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.
Tags: Deacon Greg Kendra, Dorothy Day, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Janice Sevre-Duszynsk, Julie Byrne, Roman Catholic WomenPriests, The Catholic Worker Movement, The Deacon's Bench, the neo-Thomist Revival
When I started blogging, back in 2009, the young publicist at Columbia University Press who got me started told me that blogging means having a conversation with other bloggers. From his point of view, what you’re reading may not be a blog at all, just a writer’s webpage, since I rarely respond to another blogpost.
But that may be changing. A while back I subscribed to a blog on the massive religion website Patheos, The Deacon’s Bench, by journalist and Roman Catholic permanent deacon Greg Kendra. Often the deacon’s posts are primarily quotations from and links to other posts about Catholic happenings. But Kendra usually makes pretty clear his opinions about said happenings, sometimes in just a few words.
Deacon Greg, as he calls himself, is clearly a good man, and a competent journalist. But I am considerably to his left on most issues, so it’s not unusual for me to find myself talking back to him as I read his posts, or do the dishes, or walk around Brooklyn. On May 29, for example, Deacon Greg posted an article “Catholic Worker Hosts ‘Women Priest.’ What Would Dorothy Day Think?”, including a long quote from the Columbia Missourian about Roman Catholic WomanPriest (RCWP) Janice Sevre-Duszynska celebrating the Eucharist at St. Francis Catholic Worker House in Columbia, Missouri.
Now Deacon Greg makes it pretty clear what he thinks about Catholic women’s ordination, posting, for example, links to various bishop’s announcements of the excommunication of recently ordained RCWPs, or about an RCWP deacon repenting and renouncing her ordination. I wasn’t surprised, then, that he followed the news about the RCWP Catholic Worker liturgy with a long 1966 quote from Dorothy Day about her unflinching obedience to the Catholic Church. Yet Deacon Greg knows very well that when Cardinal Spellman, in 1951, ordered Day to take the word “Catholic” out of the title of the newspaper she had founded and in which she had criticized the cardinal for breaking the cemetery workers’ strike, Day respectfully declined.
There were, of course, no ordinations of women during Day’s lifetime, so we don’t really know how Day would have reacted to them. She was certainly an orthodox, even rigid, Catholic on sexual matters. Yet she also had little time for clericalism; a friend who worked on the The Catholic Worker while Day was alive tells of Day once getting really angry because there were three articles by priests in the previous issue. Not for nothing was Day one of the most influential Catholics in the history of the American church.
It’s also the case that Day’s legacy is vastly more complex than her journalistic statement of obedience suggests. The Catholic Worker is not only Catholic, but anarchist. Dorothy Day may have pledged obedience to the Catholic Church, but Catholic Workers didn’t always obey her, or each other. On more than one occasion the level of conflict at a Catholic Worker farm was so extreme that Day was forced to sell it and start another farm a few years later. Some years ago, the daughter of a dear Catholic friend of mine, now deceased, left the church and married a Jewish Buddhist. One of her daughters recently spent several meaningful years at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago. And for more than a decade, my friend Karen Lenz edited EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference, even as she “led” the Philadelphia Catholic Worker (if anybody can really be said to lead a Worker house).
What Deacon Kendra and a lot of other institutional Catholics don’t get is that the orderly Catholic/non-Catholic, form/matter world of the neo-Thomist revival no longer exists (if it ever did). As the postmodernists taught us, there isn’t just an inside and an outside anymore ; there are multiple complex phenomena that hover at or beyond the margins of supposed discrete spaces, making contemporary conversation enormously complicated. Because of this, my colleague Julie Byrne will soon publish an ethnography of an independent Catholic church, to be titled “The Other Catholics,” and Roman Catholic WomenPriest liturgies are often more pious and orthodox than the Masses at my parish church here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is also why, from time to time, I intend to write back to Deacon Greg, to complicate the supposedly neat Catholic categories he takes for granted.