...words, reflections, and shared ideas from the voices of independent Catholicism and beyond

"Real" Priests and No Vatican?

Is 2012 the year of Independent Catholicism? ...maybe so, but first we have to show the world that "real" priests exist outside of Rome.

In the wake of the disaster that contintnues to unfold in the mainstream Roman church, many parishioners have chosen to abandon their ritual practice and walk away from the traditions of the Church. I have been amused by the rantings of conservative Catholics who condemn their brothers and sisters who have left the Roman church. Those same conservatives "defend" the church and maintain that, despite the horrific effects clergy sexual abuse has had on countless families, Catholics have a moral obligation to remain in the Roman church and obey its leaders even if those leaders do not act in accordance with the divine mandate to love one another and to protect the children of God. They say Catholics don't have the right to challenge the hierarchy of the church. They say "faithful" Catholics should never question their bishops and certainly never reject their authority.

I wonder if any of these conservative Catholics have ever experienced the Gospel? A central element of the ministry of Jesus is the unflinching criticism of the hypocritical hierarchs of the church. The words of Jesus call on the people to continue to practice their faith, but to do this by loving one another, concerned only with obedience to God's voice, not the voice of hypocrites (whether or not those hypocrites are leaders of their church). The words of the scripture tell the people to remain faithful to the Divine Voice in their hearts. It seems to me that a "faithful" Catholic would recognize his obligation to live his life as Christ demands. So why do conservative Catholics fail to acknowledge the incarnation of Jesus as the life template for all who profess to be children of God and followers of Christ? Why not demand, as Jesus did, that church leaders act as good shepherds?

I am one of the people that conservative Catholics condemn for questioning church leaders and eventually leaving the Roman jurisdiction. I am always amazed at how easy it is for people who claim to be people of God to judge others. I am equally amazed by the hate-filled verbal venom these same "godly" people are able to spew from their "saintly" mouths. A recent conversation with a Roman parishioner is what inspired---or rather, incited---me to write this post.

The woman approached me as I was heading into the post to pick up my mail. She saw my collar and respectfully said, "Hello, Father" I greeted her and continued to walk by. She called out to me asking me "What parish are you from?" I explained to her that I was raised Roman Catholic but I am not a Roman priest and so was not based in any Roman parish. "Well what are you?" she asked with a bit of perturbation. I then simply said that I minister in a community that has the same Sacramental tradition but is not connected to the Roman Vatican and that I left the Roman church in good conscience. To which she replied, "Oh, so you're not a 'real' priest. You know you've got a lot of nerve wearing a priest collar. And you grew up a good Catholic? Your mother must be horrified."

I have to admit that I am not proud of how I responded, because I did so with the same arrogant attitude that she was giving me. I should have just walked away, but instead I said... "Well what really horrified her is the three Roman priests who sexually abused me ... pretty much she's okay with my choice of clothing." To my amazement she said, "Well at least they were 'real' priests. I'm glad your not at a parish, good riddance."

When I see all of the darkness in the mainstream church and when I encounter "good" Catholics like the one I just described, it feels like a dagger piercing my heart. When I vented my frustration over the situation to a close RC friend, she told me that "the woman did have a point. I mean your not a "real" priest anymore." ...as I felt that dagger twist. There was a time that I lamented my exit from the mainstream church, but now am grateful that God's own voice led me out of a group that never really loved me to begin with. I am blessed to have found the Independent Catholic Movement.

In this post I am going to discuss my reasons for leaving the Roman church and then I am going to provide some information on Independent Catholicism. At the end of the post I am going to briefly discuss the earliest independent movements. I am also going to quote from several binding Roman Catholic documents that show Independent Catholic bishops possess the same sacramental authority as any other Catholic bishop. I am not including the Roman documents because I think that Independent bishops somehow "need" to be justified by Rome. I am simply including the information so that the next time an RC parishioner questions my "realness," I can tell them where to go. ...uh, to this blog post that is.

Why did I leave the Roman Church?

What many of my quick-to-judge conservative RC critics don't know is that members of my faith community and I worked hard to remain with our RC brothers and sisters. The founding members of my faith community were all perpetually professed members-in-good-standing of a Roman Catholic Religious Order. We all had ministered for years in the Church. It wasn't until the local diocese failed to remove an abusive priest from ministry, that I came forward and publicly spoke about the abuse I suffered at the hands of priests. I requested a meeting with the bishop to report the names of the priests and the details of my abuse. I thought (foolishly, apparently) that the bishop would meet with me and respond as loving pastor of the Church. I thought he would do the right thing and remove the priests in question. I had no intention of suing the diocese, I just wanted the priests dealt with.

