Friday, February 8, 2008

The 'Underground Church'

By Michael Bayly


I’m a member of a Catholic parish in the Twin Cities that, along with a number of other “progressive” Catholic communities, has recently been ordered by the archdiocese to conform its liturgical practices with the rubrics as stated in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal.

I’m sure that for many Catholic parishes, the rubrics of the Roman Missal serve well to express and reflect their faith and community life. Yet for the past 30 years, the parish to which I feel blessed to belong has developed its liturgy in ways that beautifully reflect the presence of the Spirit discerned in the unique gifts and needs of its members and in our shared lives together. This development has been a very intentional and faith-filled embodiment of Vatican II’s call for the “full and active participation” of the laity in “liturgical celebrations” (Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy], 1963). Yet many feel that now, in one fell swoop, this embodiment - along with the Spirit that nurtured and inspired it - has been discounted by the Archdiocese in its demand that it be abandoned for the rubrics of the Roman Missal. It seems that in this situation, the “form,” which Jesus said “profits nothing,” has been elevated above the “Spirit” which gives life.

According to Catholic theologian and author Richard McBrien, those ultimately responsible for demanding this type of Spirit-denying conformity comprise “a small but powerful and determined group within the Vatican who have never accepted the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI.”

The resistance of this “small but powerful” clique to these reforms (and to subsequent Spirit-led innovations within Catholic parishes and communities from the Netherlands to South Minneapolis) is, insists McBrien, “at root ecclesiological in nature.” What they oppose is the “de-clericalization of the liturgy” and Vatican II’s call for the “full and active participation” of the laity.

In the minds of those resistant to such “full and active participation,” writes McBrien, “the Church is identical with the hierarchy and the priests who serve under the bishops. The laity, on the other hand, are simply the beneficiaries of the sacramental ministrations of the clergy, in a process ultimately controlled by the Vatican. The problem for the resisters is not so much that the Mass was put into the vernacular, but that the laity could now fully understand it and actively participate in it. . . . It is [the] underlying ecclesiology [of Vatican II] that is rejected, and not simply the changes in language and rituals. What the resisters oppose is the very idea that the Church is the whole People of God, laity included, rather than the hierarchy and clergy alone.”


Inclusive welcoming, participatory liturgies, and democratic governance

The recent efforts of the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis to enforce strict liturgical conformity, along with its efforts to promote the pseudo-science of NARTH, forbid dialogue, and ban certain speakers, have left many experiencing feelings of deep frustration, sadness, loss, and anger. Such responses, coupled with McBrien’s observations regarding the rejection by many in the Catholic hierarchy of Vatican II ecclesiology, bring to mind Kathleen Kautzer’s comprehensive study of the “underground church” movement, and specifically this movements efforts to move beyond the institutional structures of Rome so as to create and sustain Catholic communities of vibrancy and authenticity.

Kautzer is an associate professor of sociology at Regis College, a predominately all-women’s Catholic college founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Weston, MA. She teaches courses in peace studies, women’s and children’s issues, social movements, and spirituality. For the past four years, Kautzer has traveled the country studying the Catholic reform movement and, in particular, the emergence and growth of Eucharistic communities and parishes that operate outside Vatican control. Her study, soon to be released as a book entitled The Underground Church, drew on theories of nonviolence and social movements to interpret and evaluate the Catholic reform movement.

Last November, Kautzer spoke at the annual Call to Action conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As part of her presentation, entitled “The Underground Church: Nonviolent Alternatives to Vatican Empire,” Kautzer shared photos and descriptions of “Vatican II-styled communities marked by inclusive welcoming, participatory liturgies, and democratic governance.” She noted that “some are within, others outside the institutional structures of the Roman Catholic Church.” Many of the Catholics that comprise these “resistance communities” no longer find dialogue with the hierarchy constructive. Accordingly, they are proactively creating, discovering, and employing “a range of nonviolent strategies to preserve or create vibrant communities that fit their vision of a just Church.”

Kautzer defines the “underground church” as the movement to reform the Church structurally. The term encompasses a range of Vatican II-styled parishes and reform groups, from Voice of the Faithful to Call to Action.

Generally, all such parishes and groups are working for four basic reforms:

1) A formal role for laity in decision-making.

2) Fiscal transparency and accountability (an important issue, says Kautzer, given that a recent study found 85% of the dioceses looked into had serious problems of embezzlement).

3) An inclusive priesthood - one welcoming of married clergy, women, and gays.

4) A commitment to renewing and expanding the direction of Vatican II.


