Last week, I was part of an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. I am a choir director at a Catholic parish, which is a member of a local interfaith association, and this service is something we do every year around Thanksgiving. It was a beautiful thing: churches of many denominations came together—Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Nazarene, and more—and also a Jewish congregation and Baha’i, and there were readings and prayers and music, rising in harmony to the heavens in thanks and praise, and we raised money for a charity that feeds the hungry in our area. Afterwards, at a little reception of coffee and homemade cookies, I met one of the clergy members who did a reading at the service, a priest from the Independent Catholic Church of the Americas, a woman of fascinating history and sparkling personality, who told me she had just moved to my town and was trying to find a space to celebrate Mass for her tiny, budding parish. She’d already approached some Protestant churches but so far, unsuccessfully. The schedules didn’t jell.
Independent Catholic Churches, in case you are wondering, are as Catholic as the pope. They are the same denomination of Christianity as me. Except the pope doesn’t think so.
“You know,” the woman priest said to me, “the only difference between us and your church is that we don’t acknowledge the pope.”
Now, that’s not entirely accurate—an oversimplification. The reason for the rejection of ICC by the Vatican is a number of differences in doctrine and opinion, the same differences that many of the regular Catholics hold as well. Some of us are arguing for changes in doctrine, others arguing against, yet third are saying the argument is over, but these Catholics have put their convictions into practice against the Teaching Authority’s statements, and the result was…well, excommunication. Their theology of the Eucharist and grace is the same. Their Christology is the same. But these Catholic congregations ordain women to the priesthood, they welcome same-sex unions, and they allow for married clergy. They say they are Catholic. The Vatican says they are not. And round and round that argument goes.
The priest I met at the Interfaith Service, as it happens, is an embodiment of every iconic disagreement between the Vatican and ICC: a former Franciscan sister, she is now a Catholic woman priest married to a Jewish woman. She celebrates Mass for her people where she can, sometimes at home, where they create a church the way early Christians did: “Wherever three or more come together, there will be a church.” Around a table. She does this as a pure and unpaid calling, earning her living in other ways, because there isn’t a billion-strong structure behind her to support her in her ministry. And right now, she is looking for a room, once a week, to celebrate Mass. I happen to agree with her on many issues, though not on everything, but agree or disagree, one must respect this level of dedication—and here we were, at an event designed to promote cooperation between worshippers with differing views on how to worship. So, of course, I told her I’d ask around.
My next move was to talk to a priest at a Catholic church. I chose a nice, liberal parish with progressive ideas. These people have bounced around living rooms and conference halls and some other uninspiring places forever, I thought. Even at Protestant churches, the spirit of worship is there but the aesthetic is not the same. Wouldn’t it be nice for them to be able to hold Mass at a Catholic church for once? Maybe in a small downstairs chapel? On Saturday night after Vigil Mass, when no one is there? In peace and privacy? And I asked.
The parish priest looked at me as though I proffered to him the Genesis serpent in the flesh, complete with limbs and a forbidden fruit. He recoiled from me. “No, no!” he said. “No, no!”
“No, no! We really can’t. They’re a break-away church! Heretical. Do you know what would happen? I would be taken away and…”
He smirked, sort of, sadly, and didn’t finish, but it was clear what he meant: “taken away and flogged and put in stocks and defrocked.” You know: medieval style.
I am not greatly shocked by this answer. I am upset. I am upset that I wasn’t greatly shocked.
The fate of the Independent Catholic Church concerns me a great deal because its members are fighting for the causes I share: participation of women and the LGBT community in the life of the church. And because they are a rejected and persecuted minority. And because their faith sustains them and inspires me. The ability of the ICC to worship and the success of their causes concern me a great deal.
But what concerns me even more is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the one whose members still look to the Vatican as its structural and, to a degree, spiritual center. What concerns me is its precarious fate, its dwindling numbers, its heavy conscience, and its immortal soul.