That didn't happen. The bishop refused to meet with me, but did (through the superiors of my religious community) order me to be silent and "docile to his authority." I was also ordered by my religious community to write a letter of apology to the bishop for acting disobediently. I was told that if I did not issue a letter of apology that I would be declared "out of communion with the diocese." I was then informed that the bishop would also take action against all members of my local ministry. So, was I expected to make a formal apology to the local bishop for not being the "good" kind of abuse victim...you know, the silent kind? Instead the local membership of my community and I responded with a letter asserting our canonical rights to continue to minister as members of our association of the faith in spite of his threats against our ministry.

In a matter of days, the diocese sent a letter to all parishes expelling my community and me from all participation in parish life. Just after that, I received a letter from the diocesan attorney telling me that as a result of making allegations of sexual abuse, I was barred from having any further communication with any priest of the diocese! It made it sound as though the priests had to be protected from such a person who would dare attack their character. When I read that letter, I cried as I wondered to myself...if I had the courage to come forward as a child, would the diocese have told me I was at fault for my abuse? ...that if I wasn't such a prayerful child I wouldn't have spent so much time in church and so the priests would not have had any occasion to abuse me?

During this ordeal it was a retired bishop of the Independent Catholic Movement who came to my aid. He was a former priest of the diocese who left the church in the 1980's. He too questioned the actions of the bishops and when he was faced with the decision to stay and remain quiet or leave and remain with Christ...he chose Christ. And so did I. I joined the independent movement and was eventually consecrated a bishop. Now I never have to beg any other man for sacramental crumbs from his table because God has blessed me with a feast of my own to share with the world.

There is another interesting part of my story. After I was consecrated a bishop, I wrote to Rome. I sent a series of letters directly to the office of the Holy Father. My letters explained my situation in detail. The Vatican acknowledged the receipt of my letters and I began a year-long effort of correspondence with the highest authorities in the church. At the time I thought that there was still some hope that some good could come of what had happened to me. I thought that being a consecrated bishop, I would be heard. You would think I would have learned my lesson a few years before. What made me think that being a bishop pleading with the pope would be any different from my experience as a member of a religious order pleading with a local bishop? It's all the same. The problem is not an isolated problem that exists in a diocese here and a diocese there. The problem is systemic. It took me too long to recognize that fact.

What is Independent Catholicism like?

Most independent catholic communities are small. Many don't even own a church of their own. They minister wherever they are. Some "indy" bishops have relationships with pastors from non-Roman churches and have the benefit of having Mass for their community in a borrowed space. It's rare for an independent catholic priest or bishop to receive a salary from the community because few independent communities even have a bank account. So, most priests work secular jobs to support themselves. To many RC parishioners this is laughable. But to all those who think that a "real" church owns property, has an impressive bank account, and thousands of parishioners, I say this: In the first century Jesus sent out the Apostles with nothing, only the power of God's own Word. Jesus sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. They were told "Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra coat. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake their dust off your feet"

If in this day and age one must possess riches and buildings in order to be considered a "real" priest or bishop of Christ, what of the Preacher of Nazareth? What of him who didn't even have a place to lay his head?

This must be something new in the Church, right?

Well that depends on what you mean by new. Certainly, the Gospels and the writings of St. Paul (see Galatians 1:11-24 with footnotes from the US Catholic Bishops Conference) confirm that priesthood of Christ and the creation of apostles (bishops) is not limited to any particular congregation. So, independent bishops (relating to the ministry of Christ) really started with St. Paul. Who is acknowledged as an Apostle even though his apostleship started independent of the first 12 Apostles of Jesus.

...But if that reference doesn't quite satisfy those who still believe that "outside of Rome, there can be no 'real' bishops" I offer this:

In 1145 Pope Eugene III granted the people of the Diocese of Utrecht, Holland the right to elect and consecrate its own bishops. The Fourth Lateran Council confirmed this in 1215. The Fourth Lateran Council is a recognized infallible council of the Roman Catholic Magisterium. Pope Eugene and the Council fathers essentially approved the creation of the ecclesiastical community that we call "Old Catholics." Referring to someone as "Old Catholic" has nothing to do with the age of the catholic in question; and it doesn't mean that they are part of any of today's break-away traditional Latin-language groups. It means that they are a part of the legitimate catholic entity that received papal and universal church approval in 1145. Many Independent bishops are a part of the lineage of the bishops of Utrecht, including two of the four bishops who by the laying-on of hands transmitted their apostolic lineage to me.