Kautzer chose the term “underground church” in part because it parallels Elisie Boulding’s concept of the “underside of history,” which Kautzer explains is the idea that “in any society, even if the dominant culture is oppressive and hierarchical, there is always an underside where people try and practice cooperation and nonviolence.”

Although the scope of Kautzer’s four-year study was limited to the U.S., she notes that there are similar “underground church” movements underway and flourishing in other parts of the world. Perhaps the most well known of these is represented by the liturgical reforms being carried out by the Dutch Dominicans.


“Above-ground communities”

Kautzer organized the communities she studied according to the different forms of non-violent resistance they embody. Many Vatican II-styled parishes, for instance, along with the reform group Voice of the Faithful, comprise the “lightest form” of non-violent resistance. These “above-ground communities” often employ the “insider tactics” of “protest and persuasion.” They attempt to work “within the system” and, in the case of Voice of the Faithful, avoid “controversial” issues such as female ordination.


“Borderline communities”

“Borderline communities,” says Kautzer, are those engaged in “a little stronger form of non-violent resistance” than the “above-ground communities.” They sometimes engage in the “insider tactics” of protest and persuasion, but more often than not engage in the “outsider tactic” of non-cooperation. Some examples of borderline communities include:

1) Convents in which Catholic nuns perform their own liturgies (including Eucharist) and new types of rituals.

2) Eucharistic communities that are at least tolerated by the hierarchy and rely on “insider priests” (i.e., priests recognized by the Vatican) but engage in church reform work.

3) Vigiling Parishes that are resisting closure orders and conducting their own rituals (e.g., St. James the Great in Wellesley, MA, which is part of the Council of Vigiling Parishes).


The “underground church”

The “underground church” is defined as groups, parishes, or networks of parishes that operate outside of Vatican approval or control, and work for church reform. They tend to employ the “outsider tactics” of non-violent intervention and the creation of parallel institutions. Examples of the underground church include:

1) Catholic reform organizations such as Corpus, Women’s Ordination Conference, Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Catholics for a Free Choice, and Dignity, which, unlike the others, says Kautzer, “has no choice but to operate as an underground church because of the Church’s punitive policies towards homosexuals.” (In most dioceses, including the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis, Dignity is banned from meeting on church property.)

2) Eucharistic communities that are not approved by the Vatican, rely primarily on lay persons or “outsider” priests (i.e., priests who have married, resigned, or been defrocked), and engage in church reform work. For example: Community of God’s Love in Lowell, MA.

3) Parishes that are not recognized by the Vatican, but retain the “Catholic” label and engage in church reform work. For example: Spiritus Christi in Rochester, NY, and St. Stanislaus Kostka in St. Louis, MO.

4) Communions and/or networks of parishes that are non-Roman yet identify and are recognized as Catholic, and provide governance structure and support services for “underground” parishes. For example: the Old Catholic Church (for an extensive interview with Rev. Robert Caruso of Cornerstone Old Catholic Church in St. Paul, MN, click here), the Reformed Catholic Church, the National Catholic Church, and the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. This last group has developed a constitution based on the Association of the Rights of Catholics in the Church. Among other things, this constitution expresses welcome to all “regardless of race, national origin, religious affiliation, gender, or sexual orientation,” and mandates that people within parishes vote on policy and elect their priests.


Disadvantages and advantages

Kautzer acknowledges that the underground church communities are labeled “schismatic” by the Vatican. Others dismiss the movement as being like a modern-day Protestant Reformation. “It is in a way,” says Kautzer, “but the difference is that people aren’t creating new denominations. They’re saying, We are Catholic, but we’re just going to do it without Vatican approval.”

There are, of course, some potential pitfalls – including the ongoing struggle for funding and membership, and the potential for cult-like and/or unqualified leadership. However, it’s not as if qualified leadership is guaranteed by reliance on the Vatican, notes Kautzer. In addition, the Vatican itself encourages cult-like organizations, for example, Opus Dei. Many of these organizations, says Kautzer, are documented in Gordon Urquhart’s book, The Pope’s Armada: Unlocking the Secrets of Mysterious and Powerful New Sects in the Church.

Advantages of the underground church include not being restricted by Vatican pronouncements – many of which reflect a narrow and impoverished theology, especially around issues of gender and sexuality. As a result, the underground church, says Kautzer, “challenges dualistic categories that separate laity/clergy, men/women, celibate/married, the sacred and the profane, thereby embodying the notion of the priesthood of all believers and the sacred dimension of reality.”


