanizing early eighteenth-century French missionary and bishop, Dominique Marie Varlet, who almost by accident started the independent Catholic Church of Utrecht; through the career of Joseph René Vilatte (1854-1929), the first independent Catholic bishop in America; to the lives of Patriarch and Matriarch Meri and Herman Spruit and their successor, Archbishop Richard Gundrey, who built the independent Catholic Church of Antioch in the United States. And along the way, Byrne includes many other amazing stories, about groups that split off from, merge with, and fertilize the Church of Antioch during its evolution. The reader comes away strongly aware that there have been big differences within Catholicism for a long time, and that practices like ordaining women, having married bishops, welcoming LGTB people, respecting personal experience and other seemingly contemporary advances have, in fact, long been practiced within Catholicism.
Byrne’s portrayal of independent Catholics is noteworthy in many respects, but several points stand out for me. One is how the Church of Antioch, and related independent groups, no matter how many differences emerge among them, remain faithful to certain Catholic characteristics: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and ordination, and their stress on apostolic succession, which, it seems to me, replaces connection with Rome as a main source of authority. Another aspect of independent Catholicism of which I was totally unaware before reading The Other Catholics is the strong influence within it of mysticism and related traditions like theosophy, esotericism, and spiritual healing. There has been quite a bit beyond the Baltimore Catechism in some branches of Catholicism for many years.
Some groups that Byrne includes in the category of “independent” or “other” Catholics may or may not appreciate being thus categorized—Roman Catholic WomenPriests, for example, some of whom delivered a petition to the Vatican not long ago. And I myself wonder whether Byrne’s subtitle—“Remaking America’s Largest Religion”—is a bit too simple (though my experience is that publishers mandate titles with sales more in mind than accuracy). Perhaps “Helping to Remake America’s Largest Religion” would be better.
All this notwithstanding, it would be hard to overestimate the contribution that Julie Byrne’s book makes to the conversation about the present and the future of Catholicism.