You may be curious as to how "Old Catholic" bishops now exist all over the world and are not limited to the original diocese. This has happen in the same way that many religious communities experience growth. As members and ministries of the community grew, the bishops sent priests (and eventually bishops) as missionaries to other places in the world. The movement became so vibrant and grew so steadily that Catholic Bishops from other parts of the world began to complain to Rome about the Episcopi Vagantes (which means "wandering bishops" the term was used to describe bishops who were not part of any geographically anchored diocese) who were claiming to be true bishops of the church and who were ministering in their dioceses. In the early 1500's bishops petitioned the Pope to declare that the wandering bishops were not validly consecrated and not true bishops of the Church. They also wanted the bishops in the diocese of Utrecht to be brought up on charges in a Vatican court and punished for ordaining bishops without papal approval.

In the year 1520 Pope Leo X brought an end to the conflict and issued a papal bull "Debitum Pastoralis." While many bishops thought that this would be the end of the Episcopi Vagantes, Pope Leo confirmed the authority, right, power, and privilege granted to the church of Utrecht to elect and consecrate its own bishops. The papal bull gave extraordinary powers to the presiding bishop of Utrecht (Bishop Philip of Burgundy) which would protect him and all bishops who would come after him from ever being forced to give up the infallibly proclaimed right to consecrate bishops to serve their communities. The bull made it impossible for any church authority to interfere with the ministry of the wandering bishops of Utrecht. The bull went so far as to state that no bishop in the future could ever challenge the validity of the bishops tracing their ministry to Utrecht, "not even under pretense of any apostolic letters whatever; and that all such proceedings should be, ipso facto, null and void." Meaning that not even a future Pope could impede the ministry of the "wandering bishops."

Certainly the fact that one pope sanctioned the group, one infallible Church Council confirmed the group, and another pope published a binding papal bull ensuring the validity of the future bishops should suffice to end all questions concerning the existence of true bishops (with the same sacramental authority as their Roman counterparts) outside of the Vatican-based church.

But, if a papal bull from 1520 still isn't "current" enough for you. I offer a few more proofs:

On June 16, 2000, Pope John Paul II ratified the document "Dominus Iesus." The document is a declaration of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The document was written under the direction and supervision of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). In this official declaration of the Roman Catholic Church we see confirmation that Rome recognizes the validity of Orders and Sacraments of churches whose bishops were not consecrated by Vatican-based entities:

Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which, according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church. (section IV, no.17)

The declaration goes on to quote the Second Vatican Council's Decree Unitatis Redintegratio: Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.

In addition...

The Roman Catholic Code of Canon Law acknowledges that there are "non-Catholic" ministers who possess valid apostolic succession and the same sacramental authority as their Roman counterparts. Roman law tells us that when "necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid." The law goes on to confirm that Roman priests can also administer the Sacraments to the laity of other churches with valid Sacraments. see Canon 844, 2-5 from the Vatican web site.

So it is certainly possible to receive "real" Sacraments from non-Roman priests and it is permissible for Roman priests to administer the sacraments to non-Roman lay people.

Ask the average RC parishioner if it is possible to receive the "real presence of Christ" in the Eucharist from a church that is not Roman and you are likely to be told "no way." I believe If the average RC parishioner actually read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Canon Law, and the documents of the Councils they profess to be infallible, they would discover a very different church. Maybe I should start quizzing random RC parishioners about their knowledge of official Roman Catholic documents... maybe they aren't "real" parishioners.

The Beauty of Independent Catholic Voices

As the RC pews continue to empty I am happy that there is a network of true ministers of Christ who are able to shepherd the lost sheep. I am overjoyed that courageous Independent bishops are able to discuss: Same-Sex Marriage, Adoption of children by same-sex couples, Divorce and annulment, Ordination of married men, Ordination of women, and so many other subjects in a way that does not judge or alienate. I pray that more mainstream Catholics discover the reality of Independent Catholicism and choose the movement as an alternative to simply walking away from the traditions that bring them closer to the Divine.

Click this link to read an article by Cathleen Kaveny who teaches theology and law at the University of Notre Dame. She addresses many of the issues I've just touched upon.

I invite all the Independent Catholic bishops and priests who read this post to comment, suggest further reading, or post links to your own websites or articles supporting the Independent Movement.

With hope for the future, I am,
+Tomas Martin, OPD

From the Chicago Tribune...

By Steve Fiffer
Special to Tribune Newspapers

What does a church do when faced with potentially having to pay billions of dollars in damages to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of its clergy? As Jason Berry documents so well in his compelling new book, "Render Unto Rome," the Catholic Church's initial response was to fight the charges.