Roman Catholics have been encouraged to reach out in dialogue to other Christians and other religions since the revolutionary documents issued by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. It’s been stop-and-go, it hasn’t been easy, but more and more it’s become the norm for Catholics to share social efforts and charity work, communal prayer and interfaith events of food and celebration with non-Catholics. “Dialogue” has become a household word. Not that long ago, even walking into somebody else’s church was scary, and now we don’t give it a second thought. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox can even take communion together. No doubt, we’ve made progress. But what is it really for—what does it really mean—what is the point of it all if we are still afraid to shelter in our sanctuaries those brothers and sisters who come to the table of the Lord with some different ideas but the same Real Presence? What is the danger of sharing our space with others? In the age of dialogue, what is the utility of labeling those who disagree with us “heretics”?
Independent Catholics say they are Catholic. If they are, they belong to us; let us accept them as brethren in conversation and share our worship space with them and talk to them about doctrine and justice and ideas. The Vatican says they are not Catholic. If they are not, let us treat them as partners in ecumenical dialogue and offer them shelter for worship and talk to them about doctrine and justice and ideas. What do we have to lose? “They are a break-away church,” the priest said to me. At some point, every Protestant church was a break-away church, and we’re no longer scared of them—and ICC is closer to us still than any Protestant denomination. Closer in the most important respect: when they celebrate Mass, they see in it the same Mystery of the same Sacrament we do. When they come to the altar, they bring to it the same meaning that we do.
It is a well-known rule of human interaction that name-calling and aggression toward divergent views often come from defensiveness, and defensiveness often stems from a lack of mature, thought-out, benevolent self-confidence. Let us not regress to the dark times of walled-in Catholicism, the church against the world.
I know it’s not quite this simple. In fighting for a cause, my downfall usually comes from seeing both sides of the issue. There is a sacredness to the church space, and there is a depth to the disagreements between ICC and the Vatican. As much as I think this split is wrong, it’s not silly and it’s not surface. The teachings of the Magisterium on women’s ordination and same-sex unions are rooted in their interpretation of the Scripture and Tradition, in their deeply held beliefs about sin and natural law and God’s designs for humankind, about the symbolism of the Mass. Believing these things, one might think that a gay-married woman priest celebrating Mass would desecrate the space of the church.
One might think this is “pretend Catholicism” and she is a pretend priest, and it’s worse than a Protestant minister. A blasphemy of a sort.
Just recently, my parish priest reminded us in a homily about the difference between “Church” and “a church.” Christians believe that God is omnipresent and present especially—most relevantly—in the hearts of the people. It is this presence, in our hearts, that creates the Church. We are the Church, as we come together to worship and to do good works. A church is just a building. There is nothing inherently sacred about it. For centuries churches have been built and destroyed and repurposed to become bars and shops and museums. A church is sacred space because we come together inside it and make it so. We are the Church.
When I think about that, I wonder what it means to desecrate a space. We don’t really know the right and wrong of small things of the world. Our moral code, our doctrine always changes, faster sometimes and slower other times, but it is fluid and changing as we mature in our views. We are arguing about it now, and women’s ordination and same-sex unions and married clergy are three of the particular hot topics in this Church on this day. On the historical scale, they are small things. Specs in God’s eye, there and gone in a blink. But one law—one right that’s never been wrong—has never changed, and we know that it’s right, the one thing against which we measure all the other rights: the law of love.
I don’t claim to know for sure what desecrates a space. I honestly don’t believe that a woman priest or a gay priest makes a difference to the flow of Sacrament, to the Divine, but to me, right now, this is not the question. The argument will go on about whether it’s right, but I know—I know—that leaving people outside the door when they are knocking, homeless, asking for nothing but a little space, when space is ample and empty, is wrong.
There is a law of hospitality, and it is built on love. There is an imperative of dialogue, and it is built on love. There is a call to compassion that comes from the Gospel, and it is built on love.
There is a group of Christians who come to praise the Lord, asking for a chapel to celebrate the Mystery, and they don’t call the pope “the pope.” Do we really think that’s what God is mostly concerning Himself with?