Impediments to reform

As to why so many Church hierarchs are resistant to the type of change heralded by the underground church, Kautzer suggests that one factor is that many of them, especially those within the Vatican, “tend to be isolated and surrounded primarily by like-minded colleagues selected precisely because of their conformity and subservience.”

Drawing on the theories of human consciousness development pioneered by Ken Wilbur, Kautzer notes that the current pope, like his predecessor, operates primarily from a “traditionalist philosophical framework” – one that is highly authoritarian and dismissive of alternative perspectives and views. Most Catholics, Kautzer contends, operate from a “post-modern or even integralist framework” or worldview. In terms Wilbur’s model of human consciousness development, these are two stages beyond where the vast majority of Vatican officials are. “This gap in worldviews,” says Kautzer, “makes it difficult for people to communicate.”

Kautzer also draws on the insights of psychotherapist Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, author of Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, when she describes many Catholic hierarchs as “narcissistic,” a state that Frawley-O’Dea maintains is “reinforced by the highly deferential treatment of unchecked power.”

In light of all of this, Kautzer, paraphrasing Gandhi, insists that: “We must be the change we want to see in the Church.” “If ‘We are the Church’,” she says, “then we don’t have to sit back and wait for the hierarchs to make decisions.”


Status and prospects of reform

The hierarchs, however, are making decisions – ones that many Catholics find, at the very least, problematic and, at most, intolerable. It’s too early to say how my Catholic community or others within the Archdiocese of St.Paul/Minneapolis will respond to the latest demands to conform. My sense is that the “insider tactics” that many have embraced for years are rapidly losing their appeal.

Perhaps the abandoning of such tactics is long overdue. After all, during her talk at the 2007 National Call to Action Conference, Kautzer could give “no substantive examples” of successful insider strategies (i.e., of people working, protesting, and attempting to persuade authority figures within the system) bringing about reform. For substantive change to occur, she declared, outsider strategies must be employed.

“There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in the underground church,” said Kautzer. But within reform groups focused on insider reform, great difficulties and obstacles – including financial – are being encountered. Voice of the Faithful, for instance, is experiencing a “funding crisis.” People seem to be giving up on insider reform, she said, and are “tired of having the iron thumb of the hierarchy on their back and saying that you can’t talk about this, or think that, or do this.”

“The prospects for reform are dim if we rely solely on insider tactics,” said Kautzer. This is especially true given that the new priests coming into the priesthood tend to be very conservative and authoritative; that Vatican II priests, bishops, and cardinals are either “dying off or being forced out”; and that Pope Benedict XVI has stated publicly that he wants a smaller, purer Church, and that he wants reformers to leave unless they can support everything the hierarchy teaches. “[The pope] doesn’t care if you leave,” says Kautzer. “He’s happy to push you out the door.”

This isn’t true, however, of all cardinals and bishops, many of whom are not as isolated as the pope. They are acutely aware of what such an exodus would mean financially for the Church. Even some conservative Catholics are worried. Writing in the February 2008 issue of the Catholic World Report, Russell Shaw refers to David Carlin’s book, The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, and notes that: “Carlin concludes that the outcome of the crisis will probably be the de facto collapse of the Church in America and the retreat of Catholics into the status of a ‘minor and relatively insignificant sect.’ Traditionalists will have won the internal Catholic power struggle, mainly because the progressives will have drifted away. But in the end, the small band of traditionalists will find themselves isolated in ‘a new Catholic quasi-ghetto,’ with about as much influence on the culture as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have now.”


Movement of the spirit

I’m not interested in living in any type of ghetto, yet that’s what Pope Benedict XVI seems intent on creating for Catholics. I’m drawn to a Church open to the Spirit, a Church that recognizes and celebrates itself as the Risen Body of Christ, alive and afoot in the world; a Church unafraid of journeying and engagement, of growth and change. My sense is that the birthing and rising of the “underground church,” as described and documented by Kathleen Kautzer, is the movement of the Spirit, seeking and finding welcoming and fertile soil beyond the fortress-like walls of the Vatican’s current state of rigidity and its fearful retreat into conformity.

I cannot help but think that Kautzer’s study validates Rosemary Radford Ruether’s observation that the more the hierarchy stagnates and retreats, the more numerous and freewheeling the creative initiatives that spring up on the ground.

I do not believe that such initiatives herald the destruction of the Church or it’s collapse into insignificance. Rather, I believe that the initiatives that comprise the “underground church” are, in fact, the hope of the Church, and herald its transformation into the fullness of new life.


Michael Bayly is an editor of The Progressive Catholic Voice and the executive coordinator of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). This article was first published on Michael's blog, The Wild Reed.