Highly placed bishops and cardinals denied any knowledge of such abuse or claimed that proper procedures had been followed in sending known pedophiles from one parish to another, where they often committed the same vile acts. High-priced lawyers argued that even if such evils had taken place, the statute of limitations had passed and victims were not entitled to compensation. And perhaps worst of all, high-ranking church officials in the Vatican and the United States branded the accusers as liars. Apologies were almost as hard to come by as restitution.

We know that ultimately such tactics failed miserably and that archdioceses across the country and around the world have either lost or settled lawsuits that might bankrupt a major corporation — over $700 million in damages in Los Angeles alone.

So how does an archdiocese pay for these damages and the hefty legal fees associated with them? Some archdioceses have actually filed for bankruptcy, while insurance payments and loans from banks with ties to the Vatican have helped others cover the costs. But, sadly, all too often the short answer has been on the backs of good, innocent parishioners.

According to Berry the church has shut down more than 1300 parishes in the U.S. since 1995. Some of these closings were legitimate due to declining attendance and other factors; however Berry's focus is on those churches with vibrant congregations, strong balance sheets, and, in many cases, parishioners themselves willing to raise the funds to meet any operating deficits.

Why were so many of these parishes targeted? According to this painstakingly researched book, it was because closing them would allow the church to sell off their real estate, much of which was extremely valuable. Whether the money reaped from such sales should "follow the parishioners" or go to the archdiocese to use as it pleased has, understandably, been the subject of much contention and even litigation.

This battle pitting observant Catholics against their local bishops and cardinals came to a head in the midst of the sex scandals plaguing the Church. Parishioners whose places of worship were to be shuttered and whose land holdings were to be sold argued that if closure was inevitable, sale proceeds should go to the congregations, not, as often appeared to be the case, to settle the lawsuits based on misdeeds that were none of their doing.

In "Render Unto Rome," Berry focuses his intelligent eye on two cities, Boston and Cleveland. In each of these locales, the architect of post-scandal downsizing was a less-than-likable bishop named Richard Lennon. Berry questions the bishop's reasoning and motives in closing over 60 parishes in Boston alone — where it just so happened that lawsuits and settlements from the infamous Cardinal Law era totaled over $150 million.

Berry knows the church landscape as well as any living investigative journalist. Almost 20 years ago, he documented the sex scandal in "Lead us Not into Temptation." And in 2004, along with the late Gerald Renner, he wrote the highly-regarded, "Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of Pope John Paul II."

Berry knows how to find the story lines that humanize the stomach-turning behavior of the pedophiles, those who protected them, and those who sought to clean up the mess in less than savory ways. In "Render Unto Rome," Berry follows the fascinating Peter Borre, a Harvard-educated Boston businessman likened to Don Quixote. After his church, which catered to working class immigrants, was slated for closure, Borre embarked on an effort to keep it and other churches open using tactics ranging from civil disobedience to sophisticated appeals to the Vatican.

At one point Borre brought petitions bearing 3500 signatures to the chancery in Boston's Brighton neighborhood. "'We're not interested in petitions,' the priest uttered. Borre asked what they should do with the petitions. The cleric, whom he recognized as a chancery official, retorted, 'You should go f--- yourself,'" writes Berry.

With his business background, Borre became curious about church finances: "How did a 'land rich' church manage its assets?" Berry ably chronicles the history of local churches sending money to Rome and the lack of financial transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the Vatican and its archdioceses.

Most disturbing is the case of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican-born priest who founded the Legion of Christ. Numerous men, some of them now clergy, charged Maciel had sexually abused them when they were young. Berry follows the gifts that flowed from the cash-rich Legion to the powerful Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state from 1991 to 2006. With Sodano as his protector, Maciel enjoyed the support of Pope John Paul II. Condemnation and removal from duties came only after Pope Benedict XVI took power. At that time it was revealed that in addition to pedophilia, Maciel had fathered children with two women and had committed incest with one of his sons.

While Maciel is as close to evil as any character in this tawdry story, many of the other principals are more complex. So many of the cardinals and bishops took admirable positions in fighting for civil rights, world peace, and immigrant rights, that it is hard to imagine they could recycle known pedophiles throughout the system and play dumb when caught. Sadly, their allegiance to Rome seemed to trump those Rome was supposed to serve.

Chicago, which has not escaped the scandal, escapes Berry's focus…almost. He notes that three years after the Catholic Church adopted a youth protection charter in 2002, "Cardinal Francis George…put an accused pedophile back in ministry over warnings from his advisory board. The priest reoffended, went to jail, the archdiocese paid heavily to the victims —and Cardinal George was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops."

Steve Fiffer is the author of several books, including the memoir "Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel."

"Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church"
By Jason Berry
Crown, $25, 432 pages